To reach the echelon of an elite Division I college basketball player, kids from their early teens must embrace a nomadic lifestyle. Long bus rides for high school games in the winter, nationwide AAU circuits in the spring, more AAU and camps in the summer.
By the time these student-athletes first step foot on campus, the concept of a “5-hour trip to Princeton” or “a cross-country flight for a three-game tournament” is no less foreign than a business trip would be for your standard corporate consultant.
But even by these parameters, listening to Harvard freshman Noah Kirkwood recount the logistics to even be in the same gym as quality basketball competition is staggering.
A lifelong native of Ottawa, Ontario, Kirkwood resided in the periphery of Canada’s main hotbed for basketball talent in Toronto. Although the Maples Leafs and hockey still hold a substantial grip in ‘The Six’, any casual observer need only look at the mobs of fans celebrating Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater outside ScotiaBank Arena or take a gander at a college roster sheet to comprehend the pace by which hoops has grown in Toronto.
A five-hour drive north to the nation’s capital however, it is evident the hardwood is still a clear second fiddle to the ice for the younger generation.
“We have only had maybe in the past 20 years four or five guys play Division I [from Ottawa], and those are more in the later years,” Kirkwood said. “...So I didn’t have many people to look to, but I’d say mainly, it’s so hard for kids that play AAU basketball from Ottawa.”
For Kirkwood, his dreams of playing at a higher level meant even more hours on the road compared to his peers.
“So just to go play for a club team to play in the States, it's a tall task,” Kirkwood said. “And so I played on a team from Montreal, Montreal is around three hours [from Ottawa]. But the thing about my situation was, I didn't have to go to all the practices so that helped me a lot...But I'm just saying for even a guy that was good enough to play basketball, it was still tough to be on a team, let alone guys that might not have that same skill set or drive and they just want to play. The odds already are kind of against you.”
Kirkwood’s journey to Cambridge, is thus, an unlikely one that carries the trace of thousands of miles on the road. With his talents on the basketball court quickly outpacing what Ottawa could offer — he finished as the all-time leading scorer at his local Ashbury College High School — the 2017 Provincial MVP took his talents to Northfield Mount Hermon, a preparatory high school in western Massachusetts for a postgraduate season. There, the theme of international representation continued, both on and off the court.
“They're living in a residential program, with 53 different countries represented 660 students,” NMH head coach John Carroll said. “They're getting the boarding experience that they would have at a college program. As for basketball, we play more basketball than they do in the Ivy League and we play college rules and college-age guys.”
At the same time, Kirkwood continued to compete on the international stage, upsetting the United States at the U-19 FIBA World Championships in Egypt alongside current Crimson teammate Danilo Djuricic. He also earned silver at the FIBA Americas U-16 Championships in Argentina.
So after all of these stops criss-crossing North America and several other countries, what led him to Cambridge and ultimately deciding to don the crimson-and-white?
Kirkwood attributes this partially to teammate and senior captain Corey Johnson, another rare product of Ottawa that traversed the AAU scene, represented Canada at the youth level, and also played a season for an American prep school (Vermont Academy) before joining Coach Tommy Amaker’s side.
“I was lucky enough to be recruited pretty early on in my high school career just because of my relationship with Corey Johnson,” Kirkwood said. “His family was very close knit, so he had knew about me because Ottawa basketball is very tight, very small. He’s seen me play numerous times and really got to know me as a player, all of my deficiencies, all of strengths.”
Prior to the season beginning at Northfield Mount Hermon in fall of 2017, Kirkwood committed to the Crimson. Harvard Basketball under Tommy Amaker has had a strong relationship with Coach Carroll’s program in the past decade, with only one season in Amaker’s reign where a NMH alum has not been featured on a Crimson roster. Following Kirkwood, Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year Chris Ledlum is also set to make the transition from NMH to Cambridge next season.
“For Noah, seeing Laurent [Rivard] come here and be a two-time captain, seeing Evan Cummins come here, seeing Zena [Edosomwan] come here and have a successful career all of them winning Ivy championships, you know for placement and the Ivy League you know there this no one that can compete,” Carroll said.
Kirkwood’s short time at NMH was highlighted by a NEPSAC state championship as he began to face equivalent competition at the Division I level.
