How the Toronto Raptors helped spark a hoops factory

With Brampton, Ont., native Anthony Bennett making history by becoming the first Canadian No. 1 NBA draft pick and predictions that Thornhill, Ont.-born Andrew Wiggins could follow suit next year, the Greater Toronto Area seems to be building a reputation as a hoops factory for budding basketball stars.

Greater Toronto Area producing a plethora of basketball talent

UNLV's Anthony Bennett celebrates after being selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the NBA basketball draft. (Jason DeCrow/Associated Press)

With Brampton, Ont., native Anthony Bennett making history by becoming the first Canadian No.1 NBA draft pick and with predictions that Thornhill, Ont.-born Andrew Wiggins could follow suit next year, the Greater Toronto Area seems to be building a reputation as a hoops factory for budding basketball stars.

And there could be more to come. Myck Kabongo, Kevin Pangos, Tyler Ennis and Dwight Powell are just some of the talented Toronto-area players considered to have bright futures in the league.

"You can keep going," said Leo Rautins, a television analyst for the Toronto Raptors and the former head coach for the Canadian national men's basketball team. "Right now I don’t see this stopping. I think this is a cycle that's going to continue and only get better.

"You're going to consistently see Canadians at a very high level, Canadians making it to the NBA."

Over the last eight or nine years, Basketball Canada has concentrated its efforts to grow the game and offer more opportunities for development, Rautins said. But the explosion of talent may have much to do with the NBA establishing a team in Canada in 1995. 

"I think the simple answer is all these kids now grew up with the NBA," Rautins said. "The NBA came in '95 and since that point everyone of these kids have seen it, tasted it, felt it. And as a result, it's been laid out for them as far as a path and a potential opportunity. And I think we're seeing the benefit to that."

Toronto and the surrounding areas, with its large population pool and the ability to offer more opportunity and more competition, would obviously have an advantage to cultivate new talent.

And with the establishment of the Toronto Raptors in 1995, Toronto-area kids had a greater source of inspiration.

"What it did was it had players looking and seeing themselves on the court," Rowan Barrett, the executive vice-president at Basketball Canada, told CBC News. "If you're a six-foot-five kid and you're in Grade 7, you're the biggest, tallest person in the building. It's maybe hard to relate, hard to understand where I fit in.

"And being able to watch these athletes 6-7", 6-8", running up and down the court, all of a sudden there was a vision for those [kids]. 'This is what I can do with this ability.' And what that did, it sparked the club environment. Just an explosion there."

Instead of kids starting to play at the age of 13 or 14, now they began at the age of six and seven, much like in hockey, Barrett said.

But having a superstar like Vince Carter join the roster drew more kids to the basketball court. Bennett himself said Carter's legendary performance at the Slam Dunk contest in 2000 and his role as a Raptor, inspired him to play.

"I definitely think a big part of it is that," said Dwayne Lubin, who coaches the local Toronto Fire basketball team. "I think when the Raptors first came, you just had your major fans. And I think Vince excited the younger group, the younger generation. He was the biggest star in basketball at that time."

This has led to a huge spike in the participation of kids and a big boom in basketball training programs, he said.

Another mini-explosion of basketball interest was sparked when Brampton, Ont.-native Tristan Thompson went fourth and Pickering, Ont.-native Cory Joseph went 29th in the first round draft of 2011.

"There was such a huge growth after Tristan and Cory. Once those guys made it through, kids got to see them on TV and being drafted. Almost the next day, parents were trying to get their kids into the gym as much as they could."