It’s 4:30 P.M eastern time, half an hour before my scheduled interview with rising Canadian NBA star Andrew Nicholson, a member of the Orlando Magic and an integral piece of Canada’s basketball future. I quickly fill up my glass of water, glance at my notes and a few blinks later Nicholson and I finally connect as Team Canada wraps up another gruesome practice on a hot, steamy summer afternoon in Orlando, Florida.
After making his Canadian National team debut against Jamaica in front of family, friends and a cozy sold out Toronto home crowd, Nicholson is happy to be away from the distractions and satisfied to be back in familiar territory. Its a place he enjoys and is happy to call “his home, away from home.” However, when asked to compare which two cities he prefers, the soft spoken Nicholson is quick to remind all of us that his roots are deeply attached and ingrained to the Maple Leaf on the cover of this premier collectors issue.
“I love Orlando, it’s a fun place to be and our home arena is definitely my favorite, but Toronto is my city and I represent Canada to the fullest.”
He’s only 23 years old, and a year removed from a successful rookie campaign in which the 19th overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft appeared in 75 games, averaging 7.8 points and 3.4 rebounds. The 6-foot-9, 255 pound forward is now set to embark on a journey unlike any he’s experienced before. Nicholson and Team Canada will get a taste of FIBA basketball and the physicality of the international game in hopes of bringing Canadian basketball back to a “New Era” of respectability and relevance on the global stage.
It seems not so long ago when Canada’s top talent would resort to sitting on Florida’s beaches rather than stressing themselves with the National team. Its long list of well documented problems often resulted in a boycott by high-level NBA players, leaving Canadian basketball fans with a sour taste of underachievement while further questioning the direction and leadership of the country’s top basketball program.
Current Dallas Mavericks centre and 13-year NBA veteran Samuel Dalembert comes to mind. After multiple years of fighting extremely hard to obtain his Canadian citizenship, Dalembert, a native of Haiti who was raised in Montreal was kicked off the National Team by former and controversial Head Coach Leo Rautins, who questioned Dalembert’s commitment and “prima donna” NBA ways. Dalembert’s dismissal at the prime of his career represented just how bad things were back in 2008 for a national organization surrounded by an abundance of growing and emerging talent. They lacked the leadership, respect and framework to attract and keep the few high-level NBA players in the league.
“Qualifying for the 2014 FIBA World Cup is extremely important to me and is something this group is obviously striving for said Nicholson.” Canadian basketball is headed in a new direction and I’m just glad to be a part of it,” added Nicholson while discussing his own lack of involvement with the national program in his younger days.
To think that a homegrown talent such as Andrew Nicholson, who grew up right in Canada’s basketball hotbed and arguably the top market for recruiting globally, otherwise known as Toronto, could have one day decided not to be a part of the national team, is just a ridiculous thought — yet, it’s another bona fide example that illustrates just how quickly Canadian basketball has grown over the past ten years and how fast it has accelerated in the last five years as the culture and mindset has started to change.
Despite never playing for Canada and maintaining a limited focus and interest in the national squad, Nicholson respects the players who have come before him and is appreciative of what they have done. “Yeah, I look up to all the current guys on the roster, it’s always an honor to represent your country, and the veterans on this team and previous rosters have paid their dues, now it’s our time to try and lead the National Team.”
High School & Recruiting
Andrew Nicholson’s rise to basketball stardom is unconventional. A late blooming homegrown basketball talent, Nicholson dreamt of striking out opponents in (Major League Basketball) rather than giving opposing big men nightmares on the hardwood with his developing, versatile all-star calibre game. It didn’t take long for the lanky 16-year-old to take advantage of his superior size and establish himself as a dominant force in the interior as well as on the perimeter. The skilled forward helped Father Michael Goetz reach new heights with back-to-back 4A OFSAA (Ontario Federation Student Athletic Association) appearances during his time at the Mississauga based school where he racked up MVP’s and double-doubles on his way to averaging 18 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks per game as senior.
Despite the tremendous upside, and comparisons to former number one pick Greg Oden (2007), a sprained ankle prevented Nicholson from showcasing his skills in front of NCAA coaches on the AAU circuit. Not to mention a broken cell phone, which he cracked by accidentally crushing it with his growing size 18 sneakers, further limited his ability to communicate when coaches attempted to reach out to him.
His limited exposure coupled with his decision to stay home and finish his high school career in Canada, rather than pack his bags and head down south like Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson, didn’t help and led to only mid-major schools reaching out. One of the few schools intrigued by Nicholson’s talent was St. Bonaventure University, Head Coach Mark Schmidt who began coaching in 2007 to rebuild the Bonnies program which was in complete disarray after it was sanctioned by the NCAA for knowingly using an academically ineligible player in 2003.
When mulling over his options Nicholson quickly and carefully formulated all outcomes like a chemist, and eventually settled on the St. Bonaventure as it provided him with an opportunity to be part of a basketball program in overhaul. But what sealed the deal was not just the culture that Schmidt was creating in the locker room, but rather a shiny new building next to the confines of the 5,480-seat Reilly Center which he would call home for the next four years. The William F. Walsh Science Center, a sparkling new building, greatly appealed to Nicholson, who wanted to major in chemistry. “The Science Center at St. Bonaventure is a one of kind world class facility and I was excited to learn from that type of environment and with the situation that the basketball program was in at the time, it was the perfect opportunity for me to go in and just do my thing.”
