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Bennedict Mathurin and the Montreal NBA pipeline: Inside the rise of Canada’s newest hoops hotbed

History was made Thursday when Bennedict Mathurin’s name was called at Barclays Center on NBA Draft night.

The Montreal native was chosen sixth overall by the Indiana Pacers, making him the highest-drafted player from his hometown. Mathurin was widely expected to be drafted in the top 10, according to most mock drafts and prospect lists, including some of our own. He has now eclipsed Bill Wennington, the former Chicago Bulls reserve center who went No. 16 in the 1985 NBA Draft.

Mathurin’s journey to this point is the latest high mark in a growing Montreal basketball culture that has slowly bloomed through the cracks. Since Wennington broke through to reach basketball’s highest level, a handful of players either born or raised in Montreal have made the league, ranging from Haitian-born Samuel Dalembert and two-time NBA champion Joel Anthony to current standouts like Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort and Toronto Raptors big men Khem Birch and Chris Boucher.

Hockey is still king in Montreal, but thanks to their efforts, basketball is catching up. Now, Mathurin is poised to stand on their shoulders and take the city’s burgeoning hoops pipeline to the next level.

“Having guys like Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, Luguentz Dort, it’s amazing, to be honest, just to follow their path,” Mathurin said in a Zoom press conference with Montreal media members last month. “Me coming afterward and the players coming after me, it’s a great thing to notice for us, for the culture in Montreal.”

That culture has grown more vibrant in recent years. Montreal-based AAU program Brookwood Elite is now a crucial part of a pipeline that has led to NBA, NCAA and U SPORTS players and coaches graduating from its ranks. Anthony is now the general manager of the newly-formed Montreal Alliance of the Canadian Elite Basketball League. The CEBL drew headlines when rapper J. Cole briefly joined the league, but it’s also become a home for many top Canadian basketball players. Last month, the Montreal Chamber of Commerce collaborated with a local design studio to unveil an interactive basketball court as part of the city’s efforts to get more workers back downtown following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A growing number of Montreal-born players have taken their talents to the NCAA level. One Montrealer, Karim Mané, skipped the NCAA level entirely, signing a two-way deal with the Orlando Magic in November 2020 straight out of Vanier College, one of the many pre-university institutions exclusive to the province of Quebec.

None, however, are as highly touted as Mathurin, who has become by far the best prospect the city has ever produced. Mathurin played youth basketball in Montreal before becoming the first Canadian-born player to enlist at the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico City. North Pole Hoops, a website that covers top Canadian basketball prospects, ranked Mathurin as the best Canadian recruit that year.

“It’s huge. It’s such a big deal,” said Joey McKittrick, the director of Brookwood Elite. “Everyone else kind of got into the NBA through the back door. They had to work their way up. The deck was stacked against them. No guaranteed money. Now, Benn is guaranteed that money, right off the start.”

After helping Canada to a bronze medal at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup, Mathurin drew increased national attention this year, thanks in part to a breakout March Madness performance guiding Arizona to the Sweet 16. Some of his future NBA peers are already taking note.

“I’m really excited,” Dort told The Athletic when asked about Mathurin. “It’s big to see another kid from Montreal, you know, just going through all we have to go through just to get to that level. I’ve seen the work.”

Just what have Mathurin and his fellow Montreal hoops prospects gone through? The Athletic spoke to a few Montrealers who have come before Mathurin to gain some insight into the city’s basketball culture, their own stories, and the monumental importance of Mathurin’s impending selection in growing the sport in their hometown.

Luguentz Dort, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, is a self-proclaimed big brother to Bennedict Mathurin. (Alonzo Adams / USA TODAY Sports)

Dort and Mathurin have a close connection that spans beyond their shared hometown. They both grew up in the Montreal borough of Montreal-Nord, home to one of the largest Haitian populations in Canada. (Both Dort and Mathurin are of Haitian descent). They, in fact, lived within a 15-minute bike ride of one another. While Mathurin grew up playing ball at Parc Le Carignan, Dort spent his time at Parc Saint-Laurent just six minutes away.

