If they have violated an international treaty or desecrated a cherished national symbol, Michigan undergraduates Nate Janes and James Giardina aren't aware of it. So far the four-by-six-foot blue-and-maize Canadian maple leaf flag the two friends hold up every time 6' 6" guard Nik Stauskas makes a three "or does something cool," says Giardina, has drawn nothing but praise, TV airtime and requests for photographs. One such request came from Stauskas's parents, Paul and Ruta, who have driven four hours from their home in Mississauga, Ont., to several Wolverines home games.
"We really liked Nik's character on the court and all the things he could do," Janes says to explain why he and Giardina became groupies of the freshman sharpshooter who averaged 11.6 points a game and hit 46.0% from beyond the arc during the regular season. "Plus, the fact that he's Canadian is unique."
Actually, it's not as unusual as Janes thinks. Not this year. One of the most surprising aspects of a wildly unpredictable season has been the emergence of stars—plural—from a country that has produced only three All-NBA team selections and two MVPs in the league's 67-year history: all of them named Steve Nash.
The country's slim record of hoops distinction is about to expand. The best player on the No. 1 team in the country—Gonzaga's 7-foot junior center, Kelly Olynyk—is Canadian. So is the Zags' 6'1" sophomore point guard, Kevin Pangos. UNLV's front line is two thirds Canuck: Anthony Bennett, a versatile and explosive 6'8", 240-pound freshman forward who is projected to be a top six draft pick this summer, was raised in Toronto, while 6'9", 220-pound sophomore center Khem Birch hails from Montreal. Junior Cadougan, the 6'1" senior point guard at No. 12--ranked Marquette, is another Toronto native. Of the 88 Canadians who played D-I ball this season, those five (and Stauskas) are expected to have the biggest impact on the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Canada Basketball CEO Wayne Parrish calls the recent upsurge in homegrown talent "a tremendous moment," which he hopes to parlay into sustained success on the international stage. To that end, Parrish has brought in Nash as general manager of the national team and former Raptors coach Jay Triano as coach, and he has tripled the team's $400,000 budget by securing donations from business leaders. It has been nearly 80 years since Canada reached the Olympic podium in basketball, a woeful gap considering that the game's inventor, James Naismith, was born in Almonte, Ont. But the state of hoops north of the border has improved markedly since 1992, when Nash, then a high school senior in Victoria, B.C., had to beg U.S. college coaches to look at his grainy highlight tape.
According to a 2006 study by a Canadian research group, soccer and basketball are the fastest growing sports in the country. One big catalyst for this change, says Leo Rautins, the former Syracuse star who in 1983 became the first Canadian to be drafted in the NBA's first round, was the arrival of the NBA in Toronto—and, however briefly, in Vancouver—in the mid-'90s. "Now you're seeing the kids who grew up with the NBA in their backyard," says Rautins, who served as Canada's national team coach from 2005 to '11. "I can remember flying into Toronto pre-NBA and looking down into driveways and seeing no hoops anywhere. Now you can see a basket on every garage."
Elite players have been nurtured by Canadian club teams that ferry kids across the border for Stateside competition and by U.S. prep schools that offer Canadian students the kind of high-level competition they can't find at home. Of the eight Canadians playing in the NBA this season, five were drafted in the last two years, including three first-rounders: Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson and Spurs guard Cory Joseph (2011) and Magic forward Andrew Nicholson (2012). Two college players—Bennett and Olynyk—are first-round possibilities this year, and Andrew Wiggins, a Toronto native in his senior year of high school at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, is widely considered a lock for the top pick in 2014.
"Guys are now seeing what it takes to play [at the highest] level and not accepting that we're not a basketball country," says Pangos. "You see guys like Tristan and Cory make it to the NBA, and now that's the goal instead of just making it to the NCAA."
Gonzaga coach Mark Few, in fact, no longer sees Canada as a separate basketball country. "Canadians are such a part of the American system now," he says. "They are spending two or three years at [Nevada's] Findlay Prep or Huntington Prep, and they are on CIA Bounce [the top Canadian AAU program] all summer." Compared with players from countries outside North America, Few adds, "they have zero transition to make."
