Canada loses to USA but showcase nation’s depth in the process

Everybody knows that the United States boasts the deepest (and best) pool of basketball talent in the world. But which nation comes next?

Is it Australia, with 7 current NBA players and their very own National Basketball League? Is it Spain, with 4 Olympic Medals, 2 World Cup championships and the best domestic league in Europe? Or is it finally the sleeping giant to the North, Canada? 

Of the top four finishers in the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup, two of them had experienced rosters that they carried over from the Olympic Qualifiers earlier in the summer, with Argentina overcoming Brazil in the Gold medal game. In third place was Team USA, who we all know boasts the best and deepest pool of basketball talent in the world. 

And in the fourth came Canada, who brought almost an entirely different roster than the one that played Olympic qualifying games, with only Trae Bell-Haynes, Abu Kigab, and Kalif Young carrying over. It was also entirely different from the roster that performed at the inaugural GLOBL JAM tournament at the start of summer, with only Thomas Kennedy carrying over. 

And yet, despite compiling a group of disparate parts at the last minute and being the youngest team at the AmeriCup, the Canadians played six very competitive games in the tournament, ultimately finishing with a 3-3 record. They went neck-and-neck with Team USA in the Bronze medal game until the very end, actually controlling the majority of the game until the United States overcame a 7-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 84-80. Their experience showed, but so too did Canada’s basketball talent. 

Commentator Carlan Gay kept calling the United States “bigger brother” to Team Canada’s little brother, and it’s a fitting description in the world of international basketball, with the United States improving to an 8-1 record against Canada in the AmeriCup.

But there is absolutely no shame in finishing runners-up to the country that sent the Dream Team to the Olympics. And if Canada proved nothing else in the tournament, it’s that they are now one of the deepest basketball nations on the entire planet — very well the second deepest behind only America.

While all the focus has been on Canada’s top-end NBA talent in recent years, the AmeriCup — and really the summer as a whole — showcased just how talented the players at U SPORTS, CEBL, and European pro levels are, as well as how ready they are to contribute to winning on the senior national team level. This summer was a building block for many of these young players, who will likely go on to represent Canada as members of the “winter core” in Olympic qualifying windows to come.

‍“It’s amazing what our country is doing, especially with our young players,” Team Canada head coach Nathaniel Mitchell said. “I think a lot of credit goes to our federation, Rowan Barrett, Michael Bartlett and Michael Meeks, finding these players and making sure they’re available to play for our country. With Nick Nurse setting a foundation for our whole country and how we want to play, offensively and defensively, having a “one team, one goal” mindset.”

In the AmeriCup, Dalano Banton led the Canadians in points, rebounds and assists, being named to the All-Star Five Team. But there is a reason Mitchell played all 12 guys in the Bronze medal game and went deep into his bench all tournament long: this was a deep team full of talented players, with everyone deserving of minutes and opportunities.

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Bell-Haynes struggled relative to expectations but finished with 19-points in the comeback win over Colombia to help Canada advance to the knockout stage. Jahvon Henry-Blair and Lloyd Pandi both started the tournament on the bench and moved into the starting lineup by showcasing their skills — the former’s ability to light it up from three, and the latter’s ability to defend and rebound at a high level. Kalif Young and Thomas Kennedy proved a formidable big man duo, with Young leading the team in blocked shots and Kennedy showcasing his passing chops. And in the Bronze medal game, it was Kadre Gray and Abu Kigab that kept the Canadian’s offense rolling, with Gray pouring in 15-points and Kigab scoring 18 in his best game of the tournament. 

“I knew a couple of guys coming in but for the most part, we were all brand new,” Kigab said. “I thought the coaching staff did a great job of helping us jell together in a short amount of time. Our success so far is just a testament to them. I’m very appreciative to have those types of people in my corner and I’m very happy about that.”

It’s a testament of a good coach to give all your players a shot and to ride with what’s working. Mitchell did that throughout the tournament, playing at least 10 guys in every game and spreading the minutes out evening. It’s also a testament of a good coach to get better as a tournament goes on, and that’s exactly what Canada did in the AmeriCup, starting two different players than they had at the beginning and dramatically improving their offense throughout, going from settling for threes to consistently attacking the basket against Team USA. 

“I felt like our team grew every game, especially from game one,” Mitchell said. “We finally got together here in Brazil where we got to practice — we had two practices before we got to play Brazil. All of these games were situational play and lineup changes. I started different lineups throughout the tournament, some guys played, some guys didn’t. For us, I thought we did what we needed to do to try to compete within these games.”

“I mean this, a lot of credit to Canada and Nate and their staff.” Team USA head coach Alex Jansen said following the game. “We played them in a practice game when we first got down here [in Brazil] and the improvement that they’ve had as a team is pretty remarkable.”

But despite Mitchell being very deserving of credit after having his “work cut out for him,” as I said in the tournament preview, that improvement wouldn’t be possible if not for the depth of talented players across the roster — players with the right combination of smarts, skill and willingness to be coached. 

“This was a great experience for us,” Mitchell said. “We continue to grow and I think that continuity that we try to build throughout all of our programs will help our country get better… Developing these players helps us. It helps us grow for the future.”

Nobody expected Canada to perform this well at the AmeriCup, but maybe nobody realized just how deep the country’s talent pool was. Could it be a sign of what’s to come for Canada Basketball? 

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