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More tough decisions ahead as Canada builds Olympic roster

Canada basketball Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – It used to be that whenever Rowan Barrett – general manager of the Canadian men’s national team – or his predecessors met with the media ahead of an international competition, they would have to answer for all the players that chose not to show up.

Why isn’t this guy here? Why isn’t that guy here?

That was the tradition virtually every summer as the country’s rosters would generally underwhelm, relative to the talent it was producing at the NBA level. They would have to beg guys to simply answer a call, let alone suit up and play.

But times have changed. On Wednesday, Canada Basketball revealed the 20 players that will attend training camp and compete for a spot on the team that will represent the country at next month’s Paris Olympics. It’s a stacked group that features 12 current NBA players and is headlined by last season’s MVP runner-up, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, as well as a couple of league champions in Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins.

That Barrett spent most of his 30-minute press conference addressing questions about who they decided not to invite, or who they’ll eventually have to cut, speaks to how far the program has come. They had always hoped to be in this position, one that necessitates them to turn away high-level players, but now that they’re here, they’re learning that it’s easier said than done.

It's a dilemma that Barrett and head coach Jordi Fernandez have been wrestling with since Canada punched its ticket to the 2024 Olympics at last summer’s FIBA World Cup, on the way to winning a historic bronze medal. It's a good problem to have, to be sure, but it’s one that has already made for some tough decisions. How do they balance their gratitude and sense of loyalty to the group that helped them get here with the temptation to add reinforcements who could help take them a step further?

Famously, this Olympic cycle began with a summit in Las Vegas during the summer of 2021. The men’s team had just come up short yet again, this time failing to qualify for the Tokyo Games at a last-chance tournament on home soil – the latest in a long line of disappointments and missteps.

When Barrett and then-head coach Nick Nurse reflected on what wrong they came up with a familiar diagnosis: a lack of chemistry and cohesion. And so, they asked the country’s best players to make a three-year commitment to the program. The terms, as we understood them at the time were as follows. Each summer, players must attend at least three days of training camp, so even if they were injured or otherwise unable to participate and play, they could still show their support and keep up with what’s going on. In exchange? That part was always a bit more ambiguous or open to interpretation, but the implication was that those players would get the first crack at a roster spot if they qualified for the Olympics.

Fourteen players, dubbed “the summer core”, ultimately made the commitment. Twelve of them will be in camp next week.

One of the exceptions is Cory Joseph, a stalwart of the program, who becomes the first casualty of its newfound depth. The veteran point guard fulfilled his end of the agreement, having attending camp the past two years, but pulled out of last summer’s World Cup due to a back injury – though there has been some unverified speculation that he was less than enthusiastic about his limited role.

There’s a reasonable chance that he wouldn’t have even made this summer’s club. Nonetheless, the 32-year-old expected to at least compete for a spot in camp and, by all accounts, was surprised to not even receive an invitation. You can understand his disappointment, given that he’s represented his country at the junior and senior levels for more than a decade. During those bleak years in which many of his NBA peers would find reasons not to play, Joseph was one of the few to answer the call – always and no matter what. It’s hard to believe that they couldn’t have used a high-character, 13-year NBA vet as insurance off the bench, or as a leader in the locker room.

From Canada Basketball’s perspective, it was nothing personal. They still appreciate what he’s meant to the program and hope to keep him in the fold and properly honour him for his contributions one day. But they also saw this as an opportunity to start looking towards the future. They’re loaded at the position with stars in Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray, as well as young guards in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Andrew Nembhard.

“We're trying to get up to the top of the podium,” Barrett said. “It looks like two small steps. It is not. They are two large steps that you have to [climb]. And with these [other] teams reloading all around the world, and looking at some specific areas that we felt we needed to bolster and strengthen, we could not simply look within our core of athletes. We have to look within our whole entire player pool to give us what we believe we might need.

