Brissett joins a long tradition of Canadian NBA champions

The Toronto forward won a ring with the Celtics and is now the third consecutive Canadian player to do so.

In a limited role coming off the bench, Oshae Brissett wasn’t in the spotlight like Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Murray. But he was in the picture of the newly crowned NBA champion Boston Celtics.

Brissett is the 10th Canadian champion. 

Mike Smrek was the pioneer who inaugurated the list with Magic Johnson’s Lakers in 1987, repeating in 1988. He played backup center most of his career, playing behind someone named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Smrek also had spills in the Bulls, the Spurs, the Clippers, and the Warriors. He played overseas in the 90s in Italy and Croatia. 

Bill Wennington earned the second spot on the Canadian-champion list with the second edition of the dominating Chicago Bulls commanded by Michael Jordan, winning three rings (1996-1998). He also had the role of backup center and replaced Luc Longley. Wennington wore the jersey of the Kings and the Mavericks and also had success in Europe, winning the Italian league with Virtus Bologna in 1993. 

Rick Fox sealed the century and opened up the next one with three titles with the Los Angeles Lakers led by the duo Kobe Bryant of Shaquille O’Neal between 2000 and 2002. A multifaceted talent as a basketball player and an actor, Fox had an NBA career worthy of a movie as he only wore the jerseys of the Celtics (1991-1997) and the purple and gold (1997-2004). 

The forward came off the bench in 2000, but coach Phil Jackson moved him to the starting lineup on the way to the 2001 and 2002 championships. 

Joel Anthony continued the list with back-to-back trophies with the Miami Heat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh (2012 and 2013), while Cory Joseph added another ring with the trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. 

Anthony, who played both power forward and center, is one of the paradigms of the particular culture of the Heat, based on the success of undrafted players. Miami recruited the Montreal native right after going undrafted in 2007, and he became a two-time NBA champion. Anthony started for most of the 2011-2012 season and contributed to the second ring from the bench. He played for the Celtics, the Pistons, and the Spurs after seven years in Miami, and he retired with the Argentinian club San Lorenzo in 2020.  

Cory Joseph, meanwhile, is still active at 32 years old, but he is a free agent now after getting waived by the Pacers in February. The point guard was a role player for the last ring of the Spurs’ dynasty, and he played in Toronto, Sacramento, Indiana, Detroit, and Golden State later on. 

Tristan Thompson followed the trend by participating in the Cavaliers’ comeback miracle in 2016 against the Golden State Warriors. Later on, Chris Boucher contributed to the Warriors’ championship in 2018 and then punched his former team in 2019 as the only Canadian on the Toronto Raptors. 

Thompson had an impact in Cleveland in the 2015-2016 regular season as a role player in the team led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The center averaged 28 minutes, 7.8 points, and 9 rebounds. The 33-year-old Brampton native is in his second stint with the Cavaliers after stages in Boston, Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, and Los Angeles with the Lakers. 

Boucher, meanwhile, was crowned NBA champion with the Warriors in his first year in the NBA, but he just played one game with the Warriors as he spent most of his time with the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G-League. He did more the following year in the Raptors championship, playing in 62 games and averaging 5.8 minutes per game. His role, of course, has grown over the years.

Andrew Wiggins was the first Canadian to win a championship in the new decade with the Warriors in 2022, and then Jamal Murray with Nikola Jokic in the Denver Nuggets in 2023. Canadians have won 18 NBA championships in total. Wiggins was a key piece in the playoffs run of Golden State toward the championship, consolidating himself as a very versatile player on both ends of the floor. The forward played starter in the postseason, averaging 35 minutes per game to go with 16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He was a lockdown defender for the Dubs.

After long being considered a low-efficiency scorer and little else, by winning the championship the Toronto native met the high expectations put on him after coming into the NBA in 2014 as the first-overall selection. He was just the second Canadian to be picked number one after Anthony Bennett in 2013. 

The Warriors knocked out in the 2022 playoffs the shorthanded Nuggets, without a convalescing Jamal Murray. The Kitchener point guard tore his ACL in the 2021 playoffs, and he made an inspiring story out of it by lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2023. Murray in many ways was the greatest Canadian performer en route to a title through his co-stardom with Nikola Jokic. 

And yes, whether you don’t know that much about Canadian basketball are too young, two-time MVP Steve Nash didn’t make this list. 

