***Written by Mickias Mikre***
Canada’s rise in basketball this past decade has been undeniable. Today, in what Elias Sbiet describes as “the Golden Age of Canadian Basketball”, there are more NBA players from Canada than any other non-US country. That number is only growing too, with as many as 10 Canadians looking to add their names to that player pool in the 2019 NBA draft.
Just a few years ago, the only way for Canadian prospects to get themselves into that elite tier was to move to the US to play prep basketball. But with the development of Canadian prep circuits and an improved basketball infrastructure, players like Jamal Murray, Luguentz Dort and AJ Lawson are showing that it’s possible to make it onto the NBA radar while playing high-school ball north of the border.
This weekend marked the first ever championships for the National Junior Circuit. To wrap up its inaugural season, the Circuit brought 11 of the best junior teams in the country to Ottawa to duke it out for Canada’s top spot at the junior level. NPH was there to catch the semi-final and medal games at the session.
Pine Ridge upset the session’s host and a tournament-favourite in CTA to get to the semi-finals, but their journey only got tougher with the undefeated Crestwood Prep as their next opponent. Pine Ridge started the game hot from 3 and held a one-point lead at the half despite a 22-point first half by 2023 star forward Elijah Fisher. Pine Ridge started to cool down from outside after halftime while Fisher remained dominant with a 13-point third quarter, helping Crestwood pull ahead and eventually walk away with a 91-78 victory. Fisher finished with 44 points, willing Crestwood into Sunday’s championship game.
The other semi-final game saw Thornlea take on Michael Power, who upset the 10-4 St. Martin Mustangs in the quarter finals. Thornlea dominated from the outset, finishing the first half with a 50-26 lead. Their trapping half-court defence overwhelmed Michael Power and created easy transition looks all game long. Thornlea’s effort level waned a bit in the third but they held on for a 73-60 win to advance to the national championships.
Although the weekend saw plenty of upsets, the finals featured the top two teams in the Circuit’s standings. Crestwood came out firing, jumping to an 8-3 lead two minutes into the game. Thornlea answered with a 7-0 run of its own, with 2022 PG Tyler Garcia accounting for 5 of those points. Garcia finished the first quarter with 10 points and Thornlea had a 26-18 lead heading into the second.
Thornlea’s defense went all out to contain Elijah Fisher, forcing him to drive past waves of defenders anytime he tried to get to the rim. 2024 PG Mikkel Tyne stepped up in the second quarter with a pair of jumpers to provide Crestwood some much-needed scoring from outside. They put a dent in the lead, but Crestwood still trailed 38-42 going into the half.
Fisher came alive in the third for Crestwood as they hoped to turn things around, but Thornlea was on fire from beyond the arc to start the second half. They hit four 3s in the third quarter and held onto a seven-point lead heading into the final frame. Thornlea stepped up the defensive pressure in the fourth, trapping ball handlers and forcing turnovers to kill the momentum of every Crestwood mini-run. They stretched the lead out to 15 and earned the National Junior Circuit championship trophy with a 86-78 victory.
Tyler Garcia led the way for Thornlea. He finished with 25 points and was named Finals MVP. Fisher scored 26 points, but he had to work hard every single one and fell just short of leading his team to victory.
Here’s a look at some of the players that stood out during this weekend’s semi-final & medal matches:
2022 Tyler Garcia – Thornlea S.S.
Tyler Garcia showed that he can score the ball in a variety of ways. He’s a knockdown shooter from 3 who can shoot spotting up or off the dribble. He has a quick crossover and a nasty hesitation move that keeps his defenders guessing which way he’s going to go. Tyler also plays lock-down defense and can force steals without getting out of position.
2023 Elijah Fisher – Crestwood Prep
Elijah Fisher showed why he’s considered the top junior player in the nation with his play in Ottawa. Few players his size have the body control, handle and finishing ability that he has, regardless of class. He can blow by defenders out of the triple threat or just power through them depending on what the situation calls for. Once inside, he’ll rise over contesting arms for the dunk or finish off the glass. Improving his 3 point shot will be key for his development, as Thornlea might have found a blueprint for containing him as a main scoring option.
2022 Leonard Miller – Thornlea S.S.
Leonard Miller came alive in the championship game, especially on defense. He stepped up to the challenge of covering Elijah Fisher, playing physical defense throughout and using his length and defensive positioning keep him out of the paint and make every shot difficult. Offensively, he showed flashes of becoming an effective stretch-four. He can knock down a spot up 3 when given enough time, and can put it on the floor to attack a close out. He’s not afraid of the moment, as he scored 8 points in the fourth quarter to keep Crestwood from completing their comeback. His development as a shooter will be something to watch going forward.
2023 Max Voorpool – Pine Ridge S.S.
Max Voorpool played the sixth-man role to perfection for Pine Ridge. He always steps onto the court with high energy and can get hot from 3 in an instant. He’s constantly on the move and ready to shoot off the ball, forcing the D to exert a lot of effort to keep track of him on the perimeter. Active on both ends, he even drew a big charge for Pine Ridge during a key run by Crestwood.
2022 Elijah Mahi – Pine Ridge S.S.
Elijah Mahi has the skillset of a modern forward. He’s long, can shoot the three, and has a solid handle for his size. He even played the point for Pine Ridge at stretches. Defensively, he moves well laterally and is fundamentally sound, staying vertical and avoiding bad fouls.
2022 Nikolai Rajacic – Michael Power – St. Joseph H.S.
Nikolai Rajacic has a throwback game, spending most of his time on offence operating out of the post. He has good footwork and a quick spin move when backing down defenders. He has a soft touch, and can finish with both hands inside. He didn’t attempt a jumpshot in either of the final two games, and that will be the next step in his development to add some versatility to his offensive game