Basketball

Canadian basketball experts make their picks for 12-man Olympic qualifier roster

CBC Sports polled a Canadian basketball scout, university head coach and NBA front-office member for their choices to make up the starting five and seven-man bench at the last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria.

21-player pool announced Thursday ahead of last-chance tournament in Victoria

Canadian Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks could go straight from the NBA playoffs into Team Canada's starting five for its last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

With the announcement of a training camp roster on Thursday, Canada's men's Olympic basketball hopes are beginning to come into focus.

Missing from the roster are likely Canada's two best players: guards Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Both are recovering from injuries suffered during the NBA season. Also absent is forward Chris Boucher, who suffered a late-season leg injury of his own.

But those absences only highlight the team's biggest strength: depth. Of the 21 players confirmed for training camp, 14 are NBAers.

"We're asking our athletes and staff and everyone else to take time during the summer when they're normally resting and working on the things they need to do to get back for the next year. But they're taking the time to come represent their country. So I think it's really, really important that we commend them for that, and their sacrifice," general manager Rowan Barrett said in a press conference on Thursday.

Canada must win its last-chance qualifying tournament to book its ticket to Tokyo. That qualifier is scheduled for June 29-July 4 in Victoria. CBC Sports will have live coverage of the event. 

But not all 21 players will compete in Victoria — or Tokyo, should it get that far.

CBC Sports polled a Canadian basketball scout, university head coach and NBA front-office member for their choices to make up the starting five and seven-man bench in Victoria.

Starting staples

All three included guards Andrew Wiggins and Cory Joseph, along with forward Dillon Brooks among their starters.

The inclusion of Wiggins could be the biggest revelation of the player list. Wiggins last competed internationally in 2015 at the FIBA Americas Championships, when he was reportedly unhappy with coach Jay Triano's late substitution patterns in a loss to Venezuela.

The 26-year-old averaged 18.6 points per game in his first full season with the Warriors this year, also pitching in with strong defence. The NBA front-office member, who preferred to remain anonymous in order to speak truthfully, said starting Wiggins was a matter of keeping him comfortable in a role he's known his whole life.

Wes Brown, the scout, agreed.

"Wiggins can flat out get buckets and can be relied upon, much like he was at Golden State, to create an efficient shot for his team late in the shot clock," he said.

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Joseph, unlike Wiggins, has been a staple of the Canadian program for a while, and was one of two NBAers to attend the 2019 World Cup in China.

The reliable veteran should be able to help Canada consistently execute its offensive sets. He'd likely be coming off the bench if Murray or Gilgeous-Alexander were available.

Brooks enjoyed a breakout season with Memphis, who are currently knotted 1-1 in their first-round series against the top-seeded Utah Jazz.

The 25-year-old impressed with 31 points in Game 1 after leading the charge defensively to help eliminate the Warriors in the play-in tournament.

"Brooks is one of the best defenders in the NBA," Brown said. "In addition, he's added a skilled pull-up game and a skilled finishing package at the rim. He is the go-to wing scorer on a playoff team more because of effort than anything. For me, he has to start on this team."

Big-man battles

Options for the two frontcourt spots varied between Kelly Olynyk, Khem Birch, Tristan Thompson and RJ Barrett.

By going with Barrett and Birch, Brown opted for a smaller look that could help juice the offence on a team whose calling card, head coach Nick Nurse said on Thursday, would be defence.

Barrett's improved shot selection and percentages in his sophomore season make him an easier fit alongside other top scorers like Brooks, too.

The front-office member chose to start big with Olynyk and Birch, both natural centres, due to Canada's depth along the frontline. Olynyk's shooting allows the offence to remain in its flow, while Barrett can provide scoring as a sixth man.

The coach, who also preferred to remain anonymous, gave Thompson the nod alongside Olynyk due to his experience and toughness. 

No matter how you slice it, these first seven players will likely carry the bulk of the load in Victoria, with a closing five likely chosen by in-game performance.

Bench choices

That leaves five more spots on the roster, where the competition should be fierce. Only Luguentz Dort was a unanimous choice. Dort broke out with his defence on James Harden in the bubble last season before adding a reliable three-point shot and expanded offensive repertoire to his game this year.

"He has a relentless motor. Him and Brooks on the wing will wreak defensive havoc for any opponent," Brown said.

Guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker landed on two of three rosters. The cousin of Gilgeous-Alexander is tall for his position, which expands his defensive versatility, and he oozes potential. Don't be surprised if he has a breakout scoring game off the bench should he wind up in Victoria.

Oshae Brissett also landed on two teams, and was the final cut from the third. The forward joined Indiana midway through the NBA season and immediately proved valuable, helping the Pacers cling to a play-in spot with his steady defence and evolving offensive game. Brissett may have a leg up for a roster spot, having played for Team Canada assistant and Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren this season and Nurse last.

Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell provides lots of the little things Nurse values, like screen-setting, rim-running and positionally sound defence.

Andrew Nembhard and Andrew Nicholson were the only none-NBAers to appear on teams, though the pair took different routes to training camp. Nembhard, a guard, recently wrapped an impressive NCAA season with Gonzaga, where he showed off his steady offensive initiation skills on a team that didn't lose until the final game of the tournament.

Nicholson, 31, spent parts of five seasons in the NBA, but hasn't appeared since 2017. He now plays in China, where his scoring ability in the post is a skill unmatched elsewhere on the roster.

Mychal Mulder, a sharpshooter with the Warriors, and Brandon Clarke, a Grizzlies forward were also selected once.

Notable omissions included national-team staple Kevin Pangos, who was recently named to the All-EuroLeague first team, and Spurs forward Trey Lyles, returning to Team Canada for the first time since 2013.

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