The World's Best Middle School Basketball Player is Toronto's Elijah Fisher
The 14-year-old hoops phenom headlines the class of 2023 and wants to be the greatest Canadian basketball player since Steve Nash.
Illustration by Marvin Lau/VICE
Walk through the halls of Crestwood Preparatory College in Toronto and you're likely to see one of two greetings being shared between students, coaches, and sometimes even teachers.
The first, a simple dap and chest-tap, has become a sort of Crestwood greeting for the roughly 465 students across grades 7 to 12 that attend the school. As the final bell rings and students file into any of the science labs, open-concept study halls, or student mentoring sessions before going home, it's not hard to catch the greeting being shared at lockers or in the hallway. It's in this environment that Crestwood has built its academic reputation, and it's here where Elijah Fisher is just another eighth grader trying to make honour roll.
The other greeting is less prevalent, at least until later. Once extra school time has been put in, Crestwood's basketball elite will assemble for practice. Here, a slightly more elaborate greeting—used primarily by players in the Grassroots Canada Elite program—is common, and it's here where Fisher stands out. Amid a strong girls program with four players to watch in the Canada Basketball youth system and a growing roster of boys talent, Fisher is currently the key to growing the school's ascendant basketball reputation.
After all, this is the best pre-high school prospect in all of Canada and, to hear him and head coach Ro Russell tell it, the best Class of 2023 recruit anywhere in the world.
"We're trying to change history. Elijah's in Canada. It's a little bit tougher for him, so he has to work even harder, and we have to go down to America that many times to show that he's No. 1," Russell, equal parts coach and advocate, told VICE Sports.
He recalls a recent challenge that Fisher couldn’t do a between-the-legs dunk, something that got Fisher to break with his normally all-business approach between the lines. "He's one of those guys that will prove you wrong and show you. He's driven by proving you wrong. He's going to show you you're wrong. That's what he's driven by: 'I'mma prove you wrong, I'mma show you that I'm that dude, and if you think I'm not and someone else is, then bring him and I'll show you that I am.' That's what he's driven by."
That's the goal, anyway, and it's one of several lofty ones that Fisher has. Outside of winning (and possibly going undefeated) in both leagues he plays in, Fisher will spend his weekends at elite camps and tournaments around the United States to continue to build his reputation among talent evaluators. Making those inroads for both Fisher and Crestwood is important now because the plan currently calls for Fisher to do something no other elite prospect has done: Be the No. 1 recruit in his class while playing his high school ball in Canada.
"Staying at home would be a big thing, because I can come home to my family, help support my brothers and everything," Fisher explained to VICE Sports. "It means a lot to me, to put my country on my back and show people, inspire young kids and show them that they can do what they want, they can be great. It's not always about the Americans, it's about them, too."
Canada has boasted a number of elite recruits in recent years, but all of them went to prep school in the United States. Those that did stay behind, like Jamal Murray, were strong recruits but not No. 1. Fisher and his camp want to change the thinking that as we enter the 2020s—where online mixtapes are prevalent, information disseminates easily, and elite Canadian programs can attend the bulk of the best US events, anyway—that a top Canadian prospect has to go south of the border to play prep ball.
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They can't exactly control how the recruiting rankers make their adjustments for Fisher playing his regular-season games against competition in the improving Canadian ecosystem, but they're hoping to break at least one major barrier in the process of achieving No. 1 recruit status.
"We have a whole plan of him being the first-ever Canadian to be No. 1 his senior year and also play in the McDonald's All-American Game," Russell says about the prestigious high school basketball event. "Right now, the way it stands is, the rule is that you have to play high school ball in America your senior year. But if someone is going to all the best tournaments in high school, playing against the best teams, the best players, going to the top camps in America, playing in the best AAU tournaments, and you're ranked No. 1 in America, they'll have to change the rule.
"It'll make no sense to have the No. 1 player in that class not play in the game."
Russell estimates that Fisher will play upwards of 80 games this year between all of his commitments, and perhaps as many as 100. That's in addition to practices, work with an individual trainer, and the relentless time Fisher puts in on his own time, studying the footwork of Kevin Durant or the passing of LeBron James and then taping his workouts to see where he can better replicate the stars.
This past summer, Fisher shifted to more of a combo-guard role despite standing 6'5" with a 6'10" wingspan, and that additional work on the perimeter should only help his development even if he winds up closer to his projected 6'8" or 6'9" height, where he'd likely be a wing or a forward. Some scouts have noted that Fisher looks less remarkable when he's not dominating in his age group, and trying out those new point guard skills against more developed high school talent will be a focus this season.
"Elijah has no interest in video games. All he wants to do is play basketball. ... He's just really super hungry for this sport."
"It's a challenge I look forward to, playing with competition, put my talents against them," Fisher says. "I feel like it's more of a good fit for me. I can get my shot off, get different moves to go. At my age, I'm always killing 'em. So when I play up, it's more hard-nosed defense and I have to use my IQ more. It's better for me because I get to use the IQ that I have. I was used to catching the ball in the high post and then scoring. Now I get to bring up the ball, look for different options, be more of a point guard."
