November 30, 2019, 4:19 pm
Canada doesn’t boast the sheer depth of talent that Team USA does, and likely never will. They’ll be in for a serious fight against traditional basketball powerhouses like Spain and France, and even with second-tier teams like Slovenia, Serbia, Lithuania and Croatia, among others. While Canada isn’t thought of as a basketball powerhouse, we’ve also never seen what they can do with a full roster.
They may not (read: probably will not) be able to truly hang with the game’s titans, but there’s some excitement about what a full-strength Team Canada would look like.
For a variety of reasons, some valid and some much more nebulous, the Canadian squad has rarely been its best on-paper self in international competition. Players like Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk have almost always showed up when called upon. Khem Birch has joined those ranks in recent years, with a declaration that nobody else can sway Khem Birch’s decision making:
Khem Birch on his decision to play for Canada: “I don’t let anyone dictate my career or anything. I let Khem Birch dictate what he wants to do and Khem Birch decided to play for his country because I want to go to the Olympics.”
— Mike Ganter (@Mike_Ganter) September 4, 2019
The next wave of Canadian talent has yet to make an impression on the international stage, but it has always felt like there would be a sort of floodgate-opening moment. All it would take is one upper-tier player to show up, and others would follow. Perhaps that’s what we’re seeing now.
Jamal Murray announced his decision to play for Canada in their Olympic qualifying tournament this summer, and that was quickly followed by commitments from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Chris Boucher.
Among the other early committers are Dwight Powell, Dillon Brooks and Oshae Brissett.
It’s an encouraging step for Team Canada, who saw a decent looking list of training camp invitees dwindle quickly when actual camp opened this past summer. Some players, like Murray, Brooks and Barrett, were nursing injuries. Others, like Gilgeous-Alexander, opted to focus on the upcoming NBA season. Whatever the case, Canada’s only NBA players on the final World Cup roster were Joseph and Birch.
Other NBA names on the initial invite list that didn’t attend camp include Brandon Clarke, Trey Lyles, Nik Stauskas, Luguentz Dort, Mfiondu Kabengele, Naz Mitrou-Long and Marial Shayok. There aren’t many impact players in that bunch – it’s really only Clarke – but Canada was still forced to reach deeper in the bag for their summertime Olympic qualifier.
All of those absences contributed to the current sense of urgency, with Canada needing to win a six-team tournament to earn a place in the 2020 Olympics. They’ll need to go through Greece, the Czech Republic, Turkey, China and Uruguay. While the tournament will be held in Victoria, British Columbia, it’s far from an easy draw. And yet, the national program really has no choice but to make good on this opportunity.
Now is the time for Team Canada to push their chips to the middle. Riding the wave of the Raptors’ championship run is a must for the federation, as the entire postseason showed the sort of appetite that Canada – not just Toronto – has for hoops. Between the potential player pool and Nick Nurse at the whiteboard, this is undoubtedly the most talented group that Canada will have ever assembled, and a successful showing, which has to come in the form of an Olympic berth, would double down on the Raptors’ success. This is a major opportunity for Canada Basketball to make inroads with the nation’s youth.
At this point, there’s no reason that a nation with such a heavy NBA presence should miss out on qualifying for the Olympic games. For so long that result was because the Canadians entered every international tournament at a severe talent disadvantage. It looks like Canada’s top talents might be collectively deciding to end the drought. If they go down now, at least it will be with a real fight.
Although the final roster may not end up featuring all the players who have committed, and Andrew Wiggins’ foggy relationship with the national program continues to loom over the proceedings, Canada should be feeling cautiously optimistic. The early commitment from guys like Murray and SGA gives a huge lift to the program, and the hope is that Canada’s other top talents start to follow suit with regularity.