Canadian basketball history happened a year earlier than expected Thursday, in a stunning turn of events that surprised even Anthony Bennett.
The freshman forward from UNLV became the first Canadian selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft, taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I’m just as surprised as everybody else,” Bennett said moments after he strode across the Barclays Center stage in his scarlet and grey suit — UNLV colours. “I didn’t really have any idea who’s going No. 1 or who was going No. 2. I heard everything was up for grabs. But I’m just really happy, glad that I have this opportunity, and I’ve just got to thank God for everything.”
The 20-year-old from Brampton, Ont., has starred for Canada’s junior national team and was the Mountain West Conference player of the year, but was rarely mentioned as a top-pick possibility in the lead up to the draft.
He’s also been sidelined since he had rotator cuff surgery in May, but said on the eve of draft day that he wasn’t concerned his injury would affect his draft stock. Turns out, he was bang on.
Tristan Thompson of Brampton was selected No. 4 by the Cavaliers in the 2011 draft, making him the highest Canadian draft pick before Thursday.
The historical selection comes amid heady days for Canadian basketball, and a year ahead of when many projected it would happen. Teen phenom Andrew Wiggins of Vaughan, Ont., who’ll play for the Kansas Jayhawks next season, is touted as the probable first overall pick in the 2014 draft.
“Yeah. It’s just crazy. Made history. I can’t really complain about that,” said Bennett, who had between 25 and 30 family members with him in New York — he lost count. “It’s just like a long time dream that I had since I first started playing basketball, even though it was six or seven years ago. It’s just crazy. Next year with Wiggins, hopefully he does well at Kansas. I’m rooting for him. I’m pretty sure he’ll get that No. 1 spot.”
Steve Nash of Victoria held the Canadian record before Thompson, going 15th overall to the Phoenix Suns in 1996. The Los Angeles Lakers star, who’s also the general manager of Canada’s men’s team, retweeted the NBA’s announcement adding: “Proud on Proud!”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also took to Twitter, writing “Congrats to (at)AnthonyBennett for being the first Cdn ever drafted 1 overall in the NBA draft. Good luck in Cleveland, we’re all behind you.”
Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, B.C., a forward from Gonzaga, was taken No. 13 by the Boston Celtics via a trade of picks with the Dallas Mavericks.
There was suspense right up to the moment the No. 1 pick was announced, either because the Cavs were unsure who they wanted or were trying to trade the pick. Most predictions had them taking one of the big men Nerlens Noel and Alex Len.
Orlando passed on both of them, too, going with Indiana swingman Victor Oladipo with the No. 2 pick. Washington took Otto Porter Jr. of Georgetown with the third pick.
The six-foot-seven Bennett, who played high school basketball at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, didn’t participate in the draft combine or any pre-draft workouts, and will have to skip summer league. But he clearly impressed in his interviews — he interviewed for the top five teams — and his play in college last season.
Bennett had surgery a few weeks after the Runnin’ Rebels were upset in the second round of March Madness in a 64-61 loss to California.
The Canadian was asked if it would only be appropriate if American Seth Jones — son of former Toronto Raptor Popeye Jones — goes first overall in Sunday’s NHL draft.
“I’m not a big fan of hockey, but I support the Maple Leafs,” Bennett said. “Hopefully he does get picked No. 1. It’s crazy. Great feeling, man.”
The Cavaliers are determined to return to the playoffs after losing 58 games last season and firing coach Byron Scott. Bennett said he believes he’s pro-ready, but “at the same time there’s a lot of things I need to work on. I made it, but I just need to keep working, trying to get a second contract, trying to do well for myself and the team. Just got to keep grinding from here.”
Olynyk, meanwhile, wound up with Boston, after the Celtics sent the No. 16 pick and two future second-rounders to the Mavs to get the seven-footer who was fifth in voting for the Wooden Award.
Olynyk averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 63 per cent from the field while leading Gonzaga to a 32-3 season.
Olynyk posted on his Twitter feed: “Today is the day Ive been working for my whole life. Just wanna thank everyone who’s helped me get where I am, so blessed! thanks nbadraft.”
Ten years after the Cavaliers selected LeBron James to start a draft that would include his future NBA championship teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the top five — Bosh went fourth to Toronto — this one lacked the star power and perhaps the promise of stardom.
Noel and Len are also coming off injuries and couldn’t work out for teams either.