Zach Edey never wanted to be characterized by his height, which is now listed at seven-foot-four.
And so, as a kid, he skipped basketball for basically every other sport, including lacrosse, soccer, tennis, hockey and eventually baseball, where he was a pitcher with big-league dreams.
One summer in high school, Edey’s arm started barking a bit, and a friend suggested he come to a rec basketball game. It took some convincing, but eventually Edey agreed to hit the court as a form of cross-training and conditioning.
He was hooked after one practice.
Now, Toronto’s Edey is the reigning NCAA player of the year for the Purdue Boilermakers and entering his senior season this fall. The 21-year-old is also a member of the senior Canadian men’s national team, which begins second-round play at the World Cup on Friday.
Despite playing just 19 minutes through three games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Edey has totalled 14 points on perfect 7-for-7 shooting. On one of his very first plays, he stood tall and blocked a probing French guard in the paint, prompting Sportsnet announcer Dan Shulman to exclaim “you can’t teach seven-foot-four.”
Ironically, however, Edey has flown under the radar for most of his life. Despite his NCAA success, he’s mostly projected as a second-round NBA pick due to concerns about his foot speed in a league now dominated by guards.
Two years ago, he was the final cut from Team Canada at the last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria. Meanwhile, Czech centre Ondrej Balvin dominated with 19 rebounds as Canada was upset on home court.
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‘You’ve got a talent here’
Edey was first discovered within the basketball community by a 12 year old. On orders from his mom, Ethan Massiah approached Edey during a break in play and told him he must meet his uncle Vidal.
Vidal Massiah was the captain of the Canadian senior team in 2004 and 2005. He played NCAA and overseas, but never reached the NBA. After his playing career, Massiah decided he wanted to give back to his community by coaching and founded the Northern Kings Academy.
Which is what led to Ethan grabbing Edey’s phone number — really, Edey’s mom’s phone number — and relaying it to his mom Tanya, who sent it to Vidal.
“We’re in the world of finding talent. And no one knew of Zach,” Vidal Massiah said. “So it was like, OK, well, we’re probably not missing out on much. No one’s heard of this kid. You’re not quite sure how tall he is, but you know what, I’ll call him and we’ll see where it goes.”
But Julia Edey didn’t pick up the phone. She didn’t even call back until a few months later, since Zach was still committed to baseball.
Eventually, Massiah and Julia Edey, a former high school player herself who stands at six-foot-three, crossed paths at one of Zach’s games.
“He said, ‘You’ve got a talent here,'” Julia recalled. “And I remember looking at him and saying, ‘OK, but he’s a baseball player, so that’s interesting’. But he said, ‘No, you’ve got like an NBA talent here.’ … And I just said to Vi, I said it with [some] colourful language, but I said, ‘You’re scaring me. That’s super cool. But you’re scaring me.'”
Zach Edey’s NBA future remains to be seen — he could’ve entered this past June’s draft, but instead chose to play out his final college season as a star with big NIL (name, image, and likeness) earning potential on a Purdue team that was upset as a No. 1 seed in March Madness.
Experts agree that he should be a force in FIBA play, where physicality is increased and post play remains valued.
“I think this is a completely different animal where like this would be more traditional high-level decision making, positional, really using your advantage, whatever that may be. That game, FIBA basketball, it’s more tactical in a way, right? So I think from that standpoint he’s going to be a star,” Massiah said.
Instead, days after being cut, he was already in Latvia to play at the U-19 World Cup. Edey helped Canada to a third-place finish after a close semifinal loss to the U.S., and he led the tournament with a whopping 14.1 rebounds per game.
“I think baseball sharpened his mind. His dad used to say to him, the only important play is the next one or the next pitch. Forget about what happened. Forget about whether or not you just struck someone out or you gave up a home run,” Julia said.
WATCH | Edey stars for Canada in World Cup qualifying win in 2022:
Helped by multi-sport past
Massiah also credited Zach’s baseball and hockey history for his basketball temperament.
“He wasn’t a basketball player, but he was an athlete. … And he had a competitive edge to him, like even when he couldn’t contribute in a major way on both ends while on our team,” he said.
“His voice, his presence, his level of engagement was all signs of this guy who’s super competitive. If he lost the game, Zach was pissed. I mean, he was upset, you know? He would verbalize it. He would encourage his teammates to do better, to play harder.”
On the court, Edey’s skillset is also rooted in other sports. His graceful footwork may be a product of being a seven-footer on skates for so many years. His good-for-a-big-man free-throw shooting, Massiah surmises, may come from his accuracy as a pitcher.
The time hasn’t quite come for Edey to show off those traits as Canada hummed through the first round of the World Cup,
But if and when head coach Jordi Fernandez looks his way, you can be sure Edey will be ready.
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