With Canada’s wealth of talent on the ice, hockey fans have enjoyed doing this for decades. They’ve scribbled their Olympic dream teams down on bar napkins over beers. They’ve filled up social-media screens arguing about goaltending. They’ve tuned in to watch the dramatic unveiling of Canada’s roster live.
Finally, Canada’s men’s basketball team has people talking. And not necessarily because of who’s not playing, but because Canada Basketball will face a tough but enviable task of selecting its World Cup team – and if all goes well, it’s Olympic roster for Tokyo in 2020 – from a deeper player pool than ever before.
When players gather for training camp in August ahead of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, it will arguably be the most talented collection of Canadians under one roof in history.
“It will be exciting for fans for sure,” said Rowan Barrett, Canada Basketball’s general manager of the men’s team. “Look at all the players, the players who are playing in the pros all around the world, and the ones who are coming along into the pros, the ones still in college.
“That’s exciting, especially when you know you have the depth of players. It’s definitely exciting for the game.”
The Canadians capped World Cup qualifying with routs of both Chile (85-46) and Venezuela (95-55) in St. John’s, sewing up first place in Group F with a 10-2 record.
Canada used an incredible 36 different players through the 12 qualifying games that stretched over 14 months, finally booking its first World Cup spot in nine years with a victory in Brazil in December.
“It’s important, right?” Barrett said of Canada’s final qualifying window in St. John’s. “Because we kind of built a culture. You’re building a culture of winning. It’s important every time you step on the floor. So it was great for the guys to be able to perform in that way, and to sacrifice the way they did, flying back here to play from their [pro] teams, especially from Europe, coming that distance, knowing the outcome is already determined.”
Canada’s last World Cup appearance was a woeful, winless, first-round exit in 2010 in Turkey. Canada’s only players with NBA experience were Joel Anthony and Andy Rautins.
Even the Canadian team that made it to the quarter-finals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics had just two NBA players in Steve Nash and Todd MacCulloch.
International basketball hasn’t been kind to Canada’s senior men’s team recently. The women’s team qualified for the past two Olympics, making it as far as the quarter-finals in both. And Canada captured its first world basketball title when the under-19 men’s team won gold in 2017.
When Nash was named general manager of Canada’s men’s program in 2012, Barrett recalled the two-time NBA MVP telling him it might take six to eight years for Canada to climb up the global basketball ranks.
“Not that anybody was listening,” Barrett said with a laugh. “There was a euphoria and an excitement. But Steve did say it could take six to eight years to build up, because our players were so young.
“I think in 2015 when we put our team on the floor [for Olympic qualifying], our team on average was maybe 21 years old, our starting group, and that’s generally not a recipe for winning basketball in FIBA. But they were some of the best players that we had, and they needed those experiences, so we went that way.”
Canada didn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics, crumbling in the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament final against Venezuelan in Mexico. They travelled to the Philippines for a last-chance qualifier, narrowly losing to France.
“Now those 21- and 22-years-olds are older, more experienced, more years of playing professionally, they have their games in hand, they’re confident,” Barrett said. “So now with more experience in FIBA [international competition], and more players to draw on, and now that we’re moving into 2019-20, we should see greater success.”
The Canadian men’s team will spend most of August together before the World Cup, Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 in China. How many players will be invited to camp is still to be determined. And while Canada had 14 players on NBA opening-night rosters this season, it’s a good bet Canada’s World Cup roster won’t be an all-NBA lineup. It will be who fits where, with everything from international experience, chemistry and a willingness to put aside ego, all factored in.
Other factors: Who’ll be healthy? A couple of players are recovering from significant injuries. Who’ll be available? Will Rowan’s son and Duke star freshman R.J., along with Canada’s other top NCAA talent, be given the green light from their NBA teams two months after they’re drafted? Who’ll commit to spending a good chunk of the summer with the program?
Here’s a look at who Canada could have to draw from to build its 12-man roster this summer:
Cory Joseph (Indiana Pacers), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Los Angeles Clippers); Kevin Pangos (FC Barcelona); Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets); Phil Scrubb (Zenit Saint Petersburg); Nik Stauskas (Cleveland Cavaliers).
While Joseph has the most NBA games under his belt, Gilgeous-Alexander has earned plenty of praise in his rookie season and Pangos brings a healthy dose of international experience. Murray is having a breakout season with Denver, while Scrubb is a versatile guard who’s well-versed in the global game.
R.J. Barrett (Duke Blue Devils); Melvin Ejim (BC UNICS); Andrew Wiggins (Minnesota Timberwolves); Dillon Brooks (Memphis Grizzlies); Dwight Powell (Dallas Mavericks).
Barrett is having an outstanding season with Duke, and more than held his own in his debut with the senior team last summer, while Ejim is a versatile forward and proverbial “glue guy.”
Kelly Olynyk (Miami Heat); Tristan Thompson (Cleveland Cavaliers).
Canada is solid at centre with a couple of NBA mainstays.
Other players who could get a look
Trey Lyles (Denver); Chris Boucher (Toronto Raptors); Thomas Scrubb (Pallacanestro Varese); Aaron Best (Riesen Ludwigsburg), Joel Anthony (San Lorenzo), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech), Brandon Clarke (Gonzaga), Anthony Bennett (Agua Caliente).