Different paths but same End Line: A look at the Raptors 905 Newest Canadian Ballers

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Special to On Point Basketball

(Toronto, On) As the official roster for the Raptors 905 was recently announced, one thing that stood out from the roster was that four Canadians were on the roster, including returning player and NBA G-League champion Negus Webster-Chan.

Aaron Best, Kaza Keane, and Richard Amardi were the three other Canadians made the squad but each of them took completely different paths to get here.

Below is a look at their stories and how they got to this point. Also, here are some takeaways from each of the Canadian newcomers from 905 Media Day.

Thoughts about Four Canadians on the 905 Roster

“These are all guys that I’ve known from the past and it’s great for us to come all together and work forward towards a common goal.” (Best)

“It’s nice and it’s always good to represent our country. At the end of the day, it’s a team sport. It doesn’t matter what country we’re from; as long as we come together and represent the Raptors 905, that’s all it matters.” (Keane)

“It’s comforting as well as competition between us. At the end of the day, we have a lot of pride as Canadians. We were always forgotten so we got to do the most and we had to overachieve to show that we were a little bit better. The bar just gets raised higher because we try to get the best out of each other on and off the court.” (Amardi)

Returning Canadian Negus-Webster Chan

Comparisons Between 905 Head Coach Jerry Stackhouse and Former College/University Coaches

“They care a lot about their players; they’re very passionate. You never get the opportunity to play for a coach like that where they’ve been there and know what they’re talking about.” (Keane on Stackhouse’s similarities to Carleton Head Coach Dave Smart)

“They both believe in defense. To them, defense is a major thing to drill into a person’s head because that wins a lot of games. I think they have similar styles but different approaches. Both are intense and love the game just as much and they understand that defense is what it takes to make things happen.” (Amardi on the similarities between Stackhouse and Oregon Head Coach Dana Altman)

“Obviously, it’s a different level now. What’s similar between the two of them (Rana and Stackhouse) is the attention of detail ,the pride on defense, and defense being the main staple. I think they have a lot of similarities in terms of their values and how they want to play basketball.” (Best on the similarities between Stackhouse and Ryerson Head Coach Roy Rana)

Summer Leagues

Both Amardi and Keane had played in the summer during this year’s Crown League and also spoke about their experiences there.

“You have the best players in the city coming together from all types of different avenues of professional basketball,” Keane said. “To battle it out and see who can become the best team in our city; some of that doesn’t come around very often. It was my first experience and I loved it.”

“It was staying in shape; it was playing with a lot of high-level competition,” Amardi said, who also played in On Point’s inaugural Summer Pro-Am League. “It was being focused game in and game out and always having the attention to detail to allowing everything to happen where you let it suppose to happen, on any given day.”

The Stigma Surrounding U SPORTS and the NBA

In previous years, U SPORTS (formerly the CIS) was not known for producing NBA or G-League talent, for that matter. The last time an U SPORTS player was in the NBA was in 1983, when Jim Zoet played for the Detroit Pistons.

By making the 905 though, Best and Keane are one step closer to making their NBA dreams a reality. The two guards are the first U SPORTS athletes to make it to the 905 regular season roster.

“Hopefully, I can be an inspiration and encourage (U SPORTS) athletes that it is possible,” Best said. “I think the gap is closing between U SPORTS and the NCAA. The NCAA is an elite league but U SPORTS is rapidly growing.”

“U SPORTS is overlooked at a lot of levels but I think there’s been a lot of good talent that’s come out of this level,” Keane said, referring to Carleton alumni Phil and Thomas Scrubb. “Canada Basketball is stepping in the direction that it’s not rare that you have professionals coming out of U SPORTS. It’s a great opportunity for us and we’re just going to try and thrive.”

Aaron Best with On Point’s Kajan Thiruthanikasalam

ONCE A RAM, ALWAYS A RAM: AARON BEST

It is not often that a player can leave upon a legacy at an Ontario university and still be able to have his NBA dreams within his grasp.

Enter Ryerson’s own Aaron Best. Unlike most players that are currently in the G-League, Best, 25, spent his entire collegiate career with the Ryerson Rams.

The 6-foot-4 shooting guard spent five years with the Rams and won an Ontario University Association title in his final season (2015-16) with Ryerson. He finished his career at Ryerson with 14 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, and 1.1 spg while shooting an efficient 48.8 per cent overall and 39.1 per cent from beyond the arc.

