Wiggins Headlining New Wave of Ascendant Canadian Talent

In June 2014, Andrew Wiggins could well make history by becoming the first Canadian ever chosen No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft.

Future NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would make that historic announcement in his first year on the job.

The 6-foot-8 Wiggins is a newly minted McDonald’s All-American from Thornhill, Ontario who is considering Florida State, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina. After one year at one of those schools, he is projected by DraftExpress.com — and just about everyone else — as the No. 1 pick in that draft.

“I don’t see how anybody [else] is in the conversation right now,” one NBA Director of Scouting recently told SNY.tv.

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At the start of the 2012-13 NBA season, there were eight Canadians on NBA rosters, according to Canada Basketball. Two of them — Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Andrew Nicholson of the Orlando Magic — will participate  in the Rising Stars Challenge over All-Star weekend in Houston.

In 2011, Thompson was the No. 4 overall pick and Cory Joseph went 29th. They made history when they became the first pair of Canadians chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft. In 2012, Nicholson was chosen 19th overall out of St. Bonaventure.

This year, Anthony Bennett, a freshman forward at UNLVis projected as a lottery pick; Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk is projected as a first-rounder; and Texas point guard Myck Kabongo is projected as a second-round pick. All are Canadian.

One can only imagine what the Canadian Olympic basketball team could look like in 2020 if all of these guys were to play together.

But as impressive as all of this recent success has been, none of it would compare with what Wiggins could potentially become: the first Canadian chosen No. 1 overall.

“I think it’s huge,” said Mark Bayne, the North American Field Representative for Nike Basketball.. “I think that it would mark hopefully a turning point in how basketball is perceived in Canada amongst the general population.

“And it could definitely change the way that we’re perceived in basketball [worldwide], that’s for sure.”

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Wiggins may well be the most famous Canadian basketball player not named Steve Nash at this point, but he is better known in the United States than he is in his native country, hockey-loving Canada.

“I think in the basketball realm everyone knows who Andrew Wiggins is [in Canada] but is it on the front of magazines or is it on TV every day in terms of the stuff he does?” asked Tony McIntyre, Wiggins’s coach with the CIA Bounce AAU team. “I think it’s starting to but I think it should be so much bigger in terms of attention and television games.

“The major sports networks aren’t picking up the major games in terms of playing ESPN games when these games are playing. It should be a lot more and I think it was starting to roll when there was the NHL [lockout] because there was a need to fill a lot of sports segments on TV.”

While the average Canadian might not know who Wiggins is, his success at Huntington (W.V.) Prep — combined with what Thompson, Joseph and the others have accomplished — has spurred a new wave of Canadian hoopers to come South of the border in pursuit of their dreams.

That group includes forward Khem Birch of UNLV, who is projected as a second-round pick in 2014, and Indianapolis (IN) Arsenal Tech forward Trey Lyles, a projected lottery pick in 2015.

A wave of other young players, including Syracuse-bound point guard Tyler Ennis of St. Benedict’s Prep, a Jordan Brand All-American, and Florida State signee Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Wiggins’s Huntington Prep teammate, also hope to beat a path to the NBA.

The next wave of talented younger Canadians includes Ray Kasongo, Emmanuel Owootoah, MiKyle McIntosh , Kevin Ndahiro and Jamar Ergas, who have moved to the States in search of recognition, college scholarships and NBA dreams.

“[Thompson and Joseph], they’ve been everyone’s role models back in Canada,” said Kasongo, a 6-8 forward in the Class of 2014 from Pikeville (Ky.) High who said he emulates Amar’e Stoudemire.

“Even Andrew Wiggins, everyone is trying to do the same thing they did. Come down to the States and go D-1. If it happens, if you’re good enough, you can possibly make it to the league. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

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Steve Konchalski, who has been involved with the Canadian National Team since 1973 and also coaches college ball at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, says more and more elite Canadian ballers are moving South now to pursue scholarships and NBA dreams.

“Oh, right now, a very high percentage, a very high percentage,” he said when asked how many top Canadian players are coming to the States.

“It used to be the odd kid here or there. Like I said, all the top kids should leave, to be honest with you.

“The kids that I don’t want to see leave are the kids who shouldn’t leave but think they can do what Andrew Wiggins can do and are only fooling themselves. And not only do they not get a chance to play but often they don’t really get the college degreee that they’re going to need because they’re not going to make money. They’re not going to be professional basketball players, you know?”

Still, Konchalski and others say the best Canadian players are now able to compete with their American counterparts because of their involvement in summer AAU basketball.

“For too many years, Canadian kids went down to the States and ended up sitting on the bench,” Konchalski said. “A lot of these kids went down to the States and were starstruck and weren’t prepared for the level of competition.

