The future of Canadian basketball appears bright, with the country having produced a handful of supremely talented teenagers, most of whom are just embarking on their collegiate and professional careers.
If they all develop as planned the senior men’s national team is going to have a fighting chance against the powers of international hoops, even without Steve Nash.
But that’s if they all play.
As the 2011 roster demonstrates, getting the best Canadian players to play for Canada has proved challenging, and that is going to make qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics a tall order. Once again, the chips are down for the Canadians as they attempt to qualify at the FIBA Americas tournament in Mar del Plata, Argentina this week, and once again, the story revolves around who is missing as opposed to who is there.
Head coach Leo Rautins made his national team debut as a player at the tender age of 16, and played for Canada every summer during his amateur career. He returned to the national team years later when professionals were given the green light.
A couple generations later, the allure of playing for the home and native land isn’t the same, as many choose to focus on their club, collegiate, and professional careers.
“The honour of playing for your country, and representing your country, and playing on the stages you can play on, none of that compares,” Rautins said. “I don’t understand why guys don’t grasp that.”
The coach said that the team is missing a potential impact player in forward Tristan Thompson, a 20-year-old from Brampton, Ont., who was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the fourth pick overall in the 2011 NBA draft. With the NBA lockout in effect, Thompson has returned to the University of Texas, where he played last season, fulfilling a promise to his mother to continue his education.
The danger for Rautins is if Thompson turns into Jamaal Magloire, the Toronto centre who hasn’t played for his country, despite 10 years in the NBA. It is not a good sign that North Vancouver centre Robert Sacre, of Gonzaga University, also turned down an invitation this summer.
Nash, of course, has retired from international competition, while San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner, a Toronto resident, continues his quest for Canadian citizenship, but may never clear enough bureaucratic tape to play for his adopted country.
Toronto guard Myck Kabongo (Texas), Montreal centre Khem Birch (Pittsburgh), forward Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), whose father Greg played for the national team, and guard Kevin Pangos of Newmarket, Ont. (Gonzaga) are all top recruits prepping for their first season of U.S. college basketball. They, along with Toronto teenager Andrew Wiggins, chosen the top North American prospect in the class of 2014 by ESPN, are being counted on to form the core of future national teams.
“We have to create a cycle – and that’s what we’re trying to do – where they’re not walking in new,” Rautins said. “You want to integrate them in as much as possible.”
The integration this summer revolves around point guard Cory Joseph, a first-round pick of the Spurs, who is making his senior national team debut. The Pickering, Ont., native was taken 28th overall in June, and is one of three NBA players on the team along with centre Joel Anthony of the Miami Heat, and guard Andy Rautins of the New York Knicks.
Leo Rautins said that Joseph, 20, is too young to lean on during the FIBA Americas Championship, but will have a backcourt role alongside his son Andy and Jermaine Anderson, who leads a contingent of European professionals who have been loyal foot soldiers for the national team.
The Canadians begin their quest Wednesday against Brazil. Two teams will receive berths to the 2012 Games, and one is almost certain to go to the host Argentines, who can beat every one in the world other than the United States.
The good news is that Canada avoided a pool with the hosts and Puerto Rico, two of the region’s strongest teams, and caught a break when three of Brazil’s four NBA players, including Toronto Raptors guard Leandro Barbosa, elected not to play.
The bad news is that Canada is in a group with the Dominican Republic, which is coached by John Calipari of the NCAA’s Kentucky Wildcats, and features three NBA players, including former Raptor Charlie Villanueva and Atlanta Hawks centre Al Horford.