Why these last four Americas World Cup Qualifier games matter

Venezuela had some last minute visa issues, but Canada will be playing them tonight in the Americas World Cup qualifier game! Canada's senior men's national team has only four games left in the qualifying window to the 2023 World Cup, and sits atop Group E with a perfect 8-0 record.

It’s been nine years since a Canadian became the first overall NBA Draft pick. 22 Canadians made NBA opening night rosters and 35 are currently playing in Power Five conferences (in the NCAA). That’s a lot of prospective talent for our Senior Team.

We’ve heard enough about the rise of Canadian basketball. What matters now, and in the future, is to heighten expectations, with the ultimate goal being to medal in the Olympics.

To do that means hitting Step One: qualifying for the 2023 World Cup. Canada currently sits atop Group E with a perfect 8-0 record, will play second-place Venezuela (after some visa issue scares) and Panama in Window 5, and then face Argentina and Venezuela, again, in Window 6. A total of seven teams — the top three teams from Group E and Group F, and the best fourth-team — will head make it to the World Cup from the Americas.

Current Group E standings. Courtesy of FIBA.
Road to the World Cup. Courtesy of FIBA.

With basketball season at all levels fully underway, Team Canada will have its “winter roster” without NBA stars, like SGA, to rely on.

A few familiar faces from the 2019 World Cup roster will be joining again: Melvin Ejim, Conor Morgan, Owen Klassen, and the Scrubb brothers. In 2019, Canada failed to make it past the first round group stage, losing to an Australia and Lithuania team that had ex-Raptors, Aron Baynes and Jonas Valanciunas, respectively.

During the summer, beating now fourth-ranked Argentina with SGA in Window 4 was a big milestone, and we’ll rematch in February 2023 in the last Window 6. Canada will need to rely on its core group, though Argentina will likely be missing their elite backcourt in Leandro Bolmaro and Facundo Campazzo.

Qualifying for Paris 2024

The contribution from the core guys can’t be overlooked as they will pave the way for the World Cup, with the goal to then qualify for Paris 2024. To get to Step Two (qualifying for the Olympics), Canada will have to be one of the best two teams from the Americas in the 2023 World Cup. Eight countries from the World Cup qualify for the Olympics — the two best teams from the Americas, the two best from Europe, the best from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and host nation France.

Failing to secure one of eight spots means competing through the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments for one of four spots (a total 12 teams compete in the Olympics). And that brings back bad memories, when the Czech Republic dashed our Tokyo hopes. Even with NBA players, including RJ Barrett and Andrew Wiggins who had a team-high 27 points, we were beat in overtime.

Step Two needs to be achieved first before it becomes an expectation (we haven’t gone to the Olympics since Sydney 2000 with a young Steve Nash). But this comes with challenges. Even the US was humiliated in the 2019 World Cup, so they’ll likely come better prepared next year. In 2019, Donovan Mitchell, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Khris Middleton all played for USA under Popovich (with assistant coach Steve Kerr by his side), but lost in the quarter-final game against France, 89-79, and then lost against The Joker’s Serbian team for the fifth-place game. USA placed seventh and were the second-best team from the Americas, but in fairness, they redeemed themselves in Tokyo, winning gold, yet again.

Current world FIBA rankings. Courtesy of FIBA.

Qualifier games are development opportunities for bigs

And when our best aren’t playing, it’s the best time for our bigs to battle other international bigs because in FIBA, the inside game matters a lot more. If you remember the name, Ondrej Balvin, he had 14 and 19 (four of them offensive boards), and our NBA front court, Dwight Powell and Trey Lyles, struggled against the 7-foot-1 Czech.

Kalif Young, age 26, competed in AmeriCup this past summer and has competed in the previous qualifying windows. A former BioSteel All-Canadian, an Orangeville Prep alumnus with three CEBL seasons under his belt, he’s becoming a regular face in Canadian international competitions.

Windsor Lancer Thomas Kennedy, still only 22, is metamorphosing into a pro before our eyes. He’s played three seasons in the CEBL as a USPORTS development player, competed in the Globl Jam and AmeriCup this past summer, and will be competing with Canada’s “winter roster” in Edmonton before he heads back to Windsor.

We also can’t forget about 7-foot-4 Zach Edey who got some Senior Team reps, albeit against weaker competition (Panama, the Virgin Islands, and garbage minutes against the Dominican Republic). He won’t be competing in Window 5 or 6 as he’s now his junior season at Purdue.

Canada needs to make Paris 2024 and compete for a medal in Los Angeles 2028. By then, players like Kennedy will be 24 and 28; Edey, 22 and 26. The Senior Team could also look very different by then, but we also have a wealth of talent from the national developmental pipeline (i.e. U-23, U-19, U-18, and below) to draw from.

Edmonton will bare witness to the road that’s being slowly paved (with bumps in the past) to international glory.

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