“But I think the [Nike] EYBL [Elite Youth Basketball League] has exposed the top kids to great competition in the U.S. A lot of programs in Canada go down and play in tournament showcases and all that kind of stuff so these kids get a chance to measure themselves. When they go down and play in the U.S. they’re not mesmerized by some kid they have been reading about in Sports Illustrated. They’ve played against them, they’ve sweated on him, they know that they can compete with him and they’re making better decisions in terms of what level they can go and play at. I think that’s a key thing.”

Last summer, Wiggins, Ennis and Rathan-Mayes led CIA Bounce to the finals of the prestigious Peach Jam tournament and guided Team Canada to the finals of the Nike Global Challenge.

Prior to the ascendancy of CIA Bounce in the last few years, Ro Russell’s Grassroots Canada club was the foremost Canadian AAU club.

A longtime AAU coach who admits his strong personality and unique methods have put him at odds with some people in the Canadian basketball hierarchy, Russell says some 200 of his former players have received scholarships, including Thompson, Joseph, Kabongo (who debuted Wednesday with Texas after having to sit out 23 games due to amateurism violations) and Marquette point guard Junior Cadougan, among others.

“I think over the years of AAU and camps and kids going to high school in the States to be more adjusted, now they’re able to be on the same playing field as their American counterparts and now people are seeing the talent that we do have in Canada,” Russell told SNY.tv.

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In 2007, Russell drove overnight with Thompson and Kabongo from Toronto to Newark in order to check out St. Benedict’s, then coached by Dan Hurley.

“I knew it had J.R. Smith [then of the Denver Nuggets and now with the Knicks],” Kabongo told me several years ago. “I was like, ‘They must have a good coach. I want to play at that level.’ “

“[Our parents] knew what was best for us,” Thompson recalled in 2009. “Back in Canada, basketball’s not good and we wanted to get better at it. So we said come to the States, get exposure and get better.”

Said Hurley of Thompson: “I knew there weren’t a lot of kids like him walking around even in a great basketball area like New Jersey. I was blown away by both of those guys when they came to the school and drove through the night just to see what we’re all about.”

While neither player finished up at St. Benedict’s — they concluded their prep careers at Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep — they set in motion a trend for other top Canadians to come South to American schools.

McIntrye said 10 CIA Bounce players are now at four elite American basketball schools — St. Benedict’s Prep (4), Huntington Prep (4), Findlay Prep (1) and Brewster (N.H.) Academy (1).

Among those players is McIntyre’s own son, the Syracuse-bound Ennis, one of six St. Benedict’s seniors who signed National Letters of Intent in November and play for coach Mark Taylor. (Three of them were from CIA Bounce.)

McIntyre said it’s important that Canadian parents and families do their research when picking an American school.

“I think first and foremost make sure that they’re going there for a purpose in regards to knowing academically they’re going to have to go to school,” McIntyre said. “They need to qualify and [to know] that the school that they’re sending their kids to is in a good situation with the NCAA. And that’s the hardest part, is your relationship with the coach. You’ve got to be able to have a relationship with the coach and have that open line of communication.”

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While the basketball players at St. Benedict’s take classes at the school, players at other elite basketball schools like Huntington Prep and Findlay Prep do not.

Wiggins and the Huntington Prep players — including fellow CIA Bounce players Rathan Mayes, Nevell Provo and Montague Gill-Caeser – take classes at Huntington St. Joseph Central Catholic High School.

“I have developed a great relationship with the Toronto area basketball circles,” Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford said. “When elite kids are looking at coming to the U.S. for high school, I know who they are and determine if the situation is right for both parties involved. Academically, we have to pass on some because our school is pretty difficult.”

Fulford reiterated McIntyre’s point that Canadian families intending to send their kids to the States need to understand the differences between good prep and high schools and bad ones, or outright factories.

“A lot of people are sold on hopes and dreams, but in reality, there are a ton of bad prep schools in the U.S. that don’t have the proper academic component or living arrangements these kids need to have a positive experience both on and off the court,” Fulford said.

“Parents need to do their research on the school. If they are not in a class setting with other students being taught by a person standing in the front of the classroom, in my opinion that is not a good situation. Too many things can go wrong during NCAA evaulation time.”

McIntyre, meantime, agrees that Huntington Prep and Findlay Prep — and newer programs like 22 Feet Academy in Jackson (Ky.) — represent a new trend where the players attend one school and play basketball for an affiliated team.

“It’s a weird trend,” he said. “I think it definitely is a trend. There’s all these schools where they call it a prep school or whatever they call it. The kids go to a real school and essentially they’re playing for a club. I can’t see that trend lasting too long in terms of state federations and sanctions and all of that. I think it’s going to come to a point where someone says, ‘Listen, high school basketball you means you play for the school you attend.”

