Meet the Brampton coach behind NBA stars like RJ Barrett and Lindell Wigginton

‘I’m a master skill developer’: Meet the Brampton coach behind NBA stars RJ Barrett and Lindell Wigginton

Elite trainer Dwayne Washington runs his club, Uplay, out of a local gym. He has mentored more than a quarter of Canadian basketball players drafted since 2018

When asked to name a who’s who of Canadian NBA talent, fans might name RJ Barrett, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lindell Wigginton or Shaedon Sharpe. Behind every player on the roster is an elite trainer who has flown under the radar in his modest Brampton training facility: Dwayne Washington. Since 2018, more than a quarter of all Canadian players drafted into the NBA have been alumni of Washington’s Uplay program, a private club focused on developing young athletes through basketball and academics. We asked Washington about his coaching philosophy, why Canada churns out so much NBA star power and what his former students were like as kids.

Congratulations are in order – two Uplay alumni, Leonard Miller and Charles Bediako, were drafted into the NBA last week. How does it feel?
Well! I am like a proud uncle who has helped his nephews graduate from university. I am happy to be part of the process and now they are starting a new chapter.

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Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into basketball?
I grew up in New York and played in high school. I went to play at a private prep school upstate and then got a full scholarship to Houghton College, which was then a Division 2 school. I got a double major in psychology and education, then a master’s degree. I moved to Canada in 2004 to pursue a PhD in Education at the University of Toronto. That’s when I started training kids.

What got you into working out?
I’m from the Bronx where there are many athletes at different stages in their lives. So it didn’t feel like a big deal to become a coach. It’s just a job choice, as a doctor or dentist. I love working with children and I can teach, which is why I started the Uplay program.

So what exactly is Uplay?
We are a private basketball club for players in grades 7 to 12. We have teams that we train and work with as coaches – for example, we have a team in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League. I would describe us as a brotherhood of talented athletes from across the country. The ultimate goal is to help our players get post-secondary scholarships. Right now, about 89 percent of them are getting scholarships and playing at the Division 1 level.

Apart from its elite alumni list, what sets Uplay apart from other clubs?
When players come to us, they get an explanation. We don’t just show them how to use certain angles or arcs or how to use their energy; we tell them Why and when to use these techniques. And I am known as a master skill developer. After watching someone play for 30 to 45 seconds, I immediately know where they could improve. A lot of it is body position, angles where the ball is placed. I am an expert in this field. I specialize in turning a B+ into an A+.

I assume not just anyone can join?
We find players through four ways: They can try out, be recommended by former members or be spotted by one of our traveling scouts. And then we have American universities, professional teams and sports agents reaching out to us to say, “Hey, there’s somebody we’d like to get into the program so you can train them.”

Any specific qualities you look for in a player?
I start by looking at their support system. Do they have people who will hold them accountable to the principles of hard work and goal setting? Only then do I look at the player himself. Will the child change his mind if a butterfly walks by? I try to find people who are consistent, who stick with it. Talent is hard work. I don’t work with people who think they’re going to the NBA – I work with people who think they want to try to be the best versions of themselves.

Behind NBA stars like RJ Barrett, Shai Gligeous-Alexander, Lindell Wiggington and Shaedon Sharp is a single elite trainer who works out of his modest Brampton gym - his name is Dwayne Washington.  Since 2018, over a quarter of all Canadian players drafted into the NBA have been alums of Washington's Uplay program, a private basketball club focused on developing young athletes through basketball and academics.

Lindell Wigginton, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with the Oklahoma City Thunder, are just a few of the players who have come through the program. Did someone blow you away from the start?
Lindell Wigginton’s explosiveness really impressed me, but so did his humility. When you have that type of athletic ability and are humble, it’s a beautiful thing. RJ Barrett was driven, intense, focused and highly intelligent – ​​RJ didn’t need basketball. He could have been a lawyer. He earned a 4.0 GPA at Duke University.

What is it like to see your former students play in NBA games?
It has changed over the years. Like everything else, you become a little desensitized. But we still give them corrections, talk to them about doing things right. We work with students throughout their careers, even after they retire. We have group chats and calls where the guys in the NBA talk to our eighth graders.

Is coaching potential basketball stars as glamorous as it sounds?
Not quite. Resources are not infinite – too often people just see the results and don’t understand all the sacrifices. I put in a lot of my own money, just like every other teacher in the country. I stay late, train on the weekend. People with private clubs don’t make a million dollars. They just love to do it and try to stay afloat.

What would you do if you had unlimited resources?
I would probably do more events in Europe to compete against top clubs over there. I would also take in some younger students and set up a three-court facility just outside the GTA as a home base for the club.

This past season, the NBA had a record number of Canadian playersand there have been rumors about a northern expansion for the WNBA. What’s behind this new golden era of Canadian basketball?
I think it’s a combination of things. First, you have the recent success with the Raptors. Then you have people who come here from countries where they love basketball, from the Philippines, Africa, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe. There are also several camps, youth programs and clubs across the country where coaches can spend time with the kids. And games are available on TV, YouTube and social media. It lets kids see what’s out there.

Some alumni have returned as trainers at Uplay. What’s it like working with people you used to coach?
It happens regularly now that I’m getting older and closer to retirement. Francis Kiapway, Michael Hamilton, Jarryn Skeete and Marquell Fraser are all back. It’s like cloning yourself, to a degree. Seeing people come back is actually the most satisfying thing for me, even more than seeing former students get jobs that make them millions. I do this to help people, to get them scholarships. It has changed the trajectory of their families’ lives and, in some cases, their entire communities. Having people come back shows me that they care that I’m taking time away from my family, my life, and my personal goals to do this work. You can’t put a price on it.

Are you coaching any currently unknown players that Canadian basketball fans should be excited about?
Amari Upshaw. He’s in the gym right now. He is only in grade nine, but he should have a very bright future. He is a phenomenal player, the best in the country. We are trying to make him one of the best in the world when he graduates from high school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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