For high school basketball players, playing for the right academy team is one of the biggest keys to progressing to the collegiate level. Academy basketball is the first time in many of these players lives where they start to experience outside pressures, create expectations and realize that the next level isn’t as far away as they once thought.
Canadians have historically had a tougher time landing at big academies, but that has completely shifted in the past several years. The basketball world has opened their eyes to the amount of talent coming from the Great White North, and it’s led to more Canadian high school players getting exposure and progressing to the NCAA Division 1 level.
One of the biggest academies propelling high school talent in the USA right now is SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio. Coming into mega-mainstream prominence after a then 17-year-old LaMelo Ball played for them in his senior year, SPIRE has continued to build on that momentum through its top-level facilities and coaching staff.
This season, the SPIRE high school roster boasts three Canadian guards looking to take their games to new heights. In this article, we will highlight the team’s northern content by learning about their past, present and future surrounding the game of basketball, and why the possibilities are endless for these three young men.
Desai Carter (Courtesy SPIRE Academy)
#0 Desai Carter / Guard / 6’0 / Sophomore / Richmond Hill, ON
Raised in the Richmond Hill area north of Toronto, Desai Carter is a 6’0 sophomore guard that can get it done on both ends of the floor. His poise and court control are well beyond his years, which is impressive considering the game of basketball wasn’t his first childhood sports endeavour.
“I actually mostly played soccer growing up, my dad was my coach”, said Carter. “I only ever really touched a basketball at recess until I started house league basketball at 6. I started by playing U8, two years up”.
Carter quickly impressed, making his program’s all-star team and eventually joining their newly founded rep program: the IEM Spartans. Still playing on teams with older kids, Carter stuck with them until U15, when he made the jump to the Scarborough Blues Academy.
“At that point I went to back my own age group”, said Carter. “I played there for 2 years”.
From there was another move for Carter, who was steadily making progress despite the now ever-present pandemic.
“Going into Grade 10 I went to United Scholastic Academy in Scarborough but it was hard to get games because of the pandemic.”, explains Carter. “We still trained, and I worked on my game all summer long. Then I played for Grassroots this past summer”.
At that point it was becoming obvious that Carter was ready for the next step. He caught wind of the SPIRE Academy basketball program, and from there it became his goal to join the team.
“The first time I heard about SPIRE was cause of LaMelo Ball”, said Carter. “My family went to watch March Madness games in Ohio and saw SPIRE signs on the highway on the way home, I became really interested. I sent some film to coaches and they liked how I played. I came here for a camp to show what I could do, and they especially liked how willing I was to learn”.
Since making the squad, Carter has left his mark in what is just his sophomore season. He’s started 14 of the teams 16 games to this point, averaging 7.5 PPG and 4.0 RPG on 42% from the field.
“I have good court IQ, I can read the court well and make the right decisions”, said Carter, describing the strengths in his game. “I have confidence in my shot although I’m definitely still working on it. I can dribble the ball well and as a guard that’s something I’ve really focused on”.
Despite the offensive improvements, the defensive side of the floor is really where Carter is making his impact at SPIRE. He’s often been tasked with guarding the other teams’ elite offensive threats, and it’s a role that he’s taking a lot of pride in.
“I’ve built on my defence a lot at SPIRE, one of my roles is to guard the best players on the other team.”, said Carter. “It’s something that I want to do, you need to play defence to win games”.
Carter’s stock is continuing to rise, and it’s something that he hopes to maintain all the way until college.
“This summer in AAU I want to get a few offers and pick up next year where I left off”, said Carter, planning his future. “I want to be a leader here next year, helping my team on and off the court. By the time that I graduate I want to have a free education and play the sport I love at the same time. Someday I would love to play in the NBA or even overseas”.
Perhaps most importantly for Carter is that he hasn’t lost track of what his original goals were: playing for the love of the game and inspiring those around him.
“I have a nephew, I want to set an example for him that you can do whatever you want if you keep pushing”, said Carter proudly. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you want to do it, go out and do it”.
Max Arnott (Courtesy SPIRE ACADEMY)
#12 Max Arnott / Guard / 6’3 / Junior / Brantford, ON
Hailing from Brantford, Ontario, Max Arnott is a sharpshooting guard who’s taken his game to another level at the SPIRE Academy. Even as a child, Arnott knew that basketball was the sport for him, and now he’s seeing the fruits of his hard work in the competitive American high school circuit.
“I started basketball at a young age, around four or five”, said Arnott. “I played soccer too but I always took basketball way more seriously. I started playing in Brantford with the Hawks a year up”.
He eventually ended up joining Bounce West, getting some looks which then propelled him to the RISE Basketball Academy for his first few years of high school. The level of basketball was competitive for Max, especially in relation to the aforementioned Carter.
“I actually played Desai when I was at RISE”, said Arnott with a smile. “It was always a big competition between us”.
From there Arnott was in search of a next step, as factors out of his control forced him to look elsewhere to advance his basketball career.
