When Anthony Bennett’s name was surprisingly called first at the NBA draft in June, the glass ceiling for young Canadian basketball talent was shattered like the backboard on a vintage Shaquille O'Neal dunk.
Bennett and top 2014 draft prospect Andrew Wiggins, both from the Toronto area, have drawn more attention to pre-NBA players from north of the border than anyone before them. Forget the young ballers of this decade being the best Canadian players of their generation, they could be among the best in the world.
Tony McIntrye, co-founder of the fruitful CIA Bounce program that has had a hand in developing several young Canadian basketball players, including Wiggins and Bennett, predicted this spike years earlier when he saw a young Bennett developing his raw skills.
"There was no surprise," says McIntyre, who was in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the draft. "I told my wife that he was going to go No. 1. There was no better player than him in the draft."
The talent of the University of Kansas-bound Wiggins was apparent to McIntyre in 2011 at the ESPN Rise Games showcase.
"He totally took over the game. We knew this guy was definitely the best player in the world."
McIntyre will likely be in attendance when Wiggins's name is called at next year's NBA draft, and as his Brampton, Ont.-based program continues to lead the growth of Canadian basketball’s talent pool, he hopes to make appearances on draft days for years to come.
McIntyre started his program about eight years ago, when it was just called Bounce. After constantly meeting another Canadian-based Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program in the finals of tournaments in the U.S. and the Greater Toronto Area, McIntyre got together with CIA boss Mike George to merge their programs. Since then they have had little competition north of the border.
The CIA Bounce program offers players as young as 12 a mix of development, mentorship and the promise of playing with the best in North America. Its teams include players from Montreal as well as Ontario centres Hamilton, Windsor, Ottawa, London, Kitchener and all over Toronto and the GTA. Some are ranked among the best in North America.
Nike sponsors 40 of the most elite AAU basketball programs across the continent. Thirty-nine of them are based in the U.S. CIA Bounce is the lone outlier.
Along with Bennett and Wiggins, CIA Bounce has played a role in the development of Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers, selected fourth overall in the 2012 draft (Thompson also trained with Grassroots Canada, run by the controversial Ro Russell), Melvin Ejim of Iowa state, and Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State), who are both ranked in the top 50 of their draft class. They could be selected alongside Wiggins next year.
"Probably four or five years ago you might have went on the AAU circuit in the States and Canadians were … not taken seriously," says Tariq Sbiet, the CEO of scouting and recruiting company North Pole Hoops who was attending the Caribana Classic in Brampton, Ont., late last month to get a look at some of CIA Bounce's talent. "Now I’m talking to scouts and coaches and it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s Canadian?’ Now all of a sudden being a Canadian prospect is added value.
"The high school classes of 2017 and 2018, '19, '20 [are] only going to get better, that’s the crazy thing."
CIA Bounce isn’t the only catalyst for this growth, but it’s clearly providing the framework for a successful program. And while its leaders revel in the success of Bennett, they don’t want their program defined by one player.
"Bennett was an extremely special player, but really he just went through the program and went about his business," says McIntyre. "We want these kids to see that and follow that, and feed each other."
The result is a group that harnesses the talent of their American counterparts, but with a heightened sense of modesty, according to some.
"[NCAA coaches] see these kids are humble," says Sbiet. "They’re not like the American kids, where they’ve got a lot of swagger, and they feel like they’ve already arrived. They know they still have a lot of work to do."
The next crop
That humbleness is expressed in the games of CIA Bounce’s next potential crop of U.S. Division I college recruits, including Chris Egi, Montaque Gill-Caser and Jamal Murray.
At the Caribana Classic, the 16-year-old Murray, from Kitchener, Ont., displays a maturity on and off the court that’s well beyond his years. He takes jump shots during warm-ups while others dunk to show off their hops. He hustles on defence, at one point stealing a pass and running the floor to finish with a slam.
"I’m training every day," says Murray, "I study everybody. Derrick Rose’s layups, LeBron James’s takeoffs and dunks. Everything and everybody, take a little piece from each one and try to put it all together."
Egi, a 16-year-old who stands 6-foot-8, is a kid in a man’s body. During one of his games he takes two strides across the key and throws down a thunderous dunk, drawing the foul. As the entire gym’s focus is drawn to him — spectators grimacing and jumping up — Egi walks to the line silently and sinks his free throw.
Egi, from Markham, Ont., attended St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., but is headed to Montverde Academy in Florida next year to finish high school.
"I just wanted to play more high-level competition so I could make the transition to college," Egi says.
This is something CIA Bounce, and most of Canada, can’t offer. AAU programs play an integral role in a player’s development, but it’s U.S. prep schools like Montverde and West Virginia’s Huntington prep (which Wiggins, Rathan-Mayes and Gill-Caesar attended) that are able to provide constant training, mentorship and competition.
"We do [encourage players to stay in Canada] but it depends on what the individual needs," McIntyre says, "If he needs to continue to develop at a high rate and go up to a level where they’re facing [top] competition day in and day out, sometimes they need to leave here."
He’s hoping he can change that in the near future, with a plan to assemble an Ontario prep school that will compete with U.S. teams.
"I honestly believe that within the next three years we could be top-three in North America. We want to bring some of these kids back."
CIA Bounce is likely the only program that can make it happen. It not only houses the best players in Canada, but also encourages academic performance, a feature recruiters weigh in their rankings. This year the program is implementing a study hall run by CIA Bounce volunteers that work as teachers.
That volunteerism, which includes McIntrye, has boosted the program’s reputation, and the mantra of hard work and selflessness over personal gain is ubiquitous.
"These kids that go off to college from our program, they’re accessible," McIntrye says. "They’re willing to come back in the gym, they want to make sure these kids have what they need to get better. Then they can turn on the TV and watch these same guys that have been helping."
For McIntryre, that’s the most important ingredient to CIA Bounce’s success: putting everyone in the same room. The 12-year-olds play with the guys coming back from prep schools, who in turn get to speak to guys who have played in college and the NBA. The better the players are at the top, the better they will be at the bottom.
"To see where the talent level [has come] … is just remarkable," says Florida International University coach Marco Murcos. "For me to be up here [from Miami] would give you an idea of how far the talent’s travelled."
Over the past 10 years, according to Murcos, the development of Canadian players is unparalleled in comparison to any geographic area in the U.S.
"This is really the next biggest [area that's sending players] to college."
Even with all the NBA aspirations and scouting reports, the program says getting players into good schools is the priority. These hard-training, genetically gifted basketball players are ultimately just kids.
And while there’s a heavy inclination toward pushing them, Canadian programs appear to understand that a safe distance is necessary for a player’s development.
"In the States they’re tracking players from like the fifth grade," says Sbiet. "Too much exposure can go either way. It can either motivate them or hurt them by getting to their heads."
For McIntryre it’s the other way around.
"Sometimes they push us harder than we push them," he says, "We’ve got kids in Grade 7 who want to play with the Grade 9s and 10s."
Other than offering someone to talk to, there’s little a coach can do to force teenagers as motivated as these to take their hands off the throttle, especially when they hear destiny calling in the form of their CIA Bounce peers.
"I welcome the pressure," says Egi. "Because that’s the only way you can get to be the best, and that’s where I want to be. I want to be the best."