10 Canadian basketball players to watch in NCAA this season

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The NCAA basketball season starts on Monday and once again there will be plenty of athletes repping the red and white in the men’s and women’s competitions. And while the 2023 Canadian freshman class looks underwhelming compared to years past — with COVID-19 eligibility rules allowing upperclassmen to stay for an extra year, limiting the number of incoming players and setting up a better 2024 class for both the men and women — Canada still has plenty of elite players set to play prominent roles on top college teams this season. 

In fact, with players like Purdue’s Zach Edey and UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards — who will both play showcase games in Toronto before the end of the year — Canada is projected to continue the trend of sending players to the NBA and WNBA drafts in 2024. 

Here are 10 Canadian ballers to watch in the NCAA this season:

Men

Zach Edey | Center | Senior at Purdue 

After becoming the first Canadian to win the Naismith College Player of the Year award last season, Zach Edey took many people by surprise when he withdrew from the 2023 NBA Draft. Despite generating a good amount of buzz after averaging 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists on 60.7 per cent shooting as he helped Purdue win the Big Ten championship and achieve a No. 1 seed in the March Madness tournament, the Toronto native decided against testing the waters as a likely late second-round pick who would have to fight his way to a guaranteed contract in the NBA.

Instead, Edey returns to Purdue for one last shot at a national championship after getting upset by No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson last March. He will look to build off a big summer with the Canadian national team, who won bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup with Edey as the lone college player on the roster. But Edey has one more college season to prove that he is either a capable enough defender or such a dominant post hub that his defensive limitations won’t matter at the next level.

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Ryan Nembhard | Guard | Junior at Gonzaga

Ryan Nembhard is not just hoping to follow in his older brother Andrew’s footsteps to the NBA; he is actively taking a similar route there. After averaging 12.1 points, 4 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 43/36/87 shooting splits as a sophomore at Creighton, improving his shooting percentages and cutting down on his turnovers, Nembhard led the Bluejays to their first Elite Eight since 1941 after dropping 30 points on Baylor in the second round. 

However, the Aurora, Ont., native took many by surprise and transferred to Gonzaga this season to play for coach Mark Few in a move that was similar to the one his brother made after two seasons at Florida. As an undersized point guard hoping to take incremental steps toward the NBA, Nembhard is putting trust in the coaching staff at Gonzaga to help him get there.

Elijah Fisher | Guard | Sophomore at DePaul

Everything went wrong for Elijah Fisher in his freshman season at Texas Tech, where he was not given the role that was promised to him as a consensus five-star recruit out of Crestwood Prep, and he failed to earn head coach Mark Adams’ trust before the coach resigned for making racially insensitive comments to a player. 

Fisher was never able to get his game off the ground, averaging just 3.3 points in 12.2 minutes a game. But after transferring to a more advantageous situation at DePaul, where he will presumably have a bigger role and play for a coaching staff that he trusts, the six-foot-six combo guard from Toronto has the opportunity to showcase his eye-popping athleticism and defensive instincts in the Big East. At just 19 years of age, Fisher could still fulfill his destiny as one of Canada’s next great players. 

Elijah Mahi | Guard | Sophomore at Santa Clara

Elijah Mahi spent last season at West Valley (Junior) College, where he went to improve his stock after failing to garner enough Division 1 interest out of high school. That move was a success as Mahi averaged 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 51-40-65 shooting splits before being Canada’s top scorer on the U23 GLOBL JAM team this summer. It was enough to earn him a scholarship at Santa Clara, where he will try to follow in Steve Nash’s footsteps and make it to the NBA. 

At six-foot-six and with a broad frame, Mahi is a versatile player who can power his way to the rim or leap his way there with sneaky athleticism. But the Toronto native will have to adjust to the NCAA game while becoming a better three-point shooter before he earns big minutes for a good Santa Clara team. Once he does, his ceiling is as high as anybody’s considering he is just 20 years old.

Aden Holloway | Guard | Freshman at Auburn

Despite not having a sure one-and-done candidate in this year’s class, Holloway is the most promising Canadian freshman heading into the NCAA season. The six-foot-two point guard is one of the best young shooters Canada has ever produced, averaging a team-best 18.5 points, 5.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game as a senior at Prolific Prep, where he led the Crew to a No. 3 national ranking and 36-1 overall record. Holloway was a five-star high school recruit, a McDonald’s All-American, and he competed for Team World at the Nike Hoop Summit, which is when most people realized he was Canadian due to his mother being from Calgary, despite the fact that he was born in Charlotte, N.C. 

