Fan Duel Toronto Raptors


2024 USPORTS Championship Weekend Kicks Off

The search for future Winter Core members shifts to Quebec City.

Over the last couple years, USPORTS basketball has become a league that I have paid more and more attention to. Players like Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb, Kaza Kajami-Keane, Aaron Best and Conor Morgan have turned into “Winter Core” stalwarts and carved out successful multi-year careers playing high level basketball in Europe. Undoubtedly a vote of confidence for the talent in collegiate basketball in Canada.

In recent years, a new wave of players produced by USPORTS basketball has piqued my interest. Promising young players like Thomas Kennedy (who I wrote a 2000+ word deep dive on in 2022) and Kadre Gray have already begun their national team careers, just missing out on the podium at the 2022 AmeriCup. Earlier this season, Aiden Warnholtz (who impressed me at GLOBL JAM 2023) and David Muenkat both made their professional debuts with Skyliners Frankfurt, a once-storied German club vying for promotion back to the German BBL. The seamless USPORTS-CEBL integration allowed me to watch sophomore Simon Hildebrandt play a key role on the Winnipeg Sea Bears, and I came away especially intrigued by his combination of size and shooting.

That brings us to 2024 and Quebec City, Quebec. Hosted by Laval University, the 2024 Final 8 promises to be another frantic, frenzied conclusion to the USPORTS basketball season. The championship bracket, which was announced last Sunday, awarded the Victoria Vikes the coveted top seed. The complete seeding came out to be:

  1. Victoria Vikes (Canada West Champions)
  2. Queen’s Gaels (OUA Champions)
  3. UQAM Citadins (RSEQ Champions)
  4. Dalhousie Tigers (AUS Champions)
  5. Brock Badgers (OUA Finalist)
  6. Ottawa Gee-Gees (At-Large Berth)
  7. Winnipeg Wesmen (Canada West Finalist)
  8. Laval Rouge et Or (Host)

All games will be streamed live by CBC Sports and you can find the tournament schedule here.

Players of Note

One of my favourite things about watching collegiate basketball (in Canada and the USA) is the opportunity to discover new prospects for future editions of the SMNT. Heading into the Final 8, I will be closely watching 6 players in particular. To be transparent, my analysis is based on having only watched a handful of full games for each of these players. On-demand USPORTS game film is hard to come by so I am excited to catch more games live this weekend.

As an aside, Martin Timmerman runs an incredible statistical archive of each USPORTS basketball season that you can find here (he’s got some game sheets dating all the back to 1904!). It’s an invaluable resource that I have used extensively for the player averages referenced below and will continue to use moving forward. Give him a follow!

Diego Maffia

  • Team: Victoria Vikes
  • Height: 6’1″
  • Position: PG
  • Year: 5

The winner of the 2024 Mike Moser Memorial Trophy (the USPORTS Men’s MVP award), Diego Maffia had a senior season for the ages. Maffia’s 26.6 PPG average was enough for him to easily win the USPORTS scoring title and lead the Victoria Vikes to the #1 overall seed in the Final 8. In the Canada West playoffs, Maffia upped his scoring production to 28.7 PPG, although his efficiency tailed off (36.7/28.3/71.4 shooting splits), en route to a third straight Canada West Conference Championship.

Maffia does most of his damage scoring the ball with his jumper. He’s comfortable pulling up from well behind the 3PT line as well as firing away after sprinting through off-ball actions. His percentages from the field (47.1/34.2/89.9) might not reflect it due to his difficult shot diet, but Maffia is truly an incredible shooter. In the games I’ve watched, I also thought Maffia was a good distributor of the ball, averaging a solid 5.2:2.9 AST:TOV ratio. He varies the angle and velocity of his passes depending on the situation and he’s capable of slinging some one-handed live dribble passes out of the PnR as well. In his current form, Maffia is an elite USPORTS offensive creator.

While Maffia has yet to suit up for the national team, he did play solid minutes for the Vancouver Bandits in the 2023 CEBL season after being selected 6th overall. I’m currently not as high on his potential as an overseas pro as I was with the 2023 Mike Moser Memorial Trophy award winner Thomas Kennedy. At the end of the day though, it’s all about production and Maffia has produced consistently at a high level in his final 2 USPORT seasons. If you haven’t watched any USPORTS basketball this season, you can’t go wrong following Maffia and the Vikes this weekend.

Cole Syllas

  • Team: Queen’s Gaels
  • Height: 6’5″
  • Position: G/F
  • Year: 5

Fresh off a banked step-back game winner to win the Wilson Cup (OUA Championship), Cole Syllas leads the Gaels into Quebec City eyeing more silverware. Named a First Team All-Canadian in his junior season last year and fresh off of a season in the CEBL with the Ottawa Blackjacks, Syllas saw his raw averages decrease this season, but scored the ball with better efficiency (47.3/32.4/80.4 splits).

After watching this year’s OUA playoffs, I was blown away by Syllas’ ability to play in traffic. He’s got an off-kilter, herky-jerky style where he never looks completely balanced and yet he slips by defenders with ease. Amidst all the chaos of limbs in the painted area, Syllas consistently maintains his composure.

