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Canada expands influence in NBA -- with more talent on the way

Photo: David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Cavaliers forward Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, grew up in Toronto.

The Cleveland Cavaliers' selection of UNLV's Anthony Bennett with the first pick in last month's draft highlights a growing trend of Canadians entering the NBA. Seven have been drafted in the last three years, including first-round picks Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph (2011), Andrew Nicholson (2012) and Kelly Olynyk (2013), and second-round picks Kris Joseph (2012) and Robert Sacre (2012).

The trend is set to continue next year as the best high school recruit in the country, Toronto native Andrew Wiggins, is widely expected to declare for the draft after one season at Kansas. Other Canadians, such as Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos and Michigan's Nik Stauskas, will follow suit in the coming years.

And it won't stop there. Since the establishment of NBA franchises in Toronto and Vancouver in 1995, Canadian youths have shown an unprecedented interest in the game. The Grizzlies moved to Memphis in 2001, but the franchise's six years in Vancouver helped spark a surge in enthusiasm.

"Canadian kids are now growing up rooting for a home team," said Rowan Barrett, Canada Basketball's assistant general manager and executive vice president. "Having the Raptors and, for a time, the Grizzlies in Canada gave kids a reason to watch the NBA. It's inspired them to go out and pick up a basketball."

The roots of the phenomenon date to 1976, when the Canadian government opened its doors to non-European immigrants. Since then, Canada has seen a steady flow of immigration from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Immigrants settled primarily in urban centers, like Toronto and Vancouver, in order to find jobs and cheap housing. With little money and a lack of a cultural connection, subsequent generations were attracted to sports other than hockey -- most notably basketball, which thrives in urban environments.

The influx of newcomers interested in basketball and the country's connection to its two NBA franchises dovetailed to create a generation enthralled by the game. According to a 2010 study by the Canadian government, the participation rate for basketball has risen 9.2 percent among athletes age 15 and older since 1992. Other studies say basketball and soccer are the fastest growing sports in the country.

With a population of 35 million, Canada has the manpower to become a recruiting pool vis-à-vis the biggest U.S. states, California (37 million) and Texas (26 million). All it needs is a ubiquitous basketball culture, which is on its way.

Helping the process are current standouts like Bennett and Wiggins. Just as Steve Nash's mid-2000s dominance helped pique Canada's basketball awareness (the two-time MVP was one of eight Canadians in the NBA last year), the recent surge of north-of-the-border stars has brought the game to the forefront of the country's sports dialogue.

"Canadian pros are influencing kids back home," Barrett said. "They're spurring the game on. You now see 6- and 7-year-olds with basketballs, wanting to be like Wiggins."

Said Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd: "In the past, there was only Steve Nash. Now there are countless stars kids look up to."

Like Gonzaga's own Olynyk and Pangos, both of whom Lloyd recruited. Their example -- of Canadian players having success beyond the high school level -- has helped elevate the prospects of Canadian talent in the eyes of recruiters.

"Colleges that wouldn't have recruited in Canada 10 years ago are taking notice of the country's talent," Lloyd said. "It's becoming much harder to recruit there."

Now that young Canadians can idolize a variety of homegrown stars, their infatuation with the game their own countryman, Dr. James Naismith, created 122 years ago in a Massachusetts gym will only continue to flourish. The result could be devastating on the international stage. Canada foreshadowed coming success by defeating the United States 94-85 at the World University Games in Moscow earlier this month. The Canadians lost to Russia in the semifinals, but the world was put on notice: Canada, which hasn't qualified for the Olympics since 2000 or medaled since 1936, is emerging as a legitimate contender.

Meanwhile, the country's NBA products have been enjoying their share of success. Thompson, the fourth pick in 2011, averaged 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season for the Cavs, while the Orlando Magic's Nicholson averaged 7.8 points and 3.4 rebounds as a rookie. Even Cory Joseph, who spent time in the D-League last season, played key minutes for the San Antonio Spurs during their run to the NBA Finals.

But this is only the beginning. With Bennett and the Boston Celtics' Olynyk poised to contribute immediately, Wiggins projected as a top pick in 2014 and the basketball culture rapidly expanding, Canada's best has yet to come.

"More talent is coming," Barrett said. "Canadian basketball will remain strong for the foreseeable future."

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