Two of Canada’s finest basketball prospects take their amazing championship and all-star season to New York’s Madison Square Garden Saturday.
Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph will play in Michael Jordan’s all-star game, featuring the top 24 high school players in America – ending a season that has brought unprecedented honours to the teammates from the Toronto area.
GTA players are watching their every move, drooling, thinking, “If they can . . .”
Four minutes and 16 seconds into the prestigious All-American high school basketball game in Columbus, Ohio, last month, the two Canadian phenoms enter the game of their dreams.
Their impact is instant, if not sustained.
Within a minute, Brampton’s 6-foot-10 Tristan Thompson — described by his coach as “a rarity. You get one of these once in a lifetime” — steals the ball and sends Pickering’s Cory Joseph scooting across half court.
Joseph, 18, from a family of ballers, kicks into overdrive. He seems faster with the ball in his hands, always pushing and probing, creating space without the highlight reel crossover. Eight seconds later, Joseph’s jumper – smooth and effortless – barely ripples the net.
It’s the first basket ever by a Canadian in the annual game that’s been the launching pad for basketball’s giants of the last 30 years – MJ, Kobe, LeBron, Magic, Shaq, Carmelo. And the NBA scouts at this all-star classic are nodding at each other.
Since they were kids, dribbling the ball off their feet in gymnasiums across Greater Toronto, Joseph and Thompson had salivated about this moment of personal triumph.
“I had my heart set on it,” said Joseph, ranked among the best high school point guards in the world.
“If cloning was possible, I would have cloned Cory already,” said his coach Mike Peck last week. “He’s a special player, with a tremendous feel for the game. If you start out to build the perfect player from scratch, he’d be the end result.”
Of Thompson, 235 pounds of matchup problems on the court, Peck says: “At his size and skill set he’s unmatched at this level. He can dribble, pass it, finish with both hands, has great size and hands and tremendous upside. Guys are not supposed to do what he can at (his size).”
Their inclusion in this game featuring the top 24 high schoolers playing in America is basketball’s imprimatur, the seal of approval, the official declaration that they are legitimate pro prospects.
Thompson will attend University of Texas next year on a full scholarship. Joseph is contemplating five Division 1 schools, including Texas. Together, they’ve been on an incredible run, especially Joseph. In two years at Findlay Prep outside Las Vegas, he’s lost only two games, despite travelling like an NBA team, playing the best opponents.
Days after the All-American game, they led Findlay to the second straight national high school title. Joseph was named tournament MVP. Last weekend they represented an international team in an annual game against the best American-born players. And Saturday night they do New York, before coming home for a break, and then close out their high school run at the prep school bankrolled by a wealthy Las Vegas car dealer.
In all, the players have been on national U.S. television at least 10 times this season, their coach Peck estimates. On the night of the All-American game, Peck and his assistant Todd Simon waited on the Canucks, a private jet cooling its engines in preparation for an overnight trip to the national championships.
It’s understandable, then, that hundreds of Canadian players are watching and angling to follow in their footsteps.
Next year, another Toronto teenage point guard, Myck Kabongo, is expected to follow the same path and snag an All-American spot. “He may be the best of the three,” says former Canada national team captain Vidal Massiah.
Thornhill’s Andrew Wiggins, 15, is knocking on the door. At a basketball camp in the U.S. last year, the CEO of Basketball Canada Wayne Parrish recalls how scouts told him Wiggins, also a point guard, is “the best 13-year-old in the world.”
An estimated 100 high school players have left Canada – mostly the GTA – for U.S. schools they believe will land them a college scholarship and a professional career. Hundreds more are watching the exploits of Thompson and Joseph, drooling about similar fame, if not fortune.
Consequently, high school ball in the Toronto area is being hollowed out, a concern for some who worry that many who head south are better off staying home. They end up in poor programs, a poor school, and sitting on the bench, playing hardly at all.
“It’s fool’s gold for all these kids to believe, ‘If I go to America I’m going to have the same success’,” says Massiah, founder of Hoop Factory and a keen observer of local basketball. He played at Eastern Commerce, then Bonaventure in New York state and played professionally in Europe.
The warning notwithstanding, many Canadians are prospecting — their presence as strong as ever in the college ranks. Even as Joseph and Thompson practised with the All-Americans in Columbus, and Joseph won the three-point shooting contest, Andy Rautins, son of national men’s coach Leo Rautins, was raining down three-pointers for Syracuse in the NCAA tournament.
Teammate Kris Joseph from Montreal — Cory’s cousin — is set to blow up as a major NBA draft prospect, some scouts predict. And there is Gonzaga starter Robert Sacre of Vancouver, already a Team Canada member.
It seems the dam is about to burst, flooding Basketball Canada with waves of talent.
“Without the slightest equivocation, yes,” says Parrish. “We have four potential first- or second-round (NBA) draft choices in our midst.”
Parrish says Basketball Canada has embarked on a strategy of engaging the young stars in the national program even before they become megastars and professionals. That way, they’ll catch the bug before they’re blinded by stardom.
It seems to be working.