Interestingly, Cole Syllas has suited up for Canada in the past, doing so in the FIBA 3×3 U23 Nations League this past summer. It seems Canada Basketball dipped into their USPORTS talent pool to fill up the 3×3 team, getting potential “Winter Core” players involved in the program at an earlier stage of their careers.

Elias Ralph

  • Team: Victoria Vikes
  • Height: 6’7″
  • Position: G/F
  • Year: 3

After diving into Victoria Vikes film to watch Diego Maffia, I stumbled upon a hidden gem in Elias Ralph. Standing at 6’7″, Ralph has a fluidity and craftiness attacking from the perimeter that a typical USPORTS player his size lacks. Just watch the stutter jab and bump finish Ralph executes in the 2nd clip of the video below or the euro step along the baseline in the 3rd clip. His blend of size and skill on the wing is much more commonplace in NCAA D1 basketball and the NBA.

When you combine his driving craft with the fact that he’s a career 43.5% (100-230) 3PT shooter at the USPORTS level (46.5% this season), you’re looking at an incredibly intriguing offensive profile. Out of all the players I’ve listed today, I am currently the highest on Ralph’s future pro potential and role with the SMNT. He’s got a translatable skillset and with further physical development over the years, he can thrive at the wing positions at the next level. Really excited to dive in more this weekend!

Luka Syllas

  • Team: Queen’s Gaels
  • Height: 6’2″
  • Position: PG
  • Year: 5

The brother of Cole Syllas, Luka Syllas put up a career best year in his final season at the USPORTS level. He was named the OUA and USPORTS Defensive player of the year after averaging 2.1 steals per game. More interestingly, Syllas recorded a 32.0% FTA rate this year. For context, Ant Edwards, an elite downhill threat in the NBA, is at a FTA rate of 33.5% (as of March 4th). Safe to say Syllas has been a foul drawing machine in the OUA this season, but does need to improve on converting (was only at 68.0% this year).

Syllas was electric in the Gaels’ nail biting 94-90 victory in 2OT over the University of Toronto in the OUA semifinals. A career high 39 points on 55.6% shooting from the field to go along with 2 steals and a block, Syllas went to his go-to fadeaway middy time and time again in the clutch, eventually sealing the game with 0:14 seconds to go.

Malcolm Christie

  • Team: Dalhousie Tigers
  • Height: 6’5″
  • Position: SG
  • Year: 3

Malcolm Christie is a flamethrower. The junior guard from Fredericton, New Brunswick is an electric shooter from 3 and when he gets hot, he can score in bunches. The overall points scored leader in the 2023-2024 USPORTS season with 799, Christie dropped a career-high 51 points against UNB in November of 2023, the highest total in USPORTS men’s basketball in 26 years. His other notable scoring performances this season included a 44 point explosion and two 41 point outbursts. So yeah, he can score the ball.

In the Tigers offensive system, Christie is free to just let it fly. With an unprecedented 67.6% 3PAr (3 Point Attempt rate) Christie receives numerous off-ball actions to get open on the perimeter. DHO’s out of “Zoom Action”, pindowns in “Veer”, Christie flies around off-ball screens all game long and with any sliver of daylight, he will shoot.

My favourite action that I have seen from the Tigers is a set I have tagged as “Pindown Slip Hammer”. Christie slips a “Pindown” screen before immediately receiving a “Hammer” screen in the far corner. The pass travels across the court from the opposite wing and Christie cans the 3, despite the heavy contest. Tigers HC Rick Plato is a hell of a play caller.

If you’re interested in learning more about Christie’s journey, Peter Jewett had a fantastic profile for the Aquinian. Christie mentioned that “[i]t would be amazing to wear a Canada jersey with Christie on the back”. Perhaps someday in the near future it will become a reality.

Justin Ndjock-Tadjore

  • Team: Ottawa Gee-Gees
  • Height: 6’7″
  • Position: G/F
  • Year: 2

Justin Ndjock-Tadjore is the only player listed with NCAA D1 experience. After a brief stint with St. Bonaventure, Ndjock-Tadjore transferred to the Gee-Gees, playing 27.8 MPG in 21 games this year. Despite turning 22, he’s only in year 2 of his USPORTS eligibility. He’s missed a lot of important live-game reps the last few years due to Covid-19 cancelling his senior high school and AAU season, barely playing as a freshman with the Bonnies in 2021-2022 and sitting out the 2022-2023 season while transferring.

Like Cole Syllas, Ndjock-Tadjore also has national team experience through the 3×3 U23 Nations League this past summer. While 3×3 basketball is completely different than organized 5v5 basketball, there were definitely intriguing flashes. At 6’7″ he’s a long, powerful and fluid athlete with the ball in his hands and he was a solid rim protector at the 3×3 level. He also flashed a nice passing touch that I didn’t expect initially. After doing more research the passing touch may stem from his days playing PG in high school, before he had a six inch growth spurt.

I’m fascinated with Ndjock-Tadjore’s physical profile, especially given how rare it is at the USPORTS level. Really glad he’s found a home with consistent minutes in Ottawa this season and the Gee-Gees will definitely be high on my watch list this weekend.