NBA

'Expect to win': Canadian men's basketball team ready to take next step

At the 2019 basketball World Cup, Canada head coach Nick Nurse repeated one rally cry: “expect to win.” Over a year later, players, coaches and management within Canada Basketball appear to have heeded that message.

Victory at June's last-chance tournament still required to qualify for Olympics

Nick Nurse, right, is introduced by general manager Rowan Barrett as the new head coach of the Canadian men's basketball team in June 2019. In their time together, the duo has sought to instill a winning culture within the organization that made its last Olympic appearance in 2000. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

At the 2019 basketball World Cup, Canada head coach Nick Nurse repeated one rally cry: "expect to win."

Over a year later, players, coaches and management within Canada Basketball appear to have heeded that message.

The men's team hasn't even qualified for the Tokyo Games yet. It must win a six-team last-chance tournament in Victoria, B.C., beginning June 29 to book its first Olympic ticket since 2000.

And yet, confidence and optimism abound.

President and CEO Glen Grunwald said it is a realistic goal for the team to win the qualifier and medal in Tokyo. General manager Rowan Barrett said the team is no longer just "happy to be there" — it's thinking about winning. Assistant coach Nathaniel Mitchell said the crop of young players mixed with veterans expects to win.

"Any time we're going to be in competition, we're thinking win. That's where we are now in Canada. There have been times in years past, many years ago, where the thought was 'Let's get in, let's compete.' I think at all levels now, when our teams are going into competition, we're thinking to win," Barrett said in an interview with CBC Sports basketball analyst Jevohn Shepherd.

"And so if it's the qualifiers, we're thinking to win. And when we get to the Olympics, we're going no-holds barred directly to that podium. That's where our sights are set."

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Canadian NBAers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dwight Powell, RJ Barrett and Chris Boucher all said the team has what it takes to compete with the U.S. and win a gold medal. Each expressed interest in wearing the Maple Leaf this summer.

"I don't see why we should shoot for anything less [than a gold medal]. We're just as good as the Americans, I think," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "They play basketball, they breathe, they eat just like we do and I feel like we do have a lot of talented players on our roster and we can compete with anybody in the world."

Record number of Canadian NBAers

Whether Canadian men's basketball is in its so-called golden era is questionable. Some say yes, while others argue that there's more coming. According to Rowan Barrett's projections, there could be 35-40 Canadian NBA players by 2025. This past season, 21 Canadians were on NBA rosters.

"It's clear that there's something going on. I think people around the world are wondering, 'Is there something in the water up there? … I think any time you see something like this, you know that there had to be real building blocks put in place," Barrett said.

There was a whole week during the NBA playoffs where Canadians dominated the league. Jamal Murray was putting up 50 points in elimination games. Lu Dort was coming out of nowhere for OKC to guard James Harden on one end and score 30 in Game 7 on the other. Steve Nash was named head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

Outside of the U.S., no country boasted more NBA players during the 2019-20 season.

"I think what the Raptors did is it sort of raised the bar, served as a catalyst, it was a role model for young players and it just really saw the basketball community, that I already think was pretty strong, explode and now you see where we're at today with the record number of Canadians in the NBA," Grunwald, the ex-Raptors general manager, said.

Perhaps Canada is lacking that superstar that Greece has in Giannis Antetokounmpo, or the depth and winning culture Spain displayed in its World Cup victory. There is no history of success: Canada's played in just one Olympics since the inception of the Toronto Raptors.

Oklahoma City Thunder's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, left, believes Canada's basketball team has the potential to compete for an Olympic gold medal. (Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press)

Player participation the key

Still, the key to reaching that potential is participation. It went down like dominoes at the World Cup, when one NBAer dropping out led to another and by the time the team got to China, just Cory Joseph and Khem Birch remained.

"Whatever the challenges that arrive, we're hoping now that our pool finally after all this work is large enough to sustain those blows and still be able to put together a team that is highly competitive and can perform at the highest level," Barrett said.

Heading into this summer, participation will once again be the greatest barrier to success. The NBA's conference finals are scheduled to overlap with Canada's qualifying tournament, while the Finals are set to end three days before the Olympic tournament.

"I know our players are very interested in playing, but obviously it has to coordinate with their own team's playoff schedule," Grunwald said.

That's why Barrett's stated goal of having enough depth to withstand dropouts is important. It's why players speak about being more like the U.S.

Get to the point where you're cutting NBA players from the roster, and you have something on your hands. RJ Barrett, Rowan's son, said the key is just for everyone to show up.

"We just all need to be there and to play. That's it. I feel like if we get all of our talent on the floor it'll take care of itself. We have a great coach, Nick Nurse, who's proven himself already. So we've just gotta get out on the court and try to win it all," he said.

Come June 29, no matter who's on the court in Victoria, you can count on the fact that that team will expect to win.

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