Olivier Rioux landed on Michael Meeks’ radar with a giant exclamation mark when the Canadian basketball coach opened a photo in his inbox seven years ago.
Olivier attended a children’s basketball camp in Montreal and posed for a photo alongside then-Detroit Pistons and Canadian team center Joel Anthony, who is an impressive six feet tall.
“Ron Yeung (National Development Manager at Canada Basketball) sent me this photo of Olivier and Joel, and Olivier is about the same height, plus or minus an inch. Ron says, “This kid is nine years old,” said Mr. Meeks.
“I was on the phone right away to find out who he was and what was going on and what we can do to help.”
In the years since, Olivier has grown to a full seven foot six. He can dunk on an NBA hoop while barely getting off his feet.
Guinness World Records recognized him as the world’s tallest teenager when he was 15 and 2.10 meters tall. If he were playing in the NBA now, he would be the tallest player in the league alongside Cleveland’s Tacko Fall.
But Olivier is playing for Quebec at the Canada Summer Games in Ontario’s Niagara region this week with kids who are at least his age, if not nearly his size.
Quebec was scheduled to take on Saskatchewan on Friday after beating Alberta 72-70 in Thursday night’s semifinals.
Mr Meeks, who is at the Games to keep an eye on Canada’s young players, said he’s seen Olivier improve even in recent weeks but warns that like any super-great player, he’s a long-term work-in-progress is.
“People see his greatness and their expectations are pretty high,” said Mr. Meeks. “For me, it’s the little things like his mobility and agility, how he moves, how he designs the game – how much fun does he enjoy competing and playing?
“It’s important because we’re in uncharted territory with Olivier, there’s never been anyone his age who was that tall. So we’re cautiously optimistic that he’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Olivier, who is from Anjou, an east Montreal county, will start 10th grade in Bradenton, Fla. in the fall. He moved there a year ago to attend IMG Academy — a school whose alumni include superstar tennis sisters Serena and Venus Williams.
“It was nice,” Olivier said of his first year away from home. “I called my parents almost every day and the school year was good, my grades were better.
“Back in Montreal, I went to school at least eight hours a day. Now I go to school for three hours and practice in the afternoon. It’s different,” he added with a deep laugh.
He enjoys the games, he said, and has entered a few boxing matches.
Olivier was 5-2 in kindergarten. His father Jean-Francois is 6-8 years old; his mother Anne is 6-2.
He first became an unsuspecting internet star at the age of 12 when he played in a tournament in Spain. He stood out from the other players on the pitch like a maypole. It caught the eye of Golden State star Steph Curry, who tweeted, “So many questions.”
Jamal Murray posed next to him for a photo this summer. He already towered over the Denver Nuggets star guard from Kitchener, Ontario.
Joey Mckitterick, who has coached Olivier at the Brookwood Elite AAU program in Montreal since he was 12, agreed with Mr. Meeks that he has seen a huge improvement in Olivier this year, particularly as his growth has slowed and his coordination is catching up.
But perhaps most importantly, Olivier is enjoying the game, which is key as great expectations come with being super tall.
“I think this year you could see he was enjoying everything about it, the basketball, the traveling, all of that. He’s definitely falling in love with it,” Mr. Mckitterick said.
Mr Mckitterick said part of his responsibility in coaching Olivier is to be a buffer between the teenager and curious onlookers.
“When we travel, we might be sitting in a hotel lobby and random strangers would come up to him and ask him for a photo. It’s even a challenge to pass through the airport to make a flight on time because people keep stopping him, “Can I take a picture of you? Can you hold my baby?’ can you do that, can you do that
“When I met with our players at the end of the year, I said to him, ‘I can’t imagine being you. But the best I can do is just to guide you and help you and be there for you if you need anything because I can’t put myself in your shoes. Nobody could.”
That uniqueness makes it difficult to gauge where basketball might take him.
“Every three to six months if you see Olivier he’s doing things faster, faster, stronger, more balanced, he’s more agile, his game is getting better, his understanding of how to influence the game is getting better,” Mr Meeks said . “It’s important because taller players are usually a bit slower (in development) and he’s moving at the right speed for a super tall player.
“Usually with guys who stopped growing at around 6-3, 6-4 years old, you can see exactly what they’re going to be like by the time they’re 16. But these big, big players are 24, 25 before it all comes together.”
Olivier, who enjoys studying the games of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, both aged 6-11, is well proportioned for his height and has not had any major physical issues such as sore knees that can accompany rapid growth.
Among other NBA giants, Gheorghe Muresan is listed as the tallest of all time at seven feet seven. Yao Ming and Shawn Bradley were 7-6. Canada’s Sim Bhullar was 7-5 but his weight – reported at 360 pounds – was a limiting factor.
Canada has at least some experience with super tall players. Zach Edey, a 20-year-old from Toronto, is 7-4. Edey made his senior debut in a World Cup qualifier with Canada’s senior team in May. The IMG Academy product is entering its junior season for the Purdue Boilermakers, who have also expressed an early interest in Olivier.
“There are a lot of Division 1 schools that already know him very well,” Mr. Mckitterick said. “The schools that really focus on him are the ones that appreciate the greatness and want to capitalize on it. Because basketball has evolved towards smaller (multi-position players), but there are still many programs that still value that size.”