“I took a lot from Coach Rana and built long-lasting relationships at Ryerson,” Best said. “Here, I feel like a lot of the same things are asked out of the players like attention to detail and defense first.”

Best then went to Lithuania to play professional basketball, signing a contract with Juventus of the Division 1 League. He averaged 7.2 ppg during the 2016-17 regular season before trying his luck with the G-League.

“A lot of times, when guys go overseas, they’re expecting a drastic change with the culture there,” Best said. “It wasn’t much of a change really; it was a cool family-oriented city. It was a nice experience.”

Best also quipped, saying, “Right off the bat, they think you’re American.”

The Scarborough native attended an open tryout with the 905 in September and it was apparent that the organization liked Best enough that they acquired him in a trade after the Long Island Nets drafted him 42nd overall in this year’s G-League Draft.

“It was a great honour being from here,” Best said. “They just came off winning a championship so for them to be interested in me is great and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

The short distance from his hometown in Scarborough to the Hershey Centre also helps matters out for Best.

“It’s great. My family can just drive 20-30 minutes on the highway and be able to watch me play for home games,” Best said. “It’s special.”

A reminder to Best and his family: Beware about the traffic during rush hour, especially during games at 7:00 pm.

Former Carleton Raven Kaza Keane

CAREER REVIVAL VIA CARLETON: KAZA KEANE

Normally, Canadian basketball players and NBA hopefuls find the best opportunities down south of the border in order to get attention and make it into the NBA.

Keane, however, broke that mold… by doing the exact opposite.

“It was just an opportunity to play with Dave (Smart),” Keane said. “I wanted to play professional basketball and at the level I was performing at when I was in the United States, I wasn’t going to get there.”

Keane’s path at the collegiate level was not easy. The Ajax, Ont., native spent two unspectacular seasons at Illinois State and another ho-hum year at Cleveland State before finally finding a home with the Carleton Ravens. Given that U SPORTS was considered the weaker league compared to competition in the United States, the move was considered questionable and somewhat of a step back.

The move to Carleton, however, sparked Keane, 23, to unprecedented levels as the 6-foot-1 point guard led Carleton to back-to-back U SPORTS championships in his two years with the Ravens.

“Sometimes you just have to find the best situation for yourself,” Keane said. “The grass isn’t greener on the other side. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.”

Keane credited Smart, Carleton’s decorated head coach, for guiding his career back on the right track.

“Coach was pretty frank and honest with me and said he didn’t believe that I was a pro (at the time),” Keane reminisced. “He said I could become a pro if I could develop in those two years. It was a no-brainer then to take my talents and go to Carleton.”

“I played for one of the best coaches ever,” Keane said. “I just try to soak in everything that he tells me and I talk to him consistently (to this very day).”

In his final year at Carleton, Keane spearheaded a Ravens team that finished the 2016-17 regular season undefeated. Keane also won the MVP of the 2017 U SPORTS Final 8 Tournament and Carleton’s 2017 Male Athlete of the Year award.

Keane averaged 14.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, and 5.9 apg over his two years with the Ravens while shooting an efficient 50.6 per cent from the field.

Keane’s development as a player at Carleton was clearly noticed as he was also invited to represent Team Canada for the 2017 Universiade (Taipei City, Chinese Taipei). He led the team in scoring with 20.4 ppg, although Canada finished in 10th place.

“It was definitely a learning experience, being in a situation where you only had players that came together for a week to represent their country,” Keane said. “We didn’t get a medal like we wanted to but we built a brotherhood over there and that’s something that will last forever.”

“It was one of the best experiences I ever had, especially being in Taiwan for a month.”

Keane is hopeful of the Canadian youth and senses there will be growth in the future.

“Hopefully, the guys in two years can get a medal for our country,” Keane said.

The former Ravens guard earned an invite to the 905 training camp from their local tryout in September and ran with the opportunity. However, Keane admitted that the speed of the game will be the hardest to adapt to in the initial stages.

“I had to catch a breath a couple of times yesterday,” Keane said, referring to the 905’s final preseason game against the Erie Bayhawks. “It’s a different speed and the length of the players is top notch. I just have been talking to the coaches a lot, getting feedback, and watching film to get an advantage.”

A move to Canada helped revive Keane’s hopes of a basketball career. He looks to continue his upward trajectory in the country that he’s most comfortable with.