"That being said, we're going to have all of our players in camp. Those that were on the team last year, we want to keep that strong core that's been successful for us. But in a few areas where we feel like we need to improve, we want to open up some competition there.”

Fresh off a breakout playoff run with the Indiana Pacers, Nembhard is one of players who – for various reasons – couldn’t or wouldn’t make the three-year commitment in 2021 but has been added to help improve Canada’s Olympic chances. However, the most notable – and, some would say, polarizing – addition is Wiggins.

The 29-year-old former first-overall pick has been a part of the program before, most recently at the 2021 qualifying tournament in Victoria, BC. After being named an all-star and winning a championship with Golden State in 2021-22, he’s missed time for personal reasons in each of the past two seasons and is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro. With the Warriors, he’s shown that he can be successful in a complementary role, but given his pedigree and skill set, he’s not somebody that you would roster to have at the end of the bench. There were plenty of question marks. Would he even want to play, and if he did, was he still good enough to crack a solid rotation of wings that included Alexander-Walker, Dillon Brooks and Luguentz Dort?

Recently, one source suggested that Canada Basketball could defer to its core players on Wiggins – do they want him on the team and believe he can be an asset? His presence in camp and likely spot on the roster would indicate that they were in support.

Andrew Wiggins is a pro,” Barrett said. “Every time he’s been within our walls he’s played tremendous basketball. I wouldn’t think that this moment would be any different. A healthy, strong Andrew Wiggins is a very, very good player.”

But whose spot is he going to take?

According to Barrett, nothing is guaranteed, whether you’re part of the summer core or not. It makes those two-way commitments made in 2021 look rather one-sided in hindsight, but that was always going to be the unfortunate reality. The program has expressed its appreciation for the many players and coaches who sacrificed their time, put their bodies on the line and helped get the Canadian men’s basketball team back to the Olympics for the first time since 2000, but they were never going to be able to do right by all of them.

“I think all of our athletes that signed up this quad for this understood that,” said Barrett. “They understood [they] don’t have a guarantee in the end to be on the team. And so that conversation is always going to be difficult... but there’s only 12 players on the team.”

And so, there are more tough decisions to make as they continue to whittle the roster down.

One would assume that the top seven players from last summer’s World Cup team are locks: Gilgeous-Alexander, Brooks, Dort, Alexander-Walker, Dwight Powell and the two Raptors, RJ Barrett and Kelly Olynyk. Add Murray, who has yet to suit up with this group but, per Barrett, is in good health and ready to play. Presumably, Wiggins and Nembhard weren’t added just to be cut.

That leaves two spots for 10 players. Kings forward Trey Lyles is also a new addition for camp and could help address the roster’s most glaring need: frontcourt depth. The same could be said for former NBA bigs Khem Birch, who has recovered from the lingering knee injury that plagued him with the Raptors and spent last season playing in Spain, and ex-Clipper Mfiondu Kabengele. Then there’s Zach Edey, fresh off his brilliant collegiate career at Purdue, who would certainly give them size but may not get clearance from whichever NBA team selects him in next week’s draft. Melvin Ejim, Kyle Alexander, Trae Bell-Haynes and the Scrubb brothers, Phil and Thomas, are all long-time members of the program who would bring some level of familiarity and FIBA savvy.

Camp opens in Toronto next Friday, exactly one month before the Olympic tournament tips off, and then they will begin their exhibition tour against the United States in Las Vegas on July 10, at which point they expect to make some – if not all – of their cuts.

This time around, the story isn’t who declined to show up, it’s who might not get to stay. Canada Basketball isn’t satisfied to simply be back at the Olympics, on either the men or the women’s side. They want to make noise once they get there. To do so, they may have to get their hands dirty.

“I think our goals need to be very clear,” Barrett said. “For this summer, we are working towards climbing up to the top of that podium. We are going to this competition in Paris to win. That's our plan. That's what we're stocked to do. And as a result of that, we have to create the strongest possible roster that we can to get that job done.”