from: nytimes.com

TORONTO — There was a time, not long ago, when New York and Los Angeles seemed to monopolize much of the world’s basketball talent. They produced the best players, who went to the best college programs before graduating to the N.B.A. It was the American way.

But the great democratization of the game has altered its landscape, sending the game west and east and even north — as in north of the border.

Look no further than Toronto, the hub of hockey, which now moonlights as one of North America’s unlikeliest incubators of hoops prodigies and pumps out an extraordinary number of pro players. Consider that the last two No. 1 overall picks in the N.B.A. draft, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves, grew up near the city. And that seven other players who were born in the Toronto area are on N.B.A. rosters. And that many more are on the way.

“When we used to talk about the ‘next one,’ we’d be talking about the next hope,” Roy Rana, the coach of Canada’s junior national team, said. “Now, we’re talking about the next one who will be in the N.B.A. We no longer hope. It’s not a dream. It’s an expectation.”

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At Game 1 of a playoff series between the Toronto Raptors and the Nets in April, fans wore shirts that said, “Northern Rising.” CreditClaus Andersen/Getty Images

Enter players like Jamal Murray, a 6-foot-5 point guard who glides across the court for his team at Athlete Institute, a private academy about 45 miles northwest of Toronto. Murray, 17, is one of the top players his age in North America, with his pick of high-level college scholarships.

Once upon a time, Murray’s Canadian roots — he grew up in nearby Kitchener, Ontario — would have counted as an obstacle. That is no longer true.

“I’m trying to get to the highest level possible,” Murray said, and odds are that he will.

A complex mix of factors has been at work. The shift may have started with the Raptors, who joined the N.B.A. in 1995 and exposed youngsters in Ontario to live pro basketball, but the city’s status as a hoops hotbed was also spurred by the area’s rapid population growth (an increase of 43 percent, to 5.6 million, between 1991 and 2011, according to Canadian census figures) and by the emergence of a vibrant youth basketball culture.

Some of the area’s new challenges — opportunistic coaches and others looking to latch on to promising players, for one — might even sound familiar.

“No different than what you guys have in the U.S.,” said Leo Rautins, a former coach of the Canadian national team and an analyst for the Raptors’ television broadcasts.

The new problems are different from the old ones. Before, a lack of depth meant the best Canadian players suffered from an absence of top competition, slowing their development. Coaches struggled to provide their players with exposure to recruiters from American colleges.

Steve Nash is the mythmaking example of the gifted player who nearly went overlooked. In 1992, as a high school standout in British Columbia, Nash had to cobble together his own video highlights to send to colleges. It was not until a coach from Santa Clara University in California showed up for the provincial championships that Nash was discovered. Canadian coaches who cared about building the game felt helpless.

“For so long, we felt like we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Rana, who also coaches at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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The Athlete Institute is a private academy about 45 miles northwest of Toronto. It imported its best player, Thon Maker, center, a 7-foot junior who attended high school in Virginia last season. CreditJason Prupas for The New York Times

He added: “We’ve had a lot of people trying to figure it out, whether it’s skill development or coaching or how to market kids to N.C.A.A. programs. What we’re seeing now is a professionalization of all that, where people understand the market, understand the system and understand how to produce elite-level talent.”

‘Train and Train’

Murray’s path can be traced to his father, Roger Murray, 42, who moved to Canada from Jamaica when he was 9 — part of an influx of people from the Caribbean who now reside in and around Toronto.

Roger Murray loved basketball, he said, watching tape-delayed broadcasts on Canadian television and embracing Michael Jordan as his sports hero. Once Jamal was born, Roger Murray often took him along to pickup games in Kitchener. Jamal would sit on the sideline, developing a passion by osmosis.

It was not long before father and son began working out together — or, as Jamal Murray put it, “train and train and train and train.” Some of their methods were unusual. Roger Murray, who practices the martial arts, would spar with his son, focusing on footwork, agility and quickness.

“I made a promise to coach him and use this as a vehicle to get to college,” Roger Murray said. “We took everything apart: mentally, physically, psychologically.”

It was clear that Jamal Murray, even at age 11 or 12, was a unique talent. And while he came from a smaller community outside Toronto, various coaches and scouts saw huge potential in him. Two and a half years ago, Murray joined C.I.A. Bounce, a Toronto-based Amateur Athletic Union program. With C.I.A. Bounce, Murray has benefited from exposure by participating in high-profile tournaments, many of them in the United States.

C.I.A. Bounce’s influence in Canadian basketball is difficult to overstate. Two alumni were among the top 18 picks in June’s N.B.A. draft. Tony McIntyre, the program’s founder, has five televisions in his basement, and he uses them to track many of his former players, including his son, Tyler Ennis, a guard with the Phoenix Suns. Ennis recently launched his own A.A.U. program: Tyler Ennis Team Jordan Brand.

McIntyre said they had staged joint tryouts, even though they are now technically competitors.

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Andrew Wiggins, left, the first player taken in the 2014 N.B.A. Draft, grew up in the Toronto area. CreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times

“We had over 200 kids come out,” McIntyre said, “so it’s pretty easy to take 20 of the top guys and split them up.”

C.I.A. Bounce’s tentacles extend deep into the N.B.A., in more ways than one. Mike George, who used to run a program with McIntyre, now works as a player agent for Excel Sports Management. He represents Ennis and Bennett, among others.

A Dunk Lights a Fuse

For youth players like Murray, though, the growth of the game in Toronto circles back to something far more fundamental. To one person, actually.

