Growing up in Kanata, Aiden Warnholtz didn’t give much thought to playing pro basketball in his hometown.
While playing at AY Jackson and the Canada Top Flight Academy, the dream of perhaps playing for the powerhouse Carleton Ravens was enough.
But now that Warnholtz has been there and done that — he was Ravens MVP last season after winning his third straight national title at Carleton — he finds himself battling with and against former NBA players during training camp for the Ottawa BlackJacks of the Canadian Elite Basketball League .
All in his own backyard.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to play with some high level pros, especially in my own city, too,” said Warnholtz, a 6-2 guard who was selected by the BlackJacks in the CEBL Canadian university draft in April. “I know we had the SkyHawks (in 2013-14), but that was really it, so to have this league, it is pretty awesome.”
The BlackJacks open training camp this week, preparing for their May 25 season opener against the Fraser Valley Bandits at TD Place.
In many respects, the CEBL’s roster make-up is similar to the CFL’s import/non-import ratio. Each of the league’s 10 teams can carry three American players, plus an additional non-US import.
The BlackJacks lineup includes Walt Lemon, Jr., formerly of the Chicago Bulls and Deng Adel, a South Sudan native who has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The CEBL is an attractive summer off-season league because players can graduate to the NBA and its developmental G-league, as well as attracting former NBA and NCAA stars looking for an opportunity to receive a second look.
“They showed a lot of interest,” said Lemon, Jr., a 29-year-old guard who scored 24 points in a 2018 NBA game against the Washington Wizards. “At this point in my career, you want to go where you’re wanted. I felt embraced by the GM, president and coach. I was talking to a couple of guys and coaches that have been in the (CEBL) in previous summers and they say it’s definitely on the rise.
“If you do well here, you get good opportunities elsewhere, so that’s really my purpose. To see certain guys that played in this league before and then the next year get an opportunity in the NBA, that’s going to attract more talent. That was a big reason for the decision coming in.”
Adel, who played with the G-League’s Raptors 905 in Toronto last season, says the expansion of the import rule has helped create more interest for the CEBL around the world.
“It’s definitely going to help it grow and I can see how much it has changed from last year to this year,” he said. “I’ve seen a few games on YouTube. It’s a fast-paced, fun league. Great competition. A lot of great athletes and talent here.”
BlackJacks coach Charles Dubé-Brais, beginning his second season on the sidelines in Ottawa, says he will lean on Lemon Jr., Adel and 6-11 Canadian Chad Posthumus to be among the team’s leaders, helping mentor younger pros including Warnholtz.
A year ago, the BlackJacks struggled to a 4-10 regular season record but found some playoff rhythm with Posthumus stepping into the lineup after a COVID-19 outbreak hit the team. Only a fourth quarter rally allowed the eventual champion Edmonton Stingers from stopping the BlackJacks in the semifinals.
Dubé-Brais hopes all the lessons learned, including being more prepared for physical play at the outset of the season, will translate into a run for the 2022 championship weekend, which will be held in Ottawa.
“There’s more length, athleticism, youth and probably, overall, more top-end talent, as well,” he said of the roster difference this time around. “There’s always a tricky piece in this league in that some players come in a little later because they’re finishing their European seasons, so it’s hard to say how that translates on Day One or the first game of the season.”
Dubé-Brais is high on Warnholtz, whose talents include being a deadly three-point shooter.
“He’s a winner, first and foremost,” said the coach. “He plays for the winningest (university) program in the country. I think it makes a lot of sense for us to recruit local talent to give these guys a chance to be seen in a developmental role and hopefully this is the start of a process.”
Warnholtz, who spent years working his way into a starting role with the Ravens, recognizes the CEBL is another step higher.
“We had good athletes in the U Sports, but everyone here is a top level athlete,” he said. “Mentally, too, you have to be able to handle pro, (where) 80 per cent of the game a lot of time is mental.”
His battle to find playing time with the Ravens will be beneficial.
“There’s a lot of pressure playing for Carleton, in general,” he said. “To be the one on the floor all the time is a different kind of pressure, knowing the responsibility that you have to keep that (success) going.”
While he’s a relative kid again compared to seasoned veteran pro players, Warnholtz does have the advantage of knowing the city.
“Well, I don’t go out too much,” he said with a shrug and a laugh. “I will show them around Kanata.”