Nick Nurse was about to launch into his pitch to Canada’s NBA players last summer in Las Vegas, when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander interrupted him.
“[Gilgeous-Alexander] said ‘I’ve gotta say something,’” Nurse said. “He stood up and said ‘I’m playing.’ I hadn’t even got to ask the question yet and so that just shows you he’s ready to go.”
Nurse had asked Canada’s best players, who had been notoriously tough to pin down in previous years, to commit to playing three summers with the national team through the Paris Olympics.
Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t played for Canada since he was 17 due to NBA commitments. But three days out from Canada’s World Cup qualifying game on Friday in his hometown of Hamilton, the 23-year-old was all smiles.
“He’s been super conscientious, super communicative about everything and his excitement to play,” Nurse said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’ve heard it quite a few times from him about how pumped he is to be here. I walked in this morning and he said ‘Good morning coach, I’m pumped.’”
The Canadians, who are 8-0 through two windows of qualifying, host the Dominican Republic on Friday at FirstOntario Centre.
This week marks the first gathering of Nurse’s “core” of summer players, and has seen arguably the most talented collection of Canadian players ever practising at OVO Athletic Centre, normally home to the Toronto Raptors.
Gilgeous-Alexander, Utah guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dallas forward Dwight Powell and Detroit centre Kelly Olynyk are on the playing roster. R.J. Barrett (New York), Oshae Brissett (Indiana), Khem Birch (Toronto), Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma City), Jamal Murray (Denver) and Kevin Pangos (CSKA Moscow) are at camp, but won’t play in this window.
“I’m committed. Everything’s worked out and I’ll be with the team going forward,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Oklahoma City star guard is coming off an ankle injury that kept him out of the Thunder’s final 10 games of the season. He was limited to 56 contests in 2021-22 due to injuries. He was impressive in the games he did play, setting career highs of 24.5 points, 1.3 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, and tying a career-best mark with an average of 5.9 assists.
Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t played on the same team as his cousin (Alexander-Walker), nor played in Hamilton since high school.
“Playing with him this time will be fun,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Both of us have gotten a lot better. Our tandem should be better. Myself more of a driver, himself more of a jump-shooter, it complements each other perfectly. I’m just excited to show the world.”
Gilgeous-Alexander’s last national team action was at the FIBA Americas under-18 tournament in Chile, and the senior men’s last-chance Olympic qualifier in 2016 in Manila. He was initially hesitant to sign up.
“Funny story. I remember being mad that I had to stay because I wanted to go to an elite [high school] basketball camp,” he said. “I remember talking to Rowan [Barrett, Canada Basketball’s GM of the men’s program], talking to some of the coaches and they were like, ‘This experience is going to be better for you.’ Playing with Tyler Ennis and Cory Joseph, who were pros, obviously I trusted them with that, I stayed … and look how it turned out.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said his college scholarship offers “went through the roof” after playing with Canada.
“It definitely worked out. I got so much better. It was a faster pace of game, and I ultimately I knew I wanted to go to the NBA, there’s no better way to prepare than to play against NBA guys every day,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who played one season at Kentucky before entering the NBA draft.
Compared to other top basketball nations, Canada hasn’t seen the same sense of pride in playing for the national team. Joseph and Birch were the only NBA players to suit up in the 2019 World Cup, from which Canada could have qualified for the 2020 Olympics.
Powell said he saw how passionate Mavs teammates Zaza Pachulia (Georgia), JJ Barrea (Puerto Rico), and particularly Dirk Nowitzki were about their national teams. Nowitzki was Germany’s flag-bearer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
“[Nowitzki] talks about the opening ceremonies at the Olympics and not really being able to compare that to almost anything else in his life,” said Powell. “So that stuck with me, my rookie year, talking to him about it.
“So, it’s been a dream of mine from the beginning, before I even started really playing competitively, but that was kind of taught to me: about really how big of a deal it is. So, the fire has definitely been burning for a while.”
Canada’s shocking semi-final loss to the Czech Republic in last summer’s last-chance Olympic qualifier fanned those flames.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have been around, they really want to get to that big stage and that was definitely a painful situation and definitely fuelled us … so now that the pieces are kind of coming together, it’s exciting,” said Powell.
Despite being No. 2 behind the U.S. in number of players in the NBA, Canada’s men’s team hasn’t played in the Olympics since 2000.
The Canadians travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a second game of this window on July 4.
There are six FIBA World Cup qualification windows. The final three are Aug. 22-30, Nov. 7-15 and Feb. 20-28. Seven teams from FIBA Americas will play at the 32-team World Cup, which is a direct qualifier for the Paris Olympics.