2020 vision: Canada eyes Olympic basketball podium
Emerging talent could help snap 8-decade medal drought
Steve Nash was right.
When the Canadian basketball legend took over as general manager of the senior men's national team in 2012, he told his assistant GM that reaching success on the international stage would be a struggle — and likely a long one.
"'This is going to be a rough road. It's not going to be easy. It could take until 2020 until our players are competing at the highest level,'" Rowan Barrett recalls Nash saying. "Now it seems as if his words were prophetic."
Indeed, the 2020 Tokyo Games will mark 20 years since the Canadian men last made an Olympic appearance — Nash starred while Barrett played a supporting role on the team that finished seventh in Sydney — and 84 years since their lone Olympic medal. The team has never won a major international championship.
The road to Rio ended with a bitter loss to France in a last-chance Olympic qualifier in the Philippines. Canada was forced to play in that far-flung tournament because it failed to beat Venezuela the previous summer in the semifinals of the FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City. A win in that game would have sealed an Olympic berth.
Both losses came with a familiar lament: the team was unable to assemble all of Canada's best players at the most critical time.
"What we went through in the summer of 2016 is a little bit of growing pains," says Michele O'Keefe, the president and CEO of Canada Basketball. "A lot of our athletes in the NBA were just finishing up their first professional contract, and so we were in that period where they weren't able to play internationally because they hadn't signed their next contract yet.
"What we're envisioning in the next four years is that, as our number of representatives in the NBA increases, we'll become less vulnerable to that."
O'Keefe is confident that the narrative for the men's national team is about to change. She says the goal is finishing on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics. And she's serious.
"We're training our athletes to be the best," she says. "We're not aiming to [just] go there and do our best — we're training to go out and win."
New world order?
The timing may be right for Canada as the international basketball landscape is evolving.
Yes, for the first time in a while, the vaunted Americans looked beatable at the Olympics, sweating out a number of single-digit wins before eventually capturing gold in Rio. But Canadian officials aren't delusional — overtaking the U.S. anytime soon remains unlikely when you consider that a team that didn't even include LeBron James, Steph Curry and several other NBA stars still ran its Olympic winning streak to 25 games.
But Canada doesn't have to beat the U.S. to reach the podium, so it can set its sights on knocking off less-daunting countries.
Take Serbia. The nation of seven million people had exactly one NBA player on its Olympic roster (rookie Nikola Jokic) but was able to make it all the way to the final before losing to the Americans and taking home a silver medal.
Barrett says the familiarity that players on teams like Serbia build up before the Olympics is key. Many of them have played together since they were teenagers, building up international experience as they mature. For many Canadians, their first international game comes as a member of the senior national team.
"An experienced, skilled team with continuity that's been together, with understanding of the FIBA [international] game, can have an advantage over younger, more talented teams," he says.
Spain, another podium regular, is aging. The European nation has reached the podium for three straight Olympics, but its golden generation may be on its way out. The core of this year's bronze medal-winning team included Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro, who will all be around 40 when the Tokyo Olympics arrive. Marc Gasol, who missed Rio with a foot injury, will be 35.
Of course, Canada has to qualify first. The team is currently 24th in the (albeit dubious) FIBA rankings, sandwiched between basketball superpowers Angola and Iran.
But it seems, at last, that a path to the podium is visible.
For the first time ever, Canada's Olympic men's team could be comprised entirely of NBA players. There are currently more than a dozen Canadians playing in the NBA as the 2016-17 season tips off, and more than 100 playing Division I NCAA basketball.
It gives Canada, for the first time, a large pool of world-class players to choose from, and perhaps a chance to avoid last-minute games of roster roulette.
"[The Americans'] strong depth of talent is where we as a nation are trying to get to," Barrett says. "So that if we're missing one or two players, we can still compete at a high level.
"We're not there yet. This summer we lost [NBA players Nik] Stauskas and [Andrew] Wiggins and it changed the outlook of the team. It changes how you're going to play."
The potential 2020 roster is tantalizing.
Wiggins, an emerging NBA star, was picked first overall in the 2014 draft, won the rookie of the year award in 2014-15 and averaged more than 20 points a game last season. Many predict the athletic Timberwolves wing could be an all-star this year. He skipped Rio qualifying this summer but has already expressed interest in being part of the run towards Tokyo.
Then there's Jamal Murray. The seventh-overall pick in this year's draft comes into the NBA after starring as a freshman in his lone season at powerhouse Kentucky, where he averaged 20 points per game. The 6-foot-4 guard helped Canada to a silver medal at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games, but his college commitments kept him from playing in the Olympic qualifier held a few weeks later.
He's also not your typical reserved Canadian.
"I know I'm one of the best scorers in the league. I'm one of the best rookies here," Murray told reporters last week as he prepared for his rookie season with the Denver Nuggets.
Barrett's son R.J. (for Rowan Junior) is another player to keep an eye on. Though he'll be only 20 when Tokyo rolls around, Barrett is already starring for his high school team in Florida and is considered one of the top prospects from the class of 2019.
The elder Barrett says Canada's emerging talent will supplement an already experienced core.
"You'll have a Tristan Thompson [a key forward on Cleveland's NBA championship team] or a Corey Joseph [a reserve guard for Toronto] that have seen every different type of defence, that have seen every different type of offence, that have the ability to execute against those types of teams in any type of basketball scenario on earth.
"That's really what we're hoping for, and there's no reason we shouldn't get to that level."
Canadian basketball fans can dare to dream.