McIntyre added: “There’s some good situations. Findlay Prep is a good situation. They go to school. They’re academically held accountable for what they’re doing.

“St. Benedict’s is a good situation. They’re academically held responsible. Huntington, Brewster, same thing.

“We deal with schools where we know the coaches and the administrators and we’re comfortable that those kids are going to be put in a situation that as long as they do their work they’re going to be successful.”

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Seeing the success of these programs, Russell, the founder of Grassroots Canada, tried to follow suit.

“I always wanted to build a program similar to how Findlay Prep is doing it,” Russell told SNY.tv.

Beginning in 2009, Russell set up such an independent program in Creedmoor (N.C.) called Christian Faith Academy that was loosely affiliated with Christian Faith Center Academy, a 250-student school where the basketball players went to church and rented the gym, but did not initially take classes.

The program quickly ran into problems, though, including a lack of financial backing and a “delay in getting the visas from the school,” Russell said.

A recent controversial SI.com story focused on Russell’s time with that program and pointed out that Wiggins spent several months there three years ago.

Without the visas, Russell said, he set up an “academy program” where the kids took “online classes.”

“It was a temporary thing because we knew that at some point the visas would arrive and the kids would enroll in school,” he said.

Looking back, Russell says he probably could have done things differently the first year.

“In hindsight, Monday morning quarterback, we should’ve come back to Canada and waited until the visas arrived and then went down there,” Russell said.

Russell said Wiggins and the other players lived in good living conditions, and that his own son, Rovonn, was there.

“We were living in really nice college apartments,” Russell said. “Guys were eating great, practicing every day. We played a pretty big schedule.

“It’s not like the kids weren’t being taken care of. Even my son was there with me. My own son was was there. I didn’t have the players in any type of situation that I wouldn’t have my own son in.”

He said Wiggins quickly left.

“Andrew, being a young kid, he was homesick,” Russell said. “He wasn’t really into doing the online courses and all that and that’s why his family decided it would be best for him to go back to Canada, and I agreed with them.”

As SI.com reported, Wiggins returned home and attended Vaughan Secondary School in Toronto for his freshman and sophomore seasons before ultimately coming to Huntington before last season.

“It happened, man, Russell said. “We moved on. It didn’t affect Andrew. Andrew’s No. 1. Andrew’s going to go to a major college. He’s gonna be one-and-done. He’s going to be No. 1. Kids have gone out and done their thing. There was no calamity. I never got charged with anything. No kids got tremendously impacted and their life’s ruined. It didn’t work out perfectly but kids moved on and the bigger picture is basketball in Canada is on the rise.”

In the wake of Wiggins’s departure and after the first full year, the remaining basketball players then took actual classes at Christian Faith Center Academy for the following two years.

Russell said that all the kids returned to the program for the second year, and that six of them, including Illinois State freshman Kaza Keane, qualified for “various colleges.” He declined to name the other schools where the players landed.

In the third year of the program, in the spring of 2012, Russell returned home for family reasons.

He pointed out that Christian Faith Center Academy still maintains its basketball program and has sent numerous players to Division 1 schools

Russell tried again to set up his Findlay Prep-style program this year at Kingdom Prep in Georgia, but that didn’t work out, either.

“It looked like it had potential to be a Findlay-type situation, but that wasn’t the case so I resigned and came back to Canada,” Russell said.

He now runs what he calls the Toronto Academy that is associated with a local high school there, but he declined to name the high school.

“All the kids go to a public school and they have a special academy program,” he said. “There’s probably about 1,000 kids in the school.”

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Russell has also sent two of his former Grassroots Canada players — – MiKyle McIntosh and Brandon Chauca – to 22 Feet Academy in Jackson, Ky., a basketball academy with roots in Europe.

McIntosh is a 6-6 guard/forward in the Class of 2013 who is being recruited by Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, UConn and Florida, among others.

Russell said several other Grassroots Canada players have followed McIntosh and Chauca to the program.

“Their AAU connection and friendship is why six Canadians transferred there,” he said.

Ryan Schmidt, the head coach at 22 Feet Academy, said he has six former Grassroots Canada players on his team and that all the basketball players attend Breathitt County High School.

“We are affiliated with a school just like Huntington and Findlay are,” Schmidt said.

In addition to the Canadians at 22 Feet Academy, numerous other Canadians are sprinkled at other high schools in Kentucky.

“Canada is close enough for parents to go and watch,” Russell said. “Many schools have student exchange programs.”

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Another person mentoring some of these Canadian players is Brandon Bender, a former Louisville player who has been involved in some controversy in recent years, but says he is being unfairly targeted.

