On the heels of the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA championship for the first time, Canada’s top basketball prospects could be set to make some history of their own.
Duke forward R.J. Barrett of Mississauga, Ont., will be one of the headliners at Thursday’s NBA Draft, which could see a record number of Canadian players selected over the two rounds.
Barring any pre-draft trades, Duke forward Zion Williamson is a virtual lock to go first overall to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Memphis Grizzlies are expected to take Murray State guard Ja Morant at No. 2 and the Knicks are a good bet to take Barrett at No. 3.
Barrett, a 19-year-old Duke forward, picked out his suit well ahead of time for the big night and it just might include some national flavour.
“Know that Canada will be proud,” Barrett said from Toronto in a recent interview.
At least one Canadian has been selected in each of the last nine drafts. Anthony Bennett of Toronto became the first Canadian to be selected with the No. 1 pick when he was taken by Cleveland in 2013.
The Cavaliers took another Canadian in Andrew Wiggins of Vaughan, Ont., with their top pick in 2014, a record year for Canadians in the draft. Nik Stauskas of Mississauga, Ont., (No. 8 by Sacramento) and Tyler Ennis of Brampton, Ont., (No. 18 by Phoenix) were picked later in the first round.
Dwight Powell of Toronto (No. 45 by Charlotte) was selected in the second round in 2014 as new marks were set for most Canadians taken in the first round and overall.
Both records could be broken at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., as Barrett, Florida State forward Mfiondu Kabengele of Burlington, Ont., Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker of Toronto and Arizona State guard Luguentz Dort of Montreal are all potential first-round picks.
“I’m just counting down the days, I can’t wait,” Barrett said. “I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life so I’m just excited to finally get it going.”
Michigan forward Ignas Brazdeikis of Oakville, Ont., Iowa State guard Lindell Wigginton of Dartmouth, N.S., and Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke of Vancouver could also be in the mix on draft night.
Players usually work out with several teams ahead of the draft, but Barrett’s lone stop was New York. He said the visit “went very well.”
“It was just the way it worked out,” he said. “The Knicks are definitely the place I want to be so I won’t be working out with anybody else.”
In addition to the first overall selection, the Pelicans are tabbed to pick fourth after the recent blockbuster Anthony Davis trade with the L.A. Lakers. More deals could be consummated ahead of draft night and it’s quite possible a team could trade up to get the No. 3 pick from New York.
“The way I look at it is my dream is to play in the NBA and be great in the NBA,” said Barrett, who was named a Team RBC brand ambassador on Tuesday. “So if it’s not the Knicks or I get traded somewhere, I’ll be happy regardless. I just want to be able to have a chance to play.”
Barrett showed off his speed, strong passing ability and creativity in his one season at Duke. He’ll look to work on his shooting at the pro level as he struggled at times from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line.
“I learned that I can play in the environment and I’m really built for the next level,” Barrett said. “I just learned a lot about myself as a person, just being able to get better and to continue to grow with all the spotlight and everything that went on at Duke. So I was really happy with my year.”
The top Canadian pick in last year’s draft was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of Hamilton, Ont., taken 11th overall by the Hornets.
The Raptors do not have a first-round pick this year. Their second-round selection will be at No. 59 overall.