Once Rivals, Now Teammates

Before making the 905 became a reality for Best and Keane, they were opposing players as part of a rivalry between the Rams and the Ravens basketball programs respectively. Although they only faced off during the 2015-16 season, it brought forward some intense battles as Ryerson began to go toe-to-toe with the dynasty that was the Ravens. The Rams even won the OUA Final over the Ravens; however, Carleton emerged victorious in the U SPORTS Final 8 Tournament while Ryerson took bronze.

Fast forward two years later. Now, they’re teammates.

“Honestly, it’s a little bit of a relief,” Best said, smiling. “I’ve played against Kaza quite a bit and he’s a great player and it’s nice for us to be on the same side now.”

“We definitely make some funny remarks about the rivalry that’s been going on between Carleton and Ryerson,” Keane said. “It’s all love; we both respect each other as opponents and teammates now. Hopefully we can get to the point that the rivalry continues and grows where people in Canada respect it and people can go support the game at the biggest level.”

Head Coach Jerry Stackhouse

TOO MANY TWISTS AND TURNS BUT ALIVE AND WELL: RICHARD AMARDI

We couldn’t finish this article without mentioning one of the most unique ballers out there, 27-year-old Richard Amardi, from Scarborough, Ont.

Amardi’s journey here endured many ups and downs. His post-secondary basketball career spanned three teams, starting at Weatherford College for a year and Indian Hills Community College (JUCO) for two years before finishing off his senior season (2013-14) with the Oregon Ducks.

Amardi made the most of his opportunity at Oregon, averaged 6.4 ppg and 3.9 rpg, playing in all 34 games under head coach Dana Altman. He said that it was a wakeup call for him when he played at Oregon compared to his other schools.

“At the time, someone coming from where I was coming from, all I wanted to do was get an opportunity to play on TV,” Amardi said. “I didn’t really understand the history behind it, who guys were, and how much work and time they generally put in to make things happen.”

The forward was effusive in his praise of Altman, saying, “He helped me understand that he is not just someone who’s recognized and acknowledged as a great coach. This is someone that is a great coach, a great person, and also helps your game in so many different ways.”

Amardi then came closer to home to start his professional career in the NBL Canada, playing with the Orangeville (formerly Brampton) A’s for two seasons and the Niagara River Lions for one season. The 6’9” forward averaged 12.3 ppg and 5.1 rpg over the course of three years in the NBL.

“There were a lot of positives coming out of Brampton because Brampton gave me my opportunity at professional basketball,” Amardi said. “They allowed me to grow as a professional on so many different levels.”

His year with the River Lions was filled with improvement as he was named to the NBLC All-Canadian Third Team.

“Niagara gave me a home where I could literally build that platform and foundation for me to springboard into different levels,” Amardi said.

However, his professional career was filled with bumps along the way.

“I was overwhelmed with a lot of things that had happened in that year so I kind of took some time off after my second season professionally,” Amardi said.

That time off did not last long.

“I had a major void that was missing in my life and I wasn’t happy,” Amardi said. “When I understood that it was basketball that was what I was missing, I put my foot forward and never looked back from there.”

Amardi’s improvements as a player were rewarded this summer as he earned an invite to play for the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team (which included NBA players Andrew Nicholson and Joel Anthony as well as former NCAA studs Brady Heslip and Xavier Rathan-Mayes) in the FIBA AmeriCup 2017 in Argentina.

“Honestly, that was an experience that changed my life,” Amardi said. “Once I got put on that level with all those other great talents, I got to sit back and actually appreciate the fact that I possibly have a great opportunity to make something out of basketball.”

He, like Keane, also earned a camp invite from the 905 after impressing during an open tryout in September.

“That’s basketball for you,” Amardi said. “It really has no explanation where the ball takes you. And the fact that it’s brought me all the way to this level, to this place, and this moment… words can’t explain it.”

What has been the biggest difference for him in the G-League compared to the NBL Canada?

“Everyone is just as talented. It’s not like there are a few guys that are talented; you got to understand how everybody on the court can do the same things that you would do,” Amardi said. “It’s about playing the right way, understanding the coverage and defensive schemes, understanding what would work, and what won’t work.”

As for what his goal is for the regular season, Amardi said, “I just want to bring a lot of passion and energy. I just want to do the small things that help this team become the championship team that it was last year.”

For someone that started his younger days at Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute, Amardi has sure come a long way indeed.

By: Kajan Thiruthanikasalam

Edited by Drew Ebanks

Photos by Rob Ong