Why Canada has a unique advantage over the USA and everyone else in the Olympics 

On Canada's unique advantage.

The FIBA tournaments in recent history have usually seen two very contrasted kinds of national teams: on one side, very crowded, the ones with some NBA stars but made of a majority of overseas players. On the other side, standing alone, Team USA is entirely made of NBA superstars without any horizons beyond America. 

But Canada is bringing up one new type that stands alone. One unique mixture that might make the Canadian even better than the feared Team USA in practice ahead of the upcoming Olympics. 

Canada represents the perfect mix between the glamorous and valuable NBA stars and the not-so-known but much-needed overseas players. 

Jamal Murray is an NBA champion, a dazzling point guard who might be unstoppable when in a bad-guy mood. 

But someone has to teach Kitchener native the tricky rules of other basketball leagues before and during the tournament, decipher the complex FIBA game ahead of his first experience in a senior FIBA competition. Melvin Ejim, Trae Bell-Haynes, and Phil Scrubb filled that role for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks, and the other NBA stars last year for the World Cup. And Jordi Fernandez has a bunch of guys who can help, spearheaded by 33-year-old veteran Melvin Ejim. 

The actual Canada should feature 10 NBA players with Gilgeous-Alexander, Murray, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Andrew Nembhard, Luguentz Dort, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dwight Powell, Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles, but also up to six overseas players. 

Among those, four players competed in Spain last year: Ejim (Unicaja), Trae Bell-Haynes (Zaragoza), Thomas Scrubb (Obradoiro), and Khem Birch, who had a good taste of the European experience in Girona, the club founded and chaired by charismatic former Raptor and NBA champion Marc Gasol. Phil Scrubb, with two stints in Spain, played with Bahçeşehir Koleji from Turkey and Mfiondu Kabengele with Venezia from Italy. Ejim, Bell-Haynes and Scrubb brothers are long-experienced players in Europe with five-year tenures or longer. 

In addition, Jordi Fernandez is a well-versed coach with a deep knowledge of the opposite worlds like FIBA and the NBA. While he made a name for himself in the NBA, he was raised in Spain, where he soaked up the FIBA game firsthand, first playing in the fourth Spanish tier and then coaching youth teams in Badalona, his hometown, and other cities in Catalonia. 

Fernandez remarked on the importance of having a group of players used to FIBA rules. 

“It’s very important, (FIBA rules) affect the play style. We won’t play as a European team, we will be a mix, a very physical and fast team, which makes us what we are,” he said. 

“We can’t play like Spain or any European team, but we can draw things that make us stronger,” said Fernandez, who also an assistant in 2013 to Sergio Scariolo, the coach of the Spanish national team and former assistant coach of Nick Nurse in the Raptors. 

There’s less space in the international game, and it’s not because there are fewer shooters. Thomas Scrubb mentioned the key to opening up space. 

“We have to try to move the ball more versus paint touches, not holding the ball for too long. I think there is less space compared to the NBA and teams can lock in to stop one guy,” he said. 

“But if we move the ball, we pass around quickly, they won’t have the chance to catch these guys,” said Scrubb, who has just signed with Tenerife. 

Offensive unselfishness was the first principle that Fernandez promoted and the formula that led Canada to become the best offense in the last World Cup according to Fernandez. Gilgeous-Alexander orchestrated the business through his scoring in a lot of games, but constant movement on and off the ball to prevent help from the rivals was key, as well as the astuteness of the Thunder point guard to draw more defenders and his timing to release the ball to find open looks. 

“NBA guys pick up everything very quickly,” Kabengele said. “Sometimes guys slam off the rim, they can get lost there. But other than that, they are fast learners.”

The center brought up what often is an overlooked point. 

“In Europe, every game is more meaningful. There is more intensity game by game,” Kabengele said. 

While the NBA gives multiple chances, even in the playoffs, FIBA tournaments push mental pressure to the limits with do-or-die games. Jordi Fernandez acknowledged last year this mental challenge is one of the toughest adjustments. 

“You have to get the guys ready mentally because most of them don’t know what is and you have to explain it, get to their heart,” he said. 

Phil Scrubb also plays the role of a professor as one of the overseas players. 

“It’s a kind of process over the years, of playing together a lot. You help to learn the roles and little tricks that help in the FIBA game,” he said. 

Sometimes, it all comes down to not getting trapped through the simplest things in a game full of sneaky veterans, old foxes who will try to catch the FIBA game beginners through the least perceptible details. 

Bell-Haynes talked about these. 

“You teach things they don’t notice. For example, in FIBA players can’t call timeouts on the court. You tell them what refs call, what they don’t, and what they can get away with,” Zaragoza’s point guard said. 

Even if the four that Jordi Fernandez has to rule out to trim the roster to 12 are four of these overseas players all the NBA stars will have benefited from their teaching and their FIBA expertise in training camp. 

Moreover, among the teams with more experience in FIBA tournaments and with more overseas players, it’s hard to match two world-class finishers in Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray. 

Time will tell, but Canada is learning to play the particular FIBA game quickly. Jordi Fernandez is a good professor and has star pupils to teach the NBA stars.