“I was forced to find a new school because of COVID restrictions and was struggling a bit”, explained Arnott. “I got in contact with Coach Mom and I found a few schools that were a good match for me, but it was easy for me to narrow down. I felt that SPIRE was definitely the best fit with the schedule and facilities”.
The step to playing American academy basketball was a big one for Arnott, although he says Canadian hoops are no longer as far behind as they once were.
“Moving to the US, there’s definitely a difference in terms of the coverage you get”, said Arnott. “But, I’ve noticed in the past few years though that Canadian basketball is getting a lot closer to the American level”.
Arnott has been doing exactly what he was brought in to do at SPIRE, shoot the basketball. He’s averaging 5 PPG this season, shooting 48% from the field, 37% from three and 88% from the free throw line. Although his shot has always been his bread and butter, Arnott says that he’s been able to improve it further at SPIRE along with several other parts of his game.
“I feel like if you give me an open shot I’m going to knock it down”, said Arnott. “I’ve been able to develop it even more at SPIRE. I’ve been able to work on my ball handling and confidence in my game as well. With the knee injuries I’ve had, defence has been what I’ve needed to work on the most. I’ve just been trying to get better in those defensive areas”.
The improvements have been noticeable, and Arnott is hoping that his experiences at SPIRE will help him fulfill his long-time dreams.
“I want to take basketball to the level where I can get my education paid for”, claimed Arnott. “That has always been my goal. Not having to get my parents to spend the money and get it for free, that’s my main goal”.
Looking at where he’s already at and how much room he still has to grow, it’s looking more and more like Arnott will be able to someday make those dreams turn to a reality.
Julian Mills (Courtesy SPIRE Academy)
#2 Julian Mills / Guard / 6’2 / Junior / Toronto, ON
Julian Mills is a talented offensive playmaker who grew up in the city of Toronto. The 6’2 junior guard has a bright basketball future ahead of him, but much like Desai and to an even greater extent, the sport of soccer was actually what captured his imagination first.
“From when I was four my main sport was soccer, that was the influence from my parents”, said Mills on his early years. “I grew up at St. Clair and Dufferin around a lot of European culture”.
Mills would move to North York in grade 4, and only then did he truly get serious about picking up a basketball.
“I didn’t realize how good I could be until I started playing against older kids at recess”, claimed Mills. “I eventually made the move to a team called the Scarborough Blues”.
Although Mills may have started a bit later, his passion for the sport of basketball grew rapidly, often describing his love for the game as a borderline obsession.
“I fell in love with the culture of basketball”, said Mills with a smile. “I was watching Michael Jordan videos every day. I loved everything that came with it, I just couldn’t get enough”.
Mills eventually moved on to the Blues rep team, rapidly improving and getting attention from a variety of high school circles in Canadian basketball.
“It was around those high school years when I started to realize that I could actually take this basketball thing to the next level”, said Mills. “Grade 10 was when I really exploded and I started getting serious looks”.
In search of finding the right program, Mills enlisted the help of Coach Mom. Just like she has for countless other young Canadian hoopers, she was able to help Mills take a step towards SPIRE.
“I was in talks with Coach Mom and from there had a zoom call with (SPIRE) Coach Craig, we just talked about the facilities and his background”, said Mills reflecting on the process. “It made me want to choose SPIRE and it was the right decision”.
The switch also allowed Mills to discover a few changes in the overall basketball mentality south of the border.
“There’s a shift from American to Canadian basketball”, said Mills. “Canadian Basketball is more together and everyone supports, in the States it’s a lot of competition. It’s up to you to stay focused”.
Mills has played in seven games so far this year for SPIRE, averaging 5.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG and 2.0 APG. His game has always been predominantly offensive, although he’s been making strides at SPIRE to turn his arsenal into more of a well-rounded skillset.
“My game has always been offensive: dribbling, driving, shooting”, said Mills. “As soon as I came to SPIRE I learned a lot of new aspects of the game. I’ve been learning a lot on defence and improving my court vision. I’m learning other positions along with my own position and it’s helping me become a better basketball player”.
What’s for certain with Mills is his desire to learn. He’s hungry and wants to be the best basketball player he possibly can, and he hopes that drive will propel him towards his future goals.
“I definitely want to go play college ball and finish school”, said Mills. “Basketball is a great outlet for me, basketball can take me to a successful life: whether that’s pros, overseas or just coaching kids that have the same dreams I have”.
These three Canadian hoopers are thriving in their opportunities at SPIRE Academy, and they represent a movement much larger than just themselves. Canadian basketball is growing at a rapid pace; and to see increased representation in the highest leagues and competitions, it needs to start at the grassroots level.
There are talented young players like Carter, Arnott and Mills all over this country, and the beautiful thing is they’re starting to be scouted and recognized. Once upon a time it was extremely hard to get taken seriously as a player out of Canada, but those days are gone.
The three young men discussed today represent when talent, hard work and a love for the game all come together. It’s fitting, because that’s exactly what Canadian basketball stands for as a whole.