Murray was 3 years old in February 2000 when Vince Carter, then a second-year player with the Raptors, won the N.B.A.’s slam dunk contest — a seminal moment for Canadian basketball. The Florida-born Carter became the first soaring superstar for Toronto’s relatively new N.B.A. team, and the city adopted him as a source of civic pride.

Murray cited Carter’s performance at the dunk contest as one of his earliest memories. “I would try to go between the legs just like him,” Murray said.

On a cold morning last month, Carter, now 37, returned to Toronto as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. After the morning shootaround, he sat on a folding chair along the baseline and recalled his accidental role as a cultural icon.

“You don’t even think about those things when you’re going through it,” Carter said, “because I was just a young kid, trying to establish myself.”

Carter was 21 and fresh out of college at North Carolina when he visited Toronto for his predraft workout with the Raptors. The trip could not have gone worse, he said. His bags went missing at the airport. His room service was two hours late. On the morning of his workout, the guy who was supposed to take his gear forgot to show up.

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Anthony Bennett, who was selected first overall in the 2013 N.B.A. Draft, grew up near Toronto. CreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

“It was terrible,” said Carter, who pulled it together for a solid showing in front of the Raptors’ front office. “I got word that they were going to draft me whether I liked it or not. So it was a great feeling, even though I didn’t get a chance to see the city or know what to expect.”

After going to the Raptors as the fifth pick in the 1998 draft (the Raptors traded for his rights in a deal with the Golden State Warriors), Carter could sense that fans in Canada were still grasping the game’s nuances. Accustomed to going wild during hockey shootouts, they would rise to their feet and cheer whenever Carter and his teammates attempted free throws — a practice that is generally discouraged.

“They were learning,” said Carter, whose friends back home were equally curious about life in Toronto.

“They’d be like, ‘Are there igloos?’ ” he said. “They just didn’t know.”

People on both sides of the border have become more sophisticated. The Raptors, at 22-7 and in first place in the Atlantic Division, have never been more popular. TV viewership is up 106 percent compared with this time last season, a league spokesman said. The rapper Drake is the team’s global ambassador.

So it is no coincidence that participation rates among children in Canada have doubled since 2005, according to Canada Basketball, the country’s organizing body for the sport. There are more than 180 youth basketball programs in Ontario, which means that youngsters can now play year-round — opportunities that were largely unavailable to former players like Rowan Barrett, 42, who attended West Hill Collegiate Institute in Toronto before playing at St. John’s in New York.

“It wasn’t like it is now,” said Barrett, the assistant general manager and executive vice president of the Canadian national team. “Guys are playing for 10 or 12 years before they reach the N.C.A.A. They’re building their skills.”

Academy Influence

Murray’s basketball odyssey has taken him to Athlete Institute, which has become, almost overnight, the nexus of prep basketball in Canada. Set amid rolling hills in Orangeville, Ontario, the academy houses two high-level basketball teams and essentially operates as an extension of C.I.A. Bounce.

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In February 2000 Vince Carter, then a second-year player with the Raptors, won the N.B.A.’s slam dunk contest.CreditJohn Mabanglo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

McIntyre, the C.I.A. Bounce founder, left his job last month as an operations manager for a pharmaceutical company to join Athlete Institute full time as its director of basketball operations, he said. He wants C.I.A. Bounce and Athlete Institute to become synonymous with Canadian basketball. “That’s our goal,” he said.

Jesse Tipping, a founder and the president of Athlete Institute, said his family, which is in the trucking business, was financing the academy. Many of the athletes are on scholarship while others pay tuition. A $1.5 million expansion that will include a second gymnasium with seating for 1,200 people is expected to be completed by September 2015, McIntyre said.

“Jesse trusts what we’re doing,” McIntyre said, “because what we’ve said we’d do, we’ve delivered. We’ve brought in top talent. We’re playing a national schedule.”

Larry Blunt, a former coach with C.I.A. Bounce, coaches the top team at Athlete Institute, which will play more than 40 games this season, most of them in the United States. He said the program’s players were attending Orangeville District Secondary School, a public high school. McIntyre said the idea was to create an alternative for Canadian players who would otherwise seek competition by attending high schools in the United States — arrangements that did not always pan out.

“It wasn’t good,” Rautins, the former national team coach, said. “You had a lot of different guys promoting kids and trying to get the kids south, and they just put them anywhere they could. You had a lot of kids failing and a lot of kids transferring multiple times. All kinds of stuff going on.”

In a twist, Athlete Institute actually imported its best player, Thon Maker, a 7-foot junior who attended high school in Virginia last season. Ed Smith, Maker’s legal guardian, said he was about to start his own basketball program at a private school in North Carolina in the fall when he reconnected with Blunt, an acquaintance.

Smith now works as an international scout for the Brampton A’s, a pro team in the National Basketball League of Canada that practices at Athlete Institute. Like Athlete Institute, the A’s are owned and operated by the Tipping family.

“Because of Thon, I can use that,” Smith said. “I can get into the doors of homes and scout for kids.”

As for Murray, he leads a fairly insular life for a teenager. He does not own a cellphone. He is not active on social media. He meditates in the locker room before games, simply closing his eyes so he can drift away.

“I’ll do it whenever I can,” Murray said. “At practice. Before I go to bed. My teammates have gotten used to it.”

By eliminating the clutter, he can focus on basketball. He recently sank 270 straight free throws at practice, his father said. And to develop a feel for the ball, he sometimes shoots wearing a blindfold. But he still knows where he is going.

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