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Purdue center Zach Edey gets a dunk over Davidson forward David Skogman, left, and forward Sean Logan in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Indianapolis, on Dec. 17, 2022. Many doubted Edey’s astonishing height came with real athleticism, writes Rachel Brady.The Associated Press

Zach Edey didn’t need a ladder to cut down the nets.

With scissors in hand, the towering 7-foot-4 Canadian centre pushed aside a ladder and did the job flat-footed, reaching up with his long arms to ceremoniously clip the netting from the hoop. The man dominating U.S. college basketball’s national spotlight celebrated the Big Ten conference title with his Purdue teammates, a squad headed to this week’s NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed.

Purdue’s mountainous 305-pound big man has been a menace all season, his outstretched arms waving imperiously above all heads as he demands the ball, which teammates deliver to him repeatedly in the paint. The 20-year-old Torontonian dictates with size and power – by dunking, sky-hooking over double teams, and blocking shots with such vigour that he swats them deep into the crowd.

Yet many doubted Edey’s astonishing height came with real athleticism. His chances of making it big did seem unlikely – a kid growing up in Toronto’s Leaside community playing hockey and baseball, who didn’t even try organized basketball until midway through Grade 10.

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Five years after taking up the sport, Edey is a favourite to win the Wooden Award as the season’s most outstanding college basketball player. The Sporting News and ESPN College Gameday have already handed him their player-of-the-year awards, as has the Big Ten conference.

Edey is just one of 53 Canadians taking part in NCAA playoffs this year – a record, Canada Basketball says – 24 men and 29 women.

Vidal Massiah, a Toronto native who played NCAA basketball at St. Bonaventure University, pro overseas and for Canada’s national team, shed light on Edey’s journey this week. Massiah is the executive director of the Toronto-area program Northern Kings, which has propelled several Canadians to NCAA basketball scholarships, including Edey. U.S. media have been calling and visiting the coach lately in droves to get Edey’s story, Massiah says, but Canadians not so much.

Fast-growing Edey had for years eschewed suggestions from well-intentioned adults that he should play hoops. His parents, Julia and Glen, told him to choose what he liked, and he was happy on the pitcher’s mound, throwing fastballs of 80 miles an hour. At 15, he tried basketball with friends, merely to cross-train in winter for baseball.

Massiah met Edey that season only by chance. His gregarious nephew Ethan – then just 12 – had approached this super-tall teen at a Toronto youth basketball tournament and requested his phone number, guessing his uncle would be intrigued by a player that huge. Massiah didn’t rush. He had other coaches scout Edey, and the reports were so-so.

Massiah eventually stopped by a game Edey played for the North Toronto Huskies held at Crescent School, the same gym where the Kings were starting tryouts later that day, so they’d invited Edey to attend. The boy was raw and inexperienced, but Massiah recognized potential. Those other sports had honed his mind and his hand-eye co-ordination.

“The gym was packed for tryouts, and everyone was staring at this kid. I was blown away from what I was seeing, I was in total shock,” Massiah said. “I soon told his mom, ‘your kid’s an NBA talent,’ and her jaw dropped like ‘what are you talking about?’”

In March of 2018, he joined the Northern Kings, his first elite basketball experience with an Amateur Athletic Union team. It all came fast – tournaments, showcases, Massiah working to get him noticed by U.S. colleges.

Massiah says Edey could eat an entire sushi boat, and his mom – a Canadian born to Chinese immigrants – often brought a panini press on the road to help feed the teen. Travelling with this tall kid had challenges, especially traversing airports with people constantly stopping him to ask questions and take photos. People often gawked and laughed in gyms.

“He had a lot of non-believers all the way through, which I think was part of his motivation, because he’s a very motivated person today,” Massiah said. “I don’t think people regarded him as an athlete. Many just saw him as tall guy, a novelty.”

Massiah has kept a scouting report he wrote on Edey in 2018.

“Smart bigs are like unicorns,” he wrote. “We’ll be looking at a monster in three years.”

Edey developed a lot with Northern Kings, and Massiah recommended he leave for IMG Academy, an elite multisport school in Bradenton, Fla. Massiah’s old coach at Bonaventure, Brian Nash, was the basketball director there, and IMG accepted Edey for Grade 11. Basketball was still new to him, but it would become the centre of Edey’s regimented new life on a world-class campus in the United States.

Edey moved there for the 2018-19 school year and IMG put him on its second-tier team. Nash said the Canadian was a little robotic, unpolished and had growing pains at first. He accidently hit his head in doorways, and bashed teammates with his elbows in practice.

“I don’t think he loved basketball at that point,” Nash said by phone this week. “At an academy like this, you’ll see guys who are talented and they’re going to play in the NBA or at a [top] level. I think he started realizing, ‘hey, I could be there myself.’”

Edey had elite coaching at IMG, former NBA players tall enough to look him in the eye and teach him to dominate in the post. He followed that up with a strong summer back home with the Kings and earned a spot for Grade 12 with IMG’s top team, one filled with elite American recruits. That team faced tougher opponents, and Edey came off the bench when the starting centre got in foul trouble.

“Every time that Zach came in, he impacted the game,” Nash said.

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., was a good fit for Edey because it has become a top destination for big men in an era when most teams favour smaller lineups and emphasize three-point shooting.

In his first two seasons at Purdue, Edey shared the centre position, but not this year. He’s one of just two Big Ten players in the past 30 years (Michigan’s Chris Webber was the other) to have at least 600 points, 350 rebounds and 50 blocked shots. Edey ranks sixth nationally in scoring (22.3), second in rebounding (12.8) and first in double-doubles (26).

Edey has played for Canada, too, earning a bronze medal at the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup in Latvia. He also appeared with the senior team, led by Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, last July.

Canada Basketball put Edey in its Tall Player Project, a series of specialized training sessions for Canadian bigs. Edey made other players’ jaws drop in a workout once, dunking with such force that he broke a backboard as he caused it to fold against the wall.

“Every time I see Zach hanging on the rim on a dunk, there’s a bolt within that mechanism that is screaming for its life,” recalled Michael Meeks, a former player and now Canada Basketball’s assistant general manager of men’s basketball operations. “I’ve played against some big dudes – Shaq, Alonzo Mourning – there’s nobody that I’ve ever been on a court with who is bigger, and stronger than Zach.”

Despite all Edey’s awards, questions remain about his potential in the NBA – whether he’ll declare for this year’s draft, and if teams would use a player his size in the modern game. They will question his lateral quickness, versatility on both ends and ability to shoot the three.

“I do think one out of 30 NBA teams pulls the trigger and says ‘I think we can find a way for him to help our team,’” Massiah said. “It will take the right team, coach, general manager and team owners who see value in him as an athlete.”