Both Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports and Pete Thamel, then of the New York Times, have written articles saying that Bender was involved with the alleged runner Kenneth Caldwell, who brought the NCAA’s attention to the University of Central Florida in 2011 because of questionable recruiting tactics.

For his part, Bender dismisses those claims.

“I’ve never been a runner and never will be a runner,” he told SNY.tv. “My focus is to help kids who need help getting to college. People may call me names and talk reckless about me, but people close to me and around me know my intentions are good.”

As for the UCF case, Bender pointed out that the NCAA investigator in that case, Abigail Grantstein, was recently fired by the NCAA “for trying to ruin Shabazz Muhammad’s life.” Grantstein compromised the NCAA’s investigation into Muhammad, a UCLA freshman, when her boyfriend spoke aloud about the case on an airplane.

“If I was Central Florida, I’d appeal everything to the NCAA,” Bender said.

Bender mentors several players, including Kasongo, the 6-8 forward who models himself on Amar’e Stoudemire.

“I was in Canada and my head coach knew Brandon,” Kasongo said. “That’s how he put me in contact with Brandon and he took it from there. He became my mentor. He’s been helping me with this basketball thing, giving me advice.”

Kasongo, who plans to attend a prep school next year before going to college in 2014, is pursuing his dream but says he gets homesick at times, just like Wiggins did.

“Yeah I get homesick sometimes,” he said in a recent radio interview. “I miss my friends, family and sometimes just the big city.”

As of now, N.C. State has offered Kasongo and schools like DePaul, UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas and West Virginia are involved, although many of them say they are still evaluating and need to see Kasongo’s transcripts.

“He is looking for a good academic situation and a coaching staff that’s willing to teach and be patient,” Bender said. “There is a lot he has to learn at the college level but he has some great institutions after him and the kid’s ceiling is very high.

“He has a freakish body. He is built like a man. In high school, he is the second-most athletic big man in 2014 I’ve seen behind Cliff Alexander.”

Bender maintains relationships with college coaches, which he says can only help in recruiting.

“I’m just glad and honored to still have relationships with college coaches who have known me since they recruited me in high school,” he said. “They know what I am and they don’t care what [reporters] write or wrote because they will forever be friends.”

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Some Canadians experience unforeseen obstacles when they come to the States.

Owootoah, a 6-foot point guard who is one of four Canadians playing for former NBA player Rodrick Rhodes at Cordia (Ky.) High School, had to sit out 15 games at the beginning of the season after coming to Kentucky from the Toronto area.

“For me and my team, this season has been filled with a lot of ups and downs,” he wrote on his player blog on ZAGSBLOG. “It was tough at first but as the season progresses it seems to only get better. I sat out and missed about 15 games because I had to go through the eligibility process.

“It hurt watching my squad from the sidelines in all those close games knowing I could be a huge difference-maker. I just tried to be as encouraging as possible, trying to do all I can to help get them through those tough times.”

Now he’s back and playing well and drawing interest from big-time schools like UCLA, Florida, Kentucky and Kansas.

“Yeah, I’m really excited about that,” Owootoah said.

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Ndahiro is a 6-8 forward at Bardstown (Ky.) Thomas Nelson High School who said he came to Kentucky “for a better opportunity and a better qualify of life” after consulting with his uncle. His mother died recently of cancer and he has not father.

Ndahiro, who said has interest from Indiana, Illinois, N.C. State, DePaul, Bradley, Ball State and Indiana State, also aspires to become like Wiggins.

“Andrew Wiggins, he’s like a big-time dude, especially to a lot of kids in Canada when they look at the stuff he’s doing, like the Andrew Wiggins’, the Anthony Bennetts, they Myck Kabongos,” he said. “They’re just seizing the better opportunity to come down here to the States because they appreciate you more down here. They appreciate basketball more down here, you know? Especially if it looks like you got the talent to do it, the same thing they’re doing.”

Like Kasongo, he also considers Bender a mentor.

“He just helped me out with some decisions about coming down here and what not,” Ndahiro said.

And like Kasongo, he plays AAU ball for the Ohio Basketball Club.

Yet Ndahiro was ruled ineligible by the Kentucky state athletic association after he moved from Canada and must sit out this year “because I’m not from here and the fact that I played varsity basketball last year in Edmonton, Alberta.”

Asked if he thought it was unfair, Ndahiro said, “Yes, sir, because I know a couple of kids that got down here and got to play right away. But I guess if I’m patient enough, I’m just going to come out of this stronger.”

Ndahiro said some prep schools called wanting him to transfer to play right away, but he opted to stay put.

“I just try to make a better decision for myself because the school I’m at the right now I get instructors helping me out with my grades, my ACT scores and all that, so I decided it was a better opportunity because basketball is really big but you gotta have school first, you know?”

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