If you haven't heard, Andrew Wiggins was recently named the Gatorade male athlete of the year, the first Canadian to receive the honour. That was big news, but it's what Wiggins said in an interview before receiving the award in Los Angeles that has generated headlines.
Wiggins was asked what NBA team he thinks will be picking first next year, but it seems he thought he was being asked what team he'd like to play for. He looked down, a bit of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"I would like to say the Raptors. I'd like to play for them," he said.
"Toronto?" the interviewer asked.
"Yeah," Wiggins replied.
Before fans start sizing up those number 22 jerseys, it's important to note that what Wiggins said doesn't mean anything in and of itself. The reality is there's very little chance he'll be suiting up for the Raps next season. What is important, however, is that his admission reveals how Toronto could take advantage of the coming wave of Canadian basketball talent and become a free agent hotbed.
As anyone who follows the team knows, attracting players to play in Toronto has always been a problem. It's not hard to find NBA players gushing about visiting the city, but consistent losing tends to keep the best free agents at bay.
The appeal of a Canadian player on "Canada's team" has also long been an intriguing thought, but for most of the past 20 years having a Canadian on the roster would have represented the worst form of tokenism. It was nice that Jamaal Magloire got to return home to play, but it would have been even better if he could have actually helped on the court.
Now, though, adding a Canadian to the roster wouldn't be just a glorified publicity stunt. As Canadian players become better and better, they offer the Raptors a chance to improve on the court and not just a marketing opportunity. There are nine Canadians on NBA rosters right now and that number could climb as high as 11 if Kris Joseph and Myck Kabongo can find their way onto teams. These aren't just journeymen and role players either; Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Andrew Nicholson, Anthony Bennett and even Kelly Olynyk are all established players or look like potential future starters. And, of course, there's a ton of NBA talent in the pipeline, led by the aforementioned Wiggins.
This offers the Raptors a fantastic and unique recruiting advantage. Given that they are the only team in Canada, they can offer hometown appeal to any Canadian player whether he's from Brampton or Burnaby. Fortunately, most top Canadian players hail from the Toronto area, so the team can offer a true hometown advantage in those cases. No other NBA team has this advantage and it's one the Raps should ruthlessly exploit.
On a recent edition of his podcast with David Jacoby, Jalen Rose argued that the Lakers should specifically target players with California ties. The Raptors can do the same thing from a Canadian perspective, but with the added bonus of not having to compete against the Clippers, Warriors and Kings.
There are many other factors beyond patriotism that influence where a free agent signs. Money, winning, fit and team culture all play a role in free agency, but it's rare that one team can boast a monopoly on appealing to a player's sense of patriotism. It also helps that the Raptors have never had a relevant Canadian player; the first one would become a sports hero in the city.
Many stories chronicling the rise of Canadian basketball have put forward the idea that the arrival of the Raptors (and the Grizzlies) in 1995 inspired a generation of young Canadians, many of whom grew up with dreams of playing in the NBA.
It's taken nearly two decades, but the Raptors now have a golden opportunity to reap the rewards of that long-ago inspiration. Andrew Wiggins probably won't be acquired through the draft, but that doesn't mean the dream of him suiting up in a Raptors uniform should die too. The Raptors have homecourt advantage and it will be fascinating to see if they can take advantage of it.