Canada is the Next International Basketball Powerhouse

Anthony Bennett

When Lebron James came home to Cleveland last summer, joining forces with fellow US Men’s basketball team members Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to form the NBA’s newest version of the “big three,” who knew that a rash of devastating injuries would usher in an unlikely cast of foreign heroes in northeastern Ohio? The towering Russian centre Timofey Mozgov and pugnacious Aussie shooting guard Matthew Dellavedova each stepped into prominent roles, but it was the bruising Canadian forward Tristan Thompson who really introduced himself to the basketball world as an emerging star.

That Thompson hails from Toronto and not New York or LA surprised almost no one who has been paying attention to basketball in recent years: his fellow Canadian ballers have been grabbing the headlines lately. While the youngsters are busy making a lot of noise in March Madness and getting drafted left and right, the pros are becoming major contributors on their NBA teams, and are starting to pick up some serious NBA hardware. It’s no secret now that Canada, once thought of exclusively for its hockey prowess, is the next international basketball powerhouse.

Canada Explodes onto the International Basketball Scene

The ranks of NBA teams have skyrocketed with non-US players in the past decade. A number of factors have been put forward as being the catalyst for all this international talent, including the global reach of Michael Jordan and the 1992 Dream Team, the Hall of Fame careers of NBA champions like German Dirk Nowitzki, Spaniard Pau Gasol and Argentinian Manu Ginobli, and the professionalization of international (particularly European) pro leagues. Whichever ingredients are most responsible for the internationalization of NBA basketball, the results are clear: the number of international players has risen from 28 players appearing in the 1995-96 season to 104 earning minutes in 2014-15 – a 371% jump!

  But in the united nations of basketball, no country is better represented than Canada, which featured a remarkable 12 nationals on opening-night rosters in 2014 and another – the 7’5″ Sim Bhullar – joining the Sacramento Kings mid-season.

The legacy of Canadian basketball hero Steve Nash and former Toronto Raptors star Vince Carter seemed to have sparked the flame of Canadian basketball talent. Eleven years after Nash’s Olympic heroics in Sydney and Carter’s jaw-dropping performance in the slam dunk competition, the floodgates of Canadian talent opened to the NBA. At least one Canadian has been drafted in the first round of every NBA draft since 2011: ‘11 (Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph), ‘12 (Andrew Nicholson), ‘13 (Anthony Bennett, Kelly Olynyk), ‘14 (Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas, Tyler Ennis) and ’15 (Trey Lyles). Both Bennett and Wiggins were the first overall picks, and Wiggins is a potential star-in-the-making after running away with the Rookie of the Year honours. Canadians in the NBA also include veterans Samuel Dalembert and Joel Anthony, as well as Dwight Powell and Robert Sacre. Olivier Hanlan, second round pick in 2015, is working the summer league circuit with the hopes of cracking the Utah Jazz roster.

This is an astounding explosion of Canadian talent compared to the early ‘90s, when the biggest names to represent Canadian basketball were Michael Jordan whipping boy, Bill Wennington, and star of Oz and One Tree Hill, Rick Fox. Things are looking up.

NBA talent translates to international tournament success

After a 15-year absence, Canadian hoops fans are now practically frothing at the mouth for a return to Olympic form. And, for the first time since Steve Nash captained the senior men’s national team, the Canadians are poised to make some noise in international tournaments, starting with this summer’s FIBA Americas Championship, a qualifying tournament for the big one: the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Canada is facing a gauntlet of powerful competition, including Argentina, Brazil and Puerto Rico. So, why are hoops fans in the north so optimistic about Canada’s chance to erase the last 15 years of disappointment? Recent history suggests that the presence of NBA-calibre participation bodes well for national teams competing in international tournaments. The second-through-fourth-place-finishing countries in the previous three international tournaments (where the USA took gold) were heavy on NBA talent (current and ex-NBA players):

  The 2014 Spanish club, upset by France, featured nine NBA-calibre players and is widely expected to be the USA’s primary threat in the next Olympics.

But Team Canada Coach Jay Triano is working overtime to recruit Joseph, Nicholson, Olynyk, Sacre, Bennett, Powell, Bhullar and Stauskas for the FIBA Americas competition; guard Tyler Ennis would play if he wasn’t recovering from shoulder surgery. Carrying eight NBA players likely puts Canada in the top three for NBA talent brought to qualifiers and that doesn’t include the real possibility that Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson both choose to suit up for the red and white this summer. Add in the recently drafted Trey Lyles and former Knick, Andy Rautins, and the roster is nearly full. This group would certainly represent the most formidable arsenal of basketball weaponry ever sent to an international tournament by Team Canada.

The next generation of Canadian ballers

If the possibility of so much NBA talent germinating the senior men’s team has Canadian fans salivating, then consider the next wave of talented men rising through the ranks of the NBA’s feeder league, the NCAA.

A record 105 Canadians suited up for an NCAA Division 1 basketball team in 2015 and 26 played in the March Madness NCAA Tournament. Highly touted recruit Jamal Murray, from Orangeville, Ontario, recently committed to the University of Kentucky, a titan of college basketball known for turning out high NBA draft picks. Young Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a point guard at Florida State University who hails from Scarborough, Ontario, has been compared favourably with Captain Canada himself. Here in Canada, Carleton University Coach Dave Smart has turned the Carleton University Ravens into a dynasty that can roll with solid D1 NCAA teams. Canada is also competing in younger international divisions, taking an experienced squad to a fifth-place finish in the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championships after finishing a best-ever second place at the 2014 FIBA America U18s and challenging the stalwart Team USA in the FIBA Americas U16 gold medal match, led by 15-year-old phenom, Simi Shittu.

Canadian women’s basketball is ascending as well. The national team placed second in the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship, fifth in the 2014 FIBA World Championship and is preparing to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, this summer.

Basketball’s compass points north

If this talent eruption continues on its current pace, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the number of Canucks in the NBA double before the end of the decade. That means further chances to see more players with Canadian passports selected with the first pick of the NBA draft, win rookie-of-the-year honours, play pivotal roles in the NBA Finals, and maybe, just maybe, compete for that elusive Olympic gold.

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  • There is a lot of potential for Canadian players to develop since it is easy for them to access US high schools and colleges. Majority of the players that make it to the big stage (NBA, Europe, etc.) have spent some time playing High School and/or college ball in the states – which has much higher competition than Canada currently does. A lot of international development seems to come in phases as well: there was a time when Argentinians had a lot of imports (Ginobili, Nocioni, etc.), Serbia (Peja, Divac, Jaric, etc.), Brazil (Barbosa, Nene, Varajao) and now it seems like there is an influx of Canadian talent. Hopefully it keeps up consistently.

  • Unknown

    You vastly overvalue NBA players as what is needed to do well in FIBA. FIBA ball is a very different game, different rules, different style and all set up to try to reign in American uber-athleticism. Canada has not proven it can play good FIBA basketball and may not have the overwhelming thoroughbreds that the USA has to overcome the ugly brand of FIBA ball. Also there are dozens and dozens of Euro players that COULD play in the NBA but choose not to for a variety of reasons – preferring to play in Europe. A Euro-league star is much more valuable in FIBA ball than an NBA scrub (which many of Canada’s NBA’er are). We will be a solid Top 10 team for years to come – with possible medals if the dice roll right. Powerhouse? Only if you count Croatia, Turkey, Serbia, Greece, Brazil, Spain, France and Australia as powerhouses too.