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Disappointing World Cup Must Propel Canada Basketball Introspection

When the buzzer sounded last Monday, Team Canada’s FIBA World Cup campaign would be over. An 82-76 loss to Germany would result in Canada finishing 2-3 at the World Cup in China. 

In a year where the Toronto Raptors won Canada’s inaugural NBA championship, basketball popularity is at an all-time high. The same enthusiasm that permeated Jurassic Parks across this country was unfortunately not felt amongst Canadian professional players. Many of whom gave up their opportunity to represent their country on the international level at the World Cup. 

As Team Canada makes the long journey back home from China, more questions await their return than ever before. The status quo is not perfect. An initial postmortem on the few games played overseas reveals a team with great promise, but lacking the NBA talent to advance further in the competition. 

Failing to advance passed the knockout stage creates inexorable obstacles for Canada. While being ranked 21st puts them in an Olympic qualification mini-tournament next summer, Canada Basketball needs time for reflection, to rejuvenate confidence in the sport for this country. 

The current team structure of Team Canada feels far removed from the squad that assembled at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Led by two-time MVP, eight-time all-star Steve Nash, Canada made it to the quarterfinals, before losing to France. Nash provided a consistent spark on both sides of the ball, propelling Canada into relevance on the international basketball stage. 

And for the Hall of Fame point guard, it wasn’t even a question as to whether he would play for his country or not. 

“It wasn’t a job. I will say it was a gift. It was an opportunity to serve your country. [The program] gave me as much as I gave the program,” said Nash. 

2019’s Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup was filled with promise. Mississauga, Ontario native R.J. Barrett had gone third overall in the NBA Draft. Denver Nuggets Canadian star Jamal Murray was coming off a career year, averaging 18.2 points per game and 4.2 rebounds per game. Nick Nurse, who was coming off leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first NBA Championship, agreed to take on the task of bringing Canada back to Olympic stage.

When training camp started for FIBA World Cup, the star Canadian players were absent. From injuries to full on neglect, Canada’s premier basketball talent renounced the chance to play for their country. An act that doesn’t sit well with Steve Nash. 

“We knew this was a major problem trying to get guys to come out,” Nash said. “It shines a light on a deeper issue and having to try to really figure out how can we make this a really important part of a player’s summer and career.”

The team who went to China was made up of seasoned veterans like Cory Joseph to newcomers looking for name recognition. Kyle Wiltjer showed great promise, leading Canada in scoring with 16.4 points per game for the tournament. 

But unfortunately the lack of NBA players hindered Canada’s performance against teams with depth. The Canadians were inconsistent from beyond the arc and were often outplayed on the glass against the opposition. 

Against Lithuania, which boasted NBA players Jonas Valanciunas and Domantis Sabonis, Canada gave up 19 rebounds in 40 minutes and allowed 11 Lithuanian players to score at least seven-points. 

The inconsistency continued against Germany, where Canada shot 34.6 percent from the field, with a 23.1 three point percentage. Below is a breakdown of the stats for Team Canada over the course of the tournament:

PPG 89
RPG 32.8
APG 22.6
FG 44.1
3 PT % 37.1

When Canada Basketball GM Rowan Barrett had his post-World Cup teleconference, nothing groundbreaking was revealed. The similar talking points and platitudes were expressed for a general manager not willing to give up his post. 

“I don’t have a plan to resign at this point,” Barrett said on the call. “We’ll be going home and looking at what we’re doing … Our main focus has been to work with this team now and, as we get home, we’ll continue to work on this team going forward.”

Barrett also proclaimed that he believes the aura of the Olympic Games will propel Canadian NBA players to compete in the qualification tournament next summer. But this assertion is grandiose and idealistic at best. If these players weren’t willing to represent Canada at the FIBA World Cup, what makes them more likely to participate in an Olympic qualification tournament. 

The off-season training and conditioning for NBA players has grown in terms of attention and resources invested. To give up six weeks to go play in the World Cup is a huge risk, given that these players are forgoing vital preparation time for next season. 

This is why Canada Basketball needs to change its approach to international participation from its players. And it must start from the top with accountability for their actions. There needs to be a culture shift, where current players feel compelled to exhibit their patriotism and national pride. This includes incentivizing NBA players to commit to the national program for a set duration of years. And holding them accountable if they decide to neglect the opportunity. 

In addition, Canada Basketball needs to consult with stakeholders in the sport to improve on their marketing and retention of top talent. Speak to representatives in countries such as France, that have developed successful models in bringing star players to compete on the international stage. Utilize the partnership with Drake and OVO to enhance the strategic branding of Canada Basketball. Anything that shows a commitment to being a sustainable basketball country for the future.

“For some of the guys, they need to find out why or why not they’re going to play or commit to playing,” stated Canada coach Nick Nurse. “If they’re going to play, it needs to be a five or six-year stretch.”

Already, Nick Nurse is doing everything he can to ensure Canada is successful at next year’s Olympic qualifying. But the mountain is still a tall one to climb. 

Canada will have to win a six-team mini-tournament in order to secure a spot in Tokyo. The task won’t be an easy one as they will have to compete against some prolific basketball countries. 

There is no easy solution to solve the pressing issue of Canadian involvement on the international stage. But Canada Basketball needs to be introspective and proactive in implementing changes from the top. 

Canada is a few NBA players away from being a contender to qualify for the Olympics. The challenge is getting competitors like R.J. Barrett, Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins to willingly participate. If Toronto native Melvin Ejim could participate, leaving behind his wife who was giving birth to their son, then certainly NBA players from Canada can sport the red and white jersey. 

With the energy and pandemonium surrounding basketball in Canada at an all-time high, the opportunity is now to take advantage of so that the sport continues to grow in popularity and reach throughout the country. 

Otherwise, the groundswell momentum will all be for nothing.

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