A Look at the National Basketball League of Canada
*Photo via NBL.com
Professional basketball in Canada doesn’t start and stop with the Toronto Raptors. 5 years in, the National Basketball League of Canada is giving ‘We Are the North’ even more hoops to cheer for What if I told you there was a professional basketball league that recently ended its championship series in a dramatic seventh game. This same league has a most valuable player that has a versatile game and inspiring story of being an underdog and ultimately coming out on top. Let me add that the league’s commissioner once outscored Michael Jordan, the Michael Jordan, in a college basketball game some 30+ years ago. The National Basketball League of Canada (NBL) has a number of interesting side stories surrounding what is quickly becoming a quality destination for future and former professional players looking to play closer to home. The NBL, an eight team league that allows a maximum of eight American players per club, four times more than European teams allow, has been in existence for five years. Throughout that time there have been a number of “name” players that have passed through the league on their way overseas or in some cases, native Canadian players that have returned home to rediscover their games. “There’s a lot of opportunity in the NBL,” says league commissioner David Magley. “It’s a nice league to get your career going and can be a springboard to a big move.” Magley is the perfect combination of basketball-lifer and basketball-junkie. A former Kansas Jayhawk, he scored 21 points in a game against North Carolina in which a gangly freshman guard by the name of Mike Jordan scored 12 points, “they referred to him as Mike then,” says Magley. With the men firmly entrenched in basketball lives it’s safe to say they have both moved on from that moment. “I’m wearing his sneakers, he’s not wearing mine,” says Magley with a chuckle. Named the NBL commissioner before the 2014-15 season, Magley has been all over Canada and the United States searching for talent. The NBL regularly holds combines that give players a chance to try out in front of league officials, coaches and team owners. “We bring the combine to the players instead of the other way around,” says Magley. Players without agents can have a hard time scheduling tryouts for overseas teams with the prices of flights and hotels. The NBL Canada combines offer a pro tryout minus those non-basketball costs. “The league is looking for quality players, in return guys can get their numbers playing close to home in English-speaking markets all over Canada,” says Magley. There are combines scheduled from August to early November all over the U.S. in basketball crazy locales such as Sarasota and Orlando, Florida, Columbia, South Carolina, Flint, Michigan, Baltimore, Seattle ( On November 5 at Rainier Beach High School), Milwaukee, Dallas, Houston and on October 8 in New York City (location yet to be determined) and in Atlanta on November 12. The NBL Canada season starts on Boxing Day, December 26, a national holiday in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand to name a few countries, and concludes in late June with the NBL Finals. A 41-game season can be both a negative and a positive according to both players and coaches. The good: “The NBL Canada offers a shorter season to give players other options to play throughout the year,” says Windsor Express coach and two-time NBL Canada champion Bill Jones. “That’s why we say the NBL Canada is a stepping stone to securing jobs in Europe.” The bad: “For the NBL to catch up to European leagues it will need to develop an eight-month schedule,” says the 2015-16 Most Valuable Player Logan Stutz. A 6-9 stretch four, Stutz came to the league from a stint overseas in Germany by way of Butler Community College and Division II powerhouse Washburn University. A Kansas City native, Stutz averaged over 21 points and 9 rebounds a game while taking full advantage of his one season with the Niagara River Lions. Stutz will be taking his talents to Japan to play in the National Basketball League (no relation). “I loved playing in the NBL (Canada),” said Stutz. “I enjoyed playing close to home, playing for a great team with great owners made my experience very comfortable on and off the court.” Jones believes Stutz’s success is a perfect example of what the NBL can do for a player. “We’ve been able to send 8-10 players to further their careers overseas so we believe that we are a stepping stone to both start and finish a player’s career.”
One player that has turned his career path around is London Lightning guard Warren Ward. An Ottawa native, Ward finished an impressive career at the University of Ottawa before moving on to professional stints in Germany and France. Injuries early in his career made the transition to European hoops difficult and the move back home to the NBL more of a necessity. Ward hasn’t looked back since. “My NBL Canada experience has been nothing but great,” said Ward. The 6-5 shooting guard spent a season with the Mississauga Power before playing for the Lightning this past season. “I have gained friends for life, a very good basketball experience and professional knowledge about the game. The NBL saved my career, it gave me a place to play after my injury.” The knock most basketball leagues, even one in a country as notoriously friendly as Canada, will get is that “It isn’t the NBA” and that is true. The benefits of the NBL won’t sway a potential NBA first or second round pick (or even a summer league invitee) but it should get a long hard look from seriously talented players. Former McDonald’s All-American guards Dexter Strickland (Moncton Miracles) and Sherron Collins (Windsor Express) of University of North Carolina and Kansas fame, respectively, have found success up north. Former University of Virginia guard Sammy Zeglinski and former DePaul point guard Cliff Clinkscales finished second and third in the league in assist, respectively. The level of play in the NBL is nothing to sneeze at. “If you love the game and want to be a professional then this is just as much a viable league as any other,” says Ward. “The style of play here is fast and overseas [in Germany] was slower and there was more coaching per possession,” says Stutz. “The level of play here is comparable to the [NBA] Developmental League,” says Jones. That beforementioned seven game finals was between Halifax and London, won by the Hurricanes, it was an experience that most basketball players -be them in the NBA or Siberia- will ever have the luxury of having said they were a part of. Just ask Chris Paul. “I have been a professional for three years and that was my first game seven,” said Ward. It was also his first professional playoff appearance. “Any series that goes seven games is a good place to be.” The same can be said about the National Basketball League of Canada in fact.