Three years ago, in Nike's annual high school all-star game, which pits a U.S. squad against a selection of international players, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett sunk the first two baskets as Team World burst out to a 10-0 lead.
Team World had defeated the U.S. team only three times in 14 previous Nike Hoop Summits. Wiggins, then 17, kept up the offensive push, leading Team World scorers. The United States mounted a furious comeback late and, with 28 seconds left, the final was in the balance when then 19-year-old Bennett snatched a loose ball and launched a shot from far behind the three-point arc. It swished to seal the win. "I knew," Bennett said afterward, "it was good as soon as it came out of my hands."
Nike established the Hoop Summit in 1995 and Canada has become an annual mainstay presence. This year's edition takes place Saturday in Portland, Ore., near the shoe company's headquarters, and features 18-year-old Jamal Murray from Kitchener, Ont., playing for the second time, as Wiggins did.
The game itself is a must-attend for NBA scouts and executives in this one-and-done era of collegiate basketball, where high school seniors are on the way to a single winter of college hoops before the NBA draft. Almost 100 former Hoop Summit players are in the NBA – roughly one-fifth of the entire league – and the past five No. 1 picks all played, including Wiggins and Bennett.
"If you ask NBA scouts, it's the single-most important game of the year to evaluate talent, globally," said George Raveling, a former college coach and basketball Hall of Famer who is Nike's director of international basketball.
Canada began its recent run in 2010, when future NBA players Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph played. Kevin Pangos and Kyle Wiltjer, who led Gonzaga University to the final eight teams in March Madness this spring, played in 2011. Wiggins and Bennett came in 2012, and Wiggins appeared again in 2013. Last year, Murray played, alongside Trey Lyles, who went on to the University of Kentucky.
On the sidelines since 2011 has been Roy Rana, coach of Team World, as well as coach at Ryerson University and of Canada's national junior team. "Canadian content has established itself," Rana said.
Raveling, who has been a backer of Canadian basketball for more than a decade, said the arrival of Wiggins in the NBA has helped make Canada's name. "The respect for Canada basketball right now, I would say, is on the same level as the U.S.," Raveling said.
The Hoop Summit is in the middle of a busy early-April high school all-star calendar, one that begins with the McDonald's All American game and concludes with the Jordan Brand Classic. In this mix this year will be a new Canadian entrant, the BioSteel All Canadian basketball game, set for Tuesday in Toronto, featuring 24 players aged 18 and younger.
The BioSteel game was conjured on short notice in January, when Tony McIntyre, of the Athlete Institute Orangeville Prep program northwest of Toronto, proposed a Canadian all-star game during the Canadian Interuniversity Sport finals in March. Partnering with BioSteel, a sports-supplements company, the idea morphed into something bigger, one that McIntyre hopes will become a highlight game like its U.S. counterparts. Pro scouts will be there next week, along with the likes of Raveling.
Murray and Thon Maker, his Orangeville Prep teammate, will play in both the Hoop Summit and the BioSteel game. It's the first time that two players on Nike's Team World have come from the same school.
Maker is 18 and 7-foot-1. He was born in Sudan and grew up in Australia. He attracted considerable attention when he decided to attend the fledgling Athlete Institute, which started its basketball program three years ago to provide a Canadian option for talented teenagers who were looking at prep schools in the United States. Maker had last attended a prep school in Virginia and his move north was rare. Wiggins and most of his young Canadian NBA peers went the other way.
Orangeville Prep has had early successes, but longer-established U.S. preps such as Findlay Prep and Montverde Academy remain lures for Canadians. Jesse Tipping, president of the operation, said Athlete Institute offers a broader fitness-focused array, rather than only basketball. Maker, he said, added 10 kilograms of muscle to his long frame this past season.
"As much as we show a benefit, we still have to compete with the grand notion that the grass is greener," said Tipping of U.S. preps.
Murray, who has a year of high school left, is 6-foot-5 and has extensive international experience. He played well at a Basketball Without Borders camp during the NBA all-star weekend in February and last summer was the No. 7 scorer at the under-17 FIBA world championships, where Canada finished sixth.
Maker, meanwhile, could decide to attend college this fall and has been closely watched. This past week, however, he was outplayed in practices and scrimmages by 7-foot Skal Labissiere, a 19-year-old from Haiti who is headed to Kentucky this fall and is forecast as a top NBA draft pick in 2016.
Raveling, a 77-year-old who was chosen for the Hall of Fame in February, first encountered the potential of Canadian basketball in the early 2000s. He was urged to visit Toronto at the behest of coach Ro Russell, who insisted there was a collection of high-end but unknown talent percolating.
"I was stunned at how good the guys were. I said, 'Ho-lee, God,' " Raveling remembered. "You know, as Americans, we think we invented the game. The mentality was no can play except us. We've arrived at the point in basketball now that we truly understand the game is global and there are guys that can play just as well as we can."