Canadian men’s basketball team takes big, bold step with commitment program

Before anything, before the ball goes up and the triumphs (or heartbreaks) follow, and before star players that pledge to suit up do or don’t, and before Canada’s long-delayed basketball dreams are realized or not, a moment to pause and reflect:

What the Canadian senior men’s national team did on Tuesday under the direction of general manager Rowan Barrett and head coach Nick Nurse was remarkable, potentially precedent setting and (ideally) the start of a special era for basketball in the country.

No guarantees, of course.

After years in which recruiting top players for the national team often meant asking nicely, hoping they showed up and too often being disappointed when they didn’t, the duo directing the program have changed their approach, opting to challenge the country’s best players to be part of something bigger than themselves, make their commitment public and — presumably — holding everyone accountable when crunch time comes.

In announcing a 14-player ‘summer core’ – players who have signed on to play for Canada this summer for FIBA World Cup qualifying, next summer for the FIBA World Cup and in the summer of 2024 for the Paris Olympics – the men’s program has attempted to solve its ‘will-he-play-or-won’t-play’ problem by asking a simple question up front: are you with us or not?

Some really, really, good players are apparently all in. Leading the list are Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray, Oklahoma City Thunder guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort, Memphis Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks and New York Knicks wing RJ Barrett, as well as veteran national team members Cory Joseph, Melvin Ejim and Kelly Olynyk, among others.

The players who put their names forward deserve credit for doing so. Given a choice, they chose playing for Canada over hemming and hawing and ultimately ghosting.

Of course, some really good players are not on the list, most prominently Andrew Wiggins, the NBA All-Star who is peaking with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals at the moment. Wiggins has played for Canada in the past — most recently in Olympic qualifying last summer — but he told Nurse that he wasn’t ready to commit for three summers.

No hard feelings.

“I appreciate the guys that say ‘You know what? I just can’t do it. I can’t commit for three years. And if there’s a spot, I’m going to come in and try to play.’

“But we know we also appreciate the guys that say ‘I’m in, man. I want to play. I want this team to do well and we totally get what you’re trying to do here.’”

The door isn’t closed on Wiggins or others like Chris Boucher of the Toronto Raptors, veteran big Tristan Thompson or sharp-shooter Kyle Wiltjer, who has been a constant in a Canadian uniform over the years.

It’s just that if they want to play when the time comes, they’re not guaranteed a spot.

“Our commitment for those players [announced Tuesday] is really simple,” said Rowan Barrett. “[If] you’ve committed, you’re going to be in here [on the team] … “

Any late arrivals — Wiggins or otherwise — will have to rely on a spot opening up through injury or a withdrawal.

The plan is to gather for a training camp in July in advance of Canada hosting the Dominican Republic in Hamilton for a World Cup qualifying game on July 1 and again next summer in advance of the World Cup and the following summer in advance of the Olympics – providing Canada qualifies at the Worlds in 2023 and doesn’t have to run the gauntlet of a last-chance Olympic Qualifying Tournament like the one where they fell short in Victoria in 2021 prior to the Tokyo Olympics.

The plan is to see Canada’s obvious talent — it is the only country producing more NBA players at the moment is the United States — come together on the floor after a decade in which the story has often been about who’s not playing rather than who is wearing the red and white.

Barrett and Nurse don’t have much to offer other than the opportunity to make history.

“One of the things I always share with players around this is that, you know, you’ll play many years in the pros. You’ll forget some of the players that you played with; you’ll forget some of the games you played. Like, you’ll forget those things,” said Barrett who was captain of the Olympic team in 2000.

“[But] you will not forget your Olympic experience. There’s no way. You will remember each team you played. You’ll remember each player on that team. You remember what it felt like to walk around in Olympic Village knowing that you are one of the best in the world at what you do. This is a powerful thing that leaves an indelible mark and it’s something that money cannot buy you.”

No member of the program has had that feeling in a generation.

The men’s team haven’t qualified for the Olympics since 2000 — the only Olympic tournament Canada has participated in since 1988 — even as players have regularly been drafted in the NBA Lottery, age-group teams have proven themselves among the best in the world and Canada’s women’s program has risen up the world rankings while qualifying for three consecutive Olympic tournaments.

“All the youth players and the talent that continues to come out and play and shine and get better and better is only going to make us stronger in a lot of areas,” said Nurse, who is beginning his second Olympic cycle after joining the program in the summer of 2019.

“But then you also have to have the top team I think shine their light down and I think that [the senior men’s team] needs to play better and compete better and win more. And we decided coming out of Victoria [where Canada lost its Olympic bid in a semifinal game in overtime to the Czech Republic] is that we needed more continuity … we got to [have] a commitment.”

What does that commitment look like? That will be interesting to watch, and one suspects that the actual roster come the World Cup in 2023 and the Olympics in 2024 will be different than the 14 players announced Tuesday, life having a habit of getting in the way while we make plans and all of that.

The expectation is that for any of the official team events leading up to the Olympics, players are expected to be there for a minimum of three days even if they can’t play due to injury, contract status or family obligations. The hope is that being physically present will help players gain a deeper grasp of Nurse’s schemes and build some important chemistry, too.

But it’s not hard to imagine some hiccups.

How firm will Canada Basketball be if someone as integral as Murray or Gilgeous-Alexander backs out of the World Cup, say, but wants to play at the Olympics? What then?

Or if someone like San Antonio Spurs rookie guard Josh Primo breaks out or projected lottery pick Ben Mathurin blows up or Gonzaga product Andrew Nembhard takes a leap? Will they really be kept off the team in favour of a lesser player who committed in advance?

Similarly, Purdue University centre Zach Edey was included on the list even if he’s only heading into his third season and is projected as — at best — a second-round pick if and when he does come out of college. At seven-foot-four, he offers tremendous size and promise for a program that runs a little shallow for bigs, but it’s easy to see a scenario where he’s simply not ready to contribute at the Olympics by 2024. Would he be taken to Paris anyway, even if there was a more proven big willing to play?

These are mostly good problems to have, but they could be problems nonetheless.

The first glimpse we should get of the core should come next month, but some of the realities of the plan will be evident too. One player has already been excused as his partner is expecting and Murray, Dort, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Barrett all ended their regular seasons injured to varying degrees so it will be interesting to see if they get cleared to participate in training, let alone play — not that they’ll be needed given that Canada is at 4-0 in qualifying and has already advanced to the next stage.

The fact is nothing is perfect and getting all the interested parties needed to sign off on highly paid professional athletes to play international basketball in the middle of their off-season will always have an element of herding cats to it.

But for once, a line has been drawn: you’re either in or you’re out.

For a basketball federation as deep in talent as Canada has, it’s a reasonable position to take.

Now we get to see if it’s the start of something special.

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