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Canada’s NBA players have one last chance to help in FIBA World Cup qualifying

Kelly Olynyk could have been trying to squeeze the last gasp out of summer before another long NBA season tips off.

Instead, the 27-year-old from Kamloops and five other NBA players practised twice Monday in a university gym in downtown Montreal, lending their talent for the last time in Canada’s quest to secure a 2019 FIBA World Cup berth.

“It’s a great opportunity for us, to come together and play a couple of games together while we have the chance,” said Olynyk, a forward with the Miami Heat. “I always love coming out here, supporting my country and being able to put on that jersey and represent my country whenever I have the opportunity.

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“For us logistically right now, if we get a couple of wins here, it would put us in a great position.”

The Canadian men play host to Brazil on Thursday in Laval, Que., to begin the second round of qualifying, and then fly to Chile for a game on Sept. 17. With three qualifying windows remaining in the new, convoluted World Cup qualifying format, this is the last one Canada will have its NBA players available.

“The windows are a pretty unique process and we’re figuring it out as we go,” said Canada’s coach, Roy Rana.

Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Dillon Brooks, Khem Birch and Justin Jackson make up the rest of the half-dozen NBA players among a group comprised of mostly players currently with European teams.

The Canadians went 5-1 in the first round of qualifying, with a revolving door of a roster that included some three-dozen players and three different head coaches. Among the issues are the qualifying windows in the winter and spring that rule out any NBA, EuroLeague – Kevin Pangos of FC Barcelona, for instance – and NCAA players, such as Duke rookie R.J. Barrett.

The road to soccer’s World Cup, on the other hand, sees leagues break for qualifying dates, releasing players for international duty.

The Canadians gathered in Montreal only late last week, but Rana said the veterans’ presence has been a big factor in the group’s sense of camaraderie.

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“It’s been tremendous, the energy, the focus has changed completely, for our younger players it’s an opportunity to learn from guys,” said Rana, also the Ryerson Rams head coach. “Tristan’s won a world championship [NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers]. Cory’s won a world championship [San Antonio]. Joel Anthony’s won a world championship [Miami].

“So we have a lot of winning in this gym, And obviously Kelly has represented us for so many years, he’s one of the best in the world at his position. So it’s tremendously helpful to have those guys for sure. It makes all of our jobs easier.”

The Canadians practised twice Monday at the University of Quebec at Montreal, normally home to the Citadins of U Sports. A couple dozen young players lined up along the upper railing to watch.

Canada’s camp is like homecoming week for Olynyk.

“Bringing everybody back here is awesome,” he said. “You’ve got some younger guys, some older guys. I remember when I first started playing [for Canada], I was 17, 18 years old playing on this team, with guys like Joel Anthony [who’s 36] and Kyle Landry [32] on the team.

“To have them back here, it’s kind of like full circle for me. And then you have the young kids who you’re trying to help out, give them any knowledge, insight, just showing them the ropes, how the game has to be played, and ways they can take their game to the next level.”

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Rana, who coached Canada to a historic gold at the 2017 U19 World Cup, said guiding a group of veterans is much more a “collaborative” effort than coaching a young team.

“You’re really allowing your athletes to basically put their imprint on the team and on what we do technically, and we’ve got to trust them,” he said. “We’ve got some guys who have done this at a very high level.”

Birch, a forward for the Orlando Magic, will suit up for Canada for the first time in his hometown, making his decision to play this week a no-brainer.

“And I want to go to the Olympics,” he said. “Obviously Montreal is a big factor, but also I want to help them go to the Olympics. Last time we failed on that aspect, so this time I want to contribute as much as possible.”

The World Cup, Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 in China, is the main qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Canada’s men’s team hasn’t made an Olympic appearance since Steve Nash & Co. finished seventh in 2000 in Sydney.

The next qualifying window sees Canada play at Venezuela on Nov. 30 and Brazil on Dec. 3. Canada will play host to Chile on Feb. 21 and Venezuela on Feb. 24. From the second round of qualifying, the three highest-placed teams from each group and the best fourth-placed team between Group E and Group F clinch berths in the 32-country World Cup.

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