Meanwhile, Michael Nwoko and Vasean Allette are two other Canadian freshmen to keep an eye on this college season. Nwoko is a six-foot-10 center with a high motor and the potential to develop into a pick-and-pop threat who will take his talents to the University of Miami, while Allette is an aggressive six-foot-three combo guard going to Old Dominion. 

Women

Aaliyah Edwards | Forward | Senior at Connecticut 

Aaliyah Edwards is projected to follow Laeticia Amihere and get selected in the first round of the 2024 WNBA Draft, which would mark the first time that Canadians were selected in the first round of the draft in back-to-back years since Kayla Alexander and Nathalie Achonwa did it in 2013 and 2014. 

Before that, however, the six-foot-three post-hub has one last shot at winning a national championship with the University of Connecticut Huskies. Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd are finally healthy and Edwards is coming off a breakout season in which she averaged 16.6 points and nine rebounds on 58.9 per cent shooting to earn AP third-team All-America honours. After making it to at least the Final Four in each of her first two seasons, Edwards and the Huskies fell flat in the Sweet Sixteen of last year’s tournament, and they will hope to reach the mountaintop before the Kingston, Ont., native leaves to potentially become the fifth Canadian in the WNBA.

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Merissah Russell | Guard | Senior at Louisville

Merissah Russell just knows how to play. The six-foot guard/wing out of Ottawa is as fundamentally sound as they come, with a nose for the ball and the ability to seemingly always be in the right place at the right time, making winning plays for her team. In fact, Russell has won gold at GLOBL JAM two years running, first with Team Canada in 2022 and then with the Louisville Cardinals, who represented the United States last summer. 

Entering her senior year at Louisville, Russell will hope to earn a starting role for the first time in her college career and to get on the radar of more WNBA scouts ahead of the 2024 draft. While she doesn’t do anything flashy, her game can adapt to any situation or level of play. After all, the 21-year-old has already represented Canada at the senior level in the 2023 FIBA AmeriCup and could be with the team at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament for the Americas in Colombia next weekend.

Phillipina Kyei | Center | Junior at Oregon 

With a dearth of traditional bigs to come out of the country in recent years, Phillipina Kyei is Team Canada’s best hope of filling their frontcourt void in the short and long term future. The six-foot-eight centre immigrated to Calgary from Ghana when she was 13 years old, and only received her Canadian citizenship in 2022. 

Despite being relatively new to basketball, Kyei earned a starting spot for Oregon last season and saw her averages jump significantly, up to seven points, 10.7 rebounds and two STOCKS in 24.5 minutes per game. Plus, despite only being 20 years old, Kyei has already played with Team Canada at the senior level at the 2022 FIBA World Cup, as the program has a lot invested in the growth of her game.

Cassandre Prosper | F | Sophomore at Notre Dame 

Cassandre Prosper might be the best prospect to come out of Canada since Kia Nurse and, based on her decision to join Notre Dame midway through last season as a 17-year-old freshman who left high school early to go to the NCAA, she knows it. Encouragingly, it didn’t take long for the six-foot-two wing/forward out of Montreal to earn her coaching staff’s trust during her first college season, averaging 5.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.7 STOCKS per game in the regular season before averaging seven points and 5.7 rebounds in 30.7 minutes off the bench in the March Madness Tournament, third most on the team.

This fall, Prosper will join the Canadian senior women’s national team at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, where she will have a big role as one of the few NCAA players there. With an intriguing combination of ball-handling, shot-creation, perimeter-shooting, rim-protection and defensive versatility, Prosper is going to be on the national radar by season’s end, and could be in the WNBA as soon as 2026 if everything goes right.

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Emma Koabel | Guard | Sophomore at Duke 

Emma Koabel is set to play a significant role for the Blue Devils this season after averaging just 5.8 minutes per game as an 18-year-old freshman last season at Duk,. A spot has opened up after fellow Canadian guard Shy Day-Wilson transferred to Miami — where she joins three other Canadians, a story we will have more on in the coming weeks — while senior guard Vanessa de Jesus is out for the season with a knee injury. At five-foot-11, Koabel is a traditional shooting guard with a pretty stroke who is automatic from deep, and the Port Colborne, Ont., native is going to earn her minutes by spacing the floor for her teammates like she did at the U-19 FIBA World Cup this summer, where she helped Canada win bronze.

Taija Sta. Maria at Fresno State and Skylar Forbes at Marquette are two Canadian freshmen to keep an eye on this season, while Toby Fournier (Duke) and Syla Swords (Michigan) will headline an exciting 2024 freshmen class.

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