Dort grew close with Benn’s older, late brother, Dominique, before eventually getting to know Benn more when they both played for the youth basketball program Parc Ex Knights. Dort and Mathurin also came up through Brookwood Elite before each jumped to another program abroad.

“He was a little small, tiny kid, just quick with skills,” Dort said of Mathurin. “I had no idea that he was going to be that tall. But he was just quick. He was the quickest guy. He was the best player on his team.”

Despite going undrafted in 2019 out of Arizona State, Dort quickly established himself as a relentless defender and growing offensive contributor for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s seen as a “3-and-D” wing player, a label that Mathurin has also received despite some concerns about his defensive focus.

Dort considers Mathurin his ‘”little bro,” a relationship that transcends their college careers for rival schools. When Mathurin was preparing for his sophomore season at Arizona, he trained with Dort during the offseason.

“Benn always played against Lu even though there was a two- or three-year difference,” McKittrick said. “Benn wants to be better than Lu. Lu is Benn’s standard. And Benn wants to go above that.”

Dort, in turn, gave Mathurin advice on how to keep his place in the NBA after being drafted. The Thunder guard has high expectations for Mathurin, believing his size, strength and skill could make him one of the “toughest guys to guard in a couple of years.”

“Find your role,” Dort said when asked what he told Mathurin. “Coming into the league, every team already has their best player. I feel like a lot of teams, what they try to do is put some pieces together to help their best player. So, I told Benn to just play his role and not try to do too much.”

Unlike Mathurin, Wennington didn’t have an NBA peer like Dort to show him the way when he was coming up in hockey-crazed Montreal in the 1970s. He played ball at a local YMCA in Pointe-Claire, a western Montreal suburb, and played for a number of high schools in the area while also suiting up for a provincial select team, the Quebec Espoirs.

But his development accelerated after he left Montreal to move to Long Island, New York for family reasons. There, he was exposed to teammates with tougher work ethics than his previous ones in Montreal.

“I think that helped me,” Wennington told The Athletic. “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have gotten that in Canada. But I think that lesson would’ve come a little bit later.”

In 1985, Wennington attended the NBA Draft at The Felt Forum (now Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden) with his mom and his then-fiancée, Anne. Though he was in a draft class with future stars like Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Joe Dumars, among others, Wennington – and his Montreal heritage – found a way to stand out before being picked. Wellington wore the Team Canada sweatsuit he got while representing his country at the 1983 World University Games and 1984 Olympics, which caught the eye of a photographer from a Canadian magazine known as Champion. The novelty of the moment led to the publication snapping a photo of him wearing the sweatsuit while sitting on a fire truck, which became the cover.

While Wennington briefly fulfilled his duties as a cover model, a handful of NBA teams expressed interest in drafting him. (“The one with the highest pick was the Utah Jazz, but they picked some guy named Karl Malone,” he said). The Dallas Mavericks took him three picks later at No. 16.

Mathurin’s wait was much shorter. Wennington has never met the (likely) future lottery pick, but he has noticed how more Montrealers are making their presence felt in the NBA.

“Back when I was playing in Montreal, back in the 70s, not a lot of people were playing. Kids were playing basketball, the hype wasn’t there. Hockey was still, and probably still is, the game to play,” Wennington said.

“The NBA has grown so much,” he added. “I think a lot of kids are seeing that it’s an option. Looking now, I think there was 158 Canadians in NCAA Division I basketball in 2021. That’s a lot of kids, but that also shows that these guys are looking for outlets.”

Those outlets were still in their nascent stages when Anthony rose through the ranks two decades later. Anthony says it was a lot harder for Montrealers to get noticed back then, since the city hadn’t developed its current presence on the AAU circuit.

