Canada needs to cash in on basketball's high times
Men’s national team plays 1st exhibition game Wednesday against Nigeria
Canada's quest to qualify for basketball at the 2020 Olympics starts Wednesday night with an exhibition game against Nigeria — just two days into training camp and ahead of next month's World Cup in China.
Nick Nurse, who is coming off the Raptors' championship and just took over as head coach of the national team, knows how important his team's seven exhibition games leading to the international competition are going to be in finding the right chemistry between players.
"We have to learn as fast as we can," Nurse said. "Keep the good stuff, throw out the bad stuff and keep trying to tinker as fast as we can."
Nineteen players showed up for Day 1 of training camp in Toronto on Monday. Since then, Nurse and his coaching staff have been on the court twice with the team, carefully evaluating every step, shot and block.
Canada opens the World Cup in China on Sept. 1 against Australia. They'll need to finish as one of the top two teams from the Americas to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. There are seven such teams at the World Cup. The others are the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Much has been made about who isn't at training camp this week in Toronto, but Nurse says he'll do everything he can to get the most of the players who are on the court wearing the maple leaf.
"I'm excited and proud of the guys that are here already," he said. "This is a huge personal commitment away from family, but saying all that — it's a tremendous honour."
The coach is under no illusions about the difficulty of qualifying for the Olympics.
"It's going to take some guys to play better than they've ever played," Nurse said.
One of the players he'll be looking to for leadership is Cory Joseph. Joseph turns 28 this month and has been around the national team for longer than most on the roster.
"It doesn't get old," said Joseph. "I'm getting a little older but I'm still young. It's an honour."
WATCH | Coach Nick Nurse talks about the challenges ahead for the national men's basketball team:
Joseph knows it's been far too long since Canada qualified for the Olympics and would love nothing more than to help guide the team back to the Games.
"When I was growing up, I watched Nash and guys like Rowan Barrett and you know I watched them a lot," Joseph said.
"And that inspired me to play basketball and just work on my game to hopefully one day be there. So it'll mean a lot. It'll be a dream come true."
Where are the stars?
The challenge facing the team is as daunting as ever — qualifying for the Olympics for the first time since 2000, when Steve Nash led the team to the Sydney Games.
But the star power and skill level have never been greater.
And there's never been this much momentum around basketball in Canada.
The Raptors won an historic NBA title. More Canadians than ever were selected in the NBA draft, including R.J. Barrett being selected third overall. Then Nurse agreed to take over the national team.
Finally, it appeared, Canada's team was destined to live up to the hype surrounding what is being called the golden age of basketball in this country. Twenty-nine players were invited to camp, many of whom are active NBA players.
Then, Canada's camp started Monday morning, and the list of absent players was somewhat alarming. Barrett, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Dwight Powell, Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will not play at the World Cup come September.
There's still hope
For as much as people will talk about who isn't showing up, Canada still has a cast of characters who will be competitive and have every opportunity to qualify.
Their best talent and most well-known players, Joseph and Kelly Olynyk, will no doubt be leaned on heavily by Nurse. Joseph is an eight-year veteran who averaged 6.5 points and 3.9 assists per game last season for Indiana. Olynyk has six NBA seasons under his belt and just averaged 10.0 points and 4.7 rebounds for Miami.
The supporting cast surrounding Joseph and Olynyk has been strengthened over the years — that's the biggest difference now for Canada. The drop-off from the top one or two players used to be dramatic. That isn't the case anymore.
"Those young guys are very talented," Joseph said. "They're coming out here playing hard and we're all in."
Those young guys Joseph is talking about include Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Oshae Brissett — all players who have some NBA experience and will play a crucial role in determining whether Canada qualifies for the Olympics or not.
There have been so many disappointing international events over the past two decades for the team, something Nurse is well aware of and hopes to change.
This is his team now. And he's trying to do what he did with the Raptors in his first season as head coach — get them to the top of the basketball world.
"People say we can't do this, we can't do it. We don't want to speak that way. We see the goal. We start visualizing it. We try to start convincing everybody around the program to become maybe even more than they think they can become. And that's what we're going to try to do."
Canada hosts two exhibition games vs. Nigeria this week: Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET in Toronto and Friday at 8 p.m. ET in Winnipeg. You can stream both of those live on CBCSports.ca.