At the Richmond Olympic Oval, where for a couple of weeks in the winter of 2010 speed skaters raced for gold at the Vancouver Winter Games, a predominant sound on most evenings is not the scratching of skates on ice but the bounce of basketballs on hardwood.
The plan had always been to transform the oval into a sprawling community centre – and in 2012, the growing youth academy Drive Basketball made the jump from previous smaller homes.
Co-founded by Pasha Bains, a former NCAA Division I player who was Canada's high-schooler of the year in 1998, Drive began work in 2004 and has become a venue from which Division I-bound basketball players are emerging. What it could become is highlighted by Thursday's NBA Draft, where a much more developed Canadian hoops scene – in far-off Toronto – takes the spotlight, as Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis and Nik Stauskas are forecasted as top picks.
A confluence of factors has vaulted Toronto to a position of basketball factory, a lot of it pinned around the arrival of the Toronto Raptors in 1995 – the year Wiggins was born. Vince Carter and company inspired a generation of boys to great heights, and the wave is reaching the pros now, with 2011 No. 4 pick Tristan Thompson and 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett leading the way.
Add to this factors such as a regional population of six million – more than double the 2.6-million living in the B.C. Lower Mainland – and the result is something rare: If Wiggins goes No. 1, following Bennett last year, Toronto will be the first region in North America to produce back-to-back No. 1s since the mid-1990s, when the Norfolk area of Virginia saw Joe Smith and Allen Iverson jump to the NBA as top picks.
B.C. is trying to make up ground. The Vancouver Grizzlies decamped town in 2001 for Memphis, and while a pro team isn't an essential factor, the presence of the best, which includes everything from all the home games to community visits in schools, has been a missing element. B.C. has produced NBA players – Hall of Famer Steve Nash for one, and more recently Robert Sacre of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kelly Olynyk of the Boston Celtics – but there is a lot of work to do.
"We're catching up," Bains said. "My heart hurts that the Grizzlies didn't stay. It would have had a profound effect. It's different when you can see them, be around them – but club basketball has grown."
Drive, as well as 3D Basketball on the North Shore, have made progress in the model of CIA Bounce, the Brampton, Ont.-based academy that has honed the skills of many of the young Canadians in and heading to the NBA. CIA Bounce made a name travelling, and winning, in the U.S. against elite American teenage competition. Drive, focused on the Western U.S., is starting to do the same.
Jermaine Haley, a Drive player, is a top prospect. He plans to play the next two years at the Canarias Basketball Academy in Spain and is on track to reach Division I in 2016. He's already been recruited by numerous schools.
"It's a signal of how much is changing," Bains said. "A guy like Steve Nash had to send out his own tapes. Now college coaches are calling, who's next? The success of Toronto has helped. People are respecting Canada more."
At CIA Bounce, owner-founder Tony McIntyre cited the importance of the Raptors.
"It gives you something to strive for," McIntyre said – but he saluted the work of Bains and B.C. "For what you have, in terms of numbers and everything else, they've done really, really well. It's just starting. They're going to grow."
The numbers, for now, are heavily weighted toward Toronto, starting with the three top Canadian names in the draft. The same can be seen on the successful junior men's national team, where five of the 12 are Toronto-area players; the three top scorers are from CIA Bounce.
B.C., however, has two players, the only other province with more than one. Drive's Tristan Etienne, a 6-foot-9 centre, is one, and in the fall he heads to Division I play at the University of Washington.
Even if Toronto is the big story, players emerge from all over Canada, said Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager of Canada's senior men's national team. He points to Jordan Bachynski from Calgary, who could be a second-round pick in the NBA draft, and a player who could be drafted next year, Olivier Hanlan from Aylmer, Que., near Ottawa.
"What we're seeing," Barrett said, "is players can come from anywhere."