The early benefits to having Steve Nash in charge of the senior men's national basketball team became abundantly clear last week in Toronto.
With the long-expected return of head coach Jay Triano
on Thursday and a subsequent players' camp with close to 30 of the country's best, Canada - the nation that historically has had to pull teeth to get its best basketball players in one room together - planted some very important seeds at the Air Canada Centre.
After all, when the best player in your country's history, an eight-time NBA all-star and one of the top point guards of all time, wants you to be somewhere, you are best advised to go.
Those of us who follow basketball closely have known for a while what kind of unprecedented, top-level young talent this country currently has. And at the risk of sounding hokey, seeing them come together in a team-building environment was a special sight.
Of course, talent on paper only goes so far, and a lot can happen before a select group of these guys begin playing meaningful games with the national jersey on.
"The talent level is special," Triano told me Saturday. "But whether we become a special group like the group that played in the 2000 Olympics, that's going to depend on chemistry and how well they work together.
"But we've never had this much talent before in a gymnasium in Canada."
Coachspeak aside, the feeling is palpable that a new era is dawning. And for the young guns like NBAer Tristan Thompson and future NBAer Myck Kabongo - two guys who have never been shy about advertising their Canadian roots - it's been a long time coming.
"A couple of years ago you'd be lucky to have five of the top players in the country in training camp," Thompson said Monday. "Now all the guys are participating. We're building something real special here."
Kabongo, heading into his sophomore season at the University of Texas, agrees that the culture is shifting.
"We have the right management, the right people now," the Toronto native said. "The energy and the vibe we're getting is unbelievable, and as a basketball player you want to be around positive energy. And we have a group of guys that really want to work, and we have our guys at the top who are really pushing us with Jay and Steve."Tapping into Toronto
The fact that the Olympics just ended - without a Canadian men's entry for the fifth time in the past six Summer Games - weighs on them too.
"After watching the Olympics, myself personally, I was kind of sick to my stomach," Thompson said. "It's cool to watch the USA win, but I wanted to be part of it. I want to compete for a medal, and I think that's the same thing all the guys are thinking."
Whatever was wrong with Canada Basketball in the past - and the list of actual factors and theories of rumoured ones is long - this group is looking to bury the past.
Thompson alluded to one of the long-held indictments of the national program, going back to the '80s and '90s, where some of the country's best players - many out of the Greater Toronto Area - were kept off the team in the interest of an ill-advised regional balance (and by extension inviting allegations of racism).
"You go back in the day before I was born, they said the best players from the GTA could beat the national team," he said. "Now we've got the best players from the GTA."
Perhaps the most striking testament to the burying of that past was the surreal sight of Jamaal Magloire working out with the team all weekend, wearing a Canada practice jersey.
While his age will keep him out of consideration for Rio in 2016, and he predictably avoided questions about his decisions not to suit up in the past, the NBA vet said he was happy to play the role of veteran presence.
"I'm here to offer [the younger players] everything I know," he said. "With Steve Nash and [assistant GM] Rowan Barrett leading the helm it definitely is a new phase in Canada Basketball."
For the players who have toiled with the team for a long time, there is no question that holds true.
"In the past we weren't able to get the best guys," said point guard Jermaine Anderson, who has been with the national program since his high school days at Toronto powerhouse Eastern Commerce and the senior team since 2004. "That kind of hurt, because I've always wanted for us to succeed. But now we know we're going to have the 12 best."
"It definitely feels different," Miami Heat centre Joel Anthony said of the culture change. "A lot of new faces ... We have the talent to go to the Olympics, so hopefully we can build the type of culture where that is our standard."
Still, Triano was quick to defend the more recent progress made by former coach Leo Rautins
"I don't want to diminish what was done in the past," he told media after he was officially named coach on Thursday. "Leo did a great job of developing our young players."Follow the money
It's fairly clear at this point that the most important change in the program - 100 per cent attributable to Nash - has been an infusion of cash. As discussed during the Olympics, while Canadian athletes could always use more government funding, the corporate sector bears responsibility here too. Canadian companies simply don't fund athletes on anywhere near the same level as ones in the U.S. do, and the safe investment in puck is one reason Hockey Canada does much better with the corporate community than other sports' governing bodies.
Nash, easily the most famous current Canadian athlete on the global scale, has gone about changing that.