That kept Anthony in the shadows even after his college career at UNLV ended. As the 2007 NBA Draft approached, Anthony wasn’t even guaranteed a workout with an NBA team by his agent. He envisioned playing a year overseas and then trying his luck again in the future.

Thanks to his agent, Anthony found his way into training sessions with prominent development coach Joe Abunassar alongside other top prospects in Las Vegas. When one dropped out of a workout with the Suns, Anthony took advantage and flew to Phoenix.

“Not as many people knew about me,” Anthony told The Athletic. “I didn’t have a lot of publicity coming out of college. A lot of people didn’t really know much about me.”

That was the beginning of the domino effect that got Anthony noticed. What looked to be a period of no workouts turned into 12, which eventually garnered interest from the Miami Heat, who first noticed him by accident while scouting another Mountain West Conference player. The Heat gave Anthony a one-year contract, which led to a 10-year NBA career that included two NBA championships alongside LeBron James in Miami, along with stops in Boston, Detroit and San Antonio.

Now, Anthony is a key figure building out the Montreal pipeline that was so barren in his days as a young prospect. He first met Mathurin in December 2019, just before officially retiring as a pro player. Months later, Anthony hosted an Instagram Live featuring Mathurin and another Montrealer, Olivier Maxence-Prosper, who now plays for Marquette University.

“Benn as a player is such an immense talent,” Anthony said. “Clearly at least a lottery pick. People have seen him as someone talented enough to go top five, and to be able to have guys of that character is what we’re excited about in this city.”

In retirement, Anthony has made a move into team management, first as a consultant for the Hamilton Honey Badgers of the CEBL in 2020, then as the general manager of the Montreal Alliance before their inaugural season in the CEBL. At the team’s home opener, Boucher and Dort made appearances courtside.

“I’ve really been blessed with a great opportunity in this position,” Anthony said about being a GM. “To have professional basketball and get a chance to have an influence on our basketball community, basketball culture with a team like this. I take it as a big responsibility.”

Anthony’s advice for Mathurin: get placed in the right situation, wherever he lands.

“From there, it’s really about just completely locking into being a professional,” Anthony said. “One of the biggest things about being a professional is trying to find consistency, which is what you’re able to get. Every day’s the same thing. It’s something that he’s going to continue to work on. We’re looking forward to seeing all that progress, but just focus on being consistent. Putting in the work every day. I feel he’ll be in a good situation going forward from there.”

Birch remembered growing up in the western Montreal suburb of Pierrefonds as one of the few teenagers playing ball with a hoop in his driveway. He played for Brookwood Elite before taking up high school ball in Ontario and later in Massachusetts. It took Birch several years to stick in the NBA after going undrafted in 2014, but he is now a mainstay in the Toronto Raptors’ rotation.

It was with the Magic that Birch first met Mathurin, when the youngster was part of the NBA Academy in Mexico City.

“I didn’t even know he was this good,” Birch said. “I just knew he was from Montreal, so we just talked. Recently, I’ve been seeing him the past year and it’s amazing to see the player that he is. He’s not just a guy who’s going to get drafted high, he can potentially be a guy who can probably turn a franchise around.”

Even with the rise of Mathurin and the others who came before him, the city can still do more to feed its growing basketball culture. There’s no provincial government-led committee in charge of getting more people to play basketball, as there is for hockey. Private rinks and arenas remain much more common than private facilities for basketball programs, who are often stuck using local school gyms to operate.

“Support it as much as hockey, and watch it take off,” McKittrick said.

That’s why so many basketball figures in the city are pulling for Mathurin. He is an example of what can happen when top young talent receives enough local support to achieve their goals of making the league. No matter what happens next, his selection near the top of the 2022 draft class will underscore that Montreal is on the basketball map.

“It’s very important. Growing up, we didn’t have that,” Dort said. “Now, kids can look up to Benn.”

(Top photo: Kiyoshi Mio / USA TODAY Sports)

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