SPORTS

Led by last two No 1 draft picks, Canada producing basketball prospects at unheard-of rates

11/07/2014 08:57 EST | Updated 01/07/2015 05:59 EST
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Every time that Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins heads north of the border and the subject of Canadian basketball players is broached, one name always comes up: Vince Carter.

He was the star with amazing leaping ability for the expansion Toronto Raptors in the 1990s, doing things that many kids growing up in a hockey-mad country had never thought possible. Carter was a scoring machine, sure, but he did it with a certain flair that endeared him to youngsters.

Now, those kids are starting to come of age.

Led by Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, the past two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft, the Canadian pipeline has begun to gush with talent. Eight players from the nation have been picked in the first round of the draft in the past four years, a number made even more remarkable by the fact that very few players had even played in the NBA before the 1990s.

"You know what people up there tell me changed everything? They attribute it to Vince," Dawkins said. "It inspired kids in Canada who used to play hockey to play basketball. More kids means more growth for the game, and you're seeing that spill into higher levels of the NCAA."

Bennett was among those kids who grew up watching Carter with awe-struck admiration.

The young Timberwolves forward learned the game around the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club in Toronto, and every once in a while the club would take field trips to Raptors games.

"That's when we seen him doing all these types of dunks," Bennett said. "We just had a love for his game."

Bennett eventually moved to the U.S. and played high school basketball at Nevada's Findlay Prep. After one season at UNLV, he was chosen first in the 2013 draft by the Cavaliers.

His path has become a familiar one for young prospects from Canada.

While prep schools there are becoming better and better, and the summer AAU circuit gives them plenty of exposure, the best players still tend to head south for school. That includes Wiggins, the son of former NBA player Mitch Wiggins, who also grew up watching Carter in Toronto but wound up at West Virginia's Huntington Prep for high school.

Wiggins was so dynamic that he actually reclassified to graduate a year earlier, and was still the No. 1 prospect in the country. He ultimately went to Kansas for a year, setting several records at the tradition-rich school.

Now, after he and Bennett were traded from Cleveland, they are together in Minnesota.

"It's been getting bigger and bigger every year," Wiggins said of basketball in Canada. "Players started to get a chance to go to the States and go to prep schools down here."

That has made it even easier for them to get on college coaches' radars, and helps to explain why so many Canadian prospects have turned into first-round draft picks.

It's certainly not like it was in the 1950s, when Ernie Vandeweghe arrived out of Montreal and played several seasons for the Knicks. It's not even like it was in the 1980s, '90s and early 2000s, when Bill Wennington was winning titles on Michael Jordan's Bulls, and Rick Fox was winning championships alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

"You're always fighting against hockey," said Sidney Lowe, who coached the Grizzlies when they were an expansion team in Vancouver. "But the thing about the Toronto area is they withstood the tough times. Their support is unbelievable and the result is you see more kids from Canada playing basketball and making it to this level."

Guys like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, first-round picks in 2011, and Andrew Nicholson, a first-round pick the following year. Bennett was joined by Kelly Olynyk in going in the first round in 2013, and Wiggins was joined by Tyler Ennis and Nik Stauskas this past spring.

"At the grassroots level, they're extremely organized," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "You watch some of their teams on our travel circuit that we have here in the United States, their teams are participating in that. You can tell they're very well coached."

Arizona is among numerous high-profile schools pursuing the top-ranked prep player in the class of 2016, 7-foot centre Thon Maker. Duke, Kansas and Kentucky are also in the mix.

His teammate at Ontario's Athlete Institute, five-star guard Jamal Murray, is considering Michigan State, Ohio State and Missouri. On the other side of the country in British Colombia, 6-foot-6 guard Jermaine Haley is looking at Louisville, Memphis and Gonzaga.

"Canada is producing good players and they seem to be more abundant than maybe in the past," said Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, who lured 7-foot-2 Jordan Bachynski out of Calgary a few years ago. Bachynski graduated last year and now plays professionally in Turkey.

"There's very few guys that fall through the cracks anymore that are unknown," Sendek said. "Those kids come down and play club basketball and schools have a way of finding out about kids. The good players in Canada, like Jordan and others, they're heavily recruited."

And the pipeline doesn't look like it's going to run dry anytime soon.

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