He might have been just another 6-foot-7, 225-pound kid on a Canadian aboriginal reserve island, living among the foresters and fishermen. He might have played ball through high school and then, like his older brother, given it up as it ebbed away from him, naturally. Or, he might have burst forth from the rural land and scrambled south to the U.S., to prep school, into the line of vision of NCAA coaches.
Jesse Barnes has done neither. The 18-year-old basketball star from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, is one many say has NCAA potential and a shot at the NBA too. Today, you can find him two hours outside Toronto at Canada’s only basketball high school, the Athlete Institute. Just four years old, the AI has already produced players like Jamal Murray (starting guard, University of Kentucky) and Kyle Alexander (power forward, University of Tennessee). Only years before, Canadian big leaguers — Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Tyler Ennis — made their way through the American prep school pipeline in hopes of making it into the NCAA. Now, Barnes will compete against those same American prep schools that feed the NCAA. He’ll likely head that way too: He’s got six Division I college coaches wooing him, and more will be coming (the school year hasn’t wrapped yet).
Barnes started playing basketball only four years ago.
“No one is surprised at all by these rising stars from Canada,” claims Graeme Metcalf, a sociology professor and author of the forthcoming In Your Face: The Globalization of Basketball and Hip Hop, who traces the start of the conversation about the Great White North’s potential to a decade ago. This season saw 12 NBA players from Canada — out of a total of 32 — making it a bit like Japan or the Dominican Republic are to baseball. Indeed, Canada has fed more foreign players into the NBA than any other nation (Serbia and France are runners-up). As for college ball? The number has more than tripled between the 2011–12 and 2014–15 seasons, from 31 to 104. The first foreigner to enter the NBA was Italian-born, Canadian-raised Hank Biasatti, who joined up in 1946; in 1983, Leo Rautins became the first Canadian to get drafted in the first round. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there hasn’t been a Canadian NBA player of aboriginal descent. So far, that is.
Tall, thin and good-looking, with curly brown hair and a baby face (no beard yet), Barnes has an extremely athletic and powerful court style, one reminiscent of Blake Griffin’s. Athlete Institute head coach Brandon Lesovsky says that Barnes’ athleticism made him an impact player on the team right away. “Most of these high school kids are still built like boys,” Lesovsky says. “Jesse is built like a man.” He calls Barnes “the most athletic kid I’ve ever coached.… We always say we can teach skill, but no one can teach this kind of athleticism.” And here’s the twist: Barnes started playing basketball only four years ago. That kind of newbie status, along with his prominence, is almost unheard of in an athletic landscape where kids pick up balls and bats and muscles as toddlers.
Speaking of skill, Lesovsky’s training comes from the place that helped birth Barnes and, the hope is, many more like him. The Athlete Institute came about as a solution to the trend of Canadian kids getting shipped to American prep schools for rigorous basketball coaching. Run by former basketball player Jesse Tipping, the AI boasts a quarter-million-dollar spring-loaded wood floor in a top-notch facility. Student athletes, including Barnes, attend the Orangeville District Secondary School and live two to a room at a nearby dorm, which they share with their coaches. The AI team is the only foreign one to compete with American schools.
Barnes’ location is a nice perk for his family. Tony McIntyre, AI’s director of basketball operations, knows firsthand how hard it is to send your teenager to another country in order to get exposure: He sent two of his sons, one of whom plays in the NBA, the other for the Oregon Ducks. Raising a kid over the phone, McIntyre says, isn’t an ideal situation for any parent.
A straight shot to the top isn’t guaranteed, of course. While a good NCAA career can launch most players into a solid position for NBA drafts, high schoolers don’t always make the transition smoothly. Consider freshman year for anyone — new place, new surroundings — and for Barnes, a new team and a new country. Plus, his coach says, he’s got a weak spot: the jump shot.
For now, though, Barnes’ days brim with potential. In the AI bleachers, dressed in his team’s gray Nike tracksuit and red sneakers, Barnes sits up straight as we talk. He’s polite and shy, blushing when his coach praises him. He’s come a long way from his hometown gym, made of reclaimed wood grown on Haida Gwaii, with aboriginal paintings adorning the walls and the court. Today, he’s inching closer and closer to the fancy spaces. But he doesn’t dismiss his humble roots. That gym, he says, gratefully, was the best around.