By Ben Waldman
When ESPN commentator Dan Shulman asked high school senior Thon Maker which colleges are on his list, the seven-foot-one centre gave a surprising response.
It’s unclear if Maker, one of the 24 high school students selected for the first-ever All-Canadian Basketball Game, was joking. He has fielded offers from several top NCAA universities, garnering international attention and praise for his skills. But who knows, Maker has shocked the basketball system before, evidenced by his choice to play out his high school career in Canada, something he says he does not regret.
“I knew the weather was going to be bad, but everything else worked out the way I wanted to. [I] got better,” Maker said prior to tip-off at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. “I look forward to keep getting better.”
Maker and his younger brother Matur, raised in Australia and born in Sudan, are both ecstatic about their experience playing at Orangeville Prep, an Ontario-based basketball hotbed that seeks to give Canadian players the chance to gain exposure in foreign markets.
I thought it should have happened many years ago
The All-Canadian Game is the latest stepping-stone towards increasing not only that exposure, but respect for the talent that doesn’t hail from the U.S.
Three-time NBA champion Bill Wennington, a Montreal native who played his college ball at St. Johns, only wishes this type of game existed in the 1970s and sees it as a signal of things to come for Canadian sports.
“Did I think [something like this game] was capable? Yes. I thought it should have happened many years ago,” said Wennington, who played 13 seasons in the NBA.
“I think that the interest in basketball in Canada has grown since I was here playing back in Montreal in the ‘70s. It’s so different today with the opportunities for kids. The sport has grown in publicity,” he continued. “Back when I was playing, in Montreal, for the national team, we wouldn’t get this [attention], so this is very special for me to see.”
Wennington and Maker, separated by three decades, are roughly the same height, but it’s clear when listening to the duo speak that they have had entirely different experiences as basketball prospects in Canada. Maker, an eloquent orator for his age, knows that all too well.
“The guys in the locker room, the first guys that are coaching [the game], the people actually putting it together. Everyone is making a piece of history out of it,” Maker said, ensuring that despite his serious look he was uncontrollably excited. “Later on down the line this will be one of the big events, like the McDonald’s All-American Game. Or even better.”
Jalen Poyser, a guard for the Athlete Institute, took Maker’s predictions one step further when asked if Canadian high school players could beat their American counterparts. Poyser, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas-commit, didn’t hesitate in his answer.
It’s a strong statement, but it is certainly not farfetched. Now, with players like the Makers, Poyser, 2015 Nike Hoop Summit MVP Jamal Murray and dozens of other NCAA-ready players, Poyser’s statement has become a relatively realistic prediction.
Murray, who made a strong impression on the 50 to 60 NBA scouts in the building with 29 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists, is another Orangeville student who has made waves in his time in Canada. He, like Thon Maker, will be a threat to make the starting line-up wherever he chooses to go for university.
The players representing Canada haven’t changed empirically over the years, but a new element to their game has developed which didn’t — and couldn’t — flourish in the time of Wennington: Confidence.
“What a tremendous opportunity. You need all of these kinds of experiences as you go along in your development,” Canada Basketball Assistant GM Rowan Barrett said of the game’s importance. “So when you finally get where you’re going you’ve seen a big crowd before, you’ve had to perform with the family there, you’ve had to do that before. And that’s what the whole basketball life is gonna be.
With events like the All-Canadian Game, which was played before a sold-out stadium, and the progression of Canadian talent in the pro ranks, the days of national players starting their careers at a disadvantage to American stars are beginning to dwindle.
Of the 24 players who suited up, one anonymous NBA scout believes that each one will make the leap to the NCAA after graduation if they continue to develop as they have.
For now, it is the best move for them. The U.S. college experience promises scholarships, major exposure and a chance of childhood dreams — NCAA championships, getting drafted to the NBA — coming true. But if the All-Canadian Game serves as any indication, the times may be changing.
And maybe, 10 years from now, when a player like Thon Maker talks about playing for Ryerson, it won’t be so surprising.