Andrew Nicholson and his teammates grow game in the EASL

Even in the East Asia Super League, Canadian basketball still making its presence felt.

In less than six months, the basketball world will descend upon Japan’s southernmost island, Okinawa.

Okinawa will be Japan’s only host city for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. The Philippines and Indonesia will be the other two host nations.

Team Canada will be playing in the world’s fourth most populous country (Indonesia), but Japan’s tropical island got a warm-up before August’s big event, hosting the inaugural East Asia Super League (EASL) games from earlier this month.

The EASL is a “champions league,” consisting of the 2021-22 champions and runners-up from Japan’s B. League, Korea’s KBL, and the Philippines’ PBA. In addition to these six teams, EASL’s Bay Area Dragons and Taiwan’s P. LEAGUE+ champions, Taipei Fubon Braves, competed. A total eight teams were divided into two groups of four, and each team played two games, which determined qualification for the championship and third-place game.

KBL’s Anyang KGC took home the championship, and prize money of USD $250,000. They were led by former NBA player Omari Spellman, who was named tournament MVP. Another KBL team, Seoul SK Knights, placed second, taking home $100,000, and third-place Bay Area Dragons netted $50,000. East Asia’s best got to compete against each other for regional supremacy.

Former Team Canada and NBA player Andrew Nicholson proved he’s one of East Asia’s premier big men throughout the five-day tournament (the first three days of the tourney were in Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo). He averaged 26 points, and shot a total 10-for-21 behind the arc. 

His Bay Area Dragons lost to the Seoul SK Knights in the group phase, which relegated them to the third-place game, where they faced Okinawa’s professional team, Ryukyu Golden Kings, in their home arena. The Golden Kings are one of the most popular teams in Japan’s B. League, and they play in the spanking-new, five-storey, 10,000-seating capacity Okinawa Arena (where the Luka Doncic and the World Cup will be).

After the third-place game, Ryukyu’s forward Allen Durham said stretch bigs were in high demand internationally. “You gotta have some type of extra attribute to make yourself stand out,” he said.

But this isn’t about whether Drew’s still got it. At 33 years old, Nicholson, who was drafted by the Orlando Magic back in 2012, represents the maturation of a Canadian NBA talent that’s leveling up the quality of basketball in a specific region overseas. Players like him are showing an alternative to representing Canadian basketball, aside from gracing an NBA hardwood or donning the Red and White in international play; showing up to a foreign market and simply making basketball better.

The media-savvy B. League Chairman Shinji Shimada admitted he would love a player of Nicholson’s calibre in Japan. “Our business can’t depend solely on star power, but I recognize the impact they have,” Shimada said in Japanese. “We aspire to become a league where we can have one star per team.” Many Filipino stars have flow east for the B. League, with Kai Sotto being the most recent high-profile arrival.

Nicholson’s Canadian teammates also shed new light on Canadian basketball, proving just how high level the talent pool in Canada is. His teammates have a low profile in Canada, but took advantage of their hyphenated Asian-Canadian identities to play overseas.

Kobey Lam

Kobey Lam flew under the radar in Toronto’s prep basketball scene. He played at Athlete Institute and Father Henry Carr Prep, and bounced around in college, going from JUCO, to Denver, to the University of Charleston. 

He never proved himself at the collegiate level, but stayed ready for an opportunity — one that allowed him to compete in Okinawa among the best East Asian clubs.

“His role in the PBA was instrumental in us getting to where we got to in the [PBA] Grand Final,” said head coach Brian Goorjian, who has won six titles in NBL Australia. “Really good athletic player, he can create for himself, and score. Really good person, really good culture guy, so a lot of growth in him, and we’re excited for him down the road.” 

Former Philadelphia Sixers two-way player Myles Powell, who signed a seven-figure deal with Bay Area, built on Goorjian’s praise. “Me being Kobey big brother, he always comes to me, he asks questions, he’s a great kid, he always wants to get better,” he said. “He was playing a lot in the PBA and he comes here, and he not really playing that much, but he’s still one of the first guys to get off the bench and cheer for you.”

Imagine being 23 years old, never getting a chance to prove yourself in college, but getting the co-sign of an Australian legendary coach and fringe NBA player. Only time will tell what this tournament will do for Lam’s development. In addition to Lam, former Guelph Gryphon Duncan Reid and former Mount Royal Cougar Glen Yang both used their Hong Kong status to play in the EASL as Bay Area’s domestic players.

Glen Yang

Outside the NBA and G League, pro basketball is not a free market — players like Lam, Reid, and Yang benefit from, and took advantage of, pro basketball protectionism. But basketball development is rarely a zero-sum game. Just as Canada and the U.S. groomed Nicholson’s talent for East Asian basketball, East Asian basketball may develop Lam and Yang’s talents for a CEBL arena one day. As we most recently saw in Halifax, international students upped USPORTS play at nationals, and they may soon return to their home countries to play professionally.

Even if none of these Canadians return to Asia for the World Cup, Canadian basketball is constantly pushing the level of play, and making their presence felt, even under Japanese palm trees.

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