Never before has there been such a high degree of optimism and unbridled excitement surrounding Canada’s men basketball program.
High school phenomenon Andrew Wiggins is the top-ranked player in the United States and the projected number one pick in the 2014 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft after spending the required minimum one-year in college.
First-year University of Nevada Las Vegas forward Anthony Bennett, who was born in the Jane-Finch community, is ranked number one among freshmen in college hoops in the U.S. and is slated to be among the top five NBA draft pick this year if he opts out of school.
They are the centrepieces around which the program will revolve.
Throw in Saskatoon-born Indianapolis-based power forward, Trey Lyles; 2012 New Jersey State Player-of-the-Year Tyler Ennis, who is committed to Syracuse and Texas Longhorns sophomore point guard, Myck Kabongo; along with NBA players Tristan Thompson, Joel Anthony and Andrew Nicholson and D-League cousins Kris and Cory Joseph and you could understand why Canada Basketball assistant general manager, Rowan Barrett, is brimming with sanguinity these days.
A former national team member for 17 years before retiring in 2008, Barrett is also responsible for youth development. In this role, he provides support to key national team prospects, fostering relationships with athletes and their surrounding communities to cultivate the best possible environment for the young players to flourish.
While excited about the talent and their ability to fill out the box score, Barrett is drooling over the players’ character.
“If you have young children growing up that are looking at sports people as their role models, they can look no further than Andrew and Anthony,” said Barrett who has a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA). “Andrew is very humble and unassuming and he handles everything coming at him with a tremendous amount of poise and grace. Anthony, on the other hand, engages his teammates and gives to everyone around him. We are very pleased with the progress these young men are making on the court as well as off the court as human beings. Both of these young men’s parents have done a tremendous job of raising them.”
Wiggins’s father – Mitchell – spent six seasons in the NBA while his Barbadian-born mother – Marita Payne – won silver medals for Canada in the sprint relays at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
A few years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to convince Wiggins and Lyles – whose fathers are Americans – to turn down the U.S. in favour of Canada. That’s not the case anymore.
“They had the U.S. calling them, but they chose to play for Canada,” Barrett said. “They grasp that this is their country of birth and their place of origin and this is what they want to represent. They are proud of the fact they are Canadians. That means a lot to them.”
Though Canada has missed the last three Olympics and was winless at the 2010 world championships, many are pegging this country to challenge the Americans for the gold medal at the next Olympics in Brazil in 2016.
However, Barrett has cautioned that expectations should be tempered.
“Our athletes are very young,” said Barrett. “The average age of the players we brought into camp last year was just 21. The talent level is world class, but we have to remember many of these guys are just teenagers. It’s going to take some time for those players to develop. The average age of an Olympic gold medal winning team is about 27 to 29 years and these are players that have been in their respective programs for about nine years before they get to that level. In 2016, many of our players will be in their early 20s. That been said, they are starting in the NBA early.
“We are ranked number 26 in the world and the number one thing for us is to get into the next Olympics. If we do that and then win a few games, anything can happen. Ultimately, we want to stand on the podium. Right now, we have to soothe our excitement with a little dose of reality and work as much as we can to build everybody up to be ready for when that time comes.”
Canada Basketball is monitoring a pool of about 42 players. A total of 30 attended a camp last summer at the Air Canada Centre.
“If you are going to try to build a winner, you have to set a benchmark just as USA Basketball has done,” said Barrett. “We have built a pool of players and you are not sure when they are going to be ready. We want to work with them, build them and promote opportunities for them to develop. The players in our program are pretty good in their own right…This year, we are going to form a senior men’s squad and a developmental side that will play a few domestic games during the summer for fans to come out and see the talent we are so excited about. Next summer, we will have some high-profile games.”
In a move to revive the men’s program and stimulate interest, Canada Basketball named Los Angeles Lakers guard and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, Steve Nash, general manager of the senior men’s program and Barrett as his assistant and executive vice-president. They are close friends and Nash is the godfather of Barrett’s eldest son.
A former Royal Bank of Canada branch manager, Barrett said Nash’s value to the program is priceless.
“Though Steve is busy, you will be surprised at his level of commitment,” he said. “His communication with our players has been phenomenal and he’s always giving advice and mentoring them as he travels. When the Lakers were in town last month, he took time out of his busy schedule to spend some time with Kevin Pangos (a point guard at Gonzaga) talking about the pick and roll and he attended a few fundraisers. He’s very much as involved as one could expect of him.”
Nash and other Canadian NBA players are part of a mentoring program established by the new regime.
“We have our young players come out and meet with the NBA guys whenever they are in the city that the kids are playing high school and college ball,” said Barrett. “A couple of weeks ago, Tristan (Thompson) was with Gonzaga’s seven-footer Kelly Olynk when the Cleveland Cavaliers were in Portland tutoring him on how to post up as a big man, how he should demand his position and all those little things.”