When Anthony Bennett was a Grade 6 pupil in Brampton, near Toronto, he gave up the game he loved for a few years because he couldn't find a team to play on. Yet somehow last week, the 20-year-old became the first Canadian to be chosen first overall in the National Basketball Association draft. You'd never find a Canadian hockey player drafted first overall in the NHL who nearly fell through the cracks at such an early age for lack of a rink to play on.
His story says something about the golden age of Canadian basketball that seems to be upon us. The success may not have been entirely by design, but success it certainly is; and it is creating a promising foundation for much bigger achievements down the road.
Mr. Bennett has many talented countrymen. Next year, Andrew Wiggins, of Vaughan, Ont., is expected to be the first overall pick in the NBA – already tabbed as the best prospect since the great LeBron James. This year, Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, B.C., was chosen 13th overall in the NBA draft. And in the previous two years, five Canadians were chosen in the draft, including Tristan Thompson, also of Brampton, picked fourth overall. And Canadian boys under 18 are now ranked sixth in the world – Canadians girls are ranked fourth – which makes them leagues ahead of the Canadian men, who have not qualified for the Olympics since 2000.
Luckily for Mr. Bennett, and for basketball, he eventually found his way back into the game through a houseleague, and then an elite team, before an eagle-eyed U.S. prep school from West Virginia imported him beginning in Grade 10. Mr. Wiggins, too, went south to a prep school in New Jersey, and later Nevada (where he's known as Canada's LeBron). By contrast, Mr. Olynyk and Kevin Pangos, from the Toronto area, stayed in Canada until they joined top-tier U.S. colleges. It may be no coincidence that both have fathers who are basketball coaches – improving the quality of coaching may be the number-one challenge as Canada's basketball-development system matures.
As goalie Patrick Roy helped inspire a generation of great goaltenders from Quebec, so Steve Nash, the Canadian who twice was named MVP of the NBA, inspired young Canadian basketball players, and so will Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins inspire many others. The game is growing quickly in Canada, and travelling rep teams that play against U.S. competition during summers are helping young Canadians to believe that they can play with the best. And elite programs beginning at age 12 are more widely available than when Mr. Bennett was young.
It may be too early to talk about a Canadian "dream team" for the 2016 Rio Olympics – but heck, it's Canada Day. Anthony Bennett has given Canadians a reason to dream big.