There’s something significant that sets apart Orlando Magic rookie Andrew Nicholson from the up-and-coming bumper crop of top-level Canadian basketball talent.
Unlike compatriots Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Myck Kabongo, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, Nicholson is truly homegrown.
Unlike the others, Nicholson didn’t head south as a teen for the better exposure and stiffer competition that a U.S. prep school would offer. And by doing so, the No. 19 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft took the road that is becoming less travelled.
In terms of modern Canadian NBA talent, Steve Nash, Jamaal Magloire, Todd MacCulloch, Joel Anthony and Robert Sacre have blazed the same trail (although Magloire was something of an anomaly, as a high schooler the No. 2-rated recruiting prospect in North America in the mid-90s at Toronto basketball powerhouse Eastern Commerce), but it is becoming less common.
It would be ridiculous to compare Nicholson to Nash, but the back stories are similar: A gifted player who stood out enough at a Canadian high school to earn a scholarship to a smaller NCAA program, then grew his game into first-round material.
While it’s not rare at all for Canadian high school kids to earn Division I scholarships south of the border, reaching the NBA is a far different story.
Ray Kulig, his high school coach at Father Michael Goetz in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, wishes more kids would stay closer to home.
“[U.S. colleges] are going to find you if you’re good enough,” said Kulig. “With social media and Canadian scouting agencies that don’t charge kids, they’re going to find you.”
While Nicholson was no Magloire in terms of recruiting hype, he did get his share of NCAA attention after two years of being Kulig’s main cog.
“It was the usual MAAC suspects,” Kulig said of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schools that recruit heavily in Ontario. “Niagara, Siena … and the Ivy League. St. John’s was interested too.”
While Nicholson’s top academic standing would have fit him nicely in the Ivy League, Nicholson quickly chose St. Bonaventure in tiny Olean, N.Y.
“He was being highly recruited by a bunch of CIS schools too, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think it would really have mattered [where he ended up],” he said. “His priority was education.”
The cerebral nature of Nicholson – who would go on to graduate with a major in physics from St. Bonaventure – was never lost on Kulig.
“We’re [in Hamilton for a tournament] driving around, and he says ‘Coach, you better check your left rear signal light,” Kulig recalled. “Every time you turn left, someone honks at you.’
“Sure enough, we get back to the school’s auto shop and the left rear signal is out. It’s just one of those little things. He’s smart, very perceptive.”
Nicholson didn’t start turning heads in basketball until a growth spurt and his Grade 10 year at Cardinal Leger Secondary School in nearby Brampton (he would move to Goetz for Grade 11). His first love was baseball, and Kulig thinks that helped his development.
“He developed all this quickness and hand-eye co-ordination because he played other sports like baseball,” said Kulig. “It’s a shame so many kids only focus on one sport now.”
Once he got on the court though, Kulig knew he had a special player who would work hard.
“His low-post moves are more footwork than strength,” said Kulig. “He’s just so quick.”
Nicholson himself preaches the importance hard work played in his development, and offers that more Canadian kids who don’t get the U.S. prep school exposure can make it via the same route he did.
“You’ve got to be able to put a lot of time into it,” he said before his second trip back home this season, an Orlando loss to the Raptors in Toronto just before Christmas. “Nothing is impossible.”
Nicholson is a man of few words — a quality that doesn’t always transcend into being a media favourite, but a likable, understated one that fits the stereotypical, almost hockey-like Canadian archetype.
Last summer when he and the rest of the Canuck blue-chippers gathered in Toronto for Nash’s Canada Basketball orientation camp, he was asked about past issues getting Canada’s best together, and whether a camp like that would assist his development.
Looking back at the reporters as if they all had two heads, he replied, “Anytime there’s a basketball in the room I’m ready to go.”
And that was it.
Nicholson was a consistent four-year starter at St. Bonaventure, topping the Atlantic 10 conference in scoring twice, earning an Honourable Mention to the 2012 All-American team and leading the Bonnies back to the NCAA Tournament after a an athletic-academic scandal rocked the program to its core in 2003.
Yet the curve from dominating A-10 games to playing meaningful minutes in the NBA is a big one, and Nicholson has performed solidly. While the rebuilding Magic have lost nine straight ahead of Wednesday night’s game in Denver, the mild-mannered Canadian has earned his minutes and the respect of his coach Jacque Vaughn.
“He’s gaining the trust of the coaching staff,” Vaughn told NBA.com in late November. “He’s a student of the game and he wants to learn. He’s a fine young man and his parents should be proud of him. And Canada should be proud of him as well.”
With Glen Davis on the shelf, Nicholson is starting at power forward and playing the stretch 4 game well, shooting close to 65 per cent in his last five contests, including a career-high 22 points against the Raptors in Orlando two days before New Year’s.
Still, his rebounding could stand to improve and the NBA season is a long, grinding marathon that hasn’t reached its midway point yet.
“I’m still learning a lot,” Nicholson said in Toronto.
That’s what he’s been doing all along.