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A Golden Opportunity For The Golden Age Of Canadian Basketball Starts With A Transition

The golden era. The golden age. The golden opportunity.

It’s all been said before about the current state of men’s basketball in Canada. There has never been this much investment, human power, organization, and sheer talent on display when it comes to this sport in this country.

But now it’s about translating that into something tangible. A world championship? Perhaps. The team’s first Olympic berth in 23 years? A necessity. Solidifying themselves on the main stage as a global powerhouse when it comes to basketball? Well, that’s the goal.

All of that is in play as Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team began its training camp at the OVO Athletic Centre earlier this week in preparation for the 2023 FIBA World Cup tipping off later this month.

All eighteen players who were announced as the training camp roster were in attendance, and all eighteen, safe for Kevin Pangos who’s recovering from an injury-riddled season in Europe, participated in the first 2 days of practice in some capacity.

Even 2023 NBA Champion Jamal Murray, who according to General Manager Rowan Barrett arrived to camp tired, participated in shoot-around, and is, by all accounts, expected to ramp up his training to be ready to go for Jakarta at the end of the month.

“I want to be here, I want to play, I want to see the guys (and) be around the guys and be part of this,” Murray told us after putting up nearly 100 shots post-practice. “These are good friends of mine. We’re not just teammates, you know, we’re peers and we all grew up playing against each other and playing with each other… It’s going be tough to make these cuts these next couple of days.”

He’s right.

Murray joins a star-studded cast of Canadians that makeup, arguably (it’s not really a debate), the greatest Canadian team ever assembled which includes All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, his cousin Nickiel Alexander-Walker, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Lu Dort, Corey Joseph, Kelly Olynyk, Dwight Powell, Oshae Brissett and a litany of other mainstays in the Canadian program like Pangos, Kassius Robertson, the Scrubb brothers, Trae Bell-Haynes, Kyle Alexander, Melvin Ejim and the youngest of the bunch, big-man Zach Edey.

The sheer amount of talent is staggering. But again, it takes more than just talent to play successful international basketball.

“That goes back to me and my responsibility. That’s my job. I have to make sure that we’re able to compete in this setup, which is very different than the NBA.” said newly-minted Head Coach Jordi Fernandez mere weeks after landing the job thanks to former Head Coach Nick Nurse stepping down. “I think that being in the NBA for 15 years, but being born and raised in Spain and working with this program, I think that I can help bring this mix of experiences, and do my part.”

In many ways, Fernandez brings legitimacy, at least internationally, to the program that Nurse couldn’t. He’s worked with the Spanish National team since 2013 and most recently was an assistant coach for the Nigerian Men’s team in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. FIBA experience is oozing from his resume.

And that’s important because while Canada may have the second-most amount of NBA talent behind the United States in the FIBA World Cup, coalescing that talent into a cohesive group that can play FIBA basketball is the challenge.

“The speed, the physicality, schemes, being able to have a guy sit in the paint for the entire possession. Shooting becomes super important. Ball movement becomes super important. The way the game is officiated,” said Canada’s big man in the middle Powell on the differences between the FIBA game and basketball in the NBA. “There’s a bunch of different things that all kind of fold into one thing. There are a lot of things that we can still do that we excel at in the NBA in terms of our using our athleticism, our speed or shooting or skills, but we do have to learn to think the game slightly differently and make some adjustments.”

Powell’s front-court mate, Olynyk reiterated something similar. “You’ve got to be good at everything. You have to be able to get to stop, you got to be able to score. Gotta be physical, tough mentally,” Olynyk told the media after practice. “And you got to be deep because you never know what’s going to happen, especially in FIBA you only got five fouls. The games are shorter and packed together with the tournaments events, so you got to be well-rounded to make noise.”

Powell and Olynyk have their fair share of FIBA basketball experience. As does most of the roster. Whether it be in U-16, U-19, other FIBA tournaments, or even all of the above, one way or another, everyone has been around the block.

At least that much can be said for one of the team’s most senior players, Corey Joseph. And despite the material difference between the NBA and FIBA, Joseph, amongst others, remains confident in Canada’s collective abilities.

“I think we all have pretty good IQs. Whether that’s sitting down to film sessions, or out here on the court,” Joseph said regarding the experience this team has. “It’s time for putting it all together. You know, a lot of guys are in different situations with clubs or teams or whatever, learning different stuff, but we’re all basketball players with pretty high IQ. So we can put it together pretty quickly.”

Even RJ Barrett, one of the younger players on the team, still knows what to expect from FIBA basketball. “I’ve been able to play it since I was like, 14, so I’m kind of used to it,” Barrett told me.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s basketball. And if you play the right way, play together, and play hard you get rewarded,” said Gilgeous-Alexander who, by all accounts, has taken on a leadership role with this group.

His presumptive backcourt mate Murray shared a similar notion. “It’s those little adjustments you got to make. But now my game is what it is, you know, you know what to expect.”

Perhaps offensively, this team has enough firepower to compete with just about any international team. You can take one look at the roster and agree with that notion.

In past competitions, however, it hasn’t been the offensive end that’s been the issue, rather it’s the defensive side of the ball. Canada’s lack of size has hindered its ability to defend the more physical, international teams. But could Hernandez potentially unlock this team defensively?

“If we don’t have the goal to be the best defensive team in the tournament, so if I’m not wrong, it would be the best defensive team in the world, then we would be selling ourselves short,” Hernandez told me after I asked about this team’s defensive identity. “I’m not going to shy away from saying it. And these guys are good enough on that defensive end to be number one. And that’s going to help us win games on that end of the floor.”

A lot of that is going to depend on their backline. Whether it’s Powell, Olynyk, Edey, or a combination, the big man still plays an all-too-crucial role in the international game. Being able to commit to playing sound defense on the perimeter and then trusting the big to clean up any mishaps is a good recipe for Hernandez’s lofty goal of having the best defense in the tournament.

And as far as GM Barrett is concerned, Hernandez has their full support.

“There’s an understanding not only of how we want to play and what we want to do, but what the other teams are thinking, how they’re going to try to attack us. And utilizing that in our preparations. I think that’s a tremendous opportunity. You don’t know for us and I think when you bring in a new coach, you’ve got to give them latitude to be able to run this stuff that he believes is gonna work”.

But still, it’s about putting it together. The commitment is there from the collective. The tools are at Hernandez’s disposal. The pieces are there for this team to be successful.

The eighteen-man camp roster will be cut down to a 12-man team by the end of the week. Then they fly to Germany for 3 exhibition games to get their feet wet from August 9th to 13th, before going to Spain for 2 games on the 17th and 18th and finally landing in Jakarta where they will play their group stage matches against France, Lebanon, and Latvia.

The goal is to win the whole thing, obviously, but at the bare minimum, Canada must finish top 2 among all Americas teams in order to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in France.

They have the talent. They have an experienced coach. They have quite literally everything it takes to get the job done.

As the saying goes, “There’s no better time than the present.”