Inside the rise of Canada’s newest basketball hotbed

History was made Thursday during the NBA Draft when Bennedict Mathurin’s name heard his named called early in the first round of the NBA Draft.

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. The only thing stopping these guys at this points are injuries and getting a pesky MRI in hopes that it is nothing serious

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.

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