All of that work is aimed at being the top recruit, as Fisher is eager to prove it can be done. Realistically, it is a little early to narrow in on prospect rankings. While there are specialized sites that will rank players before they reach high school, the primary trusted outlets—ESPN, Rivals, 247 Sports, and so on—will withhold judgment just a little while longer. NBA teams struggle to project how seasoned college players will continue to develop; trying to get a handle on what a 14-year-old will become as a player seems too tall (and probably unnecessary) a task.
Those that do endeavour largely agree: If Fisher is not the best recruit in that class (Mikey Williams from California is another huge talent atop the rankings), he's among a small handful that includes LeBron James Jr., and he stands as good a chance as being The Next One for Canadian basketball's ever-growing pipeline of talent.
It was no accident that when R.J. Barrett announced his decision to attend Duke this coming season that Fisher was on hand to take in the television special, spending the day around Barrett's family and friends. Barrett, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2018 and the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft at this moment, has taken on a de facto big brother role for Fisher, the latest in a lineage of pseudo-torch passing in the program. Where Andrew Wiggins would take Barrett under his arm—figuratively and literally—as an under-ager in the program and at marquee Canadian events, Barrett is doing the same for Fisher, who is already eager to pay it forward by stopping to pose for pictures or as a volunteer helping out with children. As Fisher begins what can be a stressful process for a teenager, he'll have Barrett as a sounding board and confidant, and the support won't stop there.
The audience the night of Barrett's announcement included Barrett's father, Rowan Barrett, the executive vice president and assistant general manager of Canada Basketball's senior men's program. As Canada Basketball has continued to grow and produce more NBA-level talent, the program has begun to take a more long term and nuanced approach to developing Canadian players, and Fisher will be among the first to grow up completely in that new system. The targeted athlete strategy identifies the country's best players at each age group and gives them an individual performance plan tailored to their game, and Fisher is ahead of schedule coming into the incubation program before high school.
Players like Barrett, Simi Shittu, and Andrew Nembhard have accelerated well past their age groups in the international program and, if his development continues on course, Fisher figures to do the same. Last summer, he joined the Under-17 team for training camp as they prepared for the FIBA U-17 World Cup (they'd place fourth), and he figures to be a big part of the Under 16 team's FIBA U-16 Americas tournament next summer.
"I think it's way too early to start talking about what he's gonna be. He's a boy. But definitely we've seen good trending, a good attitude and the mental part of it with him, and obviously there's athleticism," Rowan Barrett says. "We're gonna continue to support his growth and his development and hopefully as he continues to grow, he'll continue to be able to rise to the different levels of our program."
Fisher is already eager to pay the same treatment players like Barrett have given him. At school, Fisher is just another student, with friends in and outside of basketball. Around basketball, though, he's keenly aware of the impact he can have on others and already looks to pose for pictures or take time out and help kids on or off the court. His parents refer to him as a gentle giant and seem as excited about Elijah the person as Elijah the player. That's the case at home, as well, where Fisher spends what little downtime he does have playing with his three younger brothers.
The youngest, Daniel, is already excited for the chance to come at Eljiah in the driveway the same way Elijah did with the oldest of the five brothers. Still just three years old, it's difficult to keep Daniel off the court at Elijah's games and practices, and given the head start he'll have—parents who are 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-2, an older brother taking early steps toward an NBA future, and surely a place at Crestwood—there are already tongue-in-cheek projections that Daniel will be The Next Next One. Where Elijah wants to be the best Canadian since Steve Nash, the joke is that Daniel will want to be the best since his older brother.
That's about all Elijah jokes about when it comes to basketball. Fisher is mature and focused beyond his age, and while his parents occasionally prod him to be more of a normal teenager, this is normal for him.
"For Elijah, his mindset is different," Elijah's father, Rohan, told VICE Sports. "He knows that he's on a mission and he wants to accomplish certain things, so he knows that his path is gonna be a lot different from regular kids [his age]. So even though I try to remind him and try to tell him, 'Hey, go play some video games,' or 'Go do this,' Elijah has no interest in video games. All he wants to do is play basketball. Any time he gets a chance to practice or workout, that's it. Even when we're in the house and we want to have family time, he always has one of those small Fisher Price basketballs in his hand.
"Basketball has consumed Elijah. I played back in the day but I wasn't as hungry for it as he is. He's just really super hungry for this sport."
The hunger comes naturally, fuelled just that little bit extra by any suggestions that there's anything Fisher can't accomplish on a basketball court, from a ranking to an East Bay dunk to any other limitation you want to try to put on him.
"We really stay in the gym. We don't need to take a break. School and basketball and at home with my brothers," Fisher says about his life. "Right now, I don't pay attention to rankings. This coming season my goal is to win (our league), win all the tournaments we go into, and show the world wrong."
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.