Who should make Team Canada’s roster out of training camp?

Canada Basketball is off to a big start.

It has never been a better time to be a Canadian Men’s Basketball fan, with the Paris Olympics in sight. The most talented collection of Canada basketball players in history has begun its preparations for the Olympics. In essence, every player has shown up to camp after years of Canadians fans willowing away about who isn’t playing for Canada then who is playing for Canada. With the exception of Andrew Wiggins’ absence, who was pulled ahead of training by the Golden State Warriors due to injury concerns, Canada will field its complete roster at the Paris Olympics. The roster would be a dominant NBA team with the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, and Andrew Nembhard among others heading the team heading to Paris.

There will be decisions to make for General Manager Rowan Barrett and Head Coach Jordi Fernandez as to who will make the backend of the 12-man roster headed to Paris. Meanwhile, with great talent comes great responsibility for Fernandez, who will have to mix and match his rotations as he will assume an even greater influx of talent then he did last summer at the FIBA World Cup where he led Canada to a Bronze Medal and secured an Olympic Berth.

When analyzing the roster, there are roughly nine players who are locked and loaded to be on the team in Paris. The obvious culprits are the seven NBAers who were at last summer’s FIBA World Cup in Gilgeous-Alexander, Barrett, Kelly Olynyk, Brooks, Dwight Powell, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Lu Dort. Add into the mix the elite ball handler and creator in Murray and the 2024 playoff breakout star in Nembhard, that collection of talent makes up nine roster spots that will be etched in stone for Canada heading into Paris.

Then it is where the fun begins; when you look at the nine players locked into spots, there are only two bigs, both of whom are atypical centers in an undersized Powell and more of a power forward playmaker in Olynyk who stretches the floor.

One clear solution to Canada’s size issues would be Zach Edey, who was just selected ninth overall in the NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies and is coming off a standout season at Purdue where he won National Player of the Year for the second consecutive year, leading Purdue to the NCAA Final. The enormous Edey is a clear solution, and he has FIBA experience and was part of the team last summer.

However, Edey’s status for Canada is uncertain as Rowan Barrett intimated at the start of training camp. Barrett has been in conversations with Memphis Grizzlies General Manager Zach Kleiman, and the hope is that Edey will be available for Canada at some point ahead of the Olympics. But that is still to be determined. If Edey is available. he would be a clear favourite to be on the roster, as Canada has nobody on the roster who is seven feet or above. Edey’s 7-foot-4 height would be a much-needed addition to Canada a team in desperate need of size.

If Edey is available, it leaves Canada with two more open spots. A seemingly obvious choice would be Trey Lyles, as he would provide size and shooting at the power forward position. And with his connection to Jordi Fernandez — who he’s worked alongside in Sacramento for the past two seasons — it would be almost a certainty that Lyles would be a useful addition to Canada’s lineup.

That would leave Canada with one final spot with many options available. Canada could go with Khem Birch, Kyle Alexander, or Mfiondu Kabengele to add another center to the roster. However, all three have struggled to play at the NBA level, and in a team full of NBAers they might not match the skill level. Meanwhile, there is also Oshae Brissett, who could add much needed wing depth, especially in lieu of the loss of Andrew Wiggins.

Nevertheless, the final spot could be given to Melvin Ejim, or, as many of the players call him, “Uncle Mel,” who has been a steadying presence on the Canadian team for years. Throughout all the heartbreaks for Canada’s Senior Men’s Basketball team, Ejim showed up and competed while providing a wealth of knowledge to players like Gilgeous-Alexander and Barrett. His selection would be an ode to all the players in Canada who paved the way for this current crop of NBA stars to take the program to the next level.

Regardless, Canada’s roster looks to have 10.5 players set stone, with Edey’s participation in question making half a spot. The final spot or two will be a battle between Ejim, Birch, Brissett, Alexander, and Kabengele.

What’s next is the best part: the rotations and lineups with which Jordi Fernandez can play.

The injection of Murray will change things dramatically for Fernandez, allowing him to lessen the burden on SGA while also adding much needed scoring and shooting to many lineups. Fernandez felt last summer he played his seven NBAers too much, and it burned them down the stretch of the World Cup.

“One of the reasons why we struggled at the end (of the FIBA World Cup) was because I ran the players into the ground,” said Fernandez.

Fernandez felt the overworking of his players led to poorer defense, as Canada finished 11th in defensive rating in the FIBA World Cup and third in offence.

Murray may not improve Canada’s defense, as the team is already stocked with talented and hard-nosed guard defenders, but he sure will lessen the load for Fernandez as he can spread out the minutes for his rotation wider than he did last summer.

On top of Murray, the addition of Nembhard gives Canada an incredible backup point guard who can shoot and create for others. Last summer, Canada struggled heavily in minutes where they played Trae Bell-Haynes off the bench. Murray and Nembhard will most likely give Fernandez the option in the biggest games to have two of SGA, Murray and Nembhard on the court at all times. Canada should be able to score with anybody with those lineups.

When you look at the wing position, Canada will have the same wing group from last summer with Barrett, Brooks, Dort, and Alexander-Walker. With Murray’s involvement, it is likely each of those players will play less, but it also allows for extreme optionality for Fernandez. Dort and Brooks together could shut down any opponent’s wing defenders, or if a team has a good point guard Canada can throw out Alexander-Walker who proved to be a menace defensively against point guards. Meanwhile, RJ Barrett might not bring as much defensively outside of rebounding, but his scoring punch alongside the combinations of SGA, Murray, and Nembhard could allow Fernandez to try to run teams out of the gym.

Does Canada go all defensive with lineups of SGA, Murray, Dort, Brooks, and Powell? Or does Canada go all offense with SGA, Murray, RJ, Brooks and Lyles/Edey?

Regardless, Fernandez has a variety of players that he can mix and match against the opponent depending on the situation. However, a potential pitfall will be how Murray/Nembhard acclimatize to the roster.

Meanwhile, when it comes to their big rotation, Fernandez at the end of the World Cup moved Olynyk to the bench as a stretch big providing offence. A side effect was keeping more defensive versatility, as Olynyk played with combinations of Dort and Alexander-Walker to provide defensive help on the perimeter, limiting Olynyk’s exposure around the rim. If Edey plays, will he play alongside Olynyk? Both might be defensive liabilities to a certain extent. Or would Lyles play the center position as Fernandez places a five-out lineup with shooters everywhere. Fernandez will have plenty of options at his disposal, but facing bigs in the tournament such as Nikola Jokic, Victor Wembanyama, and potentially Giannis Antetokounmpo, it will be imperative that Fernandez figures out how to defend those players with limited defensive aces in the frontcourt.

When asked about the chemistry that players from last summer’s team have compared to the new players at training camp, Olynyk explained how there will be some chemistry issues for Canada when integrating certain players into their rotations and lineups, with returning players having an advantage.

“100 percent [returning players are] a step ahead,” said Olynyk to Raptors Republic. Even in today’s workouts/practices. We have the same coaches and same system that you’re trying to re-instill. The guys who were here last year, you can see it coming back faster, becoming second nature, you see that cohesion and chemistry.”

In the end, Canada’s ability to win a medal and potentially a medal of a certain gold-ish variety, will be based on how they are able to integrate the talents into a team rather that is better than the sum of their parts. Canada will never have more talent than the United States. But it can be a better team, just like it was in the World Cup.

“You can see the guys who weren’t here last year, it’s a little different,” said Olynyk. “You can’t expect to throw 12 guys together in seven days and go win a medal, it doesn’t work like that in the basketball world anymore.”