NEW YORK -- There is no great lineage of Canadian point guards. There was nothing, there was Steve Nash and then there was a drought. You're forgiven if you can't name the Canadian senior national team's current No. 1 point guard. It's Jermaine Anderson, a former combo guard from Fordham who's grown into a solid point in Germany and Croatia. Or the last Canadian point guard to go deep in an NCAA tournament: That was Collin Charles, with St. John's in 1999. "You'd think that with having Steve from here, we'd have a ton of great point guards," national team coach Leo Rautins said. "But we don't."
Or at least don't yet. The best player in each of Canada's 2010, '11 and '12 recruiting classes is a point guard, meaning that Rautins, who's made it a national-program priority to develop talent at that position, has legitimate NBA prospects on the horizon. The first is currently the center of attention of the American recruiting scene: Pickering, Ontario's Cory Joseph, who started for the victorious West team in last Saturday's Jordan Brand Classic, scoring 14 points and dishing out seven assists. Josh Selby's mid-game commitment to Kansas made Joseph, whom Rivals.com rates as the No. 7 overall recruit in the 2010 class, the best undecided player left on the board.
Joseph, a 6-foot-2, sweet-shooting point guard with an NBA future, has played the past two seasons at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev. He'll soon make a decision between Minnesota (where his brother, Devoe, who was recruited as a shooting guard, ran the point late last season), UNLV, Villanova, UConn and Texas. If Joseph were to choose the Longhorns, who desperately need a point guard, he'd join Canada's best big-man prospect in years, 6-9 Tristan Thompson, in their freshman class -- and potentially still be there when Canada's best prospect from the Class of 2011, Myck Kabongo, arrives.
Kabongo, a 6-2, five-star recruit, is considered the next elite Canadian point after Joseph, and currently plays for St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J. The trend has been for Canada's best talent to relocate to the states to develop -- Joseph, Kabongo and the country's best 2009 point guard, Junior Cadougan, who missed most of his freshman season at Marquette after rupturing an Achilles, followed that route. But the prospect who's actually been given the "best since Nash" label is still at a normal secondary school in Canada: Holland Landing, Ontario's Kevin Pangos, arguably the country's top 2012 recruit.
Pangos ran the point for one of the teams in the Jordan Brand International Game, which preceded the main All-Star game at Madison Square Garden and wasn't televised. His coach there was former Arizona guard (and assistant coach) Miles Simon, who, after Pangos beat him in a post-practice game of one-on-one last week, gave the following scouting report: "He's smart, deceptively quick, is a great shooter, and can finish with both hands -- an excellent player."
Simon said the talk about Nash was both natural and -- understandably -- unfair for a kid who's just 17. Mark Bayne, an Ontario-based Nike basketball rep who helped select Canadians for the Jordan game, said the Nash comparison is there, in part, because it's easy. "He's around the same height as Nash, same weight, can push the ball, has great court vision, is a pure point guard," Bayne said, "so that's what people in Canada are going to say."
Pangos is also the lone white player of the bunch, which undoubtedly makes the label even more inevitable. He also "studied Nash a lot" when he was younger, owns a Nash jersey, has a Nash poster in his bedroom, got his picture taken with Nash at a Raptors-Suns game this season, used to wear No. 13, has a sister (Kayla) who wears No. 13 as a point guard at Toronto's York University, and modeled the early parts of his point-guard game -- including the jump shot -- after Nash. So the comparison isn't off-base, either. It seems to have originated when Ken Murray, the coach of Ontario's Brock University gave the following quote to the Hamilton Spectator, in January:
"I think Kevin is the best point guard we've seen in Canada since Steve Nash. He's a very intelligent player who does a great job running the point. But he can also score. He basically has a complete game right now. He's a treat to watch. ... He's so good now, how much better is he going to get? He's just lacking a little physical strength, which should come in the next few years. I think he'll be a major Division I player."
It was repeated during one of Pangos' games that was on TSN (Canada's version of ESPN), and, Kevin said, "It has really blown up since." His father, Bill, who's been the women's basketball coach at York University for 24 seasons, says it's an honor for Kevin to be mentioned in the same breath as Nash, who's viewed as the ultimate facilitator of team basketball in the NBA. "But the comparison probably isn't fair to Steve Nash or Kevin, because there's only one Steve Nash, and it's a lot for any kid to try to meet that standard," Bill said. "Ultimately, Kevin is trying to be who he can be, with his skills, and get his own identity."
To that end, there's plenty about Pangos that isn't Nash-like: Whereas Nash grew up in a soccer-dominated family near Vancouver, Pangos has been raised outside of Toronto in a basketball culture. Bill, who also coaches Kevin's club team, the York North Basketball Avengers, was a combo guard in college at the University of Toronto; and Kevin's mother, Patty, who's now a physical education teacher at Dr. Denison, played small forward at McMaster University. In Bill's office, there's a photo of Kevin holding a basketball at a York game when he was just two years old.
Pangos no longer shoots exactly like Nash (from the side), either, nor does he wear No. 13 with any regularity (he was No. 6 in the Jordan Game, and No. 4 on his provincial team). And he's far more exposed, as a recruit, than Nash ever was: A major part of the Nash legend is that he wasn't actively pursued by U.S. colleges, with Santa Clara being the only school that bit on the game footage that his high school coach sent out in hopes of luring scholarship offers. Pangos is already being chased by Syracuse (Rautins' alma mater), Gonzaga (whose roster is stocked with Canadians), Michigan and Cincinnati, in addition to Santa Clara. Because Canadian players often reclassify class years when jumping to the U.S. educational system, he'll be faced with the decision of either doing one prep-school season in the U.S., which would put him in the Class of 2012, or jumping straight to college after his senior year at Dr. Denison, which would put him in the Class of 2011.
Prior to being picked for the Jordan game, he generated substantial buzz by winning MVP honors for the Canadian club team that won the Victor Rho Milan International Tournament in Italy last May, starring for Canada's Cadet national team last summer and then making a trip back to Italy for an exhibition tour with the senior team that August -- despite being just 16 at the time.
Pangos isn't a permanent member of the squad yet; Rautins just wanted him to experience what life was like at the senior level. But during a blowout loss to the Italians, Pangos did become the youngest player ever to appear in a game for the Canadian national team. The previous record-holder was none other than Rautins, who was also on Canada's senior roster at 16, and was the first Canadian ever to be taken in the first round of the NBA draft.
"I had to think about putting him in," Rautins said. "Because that was my title, and I had to decide, 'Do I want to give this up?' "
Pangos subbed into the game with four minutes left against Italy, taking a memorable shot over a former No. 1 overall pick of the Raptors. "I shot it in Andrea Bargnani's face, and missed," he said. "But I got in one more game, against New Zealand, when we were up by 20, and made a three. It was wide-open, but still -- I was excited, and the team was great about it, cheering me on."
As the youngest member of that Canadian squad, by far, Pangos had players assigned to babysit him (Rautins told them, "If you lose this kid, you're done"), and endured some good-natured rookie hazing. He was forced to wear a Hello Kitty backpack around during the tour, and teammates heckled him mercilessly for the way he was received by the Italian locals. "All of these little girls there figured out that we had this young stud on the team," Rautins said, "so every time we walked into the gym, he's posing for pictures with five or six girls. Guys were busting his chops hard for that."
Yet another way, it seems, in which the "best since Nash" label can be a blessing and a curse.