Canada's top young players have long left this country in pursuit of their basketball dreams.
Many migrated to basketball-focused U.S. prep schools, where they could play in front of college scouts and earn a lucrative scholarship and a shot at the pros. The names of some of these schools – Huntington Prep, Oak Hill Academy, Findlay Prep – have become nearly as familiar to hoops fans as the U.S. colleges that compete in March Madness.
But a new generation of Canadian basketball talent is on the rise – and a new Canadian program is hoping to keep some of these high-flyers closer to home in their teenage years.
Located in the rolling hills at the edge of Orangeville, Ont., the Athlete Institute sells itself as a place that can offer top-flight coaching, world-class facilities, a Canadian public-school education and an elite American prep-school playing schedule. One of its aims is to head off the disasters that other young Canadian players have suffered at lesser-known fly-by-night prep schools, where there was little supervision and lax standards. Some had difficulty qualifying for college as entire years were wiped off their transcripts due to dodgy academic standards.
About two-thirds of the players here pay tuition, room and board of roughly $18,000 a year, while one-third are on scholarship. But much of the cost is borne by the Tipping family, whose wealth was built in the trucking business. Jesse Tipping, president of the Athlete Institute, also plays for the pro team his family owns, the Brampton A's of Canada's National Basketball League.
"I went through as a player when there wasn't a system, when there wasn't a place to go for players who needed extra training," Mr. Tipping said. "I got really sick of seeing all our best players go south to get trained. I saw that this is something Canada is lacking. We have so much talent and yet we can't train them ourselves."
Jamal Murray, 16, a smooth 6-foot-4 guard who was the MVP of an international all-star game this year, is one of the star recruits. Another is Jalen Poyser, a 16-year-old who has come back to Canada from Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., the same school that produced Canadian NBA players Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. They're part of an unprecedented wave of talent that now sees 105 Canadian men playing in the NCAA's Division I, up from 64 five years ago.
Mr. Poyser was impressed from the moment he set eyes on the Athlete Institute. "I thought it was like an NBA facility when I got here," he said.
The institute boasts a quarter-million-dollar spring-loaded wood floor, a pro-style locker room and a full-time physio staff offering ice baths, massage and laser therapy. The students have a shooting machine at their disposal, a first-class workout facility and a professional coaching staff. They attend the local Orangeville District Secondary School and live two to a room at a nearby dorm, which they share with their coaches.
Dwight Richards, a 19-year-old who came north from Indiana, the game's spiritual heartland, said he felt as though he'd found basketball heaven here in rural Ontario. "It's basketball all day, every day," he said.
There are 22 players listed on the school's two rosters. Many are from the basketball hotbed of Toronto's suburban 905 region, but others come from B.C., Alberta and Nova Scotia. Half play on the high-school team, half on the prep team, which is reserved for those who have already graduated but are trying to either improve their game or their grades to play at a higher level.
Their schedule takes them to Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, California, New Jersey and North Carolina to compete against other top programs. That's a major selling point. Mr. Poyser, who began playing high-school ball at Father Henry Carr in Toronto, said a Toronto league offers only a handful of games against elite competition, and that's simply not enough.
He came home from Nevada after a strange season. There is no high school at Findlay Prep. Students take courses by correspondence. His team was among the best in the U.S. and every one of his teammates who graduated received an NCAA scholarship, he said.
"One, I'm closer to home," Mr. Poyer said of choosing Athlete Institute. "Two, I'll get a better opportunity here – I'll play a lot of minutes. Developing is all about playing."
Mr. Poyser, a springy, 6-foot-4 point guard, has entrusted his development to coach Larry Blunt. Mr. Blunt, 29, is an energetic Virginian who spent nearly a decade working as an assistant coach in the NCAA. As his charges hustle through practice, Mr. Blunt stands with a whistle between his teeth, clapping, hectoring.
"Jalen, I'm challenging you in front of everybody to be more of a leader," he says to Mr. Poyser. "That's the next step in your maturation."
Sitting in his office, Mr. Blunt puts down the laptop he was using to monitor the players' social-media accounts. One slip there could cost them an opportunity to win a scholarship, he explains, so he keeps a close watch.
He got this job, he says, in part through his relationship with CIA Bounce, the AAU summer-league team that has developed nearly all of Canada's top players in recent years, including Andrew Wiggins, a front-runner to be the top pick in next year's NBA draft. Many of the athletes enrolled at the institute play for CIA Bounce in the summer.
"We were talking about how good it would be for the kids to stay out here and have a similar schedule to what they would get at a U.S. school," Mr. Blunt said.
He said his goal is to help these young men use basketball to further their education, not sacrifice everything in the naïve pursuit of a pro career. "We try to get them to the point that when they're done with the game they have a lot more opportunities than they started with," he said.
One of the pitfalls of going to the U.S. has been the number of Canadian kids who have landed at schools with questionable academic standards. Several had their basketball careers derailed over the past decade, in part because they were given poor guidance by coaches. Brandon Lesovsky, the Kentucky-bred coach of the Athlete Institute Prep team, said it's a problem parents worry about.
"There's basketball academies all over America and a lot of them are not reputable," he said. "They're fly-by-night, they try to make money, and instead of having the kids' interests at heart [the coach] has his own financial interests at heart."
At Orangeville District Secondary, the arrival of the basketball team has made an impression. They're a large, boisterous presence, according to vice-principal Carolyn Chesney, and a welcome addition. She said most are doing very well academically, although a couple are struggling with one or two courses. The biggest challenge, she said, is ensuring their courses and transcripts are all compliant with NCAA rules.
"There are at least five boys who could write their own ticket to Harvard or Stanford or wherever they want to go. There's some high-level academic talent," Ms. Chesney said.
Coach Lesovsky said that's partly by design. "We're never going to get these kids anywhere," he said, "if they don't have a good reputation for qualifying academically."