Basketball, Sports

Rising Stars: What does the future hold for Canadians in pro basketball?

On Feb. 17, the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s youngest and most promising players gathered to compete in the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars game in Salt Lake City, Utah. The competition is a three-game mini-tournament where four teams composed of NBA rookies, sophomores, and G-League players compete for the Rising Stars title. The Rising Stars competition marks the start of the All-Star 2023 weekend and shines a spotlight on the league’s brightest young talents. 

Three Canadians were selected to play in this year’s Rising Stars game: Montreal’s very own Bennedict Mathurin, along with Aurora, Ontario’s Andrew Nembhard, and Scarborough, Ontario’s Leonard Miller. With a pool of only 28 players, an invitation to compete in the game is both a tremendous honour and a notable recognition of a player’s potential and talent.

The presence of Canadian players in the Rising Stars game is  significant yet unsurprising. The 2022-23 season kicked off with a record-high 23 Canadians rostered on the NBA’s opening night. These numbers reflect both the recognition of Canadian talent south of the border, as well as the growth of the game within Canada.

With Canada slated in the 15th slot of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA)’s rankings, the uptick in Canadians playing at the professional level raises hopes for an increasingly competitive Team Canada at the international level. 

“The United States have dominated the NBA for so long, so it’s really fun seeing so many stars from different countries who can lead exciting national teams and grow the game,” Will Kennedy, U1 Arts, told The McGill Tribune. “All of the best Canadian players in the league right now are all fairly young and can hopefully play together on Team Canada for many years to come.”

Canadians’ growing presence in the NBA also reflects the enormous pool of talent that exists in the North. However, with the current lack of investment in Canadian youth basketball, many Canadians continue to head south of the border to train. Third-year Haris Elezovic, a forward on the McGill Redbirds’ basketball team, believes that in order to capitalize on Canada’s increasing level of talent, institutional measures to promote the game and allow players to develop in Canada are vital.

“People are starting to realize that there is actual, real talent in Canada,” Elezovic told the Tribune. “Now, I think it’s time that governments and educational institutions start to invest more in basketball as many rising stars went to the United States for college since they offer so much more than Canada [….] If we were to keep all the talent in Canada, it would be amazing for the country and the development of the sport and youth.”

Things seem to be trending in the right direction, with top prospects such as Elijah Fisher remaining in Canada for his high school career and the federal government announcing financial support for Basketball Canada in November 2022.  

Initiatives that work to promote basketball on a national level are equally beneficial to the women’s game as they are to the men’s. As of 2023, there are only three Canadians in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), a dearth that stems from many of the same growing pains men’s basketball experienced over the years. 

“Since most WNBA players come from the American College Division, Canadian high schoolers often are ignorant of the array of success they can reach,” WNBA fan Charlotte Riddell, U2 Arts, told the Tribune. “I believe the best way to ensure more Canadians join the WNBA is to push for awareness of the feasibility of a women’s basketball career and build Canadian programs that help young women reach the collegiate level.”

The potential of Canadian players is highlighted by their increased presence at the top levels of the sport—a presence both inspirational for future players and welcomed by Canadian fans. However, better sports programs and stronger incentives for players to train in Canada would help stimulate their international and national presence. The North has already proven that it harbours enormous talent; it now must implement the necessary infrastructures to nurture it.

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