Brissett did not star in a redemption story like Wiggins or a leading role like Murray. Instead, he followed the three-year sequence initiated by Wiggins and continued by Murray to hit a new record for Canadian basketball besides being the 10th champion. Maybe not in a resounding way, but it was one more notch in the belt that reflects the unstoppable growth of Canada in the NBA.  

Canada has just seen three different players from the country winning the championship in three consecutive years for the very first time with the rings of Wiggins, Murray, and Brissett. 

The record struck by Brissett highlights the increasing quality at the top, but also the quantity of the player base. The NBA Finals reflected this diversity beyond Brissett, as the Dallas Mavericks roster featured three more Canadians with Dwight Powell, A.J. Lawson, and Olivier-Maxence Prosper. It’s not just the superstars anymore, like Nash and Murray. Now Canadians proliferate across the league, as leaders, role players, veterans and more. 

Brissett joined the Celtics last summer and played 55 games throughout the regular season, averaging 11 minutes per game to go with 3.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 0.8 assists while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from downtown. 

Joe Mazzulla reduced the role of the forward in the playoffs, although Brissett participated in 10 games. He averaged 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds in 11 minutes per game, shooting 54.5 percent from the field while making two threes in his two attempts. He is an excellent rebounder and will always offer hustle and effort, endearing himself to any coach for whom he’s played.

The former Raptor and Pacer expressed incredulity while celebrating the title with his teammates after the Finals.  

“I knew I’d be in the NBA,” he said. “But [being an] NBA champion, that thing felt like a dream and a stretch it still feels like a dream. But I’m here now and I’m embracing it so I’m proud of myself man,” Brissett said to Celtics CLNS. 

“I grew man, I’m going to keep going the rest of my career, I’m going to keep this with me. I’m just going to try to build off, it’s something that I want to experience the rest of my career,” he said with unbridled joy. 

The 25-year-old forward has declined the $2.4 million player option for the 2024-25 season and he will become a free agent in July. 

Competing to earn a spot in the Olympics is now the next challenge for the Toronto native as he has been included in the training camp roster. 

Brissett’s ring was the culmination of a season in which Canada set a new record in players in the NBA with up to 26. The number consolidated the position of Canada as the foreign country with the most players in the best basketball league in the world. 

Despite another successful season, it’s not far-fetched to say that Canadian basketball can get carried away in the upcoming years by the emotion of its constant growth in the NBA.

Murray will be in the position to pursue the Larry O’Brien trophy again next season with the Nuggets, who keep the ambition of becoming a dynasty. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, his expected partner in crime in the Olympics, might push the Thunder further after showcasing a near-MVP level playing next to Luguentz Dort. 

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, meanwhile, is one of the cornerstones in the defense-oriented Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the upsets of the playoffs. The Wolves also feature Canadian Leonard Miller, who spent most of his time in the G-League in his first year in the NBA. 

Alexander-Walker vindicated himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, showcasing great facility to blow up screens and remarkable consistency in disrupting stars like Murray or Luka Doncic. 

As for Miller, the forward barely played three games in the NBA, but he proved his ball-handling and versatile defense with the Iowa Wolves, the Timberwolves’ G-League team. He averaged 30 minutes per game to go with 20 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists while shooting 48 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from deep. 

But the other outstanding underdog in the Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers, also leaned into the talents of Andrew Nembhard, and Bennedict Mathurin has the potential to grow despite missing the entire postseason due to an injury.

Nembhard shined in the playoffs, stepping up with the injury of Tyrese Haliburton against the Celtics in the Conference Finals. The point guard showcased his ability to create plays and shots, overwhelming high-caliber defenders like Al Horford. The Toronto native averaged 32 minutes per game to go with 15 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 5.5 assists while shooting 56 percent from the field and 48 percent from downtown.  

Mathurin got injured in March with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and he missed the rest of the season. The Montreal native had been able to prove his shot-making and playmaking abilities until then. He averaged 26 minutes per game to go with 14.5 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists while shooting 44 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep. 

Canada is witnessing a great diversity in numbers and talent while the NBA gets ready to welcome more players in the approaching draft with intimidating Zach Edey about to enter the league.

The Raptors lifting a second championship with several Canadians on their roster after the additions of RJ Barrett and Kelly Olynyk might be the idyllic fantasy for many. But the potential success of Canadians on other NBA teams might fulfill the desire to see national glory in the league, giving the Raptors the needed time to cook “something amazing” as Darko Rajakovic said. 

However, even before the next season begins, Canada will put all this power together on the national team and prove it in the Olympics. Who knows if the team can ruffle some feathers in the U.S. again?