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Canada focused on identity, winning in training camp ahead of FIBA World Cup

Oklahoma City Thunder Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — The commitments have been made to Canada, and now it's about building the right identity.

The Canadian senior men's basketball team opened training camp Tuesday afternoon at the OVO Athletic Centre in preparation for the FIBA Men's Basketball World Cup. The tournament runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 10, with a berth in the 2024 Olympics in Paris on the line.

"We have to build an identity as a group and that doesn’t happen overnight," said head coach Jordi Fernandez, who took over the job on June 27. "I think that if you see, not just the commitment, but the sacrifice that these guys are making, it means a lot for what we are trying to do."

"Plain and simple, we want to be a competitive group, we want to be selfless, and we want to be connected," Fernandez added, an assistant coach for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. "If we can be perceived that way with the talent you guys see here, we are going to be really good."

Stars such as newly-minted champion and Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and all-NBA first teamer and all-star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder were among the 10 NBA players — out of 18 on the training camp roster — in attendance Tuesday.

"It's awesome to see everybody show up, ready to work, egos aside, everybody's locked in on the goal to win, compete for our country," said centre Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks. "And it's a different energy when everybody shows up with that mindset.

"You can feel it in the building. It's definitely exciting."

The last time the national men's team made an Olympics was in 2000. The squad fell just short the last quadrennial after a semifinal loss to the Czech Republic at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament in Victoria back in July 2021.

Canada just needs to finish in the top two among the seven teams from the Americas to qualify for the Olympics. The 15th-ranked Canadians open Group H play at the 32-team tournament on Aug. 25 against France, followed by Lebanon on Aug. 27 and Latvia on Aug. 29 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The final phase will be played in Manila, Philippines.

“Anything we put our minds to," Gilgeous-Alexander said when asked what the team could accomplish. "We're for sure talented enough. It's just about us coming together, playing as a team, building camaraderie on and off the court."

The Canadian team made it into the World Cup having gone 9-0 in qualifying in 2022, with the likes of Gilgeous-Alexander, Powell and fellow NBAers Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Oshae Brissett, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk playing a number of those games.

Murray and other NBAers RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Luguentz Dort and Khem Birch attended camp but did not play.

The familiarity — with 14 players having made three-year commitments to the national program in May 2022 — is present with the current group.

“Yeah, there's definitely a culture that we're starting to build, and I think that's the reason for the commitment," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It's the same guys over and over again and playing together.

"And that's the best teams — the best teams overseas, they play together for so long and they're so connected on the court. And we just want to level the playing field.”

With camp ending Sunday and the team's first exhibition game being Aug. 9 in Germany against the Germans, Fernandez is making no excuses for his side to not be ready.

"Obviously I had an unbelievable opportunity knock on my door and it was a no-brainer for me," he said of taking over for former Canada coach Nick Nurse who had stepped down.

"I have done the FIBA basketball enough times and the EuroBasket championship and the Olympics and I am extremely honoured to bring it here and help this program grow to where it is supposed to be and ranked No. 1.

"This is our long-term goal. These things don’t happen overnight but if we work every single day and we care about building our identity, we will get there."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2023.