On a night of firsts, Bennett’s selection is one big surprise

TORONTO and VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Anthony Bennett of Brampton, Ont., reacts after being selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in New York on Thursday. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

A Canadian stole the show at the NBA draft in New York.

Anthony Bennett, who leaned on the game of basketball to help him escape the mean streets of the north-end Toronto neighbourhood where he grew up, was the shocking No. 1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers at Thursday night’s NBA college draft.

Even NBA commissioner David Stern appeared a bit taken aback by the selection.

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Standing at the podium at the Barclays Center, Stern paused for effect before announcing Bennett’s name as the top selection, raising his hand to encourage more reaction from the audience on hand.

The 20-year-old Bennett was part of that crowd and was surrounded by about 25 friends and family members and smiled broadly when the commissioner said his name.

He exchanged hugs with those around him before pulling on a Cavaliers cap.

The 20-year-old power forward who was a freshman at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this past season, becomes the first Canadian to be selected with the first-overall pick in the NBA draft.

Tristan Thompson of Brampton had previously set the bar, getting selected fourth overall by the Cavaliers in 2011.

"This is a phenominal moment for Anthony and for Canadian basketball," said Canada Basketball executive director Wayne Parrish in a text message. "He has worked awfully hard to get to this point."

These are defining times for Canadian basketball, as Andrew Wiggins, who also hails from Brampton, is already being touted as a No. 1 pick heading into next year’s draft.

Although Bennett was considered as a potential first-round pick, his status in the draft had been sliding of late, partially due to rotator cuff shoulder surgery he underwent in May.

Heading into the draft, the Cavaliers gave no indication on whom they might pick, but the heavy betting was on Nerlens Noel, the 6-foot-11 Kentucky star, or Alex Lin, a 7-foot-1 forward with Maryland.

The surprise pick was even acknowledged by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who posted on Twitter: “Congrats to @AnthonyBennett for being the first Cdn ever drafted #1 overall in the NBA draft. Good luck in Cleveland, we’re all behind you.”

Bennett was born in the hardscrabble Toronto neighbourhood of Jane-Finch in Toronto’s north end, where he says he played basketball to keep himself off the streets.

Bennett and his family later moved to Brampton, where he continued developing his game and eventually wound up at UNLV on a scholarship.

He played his high school basketball at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, the same school that Thompson attended, as well as Canadian Cory Joseph, who appeared in this year's NBA final with San Antonio Spurs.

Bennett, who starred for Canada’s junior national teams, averaged 16.1 points to lead the Runnin’ Rebels, to go along with 8.1 rebounds.

“Everybody in Canada knew this was coming [with Wiggins next year] but this is just a better way to announce our arrival, with the No. 1 pick and the No. 1 player [Wiggins] going into college. It’s something people can’t ignore,” said Pasha Bains, who was a Division I player at Clemson before returning to Simon Fraser University and winning CIS player of the year in 2004 as the country’s leading scorer.

Bains watched Bennett play when UNLV visited Portland in December, and says it was a scene of men among boys, with Bennett moving fast up and down the court, particularly for his size, and likewise a smooth jumper for his physical presence. At the rim, it was thunderous.

“The dunks he was doing were just monster dunks,” Bains said. “The way he was playing was an NBA game.”

When Bains was growing up, pro basketball had arrived in Canada – but the number of players making the NBA now is a huge difference he said in terms of inspiring kids.

Bains, 33, operates a basketball player-development centre called Drive Basketball in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond for ages 6 to 17 and earlier Thursday was coaching a group of about three dozen children. The distance from Canada to the NBA, or more modestly, Division I U.S. college basketball, is far shorter than it once was.

“It’s just way closer to home than it was when I was coming up,” Bains said. “It’s just a lot more believable.”

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

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