"It all starts with resources," Nash said Thursday. "The fact we have started to make inroads in terms of raising money ... to put back on the court so the kids can get better and better."
For the weekend camp, players and coaches were put up at an upscale hotel steps from the Air Canada Centre. There was a hospitality room, complete with ping-pong table to help enhance camaraderie-building. That's a long way from the manner in which most previous camps were run.
"We want to offer them as much as we can in their development," said Nash.
His other major goal is convincing the young players that going the national team route is advantageous for their development.
"For me, playing on the national team was invaluable as far as where I am in my career," Nash said. "Without the national team I may have not been an NBA player."
Historically, distractions from AAU teams, pro franchises and agents have had a habit of hindering Canada. But it appears this generation of players is buying in to what Nash is saying.
"This can get me ready too," Orlando Magic first-round draft pick Andrew Nicholson said at the camp in response to how he should be preparing for his rookie season. "Anytime there's a basketball in the room I'm ready to go."
Triano elaborated, inferring that the days of interference should be over.
"To have Steve say the greatest experience of his basketball life was playing in the Olympic Games - if that message doesn't resonate with our young kids, then we have to re-evaulate who we want representing our country."
Of course, the notable absence from the weekend - 17-year-old phenom Andrew Wiggins - raised some questions from media types and paranoia-prone Canadian fans about his commitment. However, prior obligations were understood going into this camp, and there shouldn't be any doubting where Wiggins' heart lies given his YouTube-hall-of-fame performance for Canada at this summer's Nike Global Challenge and his past involvement with the national junior program.
"He's locked and loaded," said senior team assistant GM Rowan Barrett on Wiggins' commitment to Canada on a Toronto radio station Monday.
Fellow blue-chip 17-year-old Tyler Ennis did make a surprise appearance at the camp, arriving Sunday night. The highly-touted point guard, who just committed to Syracuse for 2013, was one of two high schoolers in attendance, along with forward Trey Lyles.
"I have a lot to learn from these guys," Ennis said Monday.Band of brothers
There's not a lot of building to do in terms of the aforementioned camaraderie with these players. Most of them have known each other since they were kids, and that love was on display throughout the camp.
"Guys have known each other for a long time," said Lakers second-round draft pick Robert Sacre, who now has the unusual scenario of having his national team GM also serve as his pro point guard. "I've known Devoe Joseph [Cory's brother and Kris' cousin] since we were 14 playing in provincials. We've grown up together and we all want to see each other succeed ... it's great to be part of a brotherhood like that."
His former teammate at Gonzaga, point guard Kevin Pangos, tweeted Thursday that the group was becoming a family.
"Growing up, I played with a lot of these guys, watched a lot of these guys, and now everyone's in the same building, with the same goal," he told me Monday.
It's the sort of love-in that's been lacking from Canada Basketball for a long time, and the level of talent is what makes it exciting. But don't assume the camp was all shugs and laughs. While talent is one thing, the group is a long way from an Olympic podium.
"Any time you go through something hard together, you can start to become more of a family," Triano said. "We're not making this easy. Two-a-days, and they're going hard, the competition is very high. That's part of the goal here. If we're going to be successful you can't go out and play as individuals, we have to play as a team."
As far as the Xs and Os of basketball go, Triano knows he has the talent at hand to push the basketball.
"When you look at two of our top NBA players, Joel Anthony and Tristan Thompson, these guys are very good and protecting the rim and rebounding. We hope to have the wings [Wiggins' off-the-chart athleticsm immediately comes to mind] who will push the ball up in transition and score easily."
And that doesn't even address the depth at point guard, with Kabongo, Ennis, Cory Joseph and Pangos -- so much so that the combo-friendly Joseph would be flipped to the two.
The imperative goal for this squad, whoever ends up forming a 12-man roster, is qualifying for the 2014 world championships. That process begins a year from now in Venezuela, and Nash was happy with the start that the camp provided.
"The guys worked their butts off, that's all you can ask," he said.
And that's something that will make Triano's job harder in the next few years.
"In the future it's going to be a challenge to pick the 12 that represent their country," he said.
That luxury of riches is, in search for the right word, exciting.
"I'm excited," said Thompson, then turning it around to the media and by extension, Canadians. "You guys should be excited too."
Back to accessibility links