“I graduated four years from my old school and wasn't sure where to go. The first time I talked to [Coach Carroll] I just knew right away, it was the right spot,” Kirkwood said. “...He's always academic first and basketball second, and you always kind of emphasizes let basketball take you, use basketball as your opportunity and gateway to open up doors rather than the other way around. So going to Ivy League is kind of the the win-win for both situations.”
At the start of his first campaign, Kirkwood quickly proved to be a valuable offensive weapon for Coach Amaker, especially without former Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns and former Ivy League Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken in action. Tallying 12 points in back-to-back contests against San Francisco and Saint Mary’s, the 6-foot-7 guard’s breakout game came against Holy Cross when he shot an impressive 7-for-8 from the field for 20 points. At that point, Kirkwood was already Amaker’s entrenched sixth man, seeing the most minutes off the bench.
“I’m very impressed but if I’m being very honest I’m not surprised,” said Amaker after the Holy Cross win. “This is what we think we were getting when we were able to get him to come here and decide to be at Harvard. He’s a pretty talented kid and has the ability with the ball for his size to change things because he can see over the top. But he’s pretty crafty with his ability to drive and make plays.”
An aggressive slasher both in transition and in halfcourt, the freshman described his biggest transition as adjusting to the speed of the game in terms of decision-making. Cutting down on turnovers (Kirkwood accumulated 18 through his first six games) was an important area of improvement during non-conference play.
“Just way quicker guards that I’m used to, just the passes I make sometimes or how I dribble might be more lackadaisical,” said Kirkwood on his biggest adjustment. “But I feel now that when I’m playing with these guys you just can’t make those kind of plays.”
Before Ancient Eight play, the guard picked up his third Rookie of the Week honors after a 20-point outing over George Washington and a 19-point performance against Mercer in back-to-back victories. In what was becoming a crucial part of his game, the freshman drilled seven out of 14 triples in those two wins and would finish the season just shy of 40 percent from the arc.
Harvard finished above .500 in non-conference play, all of which was with lead offensive star Bryce Aiken in suit-and-tie attire on the Crimson bench. A combination of illness and adjusting to Aiken’s return resulted in a cold stretch for Kirkwood, but his production gradually spiked upwards.
Draining four of five from deep in a 16-point contest at Princeton, Kirkwood had a career-night at Brown with 28 points, nine boards, and seven assists. With Aiken back in the mix, Kirkwood adjusted by serving as a dangerous outlet on the wing as well as continuing to finding openings inside. Following that Princeton contest, Aiken jocularly called Kirkwood a “bad boy”.
“It’s just seeing a freshman get more confident in his play and getting more comfortable within the college game,” said Aiken on Feb.20. “Obviously he’s grown a huge amount from the season and he’s definitely starting to excel going into the closing part of the season...He’s not peaking yet, [but] he’s going to peak at the right time.”
An injury to junior guard Justin Bassey propelled Kirkwood into a starting role, a position he would maintain for the final eight out of nine games of the season. The guard scored in double figures in seven of those contests, including critical late shots down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Ivy Rookie of the Week awards kept coming. By season’s end the Ivy League had bestowed seven such honors, enough to surpass a program record held by Siyani Chambers ‘16-17 and Dan Clemente ‘01.
Aiken was nevertheless the central offensive piece late in the season, but Kirkwood’s important complementary role allowed him to finish the season with a 11.1 PPG average (second-highest on the team) and provided much-needed balance to the Crimson. Of no surprise, Kirkwood was named the Ivy Rookie of the Year.
Even with these accomplishments, Kirkwood commented he still has much left to grow heading into his sophomore season.
“If I’m being honest, I felt like I underachieved some of the things to do in terms of what my expectations personally were,” Kirkwood said. “I know that sounds kind of poor because I just got Rookie of the Year. Thinking it like that I got to take a step back and say you did okay, you did pretty good, ‘Noah, relax a bit’.”
This “never-satisfied” mentality is in-part what has contributed to Kirkwood playing on increasingly competitive teams in increasingly bigger stages. As “the bad boy” from Ottawa prepares for Year Two, there is one destination that has been elusive for this Crimson team since 2015: the NCAA Tournament. Kirkwood, along with the rest of the team, will reload and prepare for that singular trip next March.
— Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.