A year late, and thousands of kilometres from home, but Canada’s men’s basketball team will finally gather for their final push to the Tokyo Olympics.
It took fitting together countless moving pieces amid the COVID-19 pandemic to make it happen.
“Obviously, putting this together, we’ve had to manage many things, as you can imagine,” said Rowan Barrett, general manager of the men’s team. “Player availability. COVID ... it’s added a significant amount of work.”
Canada Basketball announced a 21-player training camp roster that’s arguably the deepest ever, featuring 14 NBA players including Andrew Wiggins, who hasn’t suited up for the national program since 2015.
Because of travel restrictions around the pandemic, the team will train out of the Toronto Raptors’ temporary training facilities in Tampa, Fla., June 16-24 before departing for Victoria for its Olympic qualifying tournament June 29-July 4.
“Normally, obviously, we’d be training at home in Canada, but with the need to get ahead and pro-actively drive what we need, and have the fluidity to be able to start when we need to, to be able to potentially draw people in, quarantine them if needed ... we felt we needed to take that move,” Barrett said.
“Obviously, this is going to be a summer with a lot of moving parts, and I feel that you need to have a leader at the helm, in Nick Nurse, who’s been through every type of basketball that you can imagine to prepare him for a moment like this.”
Canada must win the six-team tournament to clinch its first Olympic men’s berth since 2000.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans), RJ Barrett (New York), Khem Birch (Toronto), Oshae Brissett (Indiana), Dillon Brooks (Memphis), Brandon Clarke (Memphis), Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma City), Cory Joseph (Detroit), Trey Lyles (San Antonio), Mychal Mulder (Golden State), Kelly Olynyk (Houston), Dwight Powell (Dallas), Tristan Thompson (Boston) and Wiggins (Golden State) are the NBA players on the roster.
They’ll be joined by European-based pros Trae Bell-Haynes, Melvin Ejim, Kyle Alexander, Aaron Doornekamp and Andrew Nicholson, along with veteran pro Anthony Bennett and NCAA player Andrew Nembhard.
“This was an undertaking, there’s a lot of things going on, as everybody knows, in the world and the sport, and situations are all different and personal for each and every player,” Nurse said.
Whether all players will be available remains a question. The Olympic qualifier conflicts with the NBA conference finals. Barrett said there’s a list of alternates in the event certain players are unavailable.
The roster news comes after a crazy year that saw most international play shelved because of the pandemic. The news had been nothing but positive in early 2020 as Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray announced he would play for Canada, followed by a laundry list of numerous other NBA players. Excitement around the qualifying tournament in Victoria was palpable.
Then the pandemic hit, pushing back the Olympics a year.
Because of the third wave of the pandemic in Canada, it’s unknown whether fans will be permitted at the qualifier in Victoria.
“Obviously, public health and safety is the most important thing but we’ve designed a program that we think will ensure not only the safety of the participants but also the community at large,” said Glen Grunwald, president and CEO of Canada Basketball.
B.C. announced a reopening structure earlier this week that has Grunwald hopeful.
“We will obviously follow the lead of the government and health officials to see if that is safe and possible; if it is, that would be great,” he said. “One of the reasons we worked so hard to host this tournament here was so we could have some kind of home-court advantage and some fans in the stands.”
Wiggins’s Instagram announcement that he planned to play for Canada came as a surprise to some basketball fans who’d written off the enigmatic player. Like Wiggins, Lyles hasn’t played for Canada in several years.
“This has been a lengthy process to get to this list, because of the year off and all that stuff,” Nurse said. “But with [Wiggins and Lyles] particularly, they both were very responsive, which I appreciate. Like whenever I would reach out, they were responding immediately back and were positive.
“That again just shows their commitment, their respect for the program, their interest in the program, all those kinds of things.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City) and Chris Boucher (Toronto) are two NBA players not on the list. Neither is Murray, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in April.
Nurse has a short amount of time to determine how his team will play, and to “draw the group together.” He said he’ll probably go with a smaller package of Xs and Os on either side of the ball, that he hopes the players can do “very, very well.”
“Sometimes less is more anyway so that would be one of my thoughts,” he said. “And then just work really, really hard at trying to see which groups of guys fit together. How does it fit so that the team can play to its potential and just constantly analyzing that each day in practice and moving pieces around and things like that.
“That’s the biggest thing: Can we learn and execute a small package at a super high level? Can we fit the team together, chemistry-wise, get some connectivity in a short amount of time?”
Nurse coached the Canadian team at the 2019 World Cup in China. Joseph and Birch were the only NBA players on the team that finished 21st, missing an automatic Tokyo Olympic berth.