It’s decision time yet again in the NBA.
With next weekend’s all-star festivities signaling that the 2010–11 season has entered its stretch run, and with the trade deadline only a week away, general managers the league over will be sizing up—and tinkering with—their rosters, weighing the likelihood of a meaningful playoff run against other considerations, like expiring player contracts and the eventual draft lottery.
For the Raptors, the playoffs are all but a mathematical impossibility, and the team is already thinking about the future.
Possessors of the NBA’s fourth-worst record at 15–40, the Raps are poised to have their highest draft pick since their regrettable selection of Andrea Bargnani, first overall from what was an admittedly weak pool in 2006. But some optimistic basketball fans in Toronto have begun looking just a little further down the road, to a future in which the Raptors’ GM may well have the option of favouring a homegrown player on draft day.
Nobody was surprised by last Thursday’s announcement that point guard Myck Kabongo and centre Khem Birch—of Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada and Notre Dame Prep in Towson, Maryland, respectively—have both been invited to play in the McDonald’s All American game.
Sure, it’s the most prestigious high school basketball game around and has, historically, been as good an indicator of future NBA success as exists (past invitees include Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, just to name a few), but Kabongo and Birch are undoubtedly among the most highly regarded prospects in this year’s crop of American high school grads.
The term All American, however, is increasingly a misnomer: Kabongo was born and raised in Toronto; Birch, in Montreal.
Myck Kabongo. Photo by Chamber of Fear.
These two are part of a larger group of Canadian teenagers who have generated an unprecedented level of interest from American basketball programs at both the high school and college levels. They are by no means celebrities (yet), but the growing anticipation of the great things they might accomplish in international amateur competition and as professionals is unmistakable. And whatever this may mean for the Raptors and the NBA, the implications for Team Canada are obvious and exciting.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a groundswell,” says Rowan Barrett, the director of youth player development for Canada Basketball, the non-profit governing body for amateur basketball in this country. “You definitely have to think that the upside for these players is tremendous.”
And Barrett should know what he’s talking about. He watched Canada’s best talent come through the system for the duration of his own seventeen-year career playing for our senior men’s teams, and yet even he has never seen so many players, so big and so skilled, so early.
Just last year, for instance, it was the formidable duo of Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson, a point guard from Pickering and a power forward from Brampton, respectively, who found themselves named McDonald’s All Americans.
Almost one year later, both Joseph and Thompson are still proving their calibre, starting, and starring (as freshmen, no less), for the NCAA powerhouse University of Texas Longhorns.
And there are many, many more, in schools across Canada and, more often, the U.S.—the scouting and poaching of Canadian talent by American high schools having become common practice.
Kevin Pangos, from Holland Landing, Ontario, thus far apparently unencumbered by the pressures associated with the nickname “Steve Nash 2.0”, bucked the trend by electing to play out his high school career at Dr. J.M. Denison in Newmarket. Come September, however, he’ll be suiting up for the Gonzaga University Bulldogs, where, incredibly, there are already three Canadians on the team.
Of course, these prospects are all teenagers and consequently quite green. And, by definition, gaining experience takes time. “They’re still gonna be pups and they’re still gonna have to learn,” Barrett says when he considers where these players will be five years from now, when Rio de Janeiro will play host to the Summer Olympics.
Team Canada’s youngsters will be easy prey at times to older, wilier teams like Argentina and Spain, both of which were, like Canada, non-factors in international competition until they experienced their own explosions of young talent.
Pinpointing exactly why we’re seeing this abundance of excelling youth here and now is not an easy task, but if Torontonians are finding themselves hard pressed for reasons to feel gratitude towards the Raptors these days, Barrett points out that the existence of a team in Toronto—and, once upon a time, in Vancouver—has helped provide Canadian kids with local role models, from Vince Carter to DeMar DeRozan.
“In ’94, the NBA came here. You’re looking at sixteen, seventeen years ago, and that’s the age of the kids, now, that we’re talking about,” Barrett points out.
Having the professional game played right under our noses has also helped coaches recognize and nurture talent at an early age, even as some kids work through initial struggles related to growing into their lanky athlete bodies.
“We’ve come to understand, truly, what a basketball player looks like,” Barrett says. “I can remember growing up as a child running track and field, and I got taller and taller and taller and started stretching out. I remember looking around and thinking to myself, ‘Maybe I’m not going to be (running track) now, but I can run and jump. Well, Michael Jordan, I look a lot like him! … Maybe I’ll try that sport.’”
What, then, will be the implications of this phenomenon for the Raptors? Perhaps nothing immediate. It is, however, possible that an uptick in the number of Canadians on NBA rosters will make historically reticent free agents more amenable to the idea of playing here.
While a long history of ineptitude is undoubtedly part of the reason some players are not eager to bring their careers to Toronto—the Raptors are rarely above .500 and have won exactly one playoff series in fifteen years of existence—there are other factors at work. You could call the Raptors stigmatized, or even cursed, when it comes to attracting top talent.
Blaming high taxes, cold winters, and, most recently and curiously, poor cable TV packages, NBAers from Kenny Anderson to Tracy McGrady to Alonzo Mourning to Chris Bosh have, immediately or eventually, said no to playing in Toronto.
Surely, no such problems would exist with Kabongo and company. And considering that it seems as though the directionless Raptors will likely be making their first pick near the beginning of the NBA draft for the foreseeable future, all of a sudden the idea of a homegrown player as the next face of the franchise starts to seem plausible.
A whole host of variables—contractual obligations, future draft class strength, and the specific needs of specific teams—will keep us from getting our hopes too high for the Raptors just yet. But we’ll go out on a limb and say that this city’s basketball fans, justifiably frustrated by long seasons spent cheering for losing teams, can at least look forward to a future in which watching our senior men’s team will engender pride where once there was only cynicism.
For now, however, let our watchword be patience.