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Northern Uprising: Canada’s NBA takeover

10 Oct | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
Northern Uprising: Canada’s NBA takeover

Led by players like Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray and RJ Barrett, a wave of Canadian basketball talent is making its mark in the NBA. In our exclusive interview, 1994 NBA draft pick Will Njoku discusses the growth of the game in Canada.

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On November 1, 1946, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens played host to the NBA’s inaugural game between the Toronto Huskies and New York Knicks. It was a historic moment for basketball in Canada – the professional game had made its debut in the home province of the sport’s creator, James Naismith, and Huskies guard Hank Biasatti had just become the first Canadian to appear in an NBA game.

However, that moment was short lived. After just one season the Huskies would disband, beginning a long absence of Canadian relevancy in basketball’s top league. It would be nearly 50 years until the NBA expanded back north, with very few Canadians managing to find lasting roster spots. 

As we enter the 2022/23 NBA season, Canadian basketball is riding an all-time high. At the beginning of preseason play there are a record 29 players hailing from the Great White North, compared to just four in 2010. So, how exactly did we get here?

An uphill battle

In 1994, Nova Scotia’s Will Njoku became one of the earliest Canadians to break through the modern NBA draft barrier, going 41st overall to the Indiana Pacers. In this exclusive interview, Njoku reflects on the growth of Canadian basketball, how the path to the NBA from abroad has changed, and what to expect from Canadian superstars this season.

Like most Canadians growing up in the 1980s, basketball was not a sport at the top of Njoku’s mind.

“My youth was spent playing baseball and ball hockey, mostly because there were no hoops in my neighbourhood. Can you imagine that these days?” says Njoku, noting the half-dozen hoops now close to his home.

“At 13, I started playing basketball,” he explains. “By the time I was 17, thanks to some great coaching, I was captain of Canada’s Junior National Team.”

After graduating high school, Njoku opted to stay close to home, attending Saint Mary’s University in Halifax where he would rack up numerous awards, including the Mike Mosher Award as top university player in Canada. He continued representing Canada in international competition, where his play began to earn recognition from NBA scouts.

“I never really thought of the NBA as viable until I had a workout with the Phoenix Suns in 1994,” says Njoku. “I had a fantastic workout, and it started to click for me that this could really be a thing. Even then, I thought it was a long shot.”

A video of that workout, in the age of VHS cassette tapes, was shipped around the league. Njoku’s stock continued to rise leading into the draft and, to the surprise of both him and his agent, the Indiana Pacers selected him with the 41st overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft.

Njoku faced an uphill battle in making a Pacers team that had been stocking talent to challenge Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and ultimately was cut ahead of the regular season.

“Not making a regular season roster was disappointing, but not surprising,” he says. “After that I went to pursue opportunities in Europe – France, Turkey, Germany – just trying to get as many contracts and jobs as possible.” Njoku also remained a member of the Canadian National Team during this time.

Over the next decade, only four other Canadians would hear their name called on draft night—the same number as were drafted this year alone.

Development, discovery, opportunity

A lot has changed over the last 30 years, not just in basketball, but in the world. Njoku believes the ways in which we now communicate and connect have created new opportunities for young Canadian players seeking professional opportunities.

“There’s just so many people talking about it now, so many platforms where people can discover you,” says Njoku. “Back then, if you didn’t have a tape circulating or the connections to get your name out there, you wouldn’t have been known.

“Now, if you’re 12 to 14 years old and you’ve got potential, you’re going to be discovered somehow. With these bigger platforms like social and digital media to showcase yourself, it’s easier.”

“I also think the talent has grown tremendously, because there are so many more kids playing now and so many more resources available to help them become better players and athletes. More people playing with more skill means better competition, and more competition only continues to push the game forward.”

While better development and the ability to be discovered have helped create a path for young Canadian hoopers, it still falls on them to seize that opportunity and prove to the NBA that they belong.

“I felt like this wave of Canadian NBA talent would come, but I didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did,” Njoku admits.

“I think it took a few players to prove themselves and then the hesitation from NBA teams stopped, they started saying ‘I’m going to take player X from Canada because they can play’. The number started to grow, and those players have continuously showed out in the NBA.

“At one point France had the second-most NBA players in the world but now we do – and I can’t see anyone catching us. It won’t be long until we don’t even think about the fact that we have Canadians in the NBA, they’re just going to be players.”

Canadians on the rise

There will be no shortage of exciting players to watch for Canadian NBA fans as the 2022 season tips off. Last year, Andrew Wiggins became just the eighth Canadian to win an NBA championship, and his Golden State Warriors seem poised to repeat.

“Andrew Wiggins in the Finals last year, with both his offense and his defense, really showed the world why he’s an All-Star. I love watching him play in that Warriors system,” says Njoku. “It would not surprise me at all if Golden State repeated.”

While Wiggins looks to remain atop the mountain, another Canadian star is just beginning his NBA journey. This summer, the Indiana Pacers selected Montreal native Bennedict Mathurin with the sixth overall pick.

“Mathurin is walking into a situation in Indiana where they’re doing a complete rebuild, so he has a great opportunity,” says Njoku. “He’s in that NBA All-Rookie conversation, maybe a longshot for Rookie of the Year, but has an incredible chance to prove himself.”

In Denver, Jamal Murray is set to return after an ACL tear in April 2021. Murray last played in the NBA’s playoff bubble, where he averaged an impressive 26.5 points and 6.6 assists per game.

Just a matter of time

With all this established talent, and more entering the league each year, it’s only a matter of time before it begins to reflect on Canada’s standing in international competition. The Canadian Men’s National team currently ranks 15th in the world and has failed to qualify for Olympic competition since 2000 in Sydney.

“I’m hoping these guys continue to show up for the national team, and people like Rowan Barrett and Steve Nash keep pushing the idea of how much pride there is in being a part of this rise of Canada basketball. It’s just a matter of time until we’re top two or three in the world,” Njoku says.

Canadian basketball has come a long way in a short amount of time, and the momentum doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. As the game continues to grow in every corner of the world, Canada is quickly solidifying itself as a basketball powerhouse.

As the level of Canadian NBA talent continues to grow year after year, one can only assume this is just the beginning.