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There was a time where the discussion about successful NBA players from Canada began and ended with the words “Steve Nash.”
Nash is one of only two Canadian-born players to make an All-Star team (Nash, who was named the league’s MVP in 2005 and ’06, was an eight-time selection; the other is Jamal Magliore, who made it in 2004.) Canada’s only member of the Basketball Hall of Fame is Bob Houbregs, who was named the NCAA’s Player of the Year in 1953. He played for four teams in a five-year NBA career.
But one gets a sense that that’s about to change. And when it does, the Cavaliers will be right in the middle of the renaissance.
The Wine and Gold have two of the 11 Canadian-born players in the league – both are power forwards and high draft picks. Both hail from the Toronto area and got their first NBA exposure via the Raptors, who – along with the Vancouver Grizzlies – joined the NBA in 1995.
“I think (the Raptors) are THE reason why a lot of us young kids started playing basketball,” said Tristan Thompson, who was raised in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. “We turned on the TV and watched the Raptors play and they were electrifying. They were dunking, making shots – you had Vince Carter winning the Slam Dunk, Donyell Marshall setting the NBA record for three-pointers.
“They were cool to watch and I think that made basketball cool and that kind of helped us want to play. And we had coaches in the city willing to teach us.”
“To be honest, I didn’t really watch much basketball,” said Anthony Bennett, who was raised in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighborhood and, at age ten, moved with his family to nearby Brampton. “But if I did watch basketball, I watched the Raptors back when Vince Carter was there. Me, with the Boys and Girls Club in my old neighborhood, we used to always go to a couple games.”
The Cavs’ Canadian frontline duo is now working together, but they battled it out on the court as youngsters – playing twice with Thompson getting the better of each contest.
“(Bennett) was young when I beat him,” recalled Thompson. “He was talented and he’s always been a big boy. He’s always been able to shoot the ball and he’s always been a good player. I just had some years on him. And it was just like big bro beating up on a little bro. But he’s developed so much over those years. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
“I think I had close to a double-double in both games,” added Bennett. “I had to guard him most of the time, and when he was out, I had to guard another big man. So it was real tough for me as a sophomore.”
The Cavaliers crossed up Draft experts this past June when the tabbed Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick. In his single season at UNLV, Bennett averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 boards per game. He ranked seventh in the Mountain West Conference in scoring, fifth in rebounding and fourth in blocked shots.
Bennett was the first Canadian-born player taken with the top overall pick. And he might have company next season if Kansas freshman and Thornhill, Ontario native, Andrew Wiggins – who’s expected to be one of the country’s best players – declares himself eligible for the Draft.
As far as international contributions, Canada has produced the most NBA players throughout the league’s history with 24. (France and Serbia are next, producing 20 players apiece.) France has the highest current representation with 13.
Bennett was one of two Canadians selected in the 2013 Draft, along with Kelly Olynyk, who went to the Celtics after being drafted by the Mavericks at No. 13 overall. But even before this June’s Draft, the Canadian invasion had been picking up steam. Cory Joseph was tabbed by the Spurs in 2011 and his cousin, Kris Joseph (Celtics), was chosen one year later, along with fellow countrymen Robert Sacre (Lakers) and Andrew Nicholson (Magic).
Thompson, Nicholson, Cory Joseph and Miami’s Joel Anthony all competed this past summer in the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship. They didn’t medal, but Thompson – who averaged 11.6 points and 10.0 boards per contest in the tourney – maintains the future is bright for Canada in international play.
“I think for the next maybe three Olympics, Canada will be a force to reckon with,” said the third-year big man. “We didn’t do as well as we wanted to this summer, but if you look back at Argentina, back in 1999, I think, they got destroyed in the qualifiers for the Worlds, and then the Olympics came around in ’04 and they won.
“Four years is a long time and guys are going to develop. I’m going to get better. Cory’s going get better. Anthony (Bennett) might join the team. Olynyk, Wiggins – however he pans out. We’re going to have a good team and we’re going to have some good NBA players and we should be able to compete.”
But the Olympics are a topic for the future. The 20-year-old Bennett has more pressing matters – namely his rookie season, learning the ins and outs of the NBA (not to mention Mike Brown’s defensive system).
“It’s a lot, man!” laughed Bennett as he worked his way through Training Camp. “There’s probably 45 minutes to an hour where you just go over the defensive terminology. Just for an hour, standing there. But I feel like at the end of the day, me picking up all these new plays, and picking them up real quick is going to be real helpful for me down the road. I’m not really fussing about it.”
If Bennett doesn’t get something, he’s lucky enough to have his countryman to help him out.
“It’s my third year in and as a leader on this on the team, and I feel that it’s only right that I do show (Bennett) the ropes and talk to him and stay in his ear. Because the NBA is a man’s game and there’s a lot of things you need to pick up quick, So I’ll just stay in his ear, tell him to stay focused, keep working hard – because if you don’t have someone there for you, you can stray away and kinda lose yourself.”
The Canadian bigs will battle it out on the practice floor and battle together when the Wine and Gold dive into the 2013-14 season. And odds are Cavs fans will be happy with the dynamic frontline duo from the Great White North.
In their first action together – Tuesday night’s preseason win over the Bucks – Thompson led the team in scoring with 17 points and Bennett tied for the team-lead in boards with 10.
“Every time we play, (Tristan)’s always pushing me, and I’m always pushing him,” said Bennett. “He’s been in the league for a couple years now. And he’s giving me the inside scoop on how to better myself.”