Khem Birch’s spring growth just part of a wider bloom as Canadian talent firmly takes root in NBA

It has been a season of revelation for Canada and the NBA, a season that shows the breadth and depth of the talent the country produces and a season that illustrates much of what is good about the collective attributes of which a nation of fans can be proud.

Yes, there are the stars proven and ascendant, the Jamal Murrays and the RJ Barretts, those of whom greatness is expected.

But it’s more. Deeper. More impressive in some way.

It’s Khem Birch, freed from the shackles of a staid Orlando Magic offence to perhaps solidify himself as the first Canadian to be a full-time, long-term Raptors starter.

It’s Oshae Brissett, disappointed to be let go by the Raptors but determined enough to suck it up, wait for his opportunity and shine late in the season with the Indiana Pacers.

And it’s Kelly Olynyk, an old head at 30 and thought to be on the downside of his career, who has emerged with the Houston Rockets as a valuable asset and perhaps an integral part of a franchise starting over.

Those are, to be cliché, Canadian feel-good stories. Stories not lost on those not from here.

“Take your pick … you can choose from at all different levels,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet was saying recently. “Two-ways, G League guys, you got all-stars, you got the Jamals, the (Andrew) Wiggins, you got No. 1 picks.

“It’s just great to see and it’s going to keep growing, just a beautiful thing to see for the country. I enjoy seeing it — obviously I get a better feel for the city when we’re in Toronto — just what it means to the young kids but it’s great to see the pride that the players have in being Canadian and obviously Canadians have in those guys in the NBA.”

The overarching story of the NBA and Canada this season has been the depth of Canadian talent and the breadth of the country it covers.

We have seen the first Nova Scotian to ever play in an NBA regular season game: Halifax native Nate Darling of the Charlotte Hornets. And we have seen a trio of Montrealers play in the same game: the Raptors’ Birch and Chris Boucher against Lu Dort of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Honestly, you’re only seeing three guys but I know a lot of guys that are from Montreal that actually are really talented, they just don’t get the chance to leave the country,” Boucher said that night. “That’s what was exciting for me, that all three guys really played well and it was a really exciting game just to showcase what we’ve got.”

There have been 21 players from Canada appear in an NBA game this season and it will be remembered as a historic year of continued impact on the best league in the world. All-stars. Young prospects. Veterans like Detroit’s Cory Joseph and Boston’s Tristan Thompson, who have paved the way for their countrymen, serving as mentors and role models. Montrealers, Torontonians, east and west and big and small. It’s been a year like no other.

No one is more prideful of his Canadian heritage than Olynyk, the Toronto-born, Kamloops, B.C.-raised veteran traded in February from Miami to Houston.

The six-foot-11 forward has been revitalized with the Rockets, averaging a career-best 18.6 points on 57 per cent shooting from the floor in 22 games. Some of his production has to be chalked up to the NBA reality that someone has to score on below-average teams — the Rockets are last in the league — but some of it has to do with his unique skill set.

“I think Kelly’s game has evolved over these years, just like the NBA has,” said Avery Bradley, a teammate of Olynyk’s in Boston, Miami and now Houston. “This is just the perfect situation for Kelly. He’s a great shooter, pick-and-pop, being able to play with unselfish guys. His IQ level is so high, I feel like he makes the game easier for everyone around him, as well.”

The conundrum — a good one for Olynyk, a bad one for Canada in the greater picture — is that he’s played himself into being a coveted free agent this coming summer. Many teams — and he would look tremendous in a Raptors uniform as a backup big man who can stretch the floor and play a high intelligence level — will likely have interest in him. So, too, would Canada for its Olympic bid, and the reality of him not having a contract when his country comes calling is a real deal.

But he told the Houston Chronicle recently that he expects to find some way to play for his country again.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to play in the Olympics and represent Canada on the highest stage,” he told the paper. “Hopefully, we can this summer. Hopefully, I get that opportunity.



“You’ve got to think about it, whether it’s insurance, or what the best route to go is. We’ll cross those bridges when they come. Obviously, my goal is to go out there and play and represent my country.”

That, unquestionably, is a focus of most fans: Which NBA players will be willing, and able, to represent Canada as it tries to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since Sydney in 2000. While fans may check each night on which Canadians have big games, the qualification tournament in Victoria in late June and early July is always in mind. It is still too early to make any definitive statements about who will play, or who will still be competing for an NBA title when the six-team event kicks off but the feedback from players and their representatives has been positive.

It always is, of course, because talk is cheap. But there does seem to be a different dynamic, a different “feel” in place these days. Maybe it’s got to do with the tournament being in Canada, maybe it has to do with the presence of Nick Nurse as the head coach, maybe it’s peer pressure among the players. But it’s there and it seems more real than it has in the past.

Much can change in the six weeks before the team will have to get together but, for now, there is more promise about the roster than there’s been.

“I think from a top-to-bottom situation — there’s a few little issues in there — but everybody’s been positive,” Nurse said last month. “We just had a major meeting outlining the plans for the summer (and) everybody’s been real positive.

“I’m expecting a very high participation rate. There’s always a couple contract-injury issues that you have to look at going into each summer with certain guys, but it’s been positive.”

The injury issue is by far the most significant right now. Denver’s Murray is not going to be available after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament and losing the Kitchener native is a significant blow. Toronto’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t played for the Oklahoma City Thunder since late March because of a foot injury, decimating Canada’s potential starting backcourt.

Gilgeous-Alexander suffered a tear to his plantar fascia described as “significant” and it’s going to be difficult to convince the Thunder that he should play for Canada.

“It’s not something that you should really mess around with,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said this week. “If we got aggressive with him, it could compromise him long term, which makes no sense for us for a player that is as important to our franchise as he is.”

But what this season has shown is that perhaps there is enough depth of talent, enough commitment, enough of everything to make everyone proud.

“Seeing the growth of the game … it’s a beautiful thing to see,” said VanVleet.

Spoken like an honorary Canadian.


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