The most intriguing prospect in Canadian men’s basketball and in the senior national team program didn’t take the floor against US Virgin Islands until mid-way through the third quarter of their World Cup qualifier Monday.
And once on the floor, he didn’t exactly dominate, but it was impossible not to watch his every move. Zach Edey is tough to miss: the 7-foot-4 centre from Toronto is one of the biggest players ever to wear the Maple Leaf. He’s not just tall, he’s broad. He’s got great movement skills for a man his size and a growing awareness of how to use his size to impact the game on either end of the floor.
Canada didn’t need Edey to do much, of course. By the time the 20-year-old Purdue University star hit the floor, Canada was up 38 points and on its way to a predictable 113-67 win, thanks to the efforts of NBAers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (26 points on 10-of-11 shooting), Nickeil Walker-Alexander (19 points, 7 assists), Kelly Olynyk (11 points, five rebounds and three assists) and Dwight Powell (15 points, six rebounds). Them along with a bench unit suffused by a number of veteran European pros — including Kassius Robertson, who chipped in 24 points while going 8-of-13 from three — who had helped Canada to a 48-point win over Virgin Islands back in February.
The win improved Canada’s record to 6-0 to conclude the first stage of qualifying to be one of the seven countries from the Americas region at the World Cup next summer.
With the talent that has already committed — 11 NBA players have signed on to be part of the ‘summer core’ through the 2024 Olympics in Paris — head coach Nick Nurse should have his choice of lineups for almost any situation.
But the inclusion of Edey — the lone collegian on the list — gives them something different still.
“I’m certainly excited, I think that from the few days that I had him with us the wheels started turning about his uniqueness and specialty that he could bring to the team and give us another piece to make us flexible,” said Nurse during Canada’s training camp in Toronto prior to hosting the Dominican Republic on July 1 and travelling to the Virgin Islands for the game Monday.
“If we need a big, well, he’s big, and can go in there and it seems to be a factor in FIBA basketball. Size, physicality, and rim protection is in general, but it’s a little different [in FIBA]. He’s a young player and we certainly want to see what he can contribute now, but I’m certainly thinking: where does this lead as we go here with him.”
Edey’s development to this stage has been rapid. He was focused on hockey and baseball until it was hard to deny when he stood 6-foot-10 to start high school that basketball might offer more possibilities. He began playing in Grade 10, joining the well-regarded Northern Kings program run by former national team player Vidal Massiah. He promptly transferred to the IMG Academy in Florida for his last two years of high school before enrolling at Purdue.
Once there, he played sparingly as a freshman but showed he was on track when he was named an all-star while playing for Canada at the under-19 world championships in the summer of 2021, his first experience playing internationally for Canada.
Last season he averaged 14.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 64.8 per cent from the floor in just 19.9 minutes per game for the Boilermakers, who advanced to the NCAA tournament’s ‘sweet 16’.
There was some consideration given by Edey to putting his name in for the NBA Draft last month, but he quickly decided it would be best for all concerned if he returned to Purdue for his junior season.
As far as he’s come, he feels he’s got a long way to develop.
“I’m really just learning how to play and figure out how to give other players their space,” said Edey who says his international experience last summer helped him make a jump when he returned to Purdue and is hoping for the same effect this fall after playing and training with professionals.
“In college I’m the guy who players are spacing around, whereas there’s NBA players and I have to learn how to give them space and give them time and help them out as much as possible.”
Edey’s aware that he’s beginning his career at a time when players of his size have been de-emphasized in the NBA as the league has trended aggressively to three-point shooting and defensive schemes that feature players who are comfortable guarding on the perimeter. There are a few ‘traditional’ big men who still play key roles but often because they’ve added three-point shooting to their arsenal or have shown the ability to hold their own when switched to smaller players.
Preparing for that is a big focus of his training.
“There’s a lot of things [to work on], obviously,” says Edey. “There’s the ball-screen defence, moving my feet, my free throws. I gotta work on protecting the rim and maybe spacing the floor a little bit. There’s a lot of things I’m working on.”
What makes Edey so intriguing for Nurse and the national team is that FIBA rules still allow for traditional zone defences where a big man can camp in the paint defensively, unlike the NBA where the defensive three-second rule requires them to leave the paint intermittently. Canada has struggled at times against international teams that have true bigs – their loss to the Czech Republic at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria being the latest case in point.
The hope is that as Edey progresses, he can create those kinds of problems for opponents and be a counter when opponents go big against them. The raw material is considerable. He’s got unique size, good hands and a good basketball IQ.
He showed it early on against the Virgin Islands, catching a nice pass from Olynyk and finishing gently with his right hand. He got fouled a few possessions later after an offensive rebound, made both his free throws and inhaled a lay-up attempt by a smaller Virgin Islands player with both hands late in the quarter. In the fourth, he blocked a shot to start a fast break, sprinted the floor in time to grab the ensuing offensive rebound that he flipped to the perimeter, leading to a triple by Thomas Scrubb.
His offensive highlight was a tough catch, ball fake and reverse pivot that led to a soft reverse lay-up late in the fourth quarter where he demonstrated his balance, hands and feel all in a few seconds on his way to six points and three blocked shots in his 14 minutes of floor time.
“He has skills,” says Olynyk. “He’s got great touch with both hands, good form and good action on his shot, so that will come … he’s got a lot of room to expand and grow and it’s great that he’s coming into these situations in the summer so he can work on that stuff.
“But I mean, he’s huge. He’s a big, big, big boy. His standing reach, his height, but he’s also wide and has a good frame on him, he’s not thin at all. He’s got all the tools, he’s just got to keep working on the court, in the weight room, his agility stuff and then his basketball mind. This game moves a bit faster than what he’s used to. He’s got the capabilities, he’s just trying to catch up with the game a little bit.”
Edey’s made huge strides in a short time, and Nick Nurse and the men’s national team program believe he’s going to keep coming, and hopefully they’ll all arrive together at the Olympics in Paris in 2024.