VANCOUVER — Put Mason Bourcier’s basketball career on a one-year rewind, and over the final weekend of January, you would have caught the then-Kelowna Secondary senior star preparing with the rest of his Owls for the team’s annual Western Canada invitational.
Push the fast-forward button to this coming weekend, and just 12 months later, you’ll once against find Bourcier in Kelowna. This time, however, he’s only sticking around for the weekend, running the show as the pure freshman starting point guard for Canada’s No. 6-ranked men’s basketball team.
Coming off the most productive weekend of his young U Sports career, Bourcier will lead the UBC Thunderbirds (13-3) into battle against his hometown UBC Okanagan Heat (2-14) over the second-to-final weekend of the Canada West regular season with games Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (7 p.m.).
From the ‘Birds perspective, it’s a business trip.
While they will hope for Lethbridge (11-5) to throw some wrenches in the paths of both Alberta (15-1) and Calgary (13-3) over the final two weekends of the regular season, UBC needs to prime its RPI number and that means, from their perspective, getting two wins over a struggling, young program.
Yet as key as Bourcier will be to UBC’s future beyond this season, he has shown in the tiny fall-to-winter window of his freshman season that he’s actually on the clock already and that his time is now.
“That was his best game,” said UBC head coach Kevin Hanson, the former ‘Birds point guard, after Bourcier supplied a line in which he played all 40 minutes and committed not a single turnover, scoring 13 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing five assists.
“For a freshman to come in and do that against anybody is impressive,” added Hanson, who in 29 years of coaching at both UBC and Langara has only once had a season in which a freshmen saw time starting at point guard. Back in the 2012-13 campaign, both Isaiah Solomon and Jordan Jensen-Whyte started at the position.
And with all of that history, it’s also impossible to overstate how clean Bourcier was against the Griffins.
For the two-game weekend set, his assist-to-turnover ratio was an impeccable 5-to-1 (11 assists, two turnovers) and those numbers came while playing 69 of the 80 available minutes at the game’s most cerebral position.
So what did Hanson like best about Bourcier’s Friday performance?
The fact that in many ways, the game signalled the end of a successful first chapter, one in which had taken his focus off the task of scoring and instead worked on becoming the best facilitator he could be on a team with several key veterans relying on his vision.
Bourcier hit his first two three-point attempts and from there, let the natural aspects of his offensive game take over.
“He is starting with three fifth-year guys (Conor Morgan, Luka Zaharijevic, Phil Jalalpoor) and he’s let them take over at different points,” says Hanson, “but to see him look for his own shot? His parents asked me if we’d asked him to stop shooting. But I was having flashbacks to the B.C.’s (AAAA high school championships) last year and what he can do (as a scorer). It bodes well for our future.”
HEARING VETERAN VOICES
Friday’s series opener in Kelowna will be a homecoming for not only Bourcier, but for fellow pure freshman forward Grant Shephard, and redshirt freshman guard Parker Simson, all former Owls and all members of the 2015-16 Owls team coached by Harry Parmar which many call one of the single-greatest high school teams ever assembled in this province.
And while it’s an easy game to label from a marketing standpoint, Bourcier admits he’s spent less time worrying about his name being trumpeted, as it was throughout his senior year of high school, and more time just immersing himself in the role of point guard on a national championship-contending team.
And as he’s discovered, there is a lot more to it than just the Xs and Os.
“It started off with all of the technical things, like learning how to pass the ball here, and how to find guys in the right places,” he begins. “But there’s also this whole other part about learning to be a leader and learning to control egos.
“I’m an 18-year-old and I am playing with men, and sometimes they will get mad. They want the ball, so it’s about learning how to keep them happy. The biggest thing for me, though, has been learning to control the speed of the game. Kev has been hard on me, but that’s good.”
They have been through the grind, and the best ones will never suffer on the mistakes of youth without having their voices heard.
And that’s why it’s no fluke that a consistently-successful UBC program under Hanson has, in only one other season, had a pure freshman rising to the role of starting point guard.
“I can remember back to when I was a rookie,” says Zaharijevic, a player who in his fifth year has come into his own as a game-changing force down low. “It was an injury-riddled year for us and we only had seven guys so I got a lot of minutes over the second half of the season. It was intimidating. You’re 17 or 18 and you’re playing with grown men, and if you mess up they will let you know.”
The likes of Tommy Nixon, Brylle Kamen, Tonner Jackson and Andrew McGuinness, some of the veterans that Zaharijevic played with as a younger player, weren’t going to be belligerent about it, but they were also not going to be shy about setting a freshman straight.
THE SKY IS HIS LIMIT
For Mason Bourcier, his freshman season has not been without hurdles, yet through his concerted efforts since arriving on campus last summer, he has seemingly navigated the first turn of his university career.
“I started with growing pains,” he admitted last Friday in the bowels of War Gym following the team’s first win of the weekend over MacEwan. “I wouldn’t say tonight was so much of a breakthrough as it was just me finding that old confidence again. And that’s really good for me because as I’ve learned more about what it takes to play point guard at this level, I also want to add the scoring part, too. I always want to be that complete player.”
His older and more experienced teammates delight in trying to throw him off his game during his post-game interviews with a slap to the backside or a poke to the ribs, but only Morgan, one of the nation’s most elite players, is able to distract Bourcier enough for him to stop talking.
He quickly re-focuses, then looks ahead to a UBC career which won’t expire until the spring of 2022.
“Last year, it was nice hearing my name mentioned a lot,” Bourcier begins of closing his high school career by leading a graduation-ravaged team back to the AAAA B.C. final where it lost to Langley’s Walnut Grove Gators after a Grade 11 season in which he showed the promise of an actor waiting in the wings.
“But really, who I am is the guy you might see the year before, the guy who at that time might not be the top player in the province or the country,” he says. “See me the next year, and I will have worked my butt off to be the best I can be. In one-to-two years, I will work to be the best in Canada. And I want to get to the NBA.”
He said the same thing about his ultimate career goal the day his high school career ended and when he’s reminded of just that, he has an instant reply.
“If anything, all of that is amplified for me,” says the kid who wants every year, in the manner of development, to be a career year. “I am shooting for the stars.”
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