Little brother Andrew Wiggins is growing up

DISCLAIMER: Once upon a time, I wrote this 1,000-word feature on Andrew Wiggins for a class at the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2011. After multiple unsuccessful attempts at being published, this story found a home on this blog. Please note that this version is the second and final draft and was left untouched other than for a few corrections suggested by the professor who also doubles as a fairly celebrated feature writer.

Tonight, a Wednesday evening in March 2011, the crowd gathered at Kerr Hall Gymnasium looks atypical for Ryerson University home games. Teenagers, most of them current or former basketball players, watch the action with relatives. Even the Ryerson men’s basketball team is cheering like everyone else. The Rams usually compete on the hardwood, but not tonight. One game remains in the second annual Battle of the Boards, which means that at about 8 p.m. Andrew Wiggins will take the court. “You’ll see that he’s incredible!” says forward Luke Staniscia.

Wiggins may have incredible talent, but mostly he’s young. Just 16 years old, he stands six-foot-seven. Possessing great technical skills already, he is the No. 1-rated player in the world for the class of 2014, a very strong National Basketball Association (NBA) prospect.

Canada has never been an international force in basketball—usually it plays little brother to the United States—but the country does already have some basketball star power. Rick Fox was a three-time NBA champion, Steve Nash has won the MVP award twice, and Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph were selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft. Fox and Nash are heralded NBA veterans while Thompson and Joseph are precocious talents, but the future of professional basketball may belong to Canada because of Wiggins. “The strength of the Canadian basketball program,” says Ryerson Rams head coach Roy Rana, “is in its youth.” Even Americans are starting to think so. Tariq Sbiet, national editor ofNorthpolehoops, says that John Calipari, head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, believes that Canada’s strength in youth make it an international power within five years. With Wiggins, we could be witnessing the arrival of a new national force. As he emerges and brands himself, so does Canadian basketball.

Not long ago, it was different. Young Canadian players have received scholarships to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) since Leo Rautins’s time with the Syracuse Orangemen from 1980 to 1983 but have had difficulty turning a successful NCAA career into a successful NBA one. Rautins recorded the first-ever triple-double in Big East play, but played only two seasons in the NBA for Philadelphia and Atlanta. Denham Brown won a national championship in 2004 with the University of Connecticut Huskies, but accomplished little in the NBA. This is the same Brown who first had to accomplish the impossible to convince American universities that he deserved a scholarship: scoring 111 points in a 2001 game against R.H. King Academy.

Canada might have turned the corner with Marquette University’s Junior Cadougan who was at age 15, as SLAM put it in 2005,“perhaps the best high school prospect in Canadian history.” Myck Kabongo (University of Texas), Khem Birch (Pitt University) and Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga University) have followed Cadougan’s lead. They haven’t disappointed and that is key, thinks Sbiet. “They’re vouching for all of the Canadian talent.”

Wiggins is the next poster boy for a new generation of Canadian basketball players, one that generates excitement at a younger age. Fox and Nash, two pros, were followed by Thompson and Joseph, two freshmen, who themselves are followed by Wiggins, still a high school student. For that reason, “the increase of NCAA coaches (visiting) Canada has been magnified,” says Sbiet. On a September evening in Toronto, the assistant coach of the St. Bonaventure Bonnies and that of the Western Carolina Catamounts attend the Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute basketball practice. Dave Moore of the Bonnies says, “(Toronto) is a natural fit for us.” The school campus is three hours away and he says that, “You recruit what you know.” The Bonnies know Toronto: their best player, Andrew Nicholson, is from Mississauga, and headlines a group of three Canadians playing for St. Bonaventure.

Still, Wiggins is different. He plays at a level that few Canadians his age have reached and has been followed closely since 2009 when, matched up against three current North Carolina Tar Heels at a tournament in Wilson, North Carolina, he averaged 18 points per game. A 40-second video of his exploits from that tournament currently has almost 3.5 million views on YouTube. And then came Twitter. It is fitting in 2011 (i.e. the era of social media) that the legend of Andrew Wiggins takes off with a tweet. The author wrote only seven words—“Everyone go follow my young boi @22wiggins”—but when it’s NBA superstar and global icon LeBron James that’s typing these 42 characters, they mean something.

With help like that, it’s never too early to start building the mystique. If that means being elusive, Wiggins seems to be very capable already. Numerous emails sent to his personal inbox were unreturned. Consciously or not, he appears to screen all media requests. Rana warned that reaching Wiggins through him was “barking up the wrong tree.” Michael Grange, columnist at Sportsnet.ca, who has spoken to Wiggins before, says the young phenom may simply find it easier to keep everything at arm’s length.

The evasiveness may not be entirely intentional. Sbiet describes Wiggins as a “very shy” young man who has avoided media attention since Grade 8, when he first became highly touted. Sbiet is confident that Wiggins will “break out of his shell this upcoming season,” because he will attend Huntington Prep School in West Virginia. There, he’ll be exposed to more media scrutiny and basketball players know that practice makes perfect. Until then, the emails remain unanswered.

After the game, Wiggins takes off his shoes and jokes with fellow players about a blown dunk or lay-up. Many are teammates from Vaughan Voyageurs, whom he led to the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) championship. He averaged 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. As he puts on a shirt, Wiggins is cheerful. His York team beat the Durham team, but it hardly matters. The result isn’t as important as having the chance to compete, because the Battle of the Boards is a showcase of the best high school prospects from six different regions of Ontario.

Not that anybody, at this point, really needs another Wiggins showcase to understand.