Olynyk might disagree. Growing up in Ontario and British Columbia with parents who worked in basketball, he always had a strong grasp of the game. His mom, Arlene, was a university-level referee who served as a scorekeeper in the NBA when she worked for the Raptors from 1995 to 2004. His dad, Ken, now the athletic director at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., coached the University of Toronto men's team from 1989 to 2002 and the Canadian junior national team from '83 to '96, during which time he guaranteed himself a least a footnote in the country's history by becoming the last coach to cut Steve Nash. ("I do have that dubious honor," says Ken, laughing. "Steve was still in high school in B.C., the team was in Alberta, and the junior national team already had a strong backcourt. He's never held it against me.") So unlike many Canadians currently playing in D-I, Kelly Olynyk stayed home for high school, getting exposure to U.S. coaches at summer camps and national team tournaments. He played mostly point guard for his youth, provincial and South Kamloops High teams, even after a seven-inch growth spurt in 11th grade took him to 6' 10".
At Gonzaga, where Olynyk would grow two more inches, topping out at 7 feet, he was expected to play in the post. "I had never done it," he says. "It was like telling a quarterback to go kick a field goal." In his first two years his body couldn't keep up with his intentions. "Fifty percent of his drives would end up as charges," says Few.
After two frustrating years playing behind fellow Canadian Robert Sacre (who was drafted by the Lakers in the second round last summer) and producing just 4.8 points in 12.9 minutes a game, Olynyk took a mid-career redshirt year to strengthen his body and learn to think like a post player. It was a characteristically offbeat decision: Olynyk is given to vibrantly colored and often mismatched outfits, and his signature 'do hangs long and straight in the style of Spanish soccer star Sergio Ramos, circa 2011.
As a redshirt Olynyk spent hours with trainer Travis Knight, lifting weights to exhaustion, working on his balance, and doing hand-eye coordination drills with tennis balls that were designed to take his mental processing "from dial-up to broadband," says Knight. The plan worked brilliantly. "In practice he was dominating," says Few. "We could see what was coming."
This year, the 238-pound Olynyk is a strong, agile and versatile post player who is averaging seven rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 17.3 points on 65.5% shooting, including 37.5% from behind the three-point line, in less than 26 minutes a game. That makes him the most efficient high-usage player in the nation. Olynyk's transformation has moved him from high-potential scrub to West Coast Conference player of the year and elevated Gonzaga from a very good team to a national title contender. "What I have now [in Olynyk] is a guy I trust," says Few. "He's a guy we can pitch the ball to, who can make free throws at the end of games, who I can put on their best big guy or switch onto a guard at the end of a game because he's smart. He brings a lot of different things that you don't face with a traditional big."
Another linchpin of Gonzaga's success is Pangos, who was also born into a basketball family. His mom, Patty, played at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and his dad, Bill, just finished his 26th year as the women's coach at Toronto's York University, where years ago he coached games that Arlene Olynyk refereed. ("Basketball is a small world up here," says Bill.) Kevin played hockey, soccer, volleyball and badminton before giving them up midway through high school to focus on basketball. Like Olynyk, Pangos didn't play a lot of club ball or go to a U.S. prep school. But at 16 he became the youngest player to suit up for the Canadian senior national team. At training camps he paid special attention to stories about Nash, the player after whom he modeled himself. "Someone would say, 'Steve Nash would make 500 shots a day,'" says Pangos. "I figured I had to make 500 shots a day."
To that end he would find a gym to shoot with his dad, or he'd move a portable basket into position under a light on his street, securing it with a pile of bricks. Then he'd mark off the foul line and the three-point line (high school, then international, then NBA) with duct tape. He'd shoot for hours—or until 10:30 p.m., when Patty insisted he come inside so the neighbors could sleep. "I took a different path: I did a lot of my training and skill development on my own," Pangos says.
