Canadians should care more about Andrew Wiggins | Basketball | CBC Sports

NBACanadians should care more about Andrew Wiggins

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 | 11:15 AM

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Canada's Andrew Wiggins (8) soars high to the basket for a slam dunk at the 2012 Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., last April 7. (Sam Forencich/Getty Images) Canada's Andrew Wiggins (8) soars high to the basket for a slam dunk at the 2012 Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., last April 7. (Sam Forencich/Getty Images)

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Canadian teenage basketball phenom Andrew Wiggins, who plays for a prep school in West Virginia, is such a compelling story that he should be better known in his home country.

If you're keeping score, chalk up a go-ahead three for Andrew Wiggins. If you didn't already hear about it, the 17-year-old Canadian basketball phenom dropped 57 points in a U.S. prep school game last Thursday night, hours after Sports Illustrated published an article that was critical about him.

For those of us with a rooting interest in Wiggins, it was a big moment.

Although SI writer Pete Thamel's piece did hold some justification: The hype machine around teenaged basketball players in the U.S. -- like hockey players in Canada -- is often ridiculous, hanging unreal expectations on people yet to from graduate high school. While Thamel's shots at Wiggins' father, one-time NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, reeked of a hatchet job, there was nothing wrong with pointing out the youngster's perceived weaknesses such as a questionable motor.

Wiggins answered the bell in spectacular fashion.

"After that article dropped, I knew I had to respond," Wiggins told FOX Sports Ohio after the game, in which he shot 24 of 28 from the field.

"That was the best way to respond."

Criticism will come with the territory for Wiggins. Unlike LeBron James in high school, Wiggins is not known as a phenomenal passer. Most of his strengths come from his lights-out athleticism, which lends itself to skepticism given the long list of athletic underachievers in basketball.

Yet to answer harsh criticism with 57 points? That's a good indication that he just might share something with the game's greats.

Thamel took some heat for his criticism of the major issues surrounding basketball in Canada over the past decade-plus, but that's the part of his article that was totally on point.

Those of us who have followed this process hold a lot of hope for Wiggins and the current generation of Canadian up-and-comers because we remember names like Theo Davis, the former "can't miss" Canuck whose basketball career derailed after five high schools, three NCAA programs and a CIS stop. His involvement with controversial Canadian AAU coach Ro Russell -- with whom Wiggins was also involved at one point -- was documented by CBC's the fifth estate last year. For every Canadian basketball success story like Tristan Thompson, there are other stories like Davis, Kevin Thomas and Braeden Anderson.

If Leo Rautins can be credited with anything for his time as head coach of Canada's senior men's team, it was fighting the exploitation of young players desperate for U.S. exposure. And writer Thamel is no fly-by-night American hoops reporter throwing rocks at puckhead Canadians. With the New York Times six years ago, he led the investigation that helped shut down notorious diploma mill Lutheran Christian Academy, a Philadelphia "school" that Davis had attended.

'Can he come to your place?'

300-wiggins-121215.jpgTo compare that disaster to Wiggins' situation just because he's Canadian is a big stretch, although it doesn't come without concerns. Wiggins' Huntington Prep is not a storefront business like the grandly named Lutheran Christian Academy was. It is however, a basketball-focused entity started by Wiggins' coach Rob Fulford. The difference, according to Fulford, is that students at Huntington Prep are also students at St. Joseph Central Catholic High School and adhere to academic guidelines set forth by that school.

"I have people call us all the time and say, 'Hey, I have this kid who needs this grade to be eligible. Can he come to your place?'" Fulford told the Huntington Herald Dispatch in January.

"I instantly turn them away and tell them this isn't the place for them because our kids don't get cut any slack. They have to take care of their schoolwork."
Academic criticism, however, has been levelled at Nevada's Findlay Prep, the high school that Thompson, Cory Joseph, Myck Kabongo (due back Wednesday from NCAA suspension) and Anthony Bennett attended. Findlay, like Huntington, is a school within a school -- in Findlay's case, attached to Henderson International School in suburban Las Vegas.

Like it or not, that's the system that exists in the U.S. And while there are many things rotten in American prep basketball and the college recruiting system (it's concurrently worth noting that the junior-hockey system here isn't always squeaky clean), some of the questions about why many young Canadian basketball players feel the need to go south have to come back to Canada itself. It begins with the stark reality that too many organized sports outside of hockey receive little attention or investment in this country. Work-to-rule campaigns by teachers' unions (two in the past two decades in hoops talent-rich Ontario) don't help either.

That said, the system is better than it used to be. Ray Kulig, who coached Orlando Magic forward Andrew Nicholson at Father Michael Goetz Secondary in Mississauga, Ont., told me last month that the infrastructure is better than ever for more Canadian kids to stay at home for high school hoops.

"With social media and Canadian scouting agencies that don't charge kids, they're going to find you," Kulig said.

Yet for better or worse, the reality of being Canadian features the drawing power of the elephant next door. Every situation is different and a talent like Wiggins doesn't come along every year.

As far as his celebrity factor stateside goes (two of Wiggins' games recently aired on ESPN, neither -- unsurprisingly -- picked up in Canada), discussing this with other Canadian basketball people leaves us wishing he was more well known in his home country. After all, there's much irony in the fact that more Canadians probably know who former Toronto Raptors forward Popeye Jones' American son is than know who Wiggins is.

Jay Irving and fellow producer Drew Ebanks headed south to Huntington, W.Va., in December to film a piece on Wiggins and his three Canadian teammates.

"It feels like high school basketball used to be bigger here [in the Toronto area]," Irving told me. "It's a shame more Canadians don't know who Wiggins is."

Their documentary, Huntington Hopefuls, follows the team for three games and gives a taste of the sort of attention they get, with thousands showing up for home and away games -- many across the river in Kentucky, where rabid Wildcats fans want Wiggins wearing blue next season.

"Their No. 1 focus is basketball," Irving said. "They don't have girls chasing them around."
Southern Ontario has an opportunity to see Wiggins and fellow Canadians Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Nevell Provo and Montaque Gill-Ceasar this Sunday, when Huntington plays an exhibition at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

There is no excuse for McMaster's Burridge Gymnasium not to be packed with fans and media.

Follow John Chick on Twitter @roofthatpeach

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