Canadian prep schools offer new path to NBA

Not long ago, you had to leave Canada to get noticed on the basketball court. But players like Jamal Murray are showing the path to the NBA doesn't have to immediately lead south of the border.

Nuggets' Murray eschewed traditional U.S. pipeline to pros

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, left, is defended by Golden State Warriors guard Phil Pressey during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Denver. The Warriors won 129-128 in overtime. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Not long ago, you had to leave Canada as soon as possible to get noticed on the basketball court. Not anymore.

Look no further than the most recent NBA draft. Two prospects who played their high school ball north of the border — Jamal Murray, who's Canadian, and Thon Maker, a Sudanese-born Australian — were among the top 10 picks. 

Both played for Orangeville Prep — one of two elite programs housed at the Athlete Institute Basketball Academy facility outside Toronto (the other team is called Athlete Institute Prep).

Part of a growing network of prep schools that are giving Canada's best high school basketball players a reason to stay home, the Athlete Institute offers many of the trappings of a top American collegiate team, including a full basketball training and development staff, dorms and catered meals. Players attend nearby Orangeville District Secondary School.

Most importantly, talented players get the chance to play against the kind of top-level competition they could once find only south of the border. Orangeville plays against other prep schools in the province in the 11-team Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, and travels to tournaments in the U.S.

When Murray and Maker were drafted last June — by Denver and Milwaukee, respectively — it showed that Canadian schools could provide a path to the NBA.

"It was huge for Canadian basketball. It opened up people's eyes and showed that we can offer training and development that is unrivalled elsewhere," says the Athlete Institute's Mark Peterson. "This is one of the top facilities in Canada, if not North America. People are blown away when they come here."

More talent staying

Murray is the program's gold standard. He dazzled as a freshman at the powerful University of Kentucky, averaging 20 points per game to cement himself as an NBA lottery pick.

"We still have a locker for him here, he still comes back to work out and it's great for kids to see him come through and know if they work the way he did, what they can accomplish," says Peterson.

It doesn't mean Canada is able to keep all of its emerging stars at home. R.J. Barrett, the son of Canada Basketball assistant GM Rowan Barrett, plays at Montverde Academy in Florida. Many websites that track basketball prospects have him pegged as the top college recruit in North America for the high school class of 2019.

But more are staying. Justin Jackson, who recently committed to the University of Maryland, is finishing his high school career at The Hill Academy in Ontario after spending a year at Findlay Prep — the Nevada school that produced current Canadian NBA players Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Anthony Bennett. 

Oshae Brissett, regarded by many as Canada's top 2017 recruit, also left Findlay Prep and is completing his high school career with Athlete Institute Prep. He has reportedly drawn offers from several top U.S. college programs.

U.S. coaches take notice

Soon, top recruiters may have even more reason to look north. A second 11-team prep league is set to launch, this one featuring teams from across the country.

The explosion of this type of elite-level competition in Canada has emerged very quickly, says Tariq Sbiet, who writes for the website North Pole Hoops.

"You had guys like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph who are now in the NBA that had to go to the States to compete against the best," he says. "We always talked about, imagine if all those kids stayed in Canada, what kind of basketball would we have and what kind of culture could we build?"

Rowan Barrett says that culture has improved a lot since his days as a high school star in Toronto in the early 1990s.

"You used to have a hard game every seven or eight times out. Now you're challenged every night you go out to play," says the Canada Basketball assistant GM, who attended St John's University in New York and played professionally overseas for a decade. "That makes players improve. It's something hockey has benefited from for many years."

Coaches south of the border have taken notice. Heading into the 2016 season, more than 100 Canadians are on NCAA Division I men's teams.

"Five, seven years ago, they didn't care as much about Canadian basketball," Sbiet says. "But because players have had success at the NBA level they want to know who is the next Jamal Murray, who is the next Tristan Thompson."

This bodes well for Canada's goal of winning a medal in men's basketball at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where Murray could be among the youngsters playing key roles.

"The reputation that Canada is developing internationally, it's very exciting for me as somebody who has been around a long time," says Canada Basketball CEO Michele O'Keefe. "I think what we're seeing is the result of years of alignment with our coaches, our grassroots partners, our provincial partners, the investment we've made in coaching education.

"It's all starting to pay off."