Elite basketball academy tries to keep up with Canada's expanding talent pool
Athlete Institute in Orangeville, Ont., wants to ensure talented high school players can train close to home
The NBA returns to where it started this weekend: Canada, a country that has never been richer in basketball talent and potential.
Basketball's top league played its first game in Toronto 125 years ago, an anniversary that will be marked this Sunday by the NBA's first All-Star Game to be held outside the United States. It comes in a season that has seen more Canadians in the league than ever.
We are, as a country, producing more talent than ever.- Eric Koreen, basketball journalist
There were a dozen Canadian players wearing NBA uniforms when the season opened, and the future looks bright.
"We are, as a country, producing more talent than ever," said Eric Koreen, a Toronto-based journalist who covers the sport closely.
The basketball world has noticed. In both 2013 and 2014, a Canadian player was selected first overall in the annual NBA draft. And that, Koreen says, is just a hint of basketball's growth in Canada.
"Beyond that, there is a deep, deep talent pool of elite players who have the chance to join that 450-person club that is the NBA," he said.
The Carter effect
It is partly what can be called the Raptors effect. A generation of kids watched the Toronto team's first star, Vince Carter, soar to greatness.
They watched the Florida-born Carter, nicknamed "Air Canada," lead the struggling team into the playoffs 16 years ago and then took up the game themselves. The growing interest in the sport led to more competition, better coaching and better players.
"The kids just keep on coming," said Koreen. "It's just amazing."
There are likely many more to come.
On a gleaming basketball court north of Toronto, two groups of tall high school students clad in red and white are competing in a series of highly competitive drills at the Athlete Institute in the town of Orangeville.
Everything you need is here. It feels like home.- Cole Long, 18, Athlete Institute basketball player
It is defence against offence, and the stakes are high: the losing team will have to run laps. Long term, however, there is much more on the line for every single player.
"I'm here to have success with basketball," said Cole Long. "To try to go professional."
The six-foot-seven-inch, 206-pound 18-year-old has a relaxed grin on his face, but the native of St. John's has come a long way to get the specialized training available in Orangeville. Like many of the players who attend the private institute, he has already been offered a scholarship to a U.S. college and hopes that by sharpening his skills now, he will have a shot at going farther in the future.
"Everything you need is here," says Long of the facility. "It feels like home."
A chance to play close to home
The Athlete Institute is a temporary home for young players from all over Canada and is emerging as a factory of sorts for Canadian basketball players. The program was started by the Tippings, a local wealthy family that also owns the Orangeville A's, a professional basketball team formerly known as the Brampton A's that now practices at the institute.
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The institute is designed to keep Canadian teenagers in their own country in their formative years. It's an option for talented prospects who may be reluctant to move to U.S. prep schools, where young, ambitious Canadian athletes have traditionally fled in search of high-level competition and attention from college scouts.
The institute's first team began playing in 2012, and the program hasn't stopped expanding. A new dormitory is being built on the property to go along with the professional-level workout facility, fully staffed with coaches and trainers.
"We are really developing elite talent in Canada," said Tony McIntyre, the institute's director of basketball operations. "What we are trying to do is give a kids a chance to stay here and play rather than go to the U.S."
Two dozen players attend the local public high school and are bussed over the to facility after classes for workouts and coaching five days a week. The institute's two teams play games against other high schools and prep schools in Canada and the U.S., traveling as far as California.
The institute is expecting to hit a milestone this year when the sensational point guard Jamal Murray of Kitchener, Ont., enters the NBA draft. Murray, an institute alumnus who graduated last year, is currently playing college basketball for the University of Kentucky Wildcats and would be the first graduate of the program to be drafted.
U.S. scouts are watching
The Orangeville program is already on the radar south of the border. U.S. college coaches drop by regularly to check on players.
"It's pretty common," said Coach Larry Blunt. "We get no less than 50 to 100 coaches every year to come to watch practices and watch games."
Those practices run at a furious pace, punctuated by frequent sharp whistles. Blunt stops the play often to discuss mistakes and order up new strategies, his precise instructions softened somewhat by his Virginia drawl.
When asked how many of the dozen players on the floor at the moment will make the NBA, Blunt smiles.
"Hopefully, all of them," he says. "There's a really good mix. Hopefully, we can have 12."
Kalif Young, driving for the net, hopes to make it to the top of the basketball world. The charismatic 6'9" power forward is already turning heads because of his strength and touch. He turned to the Athlete Institute to polish his game while collecting scholarship offers.
"I can stay close to home," says Young, who is from Vaughan, Ont. "Still get some of Mom's home cooking."
Young says he is grateful for the chance to hone his skills in Canada, where he can spend at least some time with his family.
"No better place for basketball right now," he said.
Not all the players come from Canada. Currently, there are two are form Australia, one from England and several from the U.S.
But all seem to practice Canadian politeness, even in the middle of an intense workout.
An errant ball rolls toward a photographer, who is oblivious, trying to shoot the action on the court. The ball bounces gently off his leg.
Before he can react, a player hustles over to fetch it. "Sorry, sir," he says, and sprints away.