Joel Friesen didn't set out to be different, it just happened that way. He didn't set out to be an outlier or a pioneer, but he's become one.
Last weekend, Friesen became the number one overall pick in the fledgling Canadian Elite Basketball League entry draft. For the CEBL it was the first-ever major event with the eyes of the Canadian basketball world watching - for Friesen, he became a part of history and his name is now the answer to a trivia question.
"It's a huge blessing, to just kind of go through your career just to be the best you can be," Friesen told NBA.com. "I guess to kind of be recognized for that has made everything all worth it.
"I'm just very excited to see what the future has in store for this league and for myself. I'm just excited to keep growing the game in Canada.
"That's kind of what I've tried to base my career off of is just trying to build the game and respect the game…and play the game the best way I know how. I'm just excited to see what's in store."
Friesen, 28, grew up in B.C. and is now a part of the new potential reality for a Canadian basketball player.
He played high school, university and now can play pro all year around in Canada. It's a homegrown path that wasn't offered to the generation before him and something that Friesen is more than proud of.
I stayed in Canada to prove you can make it pro from the CIS (U sports). The NBLC was developing during those years and it gave me an opportunity to stay in Canada further and continue to decorate my career. It hasn't been easy, but I chose the hard path to build character.- Joel Friesen (@jf_hoops) June 16, 2018
"In a way, I'm just trying to make or allow opportunities for Canadians to stay in Canada," Friesen continued. "It's kind of the path that was dealt to me initially, but even in college, I chose to stay in Canada.
"I really wanted to try and be one of the first players ever to really kind of do it this way. Just so it could hit a little closer to home for those who are aspiring to try and be a pro or play at a high level.
"Just trying to show them that it can be done by staying in Canada and I think I'm very blessed to have been recognized in multiple leagues...at the National team level. It really makes the path I chose, even though it wasn't the easiest it makes it mean that much more for me."
The allure of going to the United States for high school or university ball is always intriguing for a young Canadian hooper. The opportunity and increased exposure it presents is almost always too tough to turn down.
Families across the country have dealt with it at various levels, but staying in Canada and thriving in Canada had almost always seemed like the lesser option. As the game grows, that long-held belief could be shifting. There's a growing foundation, and infrastructure in place to now be able to help the top Canadian players stay at home and maximize their opportunities.
The ultimate goal for anyone that has hooper dreams will always be the NBA, but for the many who don't make it, there are now options to make money playing all year long at home.
Friesen played his high school ball in B.C. winning a AAA B.C. high school championship. He moved onto the University of Alberta winning a U Sports Canada West title. Once his university career was over it was time to turn pro. At the time the upstart National Basketball League of Canada was an option which he eventually took.
He admits the path he's on isn't something that was planned out. Injuries and a lack of strong basketball connections at the outset of turning pro had him find opportunities in the NBL Canada instead of chasing cash overseas. It's a problem most Canadian players face. Sometimes it's not about how good you are, but how good and well connected your agent is.
"Maybe not having at least initially the most basketball connections which I feel like can be a huge part of a player's success," Friesen said of why he stayed home.
"Sometimes it's about who you know and not necessarily how good you are.
"It was difficult but at the same time, everybody's path is difficult. There's really no easy path in this career. Actually, I'll say maybe it wasn't difficult, but it was a different path than most people might have chose."
When the CEBL tips of for its inaugural season, it will be the first time Friesen will be able to play pro ball and make enough money to not have to take a second job in the summer.
While specific contract details aren't made public at this time, sources have told NBA.com that the CEBL's players will make between $500-$1,500 per game. On that per game basis, it makes the CEBL competitive with other notable pro leagues around the world.
In comparison, players in the G League earn a base salary of $7,000 per month or $35,000 for the five-month 50-game regular season.
Couple those potential earnings with those that a Canadian can make playing pro elsewhere in the winter and it's a positive for a pro baller in Canada.
"The game is definitely growing in Canada, there's no question about that," Friesen said of playing full-time at home.
"I think as far as the NBL and CEBL go we're taking the necessary steps to keep Canadians around, to stay in Canada to allow for them to have careers and build careers. Build resumes and be appreciated for that.
"The fact that it just kind of lined up with the NBL starting up when I was finishing college and now the CEBL trying to do something different I think it's just kind of all worked out in a way for me.
"I feel very blessed to have been able to stay in Canada, represent my country in as many ways as I can and really try to build the game across the country."
Friesen will suit up for the Fraser Valley Bandits when the CEBL tips off in May. For a player who's been everywhere in Canada, playing at the highest levels possible throughout, Friesen is humbled by the opportunity to play ball where it all began for him in his home province of B.C.
He left a basketball player with a dream, but come May he returns home a more well-rounded human being ready to give back to the next generation of B.C. ballers.
"Going from Abbotsford to Edmonton and then to Niagara, Halifax, London, now Kitchener, also being a part of the national team and now my career coming full circle having the opportunity to come back to B.C. where I grew up - and be able to kind of give back to the community, show what I've learned.
"How I've developed as a player and a person and come back a few years later and try to give it all back in a sense."
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