Roy Rana remembers the signs suggesting that Canadian basketball might be ready to explode.
He coached the Canada squad that finished third at the 17-and-under world championships in 2010. His No. 2 scorer, Anthony Bennett, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. The youngest player on that team, Andrew Wiggins, might be the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft. Nik Stauskas, who played for the squad during qualifying in 2009, is a likely lottery pick.
“At the time, none of us realized the long-term potential of this group,” Rana said.
Folks are getting it now.
Eight Canadians could be drafted Thursday, a stunning development for a hockey-crazed country that had only eight players selected after Steve Nash was taken in the first round in 1996.
Wiggins (Kansas), Stauskas (Michigan) and Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) are expected to go in the first round. Dwight Powell (Stanford), Khem Birch (UNLV), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State) and Sim Bhullar (New Mexico State) also are possible selections. The class gives Canada aspirations of becoming a world power in the sport.
“Our young basketball players no longer see themselves as second-class citizens in basketball,” Rana said. “They see themselves as equal to, if not better, than many of the best in the world, and they aspire to be the best in the world.”
Canada hasn’t had more than two players drafted in any of the previous 20 years, and from 2001 to 2010, not a single Canadian was selected. Leo Rautins, Canada’s former national coach who was picked by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 1983 draft, said that kind of drought likely won’t happen again because a strong system is finally in place to develop talent. There are more Canadian teams than ever playing AAU ball and prospects are finding homes at major U.S. colleges.
“We’re entering a cycle that’s not going to stop,” Rautins said. “Before, there were reasons for the ups and reasons for the downs. But now, there’s only reason to continue to go up.”
Rautins believes Canada’s national team could make noise at the 2020 Olympics. It would be quite a change for a country that hasn’t medaled at the Games since earning silver in 1936.
Many point to the Raptors joining the NBA in 1995 as the turning point. Their presence created a generation of Canadians that grew up with the NBA.
“It definitely had an effect on me,” Stauskas said. “I went to five or six games a year and I watched every one I could on TV. It had a lot to do with my love for the game.”
The Raptors got their first superstar — Vince Carter — in 1998. The high-flying sensation was rookie of the year in 1999, won the Slam Dunk title in 2000 and led the Raptors to the playoffs in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Nash, who was born in South Africa but grew up in Canada, took the mantle from there, earning MVP honours in 2005 and 2006 as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
The national program took advantage of the budding interest and bolstered its efforts. Bennett and Wiggins have been part of Canada basketball’s Targeted Athlete Strategy, which started in 2009. Canada’s Junior Academy, unveiled in 2013, helps seventh and eighth graders develop. The national program holds camps to identify top prospects, then puts them in more specific training.
Club basketball has picked up, too. Nike-sponsored CIA Bounce, based in Brampton, Ontario, near Toronto, has helped mould many Canadian prospects. The national program and the club programs are working together to ensure the top players get the best of both worlds.
“They’re expanding and wanting to make things better and better,” NBA scouting director Ryan Blake said. “When you have a federation and people with passion about it, it resonates with the people around it.”
The Toronto area boasts six of the eight players who are on the NBA’s radar. Wiggins, Ennis, Powell and Ejim are from Toronto, Stauskas is from nearby Mississauga and Bhullar is from neighbouring North York.
“There’s a big-time basketball culture there that’s been there for a very long time,” Rana said. “There’s so many kids playing the game and so many quality programs there now that I think we’re equal to or comparable to any major city in the U.S. I think we’re still kind of flying under the radar, but after this draft, I think that’s going to change.”
There are just six Canadian-born players in the league — Bennett, Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Nicholson, Cory Joseph and Joel Anthony. None of them averaged more than 12 points per game last season.
The incoming class has several players with the potential to do much more.