When Trey Burke took the scholarship Michigan had offered to both him and Pangos on a first-come, first-served basis, Pangos, who had heard rave reviews about Gonzaga from the Olynyks, signed with Few. As a freshman Pangos led the team in scoring (13.6 ppg) and assists (3.4) to earn WCC newcomer of the year honors. "He was supposed to hit a freshman wall," says Few. "He never did."
With the emergence of Olynyk and senior forward Elias Harris (14.8 ppg), Pangos has a lighter scoring load this year (11.8 ppg through Sunday), though he has sharpened his three-point shooting (to 42.7% from 40.1%) and his assists-to-turnovers ratio (to 2.29 from 1.85). "He's very meticulous about everything he works on," says Few. "If you say, 'I'd like to see you do this a little bit better,' he's in the gym, working on runners, working on his left hand."
Stauskas can relate to Pangos's gym-rat wiring. Indeed, he's partly responsible for it. For years the two attended the same basketball camp near Toronto. When the other boys took a break from the hardwood to swim or sail, Stauskas and Pangos stayed in the gym, going one-on-one. Stauskas had fallen hard for the game at age nine, when he was pulled out of the crowd at a Raptors open practice to play a shooting game with Vince Carter. "I made a free throw and a three-pointer," says Stauskas. "[Carter] ended up winning the game, but that was the moment when I thought, Wow, I really want to do this with my life." He became so single-minded that, according to Michigan coach John Beilein, "he doesn't know anything about hockey, he doesn't know anything about football. The other day we had him try to throw a baseball pass as a press breaker. And he had never thrown a baseball."
When Nik was 11 his parents installed a court in their Mississauga backyard so he and his older brother, Peter, could play at all hours, in all weather, including a severe 2006 storm that left the court, rim and backboard encased in ice. "The ball couldn't hit the backboard without slipping off, but we didn't care," says Nik. At Loyola Catholic Secondary School, few people shared his passion for the game. Before Nik's 10th-grade season, no teacher volunteered to coach basketball, which meant there could be no team. Nik's dad, Paul, a computer consultant, offered to take charge, but school policy required a teacher to supervise play. Desperate, Nik went around school begging faculty members. Finally a French teacher who was fond of Nik agreed to sit in the gym and grade papers while Paul conducted practices.
Unwilling to risk a similar crisis the following year, Nik headed south to prep school. After leading St. Mark's School (Southborough, Mass.) to a New England private-school title as a senior, he made a seamless transition to Michigan, breaking into the starting lineup in the Wolverines' seventh game. He's one of the few shooters Beilein has had who can handle and drive. "Our staff loves Nik because he just wants to be a good player," says Beilein. "And he wants his team to win and takes it very seriously. Yet he also says to us, 'It's only a game.' He's very good at putting it in perspective."
Like Stauskas, Cadougan took the prep school route to D-I, though his motivation for leaving home was grimmer. He became obsessed with the game as a toddler in Toronto's crime-ridden Jane and Finch neighborhood, where he lived with three siblings and his mom, Suzette, a native of Trinidad who worked at an auto parts factory. Junior played with his older brother, Kerlon, on indoor hoops fashioned out of coat hangers and milk cartons before he graduated to the gritty neighborhood courts. In middle school Junior made his first national team and joined the AAU squad Grassroots Canada, squeezing into vans with other players to drive to tournaments as far away as North Carolina. In the early summer of 2005, after a stellar ninth-grade season for Toronto's Eastern Commerce High, Junior asked Suzette if he could follow his friend Olu Ashaolu to an Atlanta prep school. "He was just 15," says Suzette. "I thought he was too young."
Two months later, a near tragedy changed her mind. On the evening of Aug. 3, Junior, Kerlon and their four-year-old brother, Shaquan, were on the porch of the family's town house with several friends when a gunman inside a passing car fired shots at the group. Five people were hit by bullets, including Junior, who was nicked in the shoulder. Shaquan, however, was hit four times in his legs and midsection. When he saw his little brother bleeding in the arms of a friend, Junior, a kid noted for his toughness even in that neighborhood, started crying. "The whole thing was crazy," he says.
