Tristan Thompson can’t help but be impressed by the changes in Canadian basketball since he went south of the border.
The Cleveland Cavaliers forward, who was participating in the first day of training camp with the senior men’s national team, said he sees plenty of excitement surrounding the sport in the Greater Toronto Area.
“I think basketball is the sport of the town right now,” said 22-year-old from Brampton, Ont. “Especially with all the success we’re having and all the guys who are doing big things, I think it’s kind of taking the city by storm and the whole city is really embracing it and understanding that Toronto kids, GTA kids, are really stepping up.”
A week before Canada’s scrimmage against Jamaica, 20 players are in town to go through twice daily workouts and try to earn a spot on the team ahead of the FIBA Americas Championship in Venezuela. The tournament runs Aug. 30-Sept. 11 and the top four teams will qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
While competition to make the squad will be tough, the atmosphere Friday at the Air Canada Centre was a positive one. More than two hours after the first session was scheduled to break up, players were still hanging around the facility, sharing stories about their seasons and brushing up on their Canadian basketball history.
Thompson, who finished high school in the United States and spent a season at the University of Texas before being selected fourth overall by the Cavaliers in 2011, marvelled over how the game has spread since he left home.
“So much has happened,” he said. “In the past two, three years, for players, they’re taking the game more seriously. I think, four or five years ago, guys were playing basketball, but it was more of a hobby or a thing to keep themselves busy.”
Part of the reason why Canadian basketball players are taking things more seriously is because they now have a blueprint for how to get to the NBA.
Aside from Thompson, Cory Joseph was picked 29th overall in 2011. Andrew Nicholson was selected 19th overall in 2012 before Anthony Bennett made history this year as the first Canadian to be selected first overall in this year’s draft.
Along with Kelly Olynyk, who was drafted 13th overall this year, and Andrew Wiggins, who could go first overall in 2014, Thompson said people have been put on notice.
“It shook them and woke them up,” Thompson said of Bennett’s history making night. “They understood that we had good players but not a lot of people thought that Bennett would be the player that he was when the season started.
“He kind of shocked them when he went first and I think the whole motto for us is just keep continue to prove everyone wrong and beat all the odds.”
Thompson has a maturity and professionalism that is beyond his years. For a team aiming to produce on the floor and get fans to become familiar with its players off of it, he is a great face for the future.
General manager Steve Nash doesn’t take it for granted.
“It’s such a luxury to be able to have somebody like Tristan,” Nash said. “He’s obviously becoming a great player in the NBA and a star and he’s also got a great personality, a big smile, he’s fun to be around and he’s a great person. So when you have someone like that, it’s the total package and that’s why he’s one of the leaders of our team.”
Thompson credited both Nash and the presence of the Toronto Raptors for helping to grow the sport in Canada.
“With Steve Nash, when Canadians talk about Steve Nash, he’s important to basketball because he made making the NBA something that wasn’t an impossible goal,” he said. “The Raptors was more of a see to believe [kind of thing]. You could connect, you could see them walking around, you could go to the games and experience that atmosphere. It was two different barriers that they both knocked down.”
A general manager who is still an active player in the NBA is a rarity, but Thompson couldn’t think of a better person to lead the program.
“He feels like only a couple of years older than us,” Thompson said. “It’s great. He’s definitely the face of Canada. He’s the history. He’s the guru. He’s the sensei of all of us.”