TORONTO — Amid the halls of a North York private school roams a wiry seventh grader. His arms dangle at his sides as he enters an empty gym in preparation for an afternoon shoot-around — a routine so engrained in him that it’s become second nature.
Elijah Fisher is hard to miss among a steady stream of uniform-clad students at Crestwood Preparatory College in north Toronto. At 6-foot-3, he stands out among his classmates — many are nearly a foot shorter now, and many won’t ever grow to reach his current eye level.
Fisher is on the cusp of being a teenager. Technically, he isn’t one yet; he turns 13 next month. But his age hasn’t stopped him from attracting the attention of basketball scouting organizations, prominent coaches, and scouting services, which consider him the top-ranked player in North America for the graduating high school class of 2023.
He hasn’t garnered attention only because of his bodily makeup. He’s confident and self-aware — one moment he’s explaining how he deserved to be ranked No. 1, the next he’s elaborating on how he still has to improve.
Although he may be listed in the same breath as another 2023 prospect, LeBron James Jr., Fisher is the first to admit he still has a long way to go.
“I need to improve on my weaknesses, and make all my weaknesses strong so nobody can doubt me, saying, ‘Oh, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have that,’” Fisher says.
There are already certain mental and physical traits that set Fisher apart from the competition. One is his ability to match-up against older players. In addition to playing for Crestwood’s under-14 team, Fisher played for the school’s under-18 high school team this winter.
“He doesn’t care if you’re 25 years old, or 30, or 20, or 18. He’s going to compete and play, and that doesn’t happen that often,” says Ro Russell, who heads the school’s basketball program.
Russell estimates Fisher played about 50 games this season between Crestwood’s teams and showcase events and tournaments in Canada and the U.S. He even scored in a game against Oak Hill Academy, the North Carolina prep school that has been a longstanding pipeline for NBA stars such as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
NBA scouts and general managers have a difficult enough time projecting the potential of the best 19- to 22-year-old college and international players, so it’s tough to imagine what justifies being touted as the best player for your age group at just 12 years old.
But Michael Meeks, manager of youth player development for Canada Basketball, says this is exactly the age when the country’s best players begin being assessed on their physical attributes and on-court skills.
“When they’re 12 or 13, there are indicators and check boxes that you can check off, but you want to see them with a lot of headroom — you don’t want to see them when they’re fully grown,” Meeks says.
Meeks and other talent evaluators are trying to see how a player might grow physically following puberty and how he might mature into his eventual athletic frame at the end of high school.
Canada Basketball assesses players such as Fisher before grouping them among the country’s 20 best players once they reach Grades 9 and 10. The group is then narrowed to a handful of players, who are then chosen to be a part of what Meeks calls the “targeted athlete strategy.”
These select athletes are given a personalized developmental blueprint known as an “individual performance plan.” IPPs are tailored to each individual player and are structured to give players access to the resources and training necessary to excel in the sport at the high school, collegiate and professional level. Meeks believes Fisher fits the mould.
“For athletes like that, the world is pretty much their oyster. There’s a lot of choices out there now, so it’s a delicate balance to find the right fit for the right athlete with the right needs,” Meeks says.
In addition to leading Crestwood’s program, Russell is the founder of Grassroots Canada, the high school and prep basketball club that fostered the likes of current Canadian NBA players Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Nik Stauskas and Dwight Powell.
Russell first noticed that Fisher was special when he was 10, when he had him participate as a substitute player in a game against older Grassroots players. Nearly three years later, Russell believes that Fisher can be one of the best players not only from Toronto, but from Canada.
“He has a great view and a great path that can be possibly better than all of them, because he’s in a great position to watch and learn when (his NBA predecessors) kind of had to do it on their own,” Russell says.
To provide a platform for developing young players, private and public academic institutions have enlisted the help of some of Canada’s established basketball minds to manage their preparatory basketball academies.
Intrigued by his track record, Crestwood hired Russell in May 2016 to revitalize their basketball program and lead their foray into high-level basketball competition. Russell brought Fisher with him to give him access to the facilities and competition necessary to further his development as a player.
In the past, promising Canadian talents like Andrew Wiggins had to leave Canada in high school to attend American prep schools like Huntington Prep in West Virginia. But Russell believes Fisher can add to the precedent set by Crestwood and a growing number of Canadian prep schools, which have offered basketball hopefuls the opportunity to remain in Canada for their education without sacrificing the chance to play against elite competition and earn a NCAA scholarship.
“Once you bring one and you do great with them, the next Elijah-type player and student-athlete will say, ‘Hey, it worked for him, he did great. He got all of what he wanted, he got the competition, the exposure, the experience and the development. I don’t have to go to prep school in the States, I can stay here and get it all right here,’” Russell says.
Recent players who followed a similar path are Jamal Murray and Thon Maker, both of whom attended Orangeville Prep in Mono, Ont. Murray went on to star for the collegiate powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats before being drafted by the Denver Nuggets, while Maker declared directly for the NBA draft after spending two years at Orangeville.
The bar set for Fisher is high. In the coming years, the light shone upon the youngster will brighten. But until then, he’s like any regular 12-year-old — with a few exceptions. One moment he’s bending towards the hardwood to lace up his size-14 sneakers, the next he’s bursting through the gym doors after realizing he forgot his jersey for shoot-around.
Fisher bends his knees and springs from the floor. His eyes widen as he elevates. He believes every shot should go in. When they miss — and they rarely do — he grimaces before clasping his hands around the ball once more. He tightens his lips, determined to make the next shot count.
He’s still just a kid with big dreams and a love of the game, but Fisher hopes his talent gives him an opportunity to earn more than just a shot at playing professionally.
“Playing basketball professionally is my dream, but it’s also to get an education, so if I don’t make it to the NBA, I can have a good job,” Fisher says.