VANCOUVER — Mason Bourcier is turning the 2017 recruiting class of the UBC Thunderbirds men’s basketball program into the school’s own version of the NBA’s 1996 draft lottery.
On Tuesday, the Kelowna Owls’ senior point guard became the latest blue-chip prospect to sign on with the Thunderbirds, giving head coach Kevin Hanson the deepest and most talented group of incoming players he has assembled over his 18 recruiting classes on the Point Grey campus.
Bourcier, who had made his official UBC visit back in September, texted Hanson from the U.S. on Sunday evening and told him that after auditioning for NCAA Div. 1 programs the past two weekends, that he’d had a change of heart.
“He was sitting all by himself in the airport in Seattle, thinking about all of his options,” said Hanson of a player who had taken an official visit to Grand Canyon State and was measuring growing interest from a number of additional west coast schools. “When he texted me he said ‘Coach, I want to win and I think it’s time.”
Time to join a ‘Birds roster which returns the nation’s most accomplished scorer in versatile fifth-year forward Conor Morgan.
Time to join two past MVP’s of the B.C. Quad-A high school championships for their first UBC seasons in transfer guard Jauquin Bennett-Boire (2015, Abbotsford-Yale), and forward Grant Shephard (2016, Flordia-Montverde Prep), his 6-foot-10 former Owls’ teammate.
And perhaps most significantly, a ground-breaking opportunity to prove to B.C.’s impressionable class of high school underclassmen that their ultimate team and personal goals can be reached by staying home and playing in their own province.
“Ever since I was a young kid going to the gym, my dream was to play in the NCAA tournament and then in the NBA,” said the 6-foot-4 Bourcier, who this past season, on an Owls team rocked by heavy 2016 graduation tolls, lifted Kelowna into the provincial final and gave them a chance to repeat against eventual winner Walnut Grove.
“My dream is still alive,” he continued. “Honestly, my goal is still to play in the NBA and I am still going to work like I want to be the best player in the world.”
A TEAM OF B.C.’S BEST
If you’ve watched Bourcier in action on the court, you’re immediately struck by the conviction with which he brings to every action in every instance in every game he plays.
In 2015-16, as a Grade 11 on a Kelowna team which featured, among others himself and Shephard, as well as rising UBC redshirt guard Parker Simson, Bourcier ably filled his role as a facilitator within a star-studded roster which went undefeated against B.C. competition and sits among the greatest teams ever produced in provincial high school history.
This past season, he became its de facto go-to scorer.
On both counts, Bourcier didn’t disappoint.
“I have said for years that I love players that are winners, that have won big games and played well in those big games,” began Hanson. “Mason proved over the course of his career that he has that self-drive and self-motivation. He’s a coach’s dream.
“All he talks about is wanting to make the NBA, and some people might laugh about that, but how else are you ever going to become your best?”
Hang around enough guys like that, and the best way to describe them is that they are ‘aura’ players.
Hanson, in fact, doesn’t have to think too long before producing his top comparable.
“The guy that he reminds me of the most is Randy Nohr,” the coach says of his former longtime assistant, and a former point guard who maximized his gifts during a playing career in which all he seemingly did each March was provide his ring size to team officials.
“Here’s a guy who won two high school championships (at Aldergrove under current Brookswood girls head coach Neil Brown), back-to-back (CCAA) national titles with me at Langara, and then back-to-back (CIAU) national titles at St. FX (under Steve Konchalski).
“Then he goes on to a pro career, makes the national team, and plays at the Olympics where he backs up Steve Nash at point guard.”
Which brings us back to that NBA reference, and the lottery portion of a 1996 draft which was considered one of the deepest in league history.
Nash, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim… you know the drill.
From the perspective of the Canada West, and more precisely from the perspective of the B.C. high school delivery system, an eternal question has always been: How good could a B.C. U Sports (formerly CIS) team be, both on the national stage and against NCAA teams, if it somehow managed to keep all of its best players in province?
“With players like Grant and Cam, you have long, skilled guys and then of course there’s Jauquin,” said Bourcier. “All of them looked at Div. 1. And then there’s Conor Morgan. He is the perfect example. He could kill it at Div. 1. So it’s a very impressive team and it’s definitely setting a big example for the kids at younger ages that you can stay home and be on a great team at a place like UBC instead of having to play at Div. 1. I think we can produce NBA players (at U Sports). I don’t see why not.”
Hanson hasn’t always waited this late to bring in a blue-chip player, but the thing that had him feeling most comfortable about Bourcier’s decision was that the player spent the past two weekends on the AAU circuit with an AthElite club team, playing in a pair of west coast showcase tournaments, considering his future right up to the 11th hour.
“I wanted him to be sure of his decision,” said Hanson. “We’ve recruited him hard for two years but we still weren’t sure what was going to happen. We knew Grand Canyon was in the mix, Santa Clara had gotten in contact with him. He talked with his mom and his dad and we really wanted him to be comfortable with the place that he was going to come to. We didn’t want his decision to be full of what-ifs.”
Of course, Shephard’s signing at UBC was no small part of the final decision.
“We’ve been like brothers since Grade 7, we’re close,” said Bourcier. “If I’m being honest, Grant’s signing was a big factor. But the coaches, from Kevin to (assistants) Vern (Knopp) and Spencer (McKay) were also big. They have always been in communication and they have been good to me.”
A BLUEPRINT IN PROGRESS
So what position is he going to play?
Bourcier is clearly a natural point guard, yet few in the nation are as powerful while commanding their dribble as Bennett-Boire.
Don’t forget, the back-court returns Phil Jalalpoor, Taylor Browne, Isaiah Familia, A.J. Holloway and Izaiah Ugoalah. The two-sport Simson will join the group after the football season where he is moving into a back-up role at quarterback behind Michael O’Connor.
And there’s also Morris, Wallack, and highly-prized non-B.C. recruits in 6-4 guards Grant Adu and Anthony McNish, both of whom can swing out to the small forward spots.
Hanson and the rest of the ‘Birds staff now have the summer to blueprint for 2017-18.
Who starts? How will minutes be doled out? Who redshirts? And what will the schematic look like in concert with a front court that includes the likes of Morgan, Shephard, Patrick Simon and Justin McChesney?
“We’ve already talked about it a lot and I think it’s going to be something where the positions all evolve,” said Hanson. “At the same time, four-out and one-in small ball seems to be the way that U Sports has gone. What I like about us now is that we have the option to play both ways.
“It’s a great problem to have and it reminds of that time when we went to all of those national tournaments in a row (including three straight top three finishes 2009-11). We were deep and in a lot of those games, we’d play 12 players in the first half.”
Nothing is going to be handed to anyone, and with the spate of recent signings, you can bet the returning vets will be ready to embrace a new level of intensity during practices.
“You look at the rosters of the Golden States and the San Antonios and those teams are loaded,” continued Hanson. “But stuff always unfolds over the course of the year, from injuries to academics. You have to be able to get through and I think the strongest will survive.”
Hanson admits his recruiting cycle is pretty much complete.
However there remains at least one game-changing player still on the board: Steveston-London’s 6-foot-11 forward Fardaws Aimaq.
UBC was not initially seen as the front-runner for either Shephard or Bourcier, so about all you can say is ‘Stay tuned.’
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