TORONTO – When FIBA tips off its last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, the team from Canada will be considered a frontrunner, and with good reason.
They’re playing at home. Even without a full building of fans to lend support – the Save-On-Foods Centre was recently cleared to hold up to 10 per cent capacity for games later in the week – being the host country should still have its perks.
They’re loaded with talent. Despite the notable names that could not make the commitment due to injury, contractual situation or personal obligation, this is arguably the deepest and most skilled group of players that the senior men’s program has ever assembled.
Thirteen NBA players are expected to take the court in this week’s six-day, six-team tournament. Canada’s roster features eight of them: Warriors wing Andrew Wiggins, Knicks wing RJ Barrett, Mavericks big man Dwight Powell, Pistons guard Cory Joseph, Thunder guard Luguentz Dort, Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Spurs forward Trey Lyles and Warriors guard Mychal Mulder, as well two players with recent NBA experience in forward Andrew Nicholson and former first-overall pick Anthony Bennett.
“Obviously, Canada is the favourite of this group in my mind,” said Czech Republic captain and Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky, who is one of the five NBA players that won’t be wearing Canada’s white and red. “When you put them on paper I would say they are the second-best team in the world, if you just go by names.”
But it’s never that simple. Twenty-one Canadian players appeared in at least one NBA game this past season. Outside of the United States, Canada was the most represented country in the league for the seventh consecutive year. However, for all that young up-and-coming talent, for all the promise and excitement surrounding basketball north of the border, it has yet to translate on the world stage.
Canada hasn’t been to the Olympics for men’s basketball since 2000. They currently sit 21st in FIBA’s world rankings.
“I don't feel like we're the [favourites] because, I mean, in my mind, we haven't done anything yet,” said Joseph, who has participated in 11 FIBA tournaments with Canada dating back to 2008, when he made his national team debut with the junior team. “Yes, we have a talented group of players, but we got to put it all together. We’ve got to be a team out there and go get the job done. We've had talented groups before.”
If this is in fact the most talented Canadian basketball roster ever, the team they put together for the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship – which also included eight NBA players – would be a close second. That team was, and still remains, an instructive reminder that talent is important at these events but it’s not everything; it only takes you so far.
That tournament served as the qualifier for the 2016 Olympics. The two finalists would punch their ticket to Rio.
Canada swept its four-game tune-up in Puerto Rico, claiming the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup, and was steamrolling its way through the competition in Mexico City. It won seven of eight games in the preliminary round, six of them by at least 20 points, including 37 and 42-point victories.
Then came the game that actually mattered, a semi-finals date with a Venezuelan team it had just defeated by 20 points, and Canada fell apart. Turnovers, missed shots and an overall lack of physicality gave way to a controversial call at the buzzer. The result was a one-point loss, one of the most devastating moments in the program’s history. It cost them a trip to the Olympics.
Without an NBA player on its roster, Venezuela had a fraction of Canada’s talent. What it did have was chemistry – a product of more experience together – and greater familiarity and comfort with the international game, which is different from the NBA game in its rules and the way its officiated.
“We definitely remember it,” said Joseph, one of six holdovers from that 2015 club, along with Wiggins, Powell, Nicholson, Bennett and Aaron Doornekamp. “I think we're all at different points individually now and I think we're all different players now, but we definitely remember it and it still stings.”
“I think about it sometimes, but it was a long time ago, so I'm just looking forward to this time around,” said Wiggins. “I feel like our team is even better now, a lot of good talent, some of the guys are older, experience is there, and we've got a lot of great, good young guys.”
In Mexico City, Wiggins was a 20-year-old coming off his rookie season in the NBA. It was his first time playing for the senior national team and, afterwards, many believed it might be his last. Wiggins was billed as the future face of the program, and for most of the tournament he looked the part. However, he was held to just nine points in the loss to Venezuela and then-head coach Jay Triano benched him in favour of the more experienced Doornekamp for stretches of the fourth quarter. According to sources close to Wiggins, it’s something that never sat well with the former first-overall pick.
But a lot has changed in six years, including Canada’s coaching staff. Wiggins is 26 now, and coming off what many consider his best season as a pro. The trade to Golden State helped alleviate some of the pressure he faced in Minnesota and he was able to grow into his role, playing alongside champions like Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
He’s back in the spotlight with Team Canada, only this time he’ll share it with a more balanced group. Barrett is one of the few Canadian basketball players that’s experienced success on the world stage over the past two decades, having won gold and silver medals at the junior level. Rising stars Dort and Alexander-Walker are debuting for the senior club. The vets, Joseph and Powell, bring the stability and leadership this team is going to need.
While Wiggins, Joseph and others are looking for redemption, some of these guys are hoping to pick up where they left off, or just make a strong first impression.
The challenges that they’ll face in Victoria are familiar ones, though. Once again, they’ll have more talent than the competition, but most of these other clubs should come in better prepared, with more reps together and more FIBA experience under their belts. Having only scrimmaged against itself this past week, head coach Nick Nurse’s team is learning and building chemistry on the fly.
This is where the loss of stalwart and consummate glue-guy Melvin Ejim, who was in camp with the team but had to withdraw for personal reasons, really hurts. He would have helped fill in a lot of those gaps, and you can see how his absence may have influenced some end-of-roster decisions – with Doornekamp, who’s played in more FIBA games than anybody else on the team, making the final cut over 19-year-old seven-footer Zach Edey, who would have given them more size.
The question is, can Nurse and this Canadian team make up for those inherent disadvantages by taking advantage of the things they do have: speed, versatility, depth and, of course, skill?
If everything goes according to plan, they’ll play four games. They open the tournament against Greece on Tuesday before facing China Wednesday evening. The top-two teams from that group advance to play the top-two from the other group, consisting of Czech Republic, Turkey and Uruguay. The semi-finals are on Saturday, with the last two teams standing going head-to-head for a spot to the Olympics on Sunday. Winner takes all. Only one of these six teams will represent its country in Tokyo later next month.
You can only afford to lose once, at most, and that loss would have to come in the first two games and by a small margin, as point differential matters.
The level of competition figures to be stiff, as well. They catch a break with the Bucks competing in the Eastern Conference Finals. While Lakers forward Kostas Antetokounmpo will play for Greece, his brothers Thanasis and, notably, Giannis are currently preoccupied. Canada’s biggest tests are waiting in the opposite group. Led by Satoransky and former NBA lottery pick Jan Vesely, the Czechs are a tough, experienced team. Without the injured Shane Larkin, Turkey is missing a key player but still features three NBA players in 76ers sharpshooter Furkan Korkmaz, Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman and Jazz veteran Ersan Ilyasova, as well as a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, intriguing big man Alperen Sengun.
The degree of difficulty is high. The margin for error is small. If this is the summer the Canadian senior men’s basketball team finally breaks through on the world stage, they’ll have to exorcise a few demons. First, we’ll find out if they’ve learned anything from them.
“We definitely have a good shot here,” Joseph said on the eve of the tournament opener. “We put together a great group of guys. But I’ve been here for a while, I’ve had talented groups before and we couldn’t get the job done. So we got to be extremely focused and put it all together and get out there and just play extremely hard. If we play together and we play hard, I think our talents can show.”