Team Canada enters 2022 FIBA World Cup during a transitional phase

The Canadian Senior Women’s Basketball Team begins their 2022 FIBA World Cup in Sydney, Australia tonight with a clash against Serbia, the same opponent who beat Canada to open the hugely disappointing 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Canada’s 1-2 result in the Olympics and their inability to get out of the group stage led to the departure of longtime head coach Lisa Thomaidis, who was replaced by Spaniard Victor Lapena in January, marking the beginning of a transitional phase for the Canadian team. 

Lapena has had a short time to evaluate the country’s best talent and to create a system built around them, let alone to instill some of his fundamental philosophies into his key players. Plus, with Kia Nurse returning from injury to play competitive basketball for the first time in a calendar year at the tournament, as well as newcomers like Phillipina Kyei and Taya Hanson making their debut with the senior team, Lapena has a tall task ahead of him in what will be his first international competition at the helm of Canada.

Lapena is quick to note that he is building something for the future and that it takes time to become a top program, telling me, “I think we have talent. We have many options… I hope the development of the young players is good. I think we will have a very good national team in the future, looking for Paris 2024, but especially looking for Los Angeles 2028.”

Lapena noted how difficult it is to succeed in these international competitions, even if Canada has an all-time high world ranking of No. 4 going into the tournament. Still, one of Lapena’s key philosophies is the importance of experience, simply getting his players as many reps as possible playing important games together against high-level competition. As he has seen in his time with the Spanish national team, that is how you build enough continuity, culture, and talent to win at the highest levels. 

The Roster

Canada Basketball announced their 12-Women roster on Monday, which included some surprising additions and absences. After seeing program veterans like Miranda Ayim, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, and Kim Gaucher retire from the team following the Tokyo Olympics, this is a younger and far less experienced group than the one we last saw in international competition. 

Among the most surprising and important additions is Kia Nurse, who tore her ACL in October of 2021 and has been rehabbing it ever since, missing the full 2022 WNBA season. She will make her return to competitive basketball with Team Canada at the World Cup, but expectations should be tempered for the 26-year-old Hamilton, Ontario native.

“There was a lot of great days, a lot of bad days, a lot of tears, a lot of anger, but a lot of little wins along the way as well,” Nurse said about her rehab process. “I had physically the smoothest process possible, my knee, she’s a great girl, I love her for that. But just, mentally, it’s been hard. It’s been up and down and a roller-coaster.”

“I learned how to be an even better trainer, and even better professional athlete in terms of taking care of my body … it’s helped me figure out what’s best for me as a person. And hey, I’m a hell of a fighter. That’s what I’ve learned.”

While Nurse will be on a minutes-restriction during the tournament, Team Canada captain and teammate Nathlie Achonwa says she has looked “great” when she is on the court.

“I tell Kia every day that she just needs to be her. Especially going through a process like tearing an ACL and coming back from that, I’ve been there, done that and I realize the mental and the emotional strain that it takes,” Achonwa said. “But Kia has been dominating in practice and in our two exhibition games (vs. China and Puerto Rico). I’ve just been so happy to see her and share the court with her again.”

When it comes to notable absences, Aaliyah Edwards was with the team for training camp in Edmonton, Alberta but is not part of the 12-woman roster in Australia. The GLOBL JAM U23 MVP is one of Canada’s best young players, and it’s likely that commitments at the University of Connecticut are what’s holding her back from the World Cup rather than Canada intentionally leaving her off the roster, which just goes to show the difficulty in building a national team culture here in Canada. After all, as Lapena explained, in Spain club teams are required to extend their players excused absences if they are called up to the national team — it is in their contract — whereas in Canada and America it is up to the discretion of the school or club.

Otherwise, Shy Day-Wilson and Merissah Russell were the two other standouts from Canada’s GLOBL JAM team, but neither attended training camp with the national team. It’s likely that they will both factor into the team’s plans in the near future, but their absences could be felt during the World Cup, especially on the offensive end if Canada is struggling to score, as both players can create their own shot at a high level.

Still, Canada is bringing three experienced WNBA players in Nurse, Achonwa, and Bridget Carleton. Plus, 2022 NCAA Champion Laeticia Amihere will also likely play a big role on the team, acting as a bridge between the veterans and the youth.

Canada’s style of play

Lapeña hails from Zaragoza, Spain and is a longtime coach with Spain’s national women’s program at both the development and senior levels, including being an assistant at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Most recently, Lapena has been the head coach of Fenerbahce of the Turkish Super League since 2019, one of the best women’s teams in Europe. He is joined by Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn as the lead assistant alongside holdovers Carly Clarke and Steve Baur.

Lapena’s style is defined by aggression and freedom. It’s influenced by legendary Spanish soccer coach Pep Guardiola, currently at the helm of Manchester City.  

“The goal is not to [play] defence. No, our goal is to get the ball for us to attack. You know Pep Guardiola? They are all the time passing the ball. Because they want the ball to make their rival tired. This is what I want to do,” Lapeña said.

That type of style can take years to build the requisite chemistry to execute, but for now Lapena is focused on developing players who are disciplined and who are competitive on the court — the kind of players who will never take a play off, diving for loose balls and not being afraid to draw some contact. 

“It’s very simple,” Lapena told me about his philosophy. “First of all, discipline. Discipline to work in the right way. A huge commitment with Canada basketball… And finally, to feel the competitiveness in any practice in any tournament is the most important for us. We need this kind of player that once they’re here their commitment is amazing, their discipline is amazing. Everybody’s working in the same way and in a competitive environment.”

“In the senior team, they are super disciplined. Chemistry is very good. Good fundamentals. But on the other hand, it’s like they don’t enjoy the basketball,” Lapena adds. “I want them to have fun on the court, read the game and react. The passion is good. But we have to try this kind of basketball that is like street ball: this is the basketball that I like. Play sometimes tricky games, be a little bit more gypsy on the court. This is what I think they need to grow.”

While it’s hard to predict what the Canadians will look like on the court at the World Cup, especially considering how little time Lapena has had with them and how much turnover there has been on the team in recent years, one thing that seems obvious is that they will play with a competitive edge that sets them apart and the players that do that the best will be given the most minutes.

“My dream as coach is to push the Canadian team up until the moment when we play for medals. This is my dream. And this is what I want to do,” Lapena says. “Because just in the history of Canada Basketball, we have only two medals (bronze in 1979 and 1986). It’s been a long time. And never medaled in the Olympics. So I would like to do it.”

Competition system

Canada was drawn into Group B for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup 2022, which is an extremely tough group that includes five of the top-10 nations in the world, including Canada. They will play a round-robin against every team in the group, starting with Serbia (Sept. 21 11:00 p.m. ET), France (Sept. 23 4:00 a.m. ET), Japan (Sept. 25 6:30 a.m. ET), hosts Australia (Sept. 26 6:30 a.m. ET), and Mali (Sept. 27 2:00 a.m. ET). You can watch them all live on Sportsnet.

At the end of the Group Phase, the top 4 teams of each group will advance to the knockout phase, where a draw will determine the pairings of the Quarter-Finals. The two best-ranked teams of each group (group A and group B) will be drawn against the two teams ranked third and fourth of the other group to determine the quarter finals.

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