Canada must jell quickly to win Olympic basketball qualifier
Team boasts most NBA talent in Victoria, but lacking international experience
Canada's men's basketball team should make the Olympics for the first time since 2000.
It'll begin its last-chance qualifying tournament on Tuesday at home in Victoria, B.C., with by far the most NBA talent, plus arguably the most accomplished head coach, of any of its five foes.
Canada, ranked 21st by FIBA, is in Group A, alongside No. 6 Greece and No. 29 China. Group B features No. 12 Czech Republic, No. 15 Turkey and No. 45 Uruguay. Each team plays the other two in its group once, with the top two reaching the semifinals.
In the semis, the top team from Group A faces the second team from Group B, and the top Group B team faces No. 2 in Group A. The winners of those game meet in the final. Only the tournament victor heads to Tokyo.
The Canadian team features eight NBA players, highlighted by top scorers Andrew Wiggins and R.J. Barrett, plus steady point guard Cory Joseph, forward Dwight Powell and defensive ace Luguentz Dort.
Those five would make for an athletic and versatile, albeit small, starting five. Fellow NBAers Nickeil Alexander-Walker (a scoring guard), Trey Lyles (stretch power forward) and Mychal Mulder (sharpshooter) should also contribute off the bench.
Head coach Nick Nurse, a 2019 NBA champion with the Toronto Raptors and 2020 NBA coach of the year, said last week that Barrett and Wiggins spent most of training camp playing together, despite their abundant similarities.
"They both can kind of catch-and-shoot it. They both can turn the corner and drive it. They both can post it a little. There's a lot of mirroring you can do, and so far their chemistry's been great," Nurse said.
Rounding out the 12-man roster are Andrew Nicholson, Anthony Bennett, Aaron Doornekamp and Trae Bell-Haynes. Nicholson, in particular, should be an important piece given the lack of frontcourt depth. The six-foot-nine forward is a go-to post scorer in the Chinese league.
But for all the Canadian talent in B.C., it clearly lags behind its opponents in chemistry.
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Adapting to FIBA game
Though members of the team have crossed paths coming up in the Canadian basketball system, they lack experience together in a FIBA environment.
"Probably half our team doesn't play FIBA rules each year, so that's a constant each day in practice," Nurse said.
There are fewer timeouts in international basketball than in the NBA, and they can't be called during live action.
Other differences include a shorter three-point line and a shorter game (40 minutes vs. 48 in the NBA). Offensive goaltending (like in Deandre Ayton's recent game-winner) is legal in all situations, and players are removed from the game after just five fouls.
It all makes for a game that feels different than the NBA, with less time for comebacks. The playing style can become more physical as referees tend to swallow their whistle more, and a drive-and-kick is crucial too.
While Canadian players grew up in the NBA environment, their opponents have long mastered the FIBA game.
"We've got to forge our identity and be who we are and to the best of our ability be really comfortable in our own identity. Hopefully that's troubling to [opponents] or we can make it an issue a bit," Nurse said.
Greece, Turkey could be tough outs
Two teams pose the biggest threats to Canada: Greece and Turkey.
Canada opens play against Greece on Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Assuming both take care of business against China, the game will determine the group winner – and who gets to avoid Turkey until the final.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo and brother Thanasis still in the NBA playoffs with Milwaukee, Greece enters Victoria with just one NBA player: the third Antetokounmpo brother, Kostas.
Some other injuries, including to veteran guard Vasilis Spanoulis, conspired to knock Greece from its potential perch as top team in Victoria. It recently wrapped its yearly Acropolis tournament, where it finished 2-1 with the loss coming against No. 5 Serbia.
Greece is led on the sidelines by Rick Pitino, an accomplished but controversial college coach. Pitino will lean on guards Kostas Sloukas and Nick Calathes, who spent some time in the NBA between 2013 and 2015, to fuel his offence, with Antetokounmpo providing an interior presence.
At this point, Turkey is the bigger threat, boasting three NBA players: Utah's Ersan Ilyasova, Philadelphia's Furkan Korkmaz and Cleveland's Cedi Osman.
The team also carries centre Alperen Sengun, a likely lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft who just won MVP of the Turkish league at 18 years old. But they'll be without Shane Larkin, a former NBA guard who was injured in league play.
Turkey was last seen in February, where it won games over No. 14 Croatia and No. 54 Sweden in 2022 EuroBasket qualifying.
Between China, Uruguay and the Czech Republic, there is only one NBA player — Czech guard Tomas Satoransky.
Knowing his team will play Greece and China for sure, Nurse said practices are already geared toward specific opponents.
"We're already into coverages and matchups and style of play and all that kind of stuff," Nurse said last Monday.
Canada is undoubtedly the most impressive collection of talent assembled in Victoria. It should be favoured in every game it plays.
A ticket to Tokyo comes with unending short-term and long-term ramifications. Canada would become an instant podium contender as it vies for its first Olympic basketball medal since 1936 in Nazi Germany.
Moreover, it would put Canadian basketball on a stage it hasn't seen in 21 years. It would earn a game against a top U.S. team. It could spark a new generation for the program, one in which players are more eager to don the Maple Leaf.
A loss, though, would set the program back years. Canada has the second-most men's basketball talent in the world – that much has become clear in recent years.
Missing out on yet another Olympics would be a blow, with much of the latest good will, including winning hosting rights to this tournament, increased player support and added attention stemming from the 2019 title, minimized at best.
There's little room for error in Victoria. Canada has the most NBA talent and home-court advantage.
It should win. It needs to win.