Canadian basketball bigger than ever in 2018

Not only did the men's Canadian national team take a big step toward reaching their Olympic basketball dreams in 2018, but the new crop of young players is also showing how elite Canada basketball can be heading into the new year.

A new crop of young players are competing at an elite level heading into the new year

RJ Barrett (5) is just one of the many names to look out for on Canada's long list of young rising players. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The continued growth of basketball in Canada is one of the great stories in Canadian sport in 2018.

"I can't imagine a better story in Canada than what's happening right now with basketball," says Glen Grunwald, the newly appointed CEO and president of Canada Basketball.

Canada's men's team booked its ticket to next year's World Cup, its first appearance since 2010. Who from the country's deep talent pool will make that World Cup roster? That question is already popular basketball fan fodder, and has seen reporters grab pens and napkins in bars to sketch out their dream teams.

Watch highlights from Canada's win over Brazil that clinched a spot in 2019 FIBA World Cup  

Kyle Wiltjer led the field with 25 points in Canada's 94-67 win over Brazil on Monday in World Cup qualifying. 1:21

How well is Canadian basketball positioned? The recent men's victory in Brazil is a great example. Securing a World Cup berth not only set the men up for a much easier route to the Tokyo Olympics, but it also spoke volumes about Canada's depth, and a sense of player commitment that might be at an all-time high.

"We've got some mainstays that have been around for a long time like Cory (Joseph) and Tristan (Thompson) and Kelly (Olynyk) and Joel Anthony, he's been great, and Melvin Ejim," Grunwald said. "And then you see the commitment of these other players. Everyone else who plays in Europe gets a week off, right? But we asked our players in Europe to fly, some of them 25 hours, from places like St. Petersburg (Russia) to Florida for training camp, and from there another what turned out to be 25 hours to get to Venezuela, and then 20 hours to get to Brazil. And then to have such a great win down there, that's such an amazing story."

This summer will see the men's team gather for a month, including a camp, potentially a couple of exhibition games in Canada, and games in Australia to get used to the time zone, before travelling to China.

The women's team, meanwhile, which has had two consecutive top-eight Olympic finishes and a fifth at the 2014 world championships, face a convoluted Olympic qualifying format that includes round-robin tournaments in November of 2019 and February of 2020. Canada hopes to host one of them.

"We're going to all have to work together, and that includes our organization, our players, our coaches and our staff, but it also includes the rest of Canada too. We need Canada's support so that we can make Canada proud."

A laundry list of Canadians are starring in the NCAA, breaking records and claiming weekly conference awards, and promising to make for a historic NBA draft in June. Canada's basketball talent pool has never been deeper. Here are some young Canadian players to watch for:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

The 20-year-old has started 21 of 30 games in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers, averaging 10.9 points and 2.9 assists in 27.5 minutes a night. The Hamilton native with a flair for fashion had a career-high 24 points in Monday's loss to Portland.

LA Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored a career-high 24 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 17th. (Al Sermeno/USA TODAY Sports)

Chris Boucher

Boucher was tearing it up with Raptors 905, leading the G League in scoring and pouring in a franchise-record 47 points in a game against Oklahoma City before being called up by the injury-bitten Raptors. The 25-year-old from Montreal, who went undrafted after tearing his ACL with the Oregon Ducks, is on a two-way contract with the Raptors and Raptors 905.

Chris Boucher is making the most of his time with the Toronto Raptors after signing a two-way contract with the team in October. (Rene Johnston/Getty Images)

R.J. Barrett

The 18-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., led Canada to world U19 gold as one of the tournament's youngest players in 2017. He's third in the NCAA in scoring by freshmen and is projected to go No. 1 or 2 in June's NBA draft. Barrett continued his rookie-season scoring rush on Tuesday, finishing with 27 points to help second-ranked Duke clobber Princeton 101-50.

The Mississauga, Ont., freshman scored a game-high 30 points as the Duke Blue Devils thumped the Yale Bulldogs 91-58. 1:29

Kia Nurse

The 22-year-old from Hamilton is one of Canada's most recognizable female athletes — in any sport. She averaged 9.1 points off the bench in her rookie WNBA season for the New York Liberty last summer, and is now living and playing in Canberra for the Capitals of Australia's WNBL. Nurse also recently announced the formation of Kia Nurse Elite, her own Nike-backed AAU girls program.

Hamilton's Kia Nurse is coming off a solid rookie season in the WNBA. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

Luguentz Dort

The broad-shouldered rookie guard from Montreal is also turning heads in the NCAA, scoring a career-high 33 points to lead Arizona State over Utah State last month. Dort is also a projected first-round draft pick.

Arizona State Sun Devils guard Luguentz Dort is making his way onto draft boards, racking up a 28-point performance on Nov. 6 and 33-point performance two weeks later. (Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports)

Also noteworthy, Canada Basketball recently signed a partnership with the new six-team Canadian Elite Basketball League. The summer league will be Canada's first to be affiliated with FIBA, will play under FIBA rules, and will include rosters that are 70 per cent Canadian.