October 02, 2015

The Toronto Raptors and their passionate fans will kick off the NBA's Canada Series of preseason games in Vancouver on Sunday against Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers.

In some ways, that will just be the undercard.

The league has scheduled four preseason games in Canada this year, the largest slate a games in the short four-year history of a series aimed at growing the game the hockey-mad country. Playing a headlining role in the festivities this year is Minnesota Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins, a Toronto-born sensation who has captivated the Canadian masses like no other player since Vince Carter was dunking all over the league with the Raptors more than a decade ago.

The Timberwolves will play the Bulls in Winnipeg on Oct. 10 and the Raptors in Ottawa on Oct. 14. The series concludes when the Raptors play the Washington Wizards in Montreal on Oct. 23. All four games are expected to sell out, and they serve as precursors to the All-Star game being played in Toronto in February, the first time the league has held its midseason showcase outside of the United States.

''This is just a big year for the NBA in Canada,'' said Dan MacKenzie, the vice president and managing director of NBA Canada.

It's no coincidence that Wiggins will play a prominent role this time around. He has generated national attention since he was a 14-year-old and TSN put every one of the games during his lone season at Kansas on national television. He was chosen No. 1 overall last year by the Cleveland Cavaliers, traded before training camp to Minnesota in a deal that netted the Cavs All-Star forward Kevin Love and was the runaway winner of the rookie of the year award in his first season with the Timberwolves.

''He is going to do a lot for the future growth of our fan base in Canada,'' MacKenzie said.

Wiggins' rise to stardom has coincided with a boom for the NBA in Canada.

Last year a record 12 NBA players from Canada were on opening-night rosters, a number that could jump by one or two this season. Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, who signed with his hometown Raptors just before training camp, were back-to-back No. 1 overall picks in 2013 and 2014.

Television viewership of NBA games in the country is up 54 percent since the 2012-13 season, including 76 percent on national sports network TSN. And the league has seen its sponsorship agreements with Canadian businesses expand robustly with six new marketing partnerships over the last year and a half.

MacKenzie attributes the growth of the game's popularity in part to Wiggins, but also to the influx of immigrants from China, the Philippines and India, where basketball is very popular.

Wiggins is fresh off of a standout performance with the Canadian national team at the FIBA Americas tournament, and knows all too well what this event means to the people back home.

''It means a lot. I get to go back to my country and play in front of people I grew up around,'' Wiggins said. ''It's good for them. They don't really get to see a lot of basketball games in Winnipeg and Ottawa. So it'll be a good chance for them to get to witness basketball.''

Wiggins has never been to Winnipeg before, so he said he is looking forward to getting to see a part of his home country for the first time. And he remains humbled by the comparisons to Carter, the man who essentially put basketball on the map in Canada.

''That's an honor,'' Wiggins said. ''Vince, he was Canada when he played for the Raptors, he made every young person, old person, it don't matter who you were, you just loved basketball, loved watching it, loved playing it. You tried to do whatever he did.''

But Carter was American, so Wiggins' roots in Toronto have only made his popularity rise even higher. And of course it's led to speculation and hope from fans back home that Wiggins will one day return to play for the Raptors, just like LeBron James returned home to play for Cleveland.

Wiggins has repeatedly tried to tamp down those story lines. He's only in his second season and is playing in a city he enjoys with a young team that many consider to be on the rise.

''I hope I'm here forever,'' Wiggins told The Associated Press after winning the rookie of the year in April. ''I hope. It would be nice.''

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