Two weeks later, while Shaquan was still recovering, Suzette gave Junior her blessing to go south. "It wasn't easy for me, but he'd be safer there," she says. "God kept Shaquan alive, so that gave me confidence to know He'd be with Junior." (Shaquan, now 12, is in good health and plays for Grassroots Canada.)
Junior spent a year in Atlanta and three at Christian Life Academy in Humble, Texas, before arriving at Marquette, where he has averaged 8.6 points and 4.2 assists through week's end. (Ashaolu is now a senior forward at Oregon.) "I love his toughness and heart," Marquette coach Buzz Williams says of Cadougan. "There's nothing about him statistically that pops out. But so many good things happen when the ball is in his hands. He's an easy guy to cheer for."
One guy rooting for Cadougan is Bennett, who also grew up in Jane and Finch. The two players don't know each other well, but the affable Bennett keeps tabs on Cadougan's progress, as he does on that of dozens of fellow Canadians. Before a recent practice Bennett examined Canada Basketball's list of the guys playing D-I and named about 40 he considers friends. "We're like a family," he says. "We have to stick together."
Bennett and Cadougan have other things in common besides their old neighborhood. Anthony was also raised by a single mom, Edith Bennett, a native of Jamaica who worked two nursing jobs to support him and his two older siblings. And Anthony found refuge from the troubled streets in basketball, at the Boys and Girls Club, where he launched balls from the perimeter arc for hours.
When he was in sixth grade, the family moved to the Toronto suburb of Brampton. "I tried to find a hoop or basketball team to play on, but there was nothing," says Bennett, "so I stopped playing." A few years later he found an outlet in a house league and eventually joined CIA Bounce. "He was really raw, but you could see a lot of physical gifts," says the team's coach, Mike George. "And he was coachable—anything you'd ask, he'd do it."
With help from George, Anthony landed a scholarship at Mountain State Academy in Beckley, W.Va., where he played his 10th-grade year with five other Canadian teenagers—"I was never homesick," he says—before heading west to Findlay Prep in Las Vegas. Kentucky and Florida wanted to sign him, but he felt an affinity for the coaches and the style of play at nearby UNLV. After Birch, a fellow McDonald's All-American, transferred from Pitt in the fall of 2011 and reported being happy at UNLV, "that sealed the deal," says Bennett.
Bennett has been a revelation with the Runnin' Rebels, both for his leadership—coach Dave Rice says Bennett is the first to high-five teammates subbing in or out and the most likely to lay a reassuring hand on a teammate who is getting blistered in the huddle—and for his offensive domination. He leads the team with 15.9 points on 52.7% shooting (37.0% from the arc) and 8.1 rebounds, despite the altitudinal challenges of the Mountain West Conference, which can be especially brutal on an asthma sufferer like Bennett. (He says visits to mile-high Colorado State and Air Force, both losses, were "terrible.") Bennett's offensive production complements the defensive prowess of Birch, who averages 7.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game.
Like Bennett, Birch is happy at UNLV, but he's somewhat surprised to be there. "I always thought I'd be a football player," he says. In his Montreal neighborhood there were few basketball role models and few places to work on his game. Around 10th grade he learned about Joel Anthony, a fellow Montrealer who made the NBA at 25 after being named the Mountain West defensive player of the year with UNLV in 2007. "I thought, If he can do it, I can do it," says Birch. "We even ended up at the same college."
He and Bennett miss a few things from home—for Birch it's poutine, the gravy-and-cheese-smothered French fries popular in Quebec; for Bennett it's Timbits, the doughnut-hole treats offered at Tim Hortons coffee shops—but they feel well loved in Vegas. Whenever one of them makes a nice play, a few fans hold up Canadian flags (in the traditional red and white), making Bennett feel "all happy inside," he says.
Bennett gets the same feeling when he checks up on all his friends on that Canada Basketball list. "If I don't have a chance to watch their games, I'll check the box scores to see how they did," he says. "Most of the time, they do pretty well."