There was a time when you could count on one hand the number of male Canadian basketball players in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) March Madness tournament.
Nearly 92 Canadians are part of Division One programs in 2013-14 and Canada Basketball assistant general manager Rowan Barrett expects at least eight will be in this year’s National Basketball Association (NBA) draft on June 26 in New York.
Kansas small forward Andrew Wiggins and Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis are expected to go in the first round after just one season of collegiate ball while Michigan shooting guard Nik Stauskas, Boston College point guard Olivier Hanlan, University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) power forward Khem Birch, Arizona State 7’2” centre Jordan Bachynski, senior Stanford forward Dwight Powell and Iowa State small forward and Associated Press Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim, whose 48-point game against Texas Christian University last month is a conference single-game scoring record, are projected to go in the second round.
Never before has there been such a high degree of optimism and unbridled excitement surrounding Canada’s men basketball program.
“I remember it was just a few years ago that I was in the gym with some of these players encouraging them and emphasising what they need to do to grow as players and people,” said Barrett who is also the national federation’s executive vice-president with responsibility for the senior men’s program. “To watch these young men now and the way they are performing is very exciting. I send them text messages acknowledging their progress and urging them to continue to work hard and I even show up at some of their games. I follow them closely.”
A total of nine Canadians are in the NBA, including forward Anthony Bennett who was the top overall pick in the last draft. The first Canadian and first UNLV freshman to be drafted number one has struggled in his first season as a professional with the Cleveland Cavaliers, averaging 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds as of last weekend.
A former national team member for 17 years before retiring six years ago, Barrett predicts Bennett, who missed the NBA draft combine, pre-draft workouts and the Summer League because of rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder last May, will make his mark in the NBA.
“First of all, he’s a young player and we have to give our athletes some time,” said Barrett who has a Master’s degree in Business Administration. “We have athletes that are very talented and once they continue to develop, they should be impact players. I know the expectations are high when you are a lottery pick player and they are even higher when you are the first player drafted. But the reality is if you are 19 and just a year removed from college, it takes a little more time for some athletes. Add to that the fact that you’re injured and you are not training. There’s a lot that happens from the time your college career ends to getting drafted and playing in the Summer League. Andrew never experienced those opportunities because he was recovering from an injury.
“The other thing we have to remember is that he’s with a team that has multiple players playing his position. It’s very crowded and he’s still trying to find his way in a loaded frontcourt. I think he will be OK in the long run and I know Cleveland has not given up on him. He is taking his lumps, but he’s Jamaican-tough and I think he will be fine in the future.”
Bennett’s mother – Edith Bennett – migrated from Jamaica in 1980.
While expectations are high for Wiggins who turned 19 last month, Barrett is unsure if he will make an impact right away.
“It’s hard to predict if he will make an impression in his first year,” said Barrett, a former Royal Bank of Canada branch manager. “Andrew missed his final year in high school to go to college because of his basketball talent. It’s going to take time because there are some things you just can’t rush. He will be playing against men in the NBA, some of whom will be 30-35 pounds heavier than him. He will be pushed around on the floor. Getting drafted by a team that’s the right fit for the player also helps that individual.”
The Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Wiggins scored 17.4 points and pulled down 6.1 rebounds in 33 regular season games.
The second seed in the South region, his Jayhawks will face Eastern Kentucky in the round of 64 on March 21 in St. Louis.