“My parents have always taught me the value of education first and the importance of doing something meaningful,” acknowledges Nicholson.
Unwilling to disappoint his parents in the classroom Nicholson was forced to switch from chemistry to physics as his lab hours often conflicted with practice schedules. In an effort to improve his grades and polish his skills on the hardwood, he stayed in the lab in Allegany, New York during the summers, instead of making the three and a half hour drive north to Toronto. His hard work and dedication both on and off the court paid off as Nicholson went from a virtually unknown prospect to making his parents proud with his Physics degree. In the process he revived and became the face of a Bonnies program in desperate need of a new identity, not seen since the days of NBA Hall-Famer Bob Lanier, who was selected number one overall by the Detroit Pistons in 1970, and is highly regarded as “one, of the game’s greatest big men.”
Freshmen Nicholson wasted no time making his presence felt for the Bonnies earning 2008-09 Atlantic-10 Freshman of the Year by averaging 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks to set the Bonnies field goal percentage record to a staggering 60.2%. By time his senior year came around Nicholson further polished his game by adding a consistent 3-point shot to his already lethal arsenal and just about convinced the rest of Canada and America that he was the real deal. The Bonnies won seven of their last eight games thanks to his 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots to lead the Bonnies to an improbable Atlantic-10 Championship over Xavier and earn a trip to NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000.
Ranked 14th in the big dance the Bonnies fought hard for nearly forty minutes and nearly upset the #3 Florida State Seminoles, coming up short 69-60 in their opening round game of the 2012 tournament. The close loss ended Nicholson’s collegiate career as the school’s second all-time leading scorer with 2,103 career-points. Nicholson earned an All-American Honorable Mention and became the first player to take home both Atlantic-10 Rookie and Player of the Year honors with an average of 17 points, 7.2 rebounds and two blocked shots in his time with the Bonnies
As our interview comes to a close Nicholson was confident and well aware of the challenges Canada will face as it attempts to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. He believes that despite their inexperience they have enough talent to dethrone powerhouses like Argentina and Brazil, who along with the USA have traditionally represented the Americas zone at both the World Championships and Olympic stages. “We are missing some key guys but we will go out there and compete hard and try to accomplish our goal of qualifying. We’ve had a tough and intense training camp and are gelling together every day.” In an effort to find the right chemistry and combinations on the floor, head coach Jay Triano experimented with his lineup ahead of the FIBA Americas as Canada went 0-4 at the 2013 Tuto Marchand Continental Cup, serving as a tune up for the World Cup qualifier.
Despite the dismal showing by the young inexperienced Canadians, Andrew Nicholson continued to show signs of brilliance by leading the team in scoring with 15 points per game while showcasing more confidence in his three-point shot, nailing 6-of-7 shots from beyond the arc.
Canada and Nicholson halted their four game losing streak by opening the 2013 FIBA Americas with their third win of the summer against Jamaica. Canada’s trio of Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Nicholson took charge in key moments against Brazil, a team Canada had not defeated in 10 years and fought off a near 9-hour power outage across Venezuela in the last group game against Uruguay. Finishing the opening round of the tournament with a 3-1 record, good for second place in Group A.
With the second round looming closer and Canada needing a top four finish to advance to the World Cup, Nicholson and Canadian basketball fans back home and abroad were finally starting to get a taste of international success. The national team opened up the second round by routing eventual champions Mexico 89-69 to push their record to 4-1 and three-game winning streak had everyone including the announcers in Caracas, jumping on the Canadian bandwagon, by not only declaring them favorites to win the Americas championships, but a potential threat at next year’s World Cup when some of their missing key guys joined the rest of the squad.
Unfortunately for Canada and Andrew Nicholson their inexperience and lack of execution in the late stages of close games against the cream of the crop of the Americas zone caught up with them. The National team dropped three-straight games including a nail-biting 73-67 loss at hands of Argentina that suddenly left Canada’s 2014 FIBA Word Cup hopes at the mercy of FIBA delegates who will award four wildcard spots between 15 nations in January 2014.
For Nicholson, despite a few moments of immaturity and perhaps some bad international officiating, the lessons were learned – in eight games at the FIBA Americas Nicholson averaged 15 points, 3.4 rebounds, connected on 55% of his field goals and was above average from the outside – burying 45.5% of his open looks including a near perfect 94.7% from the free-throw line.
Not only did Nicholson lead, he at times was Canada’s best player on the floor by displaying flashes of brilliance while keeping his defenders off balance with a deadly combination of soft right and left hand hook shots that are sure to bode
well for Canada and the Magic in the years ahead.
Nicholson outlines his next steps, “get stronger, improve my rebounding and defend better by not picking up costly fouls.” As long as Nicholson is able to master these remaining disciplines, which should come easy for a guy with a degree in Physics who is accustomed to solving complex formulas, then he and Canadian basketball fans will truly enjoy watching Nicholson and the “New Era” of Canadian basketball.