NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Andrew Wiggins and his AAU teammates on CIA Bounce were in the middle of their layup line, still 10 minutes from tip-off one night last month, when officials decided the gym at Riverside Park in North Augusta, S.C., was simply too crowded.
The bleachers were filled to the brim. So fans lined five deep on the baselines and a cavalcade of the country’s top college coaches surrounded the court.
Organizers at the Peach Jam AAU event closed the doors for fear of violating a fire code.
It wasn’t unprecedented. Peach Jam, the crown jewel event on the summer basketball recruiting calendar, has become a rite of passage and proving ground for future stars such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose and John Wall over the past decade. The anticipation surrounding Wiggins and company was no different, except for one important distinction:
Every player on CIA Bounce, which emerged as one of the top AAU programs in North America this summer, hails from the Toronto suburbs. Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 rising junior, has dominated American counterparts his own age and is already the most ballyhooed prospect Canada has produced.
His ascension has established Toronto as the newest hotbed for college basketball talent and helped usher in what many predict will become the greatest generation of Canadian basketball players.
“We’re seeing tremendous international growth and we’re seeing a respect that probably hasn’t been around for a very long time,” said Michael Cvitkovic, the chief executive of Ontario Basketball. “I think we’re potentially on the golden age of basketball in this country, and specifically in this province.”
The breakthrough was years in the making for a city considered the fifth-largest television market in North America.
The prime reasons for the basketball explosion include: The arrival of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors in 1995; an improved youth system — funded largely by Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash, who grew up in British Columbia — that focuses on skill development; and the city’s diverse population.
According to the the 2006 Canadian census, half of Toronto’s population was born outside Canada and it has changed the dynamics of the sport throughout the entire country.
Leo Rautins, an Ontario native, became the first Canadian basketball player selected in the first round of the NBA draft out of Syracuse in 1983.
But the past two years have seen the country reach unmatched heights in that regard. In 2011, two Toronto area natives — Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph — were selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
Three more Canadians were chosen in this year’s draft, including Kris Joseph, a Montreal native who was an All-Met at Carroll.
But Canada has never seen a player of Wiggins’s pedigree, and the adulation he has garnered from college coaches and NBA scouts alike has brought attention to his teammates.
CIA Bounce Coach Mike George said 11 of his 12 under-17 players this year will earn a Division I college basketball scholarship; three are ranked among the top 50 prospects in North America, according to Rivals.com.
“There’s always been players in Canada, we just didn’t get exposed to the American colleges and American coaches,” said Wiggins, the son of American-born former NBA guard Mitchell Wiggins and Marita Payne-Wiggins, a former star of the Canadian national track and field team. “Competition is a lot higher, but we wanted to test our skills down here and we’ve adapted.”
The debate in Canada, according to Junior National Team Coach Roy Rana, is whether the country’s top prospects will ever be able to stay north of the border to continue their basketball development. All but four members of CIA Bounce’s under-17 roster play for Huntington Prep (W. Va.), St. Benedict’s (N.J.) or Findlay Prep (Nev.), American powerhouses that finished within the top 15 this year in USA Today’s national basketball rankings.
Cvitovic and Rana expressed hope that day would arrive soon, and Ontario Basketball recently signed a four-year agreement with the AAU that will allow its club champions to participate in the organization’s annual national championships in Orlando. But “the reality is that it’s probably never gonna happen because hockey seems to be our main focus,” George said.
However, there has been a change in mind-set now that Canadian players have established themselves on the American circuit.
“Sticking together is something special to us because we’re all looked at as ‘The Canadians,’ ” said guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who plays at Huntington Prep and recently received scholarship offers from Maryland and Virginia. “Everybody wants to beat us now because we’re ranked number one in America, and we’re Canadians. But we’ve stepped up and taken the challenge and we’re trying to make history.”
Canadian officials look toward the 2016 Summer Olympics as the moment when the rest of the world will see tangible results from this surge in talent. Though Canada didn’t qualify for the men’s basketball competition at the London Olympics, the goal is to earn a medal in 2016 with Wiggins as the country’s star.
He’s already treated as such now, with a coach assigned to manage the wave of interview requests coming his way and a documentary film crew that chronicles his every move. But as past American basketball stars have shown, becoming an AAU superstar isn’t the end of Wiggins’s journey.
“We’re closing the gap,” Rana said. “But it’s really gonna depend on how these kids develop in the next couple years.”