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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".