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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Monday / October 23.
  • As All-Stars Play in Canada, Young Canadian Stars Invade New Jersey

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    UNION, N.J. — Simi Shittu and R.J. Barrett admitted it was a little strange to be playing at Kean University in New Jersey on Friday night considering the NBA All-Star Game is in their native Canada.

    “It’s a little weird because it feels like we’re missing out because some of my friends are playing some Jordan [Brand] event [in Toronto],” the 6-foot-8 Shittu said after putting up 16 points and 8 rebounds as Montverde (FL) Academy fended off a late challenge from Roselle (N.J.) Catholic to win, 59-55, at the Metro Classic.

    “But we’re here because we just wanted to get this win because this a building point to Dick’s Nationals [where the team has won three straight championships] and we just wanted to jell when we get to the end of the season.”

    “It’s a little weird because if we were at home, we would definitely be there,” added Barrett, a sweet-shooting 6-6 freshman guard who went for 12 points. “It’s weird being down here but we gotta focus because we got another game on Sunday.”

    Montverde (25-1), now 2-0 in New Jersey after crushing St. Joe’s-Metuchen by 34 points on Thursday, will face Pope John XXIII on Sunday in the PrimeTime Shootout at Roselle Catholic.

    As Canada becomes the focal point of the basketball world this weekend — with everything from Carmelo Anthony trade rumors to Kobe Bryant retirement talk to discussions of Kevin Durant’s impending free agency — several of the brightest stars on the Canadian horizon are playing three games in four days with Montverde in New Jersey.

    Ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today, Montverde features Shittu, Barrett and injured 6-2 junior point guard Marcus Carr –– all Canadians.

    “We’re excited about having the Canadian kids, said Montverde coach Kevin Boyle, who’s coached Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, among other pros or pro prospects.

    “We think our team next year could be tremendous. There’s another guy Andrew Nembhard who’s coming to school next year who’s a good guard, so a lot of times we’ll have four guys who could possibly be on the Canadian Olympic team one day playing at the same high school, so we’re thrilled about it.”

    Canadian basketball is all the rage this weekend.

    Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, went for 29 points and 5 rebounds as the World Team lost to the USA, 159-154, in the Rising Stars Challenge.

    Wiggins reportedly received a thunderous ovation upon his introduction in the starting lineup and was serenaded with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” late in the game.

    Even LeBron James was asked to named three famous Canadians not named Drake.

    “Tristan [Thompson], Cory Joseph and Andrew Wiggins,” James told reporters.

    Canada is loaded with young talent like Wiggins, Thompson, Joseph, Anthony Bennett, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Ennis and Andrew Nicholson, and is eyeing a medal in the 2020 Olympics.

    In the meantime, a younger generation of Canadians like Shittu, Barrett and Carr looks like the next wave.

    “Yeah, we already played in the [Canadian] Cadet team together so as we get older, we could eventually get there,” said Barrett, a sweet-shooting lefty guard who counts Steve Nash as his Godfather and the man who bought him his first crib.

    His father, Rowan Barrett, is Canada Basketball’s assistant general manager and a former player at St. John’s who competed for Canada in the 2000 Olympics.

    Carr, who is out with an ACL tear, credited Vince Carter’s stint with the Toronto Raptors for spurring a wave of interest in basketball in the Toronto area within a hockey-dominated nation.

    “We were definitely influenced by Vince Carter and then of course hearing about Steve Nash,” Carr said. “He was kind of like that first guy who really kind of made it and was like an All-Star, a two-time MVP. So I think both those guys really kind of influenced the game. Just having our own team at home that we could watch, and Vince Carter being an exciting player, but also having Steve Nash, the guy who’s actually from where we’re from, that was the motivation also.”

    Carr said the reason this group of Canadians came to Montverde was to prepare themselves for a future at the highest levels of basketball.

    In the past, Wiggins (Huntington Prep), Bennett (Findlay Prep) and Ennis (St. Benedict’s Prep) chose other powerhouse American basketblal programs.

    “That’s kind of the goal,” Carr said. “I mean we came down here after them. They kind of went the same path as us, playing in Canada for a little while and then came down here to try and prove what they could do against American talent and become scholarship players. So we’re trying to be on the same path as them so hopefully we reach the same heights as them.”

    Carr said they chose Montverde over places likes Huntington, Findlay and St. Benedict’s largely because of Boyle, who won five New Jersey Tournament of Champions titles at St. Patrick’s before moving to Montverde. He has coached more No. 1-3 NBA Draft picks since 2011 than Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

    “I think it was the coaching,” Carr said. “Me and Simi kind of talked before we came here and it was just like, Montverde was the highest level. They won Dick’s three years in a row and we know Kevin Boyle is a great coach, probably the best coach in the country. So we just talked about the experience, like if you want to come down here and be the best you possibly could be, why not go to the best school?”

    He added: “He’s coached a lot of high-major players and top draft pick players and he says he sees us as the next wave of Montverde players to be pros or high-major players so that was an incentive for us to go there.”

    Boyle, who runs a wave of 10 players at opponents, has high praise for all three of his Canadian imports.

    “Obviously, Simi’s been one of the premier sophomores, I think he’s without question going to be a high-major recruit,” Boyle said of Shittu, who picked up an offer from Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski on Friday night to go with offers form Illinois, Baylor, Kansas State, New Mexico, and Oregon and interest from Kentucky, Washington, LSU, Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Clemson.

    “He reminds me of Al Harrington as as sophomore. He’s raw in some ways but he always puts up numbers every game. He’s gotta get his jump shot better, he’s gotta get his ball-handling better but I think if he loves the game he’s going to end up being a great player in two years.

    “R.J.’s a very skilled guy, keeps growing for his age. He’ll end up being a big guard. He’s shooting a lot better from the 3 now. And he’s gotta a lttle lower handle on the ball and he’s gotta get that next level of toughness which comes with age.

    “Marcus is one of the premier point guards in Canada and would’ve been our starting point guard if he didn’t have an ACL tear this year.”

    This summer, Canada will have to go through the World Qualifying Tournament to make the Olympics in Rio.

    Yet by 2020, when Wiggins, Bennett and that group is a little older, Shittu, Barrett and Carr will be in their late teens and potentially challenging for spots on the National Team roster.

    “Yeah, that’s my goal because we all played on the Cadet team this summer and we all jelled very well together and I guess once we just keep jelling as a team in Canada, we’ll be a very dominant team in the Olympics,” Shittu said.

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    Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.