Canada's Olympic basketball hopes are looking up — but the Greek Freak awaits
NBA stars to the rescue! Now they just have to beat the reigning MVP
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Canada's Olympic basketball chances suddenly look great — but the NBA MVP stands in the way
Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — arguably the two best players in the country — announced Tuesday that they'll play for Canada in its last-chance Olympic qualifier this summer. Murray is the leading scorer on a Denver Nuggets team that has the third-best record in the NBA right now. The 22-year-old guard signed a five-year, $170-million US contract extension last summer. Gilgeous-Alexander is considered a rising star by a lot of smart basketball people. The second-year guard leads the Oklahoma City Thunder in scoring after being acquired from the Clippers in the Paul George trade in July.
Canada's Olympic hopes took a hit last summer when all its NBA stars bailed on the World Cup. That cost Canada a good opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. But with Murray and Gilgeous-Alexander swooping in this far out from the final qualifier, it just became a lot easier to recruit the best players.
RJ Barrett is in too. The No. 3 overall draft pick is in Toronto for a game between his Knicks and the Raptors tonight. He told reporters he "100 per cent" plans to play for Canada this summer. No surprise there: Barrett was considered close to a lock because his dad is the GM of the Canadian team and RJ seemed like he was going to play in the World Cup before pulling out with an injury.
Three other NBA youngsters are committed. Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies said a couple of weeks ago that he plans on playing. New Orleans Pelicans rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who's Gilgeous-Alexander's cousin, and Oshae Brissett, who's on a two-way contract with the Raptors and their minor-league team, said last night they're in.
No official word yet from some other key guys. Like Andrew Wiggins, who's had a disappointing NBA career but is off to a phenomenal start this season. The former first-overall draft pick hasn't played for Canada since 2015, though. Head coach Nick Nurse would also like to land Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson. He's having a bounce-back season with more playing time under a new coach and has been a fairly regular national-team player in the past. NBA rookie Brandon Clarke would be another good get. He plays with Brooks in Memphis and, like his teammate, is a wing player with size who's averaging around 13 points a game.
Canada can count on adding a few solid NBA veterans. Dallas Mavericks centre Dwight Powell and Orlando Magic centre Khem Birch have already said they're in. And we can assume NBA veterans Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk are too. Joseph played in the World Cup and Olynyk was going to play until he got hurt in a warmup game.
Canada has to win a six-team tournament to get into the Olympics. The good news is it's happening in Victoria. The (maybe) bad news is the draw was held today to decide who's playing in which of the four last-chance qualifying tournaments, and Canada drew Greece. That's reigning NBA MVP Giannis "The Greek Freak" Antetokounmpo's team. It's also coached by college basketball legend Rick Pitino. After that, you probably won't recognize any names — apart from Antetokounmpo's two brothers, who are bottom-rung NBA players. The other teams in the tournament are the Czech Republic, Turkey, China and Uruguay. The last two have zero NBA players. The Czechs have one and the Turks have four, but they're all averaging less than 10 points a game. Canada is grouped with Greece and China for round-robin play. The top two teams from both groups cross over to play the semifinals, and the winners of those play for the Olympic spot.
The tournament starts June 23, which is a long way off. That's two days after a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals. By that time, some of Canada's key guys could be coming off a long playoff run and/or a gruelling regular season. If they're injured or even just banged up, it might jeopardize their national-team plans. Though, of course, you could say the same for Giannis. A lot can happen over the next seven months. But right now, this is exciting.
Also exciting: The final women's qualifying tournaments were revealed today too. Canada is trying to make it to the Olympics for the third time in a row. The team is ranked fourth in the world and recently breezed through its pre-qualifying tournament in Edmonton. Now it has to travel to Belgium for a four-team qualifier that runs Feb. 6-9. Three of the teams there will end up going to the Tokyo Olympics. One is Japan, which gets an automatic berth as the host but is still required to play in the qualifier. Canada, Sweden and Belgium will compete for the two up-for-grabs spots. The tournament is a straight round-robin. So every team plays three games and the two non-Japan teams with the best records get to go to the Olympics.
And one more piece of good basketball news: Canada's domestic pro league is growing. The Canadian Elite Basketball League is expanding from six teams to seven for its second season, which starts in May. Ottawa joins the teams based in Hamilton, Guelph, Ont., St. Catharines, Ont., Edmonton, Saskatoon and Abbotsford, B.C. The CEBL also has a new rights deal with CBC Sports. All 70 regular-season games and the playoffs will be streamed live for free, and eight games will be shown on the CBC TV network. That includes the championship game in August. Read more about the league and its future plans here.
More people are speaking out against Bill Peters. At our publish time, the Calgary Flames coach's job was still in the balance as the team and the NHL continue to investigate allegations that he directed racial slurs at a black player in the minor leagues a decade ago. Akim Aliu's accusation was corroborated by two players who witnessed it in a story published by TSN. Peters is also now facing allegations of physical abuse. Former NHL defenceman Michal Jordan says that Peters "kicked me pretty hard in the back during a game" while they were with the Carolina Hurricanes. Then-GM Ron Francis was reportedly made aware of Peters' conduct by players and staffers but chose not to fire him. Current Carolina head coach Rod Brind'Amour, who was an assistant under Peters, said today that the alleged physical abuse by Peters "for sure happened."
The Flames and the NHL are taking their time with their investigations for good reason. If all (or even some) of the allegations are found to be true, Peters will surely be fired. That would almost certainly end his coaching career (at least in North America), costing him potentially millions of dollars. So the case against him needs to be rock-solid before any action is taken. In the meantime, the Flames are holding Peters out of tonight's game in Buffalo. Read more about this constantly evolving story here.
The Edmonton Eskimos fired head coach Jason Maas. Edmonton didn't have a horrible season, but it wasn't great either. The Esks went 8-10 and won their opening playoff game against an also-mediocre Montreal team before getting trounced by Hamilton in the East final. Not horrible but not great could also describe Maas' tenure. He posted a 39-33 record over four seasons and went 3-3 in the playoffs. Edmonton didn't immediately name a replacement, though a press conference was scheduled for 4 p.m. ET. Read an up-to-date story here.
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