The time has finally come for Canada Basketball. Their chance to qualify for their first Olympic Games since 2000 starts tonight against Greece.
Canada boasts their deepest roster ever, but the opposing nations in the tournament are nothing to scoff at. As Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse put it, “We think it’s an incredibly competitive tournament. Lots of good teams, lots of very well coached teams, lots of good coaches from around the world.”
If Canada is going to beat those nations, including No. 6 ranked Greece, No. 12 Czech republic, and No. 15 Turkey — who boasts perhaps the best combination of talent and international experience and chemistry in the tournament — they will need strong performances from more than just their best known players.
Sure, Andrew Wiggins is expected to play a huge role, especially on the offensive end as a guy who can create his own shot at the end of the shot-clock. RJ Barrett will be relied upon as a two-way wing, and Lu Dort will be expected to guard the best perimeter players on the opposing teams. Team captain Cory Joseph is also expected to provide a steadying two-way presence as we are used to seeing from him virtually every time he dons the Team Canada jersey.
But there are other, lesser known Canadian players who made the competitive 12-man roster for a reason and could have a breakout tournament in Victoria, B.C. Let’s get into some of them below:
The cousin of Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker had the best season of his NBA career in 2020-21, averaging 11/3/2 on 42/35/73 shooting in 21.9 minutes per game with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Alexander-Walker will likely come off the bench for Team Canada, and he could be exactly the type of spark-plug they need in that sixth-man role. Nick Nurse talked about how Team Canada was playing Alexander-Walker mostly at the point guard position because they team is so thin on point guards after Joseph, despite him being more of a combo guard, but that doesn’t mean that Alexander-Walker can’t come into games and provide the type of scoring punch that we might not see from some traditional point guards.
In fact, Alexander-Walker’s best skill is his ability to put the ball in the basket. While he is a fine playmaker who can use the threat of his scoring to get his teammates involved, he is a quick ball-handler who is smart about using teammates’ screens to either get to the rim — where he shot 52 percent last season on a high frequency — or shoot the three, where he shot 34.7 percent on 4.8 attempts per game. He also turned himself into a good mid-range scorer last season, shooting 45 percent from there.
It’s that three-level scoring that makes Alexander-Walker a threat to change the complexion of the game every time he steps onto the court, and it could help him have a breakout tournament for Team Canada.
Canadian basketball fans already know Powell pretty well. The Toronto-native has six years of NBA experience under his belt, and he has represented Canada before at the senior level, playing most recently in the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship.
Powell suffered a torn achilles in January 2020, so the fact that he is even playing for Canada is somewhat of a surprise, albeit a very important one. The Canadian frontcourt took a big hit in the weeks leading up to the tournament, with Kelly Olynyk, Khem Birch, and Tristan Thompson all dropping out. Powell represents the only traditional center on Canada’s 12-man roster in Victoria, and while there are other small-ball options at the five, Powell’s importance to this team cannot be overstated.
In the FIBA game that allows more contact and is without a 3-in-the-key rule, allowing big men to stay stationed under the basket indefinitely and play the ball off the rim without being called for goaltending, big men are important, arguably more so than in the NBA. Powell, who will likely start for Team Canada, will have to battle with physical seven-footers like he did in Dallas’ first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, where he had a breakout performance in a Game 5 win, playing 22 minutes. It was perhaps his best performance since returning from the achilles injury, and Canadian fans will hope he can replicate it on the international stage.
“There are very few opportunities as a quote-unquote civilian to represent your country on an international scale,” Powell said before the tournament. “Fortunately, to be a professional basketball player and have the opportunity to compete with Canada on my chest as a basketball player for the nation, it’s rare, unique, an honour, really. … It’s kind of hard to put into words what it means exactly. I think it’s understood from a young age.
“We have a lot of love and gratitude for our nation. This is our best way to try to honour that.”
Anthony Bennett, Trey Lyles, and Andrew Nicholson
Speaking of small-ball fives, all three of Bennett, Lyles, and Nicholson can slide up and down the scale positionally, potentially playing anywhere from the three to the five.
This iteration of Team Canada seems very well suited to play small for long stretches, which is something that Nurse has done a lot with the Toronto Raptors in the NBA. While it’s not as easy to do in the FIBA game for reasons I outlined in the Powell section, it’s still likely that Canada goes against the status quo and plays small, switchable lineups that can get out in transition and space the floor with five shooters. They’ll have to rebound as a team in order to get away with playing small, but if they do, those lineups will have a ton of skill and basketball IQ.
Which one (or two) of Bennett, Lyles, and Nicholson will step up and garner those minutes as the small-ball five? All of them will likely have an opportunity to play in the group stage, but it will be interesting to see who steps up and gains Nurse’s trust for the elimination games.
Bennett brings the most recent international experience, having played in six different international competitions with the senior team, and he is a big, physical presence that can shoot the three, slowly re-writing his narrative since getting pushed out of the NBA.
Lyles has never played for the senior Canadian team, but he has five years of NBA experience under his belt as a stretch-4, shooting 34.1 percent from three over his NBA career. He is less physical but more fluid than Bennett, with the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts by getting to the rim or into the midrange.
Nicholson might have the most well-rounded game of the three. A first-round draft pick of the Orlando Magic in 2012, Nicholson spent five years in the NBA before going to play professionally in China in 2017. It was there that he really rounded out his game, showing his creativity as a post-scorer with good footwork and the ability to draw contact. Nicholson also shoots the three, although he has a slow release and prefers to get into the mid-range or post.
The biggest question surrounding the three is who can hold up defensively and on the glass if they are to be played at the five? For that, we’ll have to wait and see. But each has a chance to have a breakout tournament for Team Canada.
I would be remiss to leave Bell-Haynes off the list.
The 6-foot-2 point guard is an absolute speed-demon who tore up the CEBL last summer, averaging 13/4/4 on 52.5 percent shooting with 1.5 steals per game with the Niagara River Lions. He was never expected to make the 12-man roster for this tournament, beating out guards like Andrew Nembhard for the final spot.
You hear from people around Bell-Haynes that they want him to be more aggressive, using that speed in the open court to get to the rim and to shoot more pull-up jumpers. His game seems well-suited for Nurse, who likes to have multiple guards on the court at the same time and to play in transition, but the physicality and size of the international game might be a challenge for him. So, while it remains unlikely that Bell-Haynes will have a regular spot in the rotation, he has already beaten the odds to make it here.