Last year, when R.J. Barrett led Canada's under-16 basketball team to a FIBA Americas silver medal, he was the team's leading scorer – and its youngest player.
Barrett, a left-handed shooting guard, turned 15 on the tournament's final day, June 14.
This year, Barrett's 16th birthday comes barely a week before he is set to lead Canada at the FIBA under-17 world championship in Spain. Being the youngest, and the best, isn't new. In his freshman high school season, last winter, Barrett was a star on a top team in the United States, Florida's Montverde Academy. He was chosen the best freshman playing in the United States by ESPN and billed in a national U.S. headline as potentially "Canada's next great basketball prospect."
The steady emergence of new elite teenage talent is the clearest sign that the rise of men's basketball in Canada goes beyond the country's players in the NBA. Barrett is at the fore of a younger generation, one guided by Canada Basketball since they became teenagers. This had been behind-the-scenes work to build Canada into a perennial international men's basketball power.
The silver medal at FIBA Americas last June was Canada's best under-16 result. Against the United States in the final, Canada led by 10 at the half but faded and lost 77-60.
This year's under-17 team has a challenge to prove itself, on the world stage, as well as against Canada's recent past.
In 2010, at the inaugural FIBA under-17 world championship, Canada won a surprise bronze. The team featured a 15-year-old Andrew Wiggins, alongside other future pros.
A top-three finish is this year's goal, coach Dave DeAveiro said. "We definitely want to be on the podium."
Team tryouts began Friday in Toronto and the tournament runs from June 23 to July 3. Last summer's under-16 team is expected to form the core of the roster. Canada Basketball began shaping this group of players in 2012, the year when new leadership arrived at the national hoops organization. Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett – R.J. Barrett's dad – had led Canada's last Olympic basketball team in 2000 and returned as national team executives.
One development strategy was the junior academy. It provided top-level coaching and direction to strong prospects entering their teenage years. Canada Basketball also established a targeted athlete strategy. This specifically focused on bolstering the best teenage players for national-team play.
R.J. Barrett was honed. So was Simi Shittu, another notable Toronto area player. Sixteen-year-old Shittu is the 13th-best high school sophomore in the United States, according to ESPN's tally.
Mike Meeks, a veteran of the 2000 Olympic team, joined Canada Basketball in 2015 to manage youth player development. There is a vast difference between the teenage years of Nash, Rowan Barrett and Meeks, and this era. Meeks started playing only in Grade 8.
"Basketball was something you did during part of the school year," Meeks said.
For R.J. Barrett and Shittu, basketball is life. Barrett and Shittu play at Montverde Academy near Orlando. A third Canadian, and under-16 teammate, Marcus Carr, is also at Montverde. A fourth Canadian, another under-16 teammate, Andrew Nembhard, may be going there in the fall.
"They're special kids," Meeks said. They are close, on and off court. "The thing that stands out is their chemistry."
Montverde is home for the best young Canadians, as was Findlay Prep, near Las Vegas, late last decade, when Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, and others played there before college and the NBA.
Barrett excelled at Montverde from the start. At a Christmas tournament, in a rare loss, Barrett led both teams in scoring with 31 points. Barrett was up against a senior, Lonzo Ball, who will play at UCLA this winter and is expected to be top-10 NBA pick in 2017.
There have been shortcomings. No. 1 Montverde was the three-time defending champ at the high school nationals but in this year's semi-final on April 1, the team played terribly. Barrett missed all 10 of his shots.
Barrett and Shittu redoubled their training efforts, said Montverde coach Kevin Boyle. Two weeks later, Barrett was chosen MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic international game, an award won three years ago by Jamal Murray, a Canadian who is now 19 and projected as a top-five NBA draft pick later this month.
In recent years, Boyle has coached five players who went on to become top-three NBA draft picks, starting with 2011 No. 1 Kyrie Irving through to this year's predicted No. 1 Ben Simmons. While Barrett and Shittu have several years to go, Boyle sees NBA lottery potential – the top 14 draft picks – in the two Canadians. He said they were arguably his best two players this past season.
"Both of them had outstanding seasons," Boyle said. "Could they have a chance to be lottery picks? I think so. It's possible."