“When Canada calls, I’ll be there,” says Thompson. “To wear Canada on your chest is a great opportunity.”
“We now have a mass of players from Canada that can put together a good team and compete with any other country,” said Joseph. “There is nothing like it – playing for your country.”
Joseph’s mom, Connie, dreams of seeing her sons with Olympic medals around their necks. Cory’s brother, Devoe, plays for the University of Minnesota. Together, the brothers won two straight Ontario high school titles with Pickering.
Thompson’s mom, Andrea, is ready to lead a road trip to London, England, for the 2012 Olympics or Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “Tell Canada help is on the way,” she says.
“It bothers me when people say they are not patriotic and not committed to their country,” says Connie. “The boys went south because that’s where they could get the schooling, paid college education, basketball coaching, exposure and level of competition needed to land them on the highest possible plain their talents demanded.
“In the U.S., the players have all that as a local option; we didn’t. If we did, the boys would be staying home.”
Toronto has all the elements for breeding NBA players. One look at the demographic of the NBA player – players of African descent, an influx of Eastern Europeans, the great potential of Chinese players and the untapped potential of South Asians — and they all converge in the Toronto area.
“Once a home-grown kid makes it, you can now market the game through that kid in Toronto,” said Massiah. “One person can make a difference. Remember how the game got blown up in China because of Yao Ming. One person makes it and it gives a nation of people reason to believe they can make it, too.”
The Canadian national teams are already seeing the leading edge of this wave of new basketball talent. For the first time – and only six countries can make this claim — Canada will send teams to all four world championships this year.
Parrish says it will cost about $1 million to send men’s and women’s senior team and the under-17 teams. To supplement modest federal funding and limited corporate sponsorships, Basketball Canada has started a public fundraising campaign. (Individual donors can text HOOPS to 30333 and donate $5 to help Team Canada.)
Massiah says Basketball Canada hasn’t seen a rush of corporate money spent on the game, but Thompson and Joseph and the current crop of players will have a huge impact.
“There is a kid home right now who is 8 years old and saw those kids play on TV and has a burning desire to get to that level. Cory and Tristan have torn down the mental barriers that Canadians can’t compete with the Americans.
“The best is still yet to come. Hopefully, the coaching and programs catch up. That’s when you will see the explosion of talent.”
Kevin Pangos, guard, 6’1”, 180
Next Season: Grade 12 Dr. Dennison Sec. School, Newmarket
Rank: Top point guard in 2012 class
Buzz: “The best point guard we’ve seen in Canada since Steve Nash.” – Ken Murray, Brock University
Myck Kabongo, guard, 6’1”, 160 pounds.
Next Season: Senior at Benedicts Prep, Newark, New Jersey
College: Verbal commitment to University of Texas
Rank: 2nd to 8th ranked point guard in U.S. 2011 class; 9th to 24th overall.
The Buzz: “An absolute nightmare in the open court.” – Slamonline
Dwight Powell, forward, 6’9”, 215 pounds
School: IMG Academy, Bradenton, Florida
Next Year: Stanford University
Rank: 7th to 11th ranked power forward (23rd overall) in 2010 class
Buzz: Stock is on the rise. Good frame. Needs to bulk up.
Anthony Bennett, forward, 6’6”, 200 pounds
School: Junior, Mountain State Academy, West Virginia
Buzz: “An extremely unique athlete. His ability to run the floor and finish plays above the rim is amazing and fun to watch..” – Vidal Massiah, Hoops Factory
Andrew Wiggins, guard/forward, 6’6”, 180 pounds
School: Vaughn Secondary School, Thornhill
Rank: 1st overall prospect in the 2014 class by SportsPressTV.com
Buzz: “Meet the best 13-year-old you’ll ever see.” Yahoo sports blog
Kris Joseph, guard/forward, 6-7, 207 pounds
School: Syracuse University Sophomore
Buzz: 2010 Big East Conference 6th Man of the Year
Andy Rautins, guard, 6’4”, 195 pounds
School: Senior Syracuse University
Buzz: 2010 NBA draft prospect. Member of Canadian Men’s National Team
“Rautins has a picture-perfect release, and shoots the ball almost the same way every time. His good size and excellent mechanics allow him to get his shot off whenever and wherever he wants, while his NBA range gives him a shot at draining a basket from just about anywhere on the floor.” – Kevin Roberts, Bleacher Report Inc.
Devoe Joseph, guard, 6’3”, 170
School: Sophomore, University of Minnesota
“Canadian, Devoe Joseph has taken it upon himself to become a real threat as the point-guard in (coach Tubby) Smith’s offence.” – Dan Adams, Bleacher Report Inc.
Robert Sacre, centre, 7’0”, 247 pounds
School: Gonzaga University Sophomore
“A true centre, Sacre’s size and physical attributes make him an intriguing player from an NBA perspective. Possessing good lower body strength, some mobility, and good height, Sacre has the tools that NBA teams look for at the five spot.” – Matthew Kamalsky, DraftExpress
Mangisto Arop, guard/forward, 6’5”, 208 pounds
School: Gonzaga University Freshman
2009 Canadian Men’s Junior National Team Member