Predicting Canada’s lineup for Olympic qualifying

Tristan Thompson is Team Canada's anchor on defence and the glue that holds the locker room together. (AP)

The first major step in what is a pivotal year in the history of the Canadian men’s national basketball team was made on Wednesday, when the draw for the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifier took place.

Canada drew into a fairly tough Group B, which features international powerhouse Argentina, Puerto Rico (a team that’s historically proven to be something of a nemesis for the Canadians), Cuba and Venezuela.

If getting out of the group seems tough, think of the challenge Canada faces in attempting to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games.

In order to guarantee a spot in the big tournament, Canada must reach the championship game at the FIBA Americas. As daunting as it may seem, a top-two finish is certainly within the team’s capabilities. However, to make it happen Canada must send out it’s A squad—leveraging the much-hyped “golden era” of Canadian ball to put together a roster comprised mostly of NBA players and reach the Olympics for the first time since 2000.

Besides the U.S. (obviously), no other country can trot out as many NBA players as Canada, meaning Canada should have an edge talent-wise no matter the competition.

If insurance issues don’t present too much of a problem, Canada Basketball’s ideal roster will look like this.

Starting Five

PG: Cory Joseph
Since 2013, Cory Joseph has not missed a summer with the national team and, even though his NBA numbers look tepid, he is definitely the best point guard Canada currently has.

The six-foot-three Ajax, Ont., native brings with him championship pedigree from his time with the San Antonio Spurs, a defensive mindset that meshes well with Canada’s greatest strength and a proven ability to run an offence—a necessary quality as a lack of offensive structure will likely be one of the team’s weaknesses.

He’s also been Canada’s starting point since 2013, meaning he already has valuable experience in high-intensity situations on the international stage—crucial given just how inexperienced an ideal Team Canada lineup would be.

SG: Andrew Wiggins
If he suits up, Andrew Wiggins would be Canada’s best player as far as raw ability goes.

Currently putting the finishing touches on what should be a Rookie of the Year season in the NBA, Wiggins has shown an uncanny scoring touch (averaging 16 points per game with 23 games in which he’s scored 20 or more) and, most impressively, is taking on the challenge of defending opposing teams’ best wing players—you know, guys like LeBron James, James Harden and Klay Thompson.

The Thornhill, Ont., product’s talent is irrefutable, and his combination of skill, length and athleticism would pretty much be unmatched at the Olympic qualifier. The cost to insure him will likely be very high, but he’s pretty much a mandatory piece if Canada wants to playing in Rio next year.

SF: Anthony Bennett
Two seasons into an NBA career that began when he went first-overall in the 2013 Draft, Anthony Bennett looks like an NBA bust, averaging only 4.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per game for his career.

So, why would he be on the roster, let alone starting? It all comes down to team needs.

Canada’s greatest weakness is at the wing. In an ideal world, Wiggins would start at small forward with Bennett coming off the bench, but without a surefire starting two-guard, an exception needs to be made—Nik Stauskas just doesn’t seem ready for a starting role yet.

Bennett has been ineffective in the pros for two main reasons: he was out of shape during his rookie campaign and the injury bug has hit him hard.

When healthy this season in Minnesota, he’s shown flashes of the player the Cleveland Cavaliers thought they were taking at No. 1. The Brampton, Ont., native is physically imposing and can be a real handful when slashing to the hoop. If he can get healthy (and fit) in time for the qualifier, he has the potential to present some interesting mismatches for opposing wings.

PF: Kelly Olynyk
The Boston Celtics seven-footer from Kamloops, B.C., is enjoying a very respectable sophomore season and has the kind of inside-outside game that’s vital in international competition.

Olynyk’s offensive skill set would be a big key to Canada’s attack since he’s adept in both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop. His ability to knock down shots in particular should figure to be very important, drawing rim protectors away from the basket and giving Canada’s guards extra space to drive.

But as good as Olynyk is offensively, he’s not fantastic on the other end. Given some of the other bigs that could potentially be on the roster, though, having a guy who can focus on scoring isn’t a bad thing.

C: Tristan Thompson
Speaking of defence, this Brampton boy brings it.

If Olynyk is a big man built for the international game’s attack, then Tristan Thompson is the same defensively.

Long, strong and athletic, Thompson is capable of stringing out guards and recovering back to the paint. He has the lateral quicks to keep up with his man when he’s drawn out to the perimeter and, most importantly, he loves contact.

Despite its emphasis on shooting, the international game is very rough. With the FIBA Americas tournament hosted in Mexico, it would be unwise to expect the whistle to go in Canada’s favour all that often.

In addition holding the defence together, Thompson is the emotional glue of the team, and one of the most successful Canadian NBA players to boot. He is integral to a lot of what Canada wants to execute and should be considered just as important as Wiggins.

Bench

Tyler Ennis, PG
It’s entirely possible that Ennis trumps Joseph in the talent department, but given the limited floor time he’s seen in his rookie campaign (in both Phoenix and Milwaukee) and his lack of international experience, a primary backup role is a perfect fit for him this summer.

Nik Stauskas, SG
As previously mentioned, Stauskas just isn’t ready to start. The Mississauga, Ont., native has not had the rookie season you’d expect from an eighth-overall pick, but unfortunate circumstances (like having three different head coaches in his first NBA season) have played a factor.

Regardless of how poor his NBA season has been, though, outside shooting is a necessity in the international game and Stauskas can hit threes. Even if he’s only used as a three-point specialist, he would still be valuable.

Joel Anthony, C
Past the wings, Canada’s greatest problem is its inexperience. Thus, having 32-year-old veteran Joel Anthony on the team is essential. In addition to a wealth of international experience, Anthony brings a discernible skill. The Montreal product is a perfect candidate to back up Thompson—or even share the floor with him if coach Jay Triano opts to go with his best defensive unit.

Andrew Nicholson, PF
Andrew Nicholson’s game is similar Olynyk’s and, as such, he’s a great weapon to bring off the bench. It’s worth repeating: the international game requires floor-stretching bigs. It just makes sense to have one of Olynyk or Nicholson on the floor at all times.

Dwight Powell, PF
Currently ripping up the NBA D-League (27.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game on 61.5 percent shooting), Dwight Powell is a more traditional big man with a lot of offensive ability. He probably won’t get a lot of floor time, but there could be situations when Thompson needs a rest and Anthony’s lacklustre offence won’t do.

This was one of the harder choices to make, but between Powell and a player like Robert Sacre, it just makes sense to go with the younger guy with more upside.

Kevin Pangos, PG
The lone college player on the team, Kevin Pangos gets the nod because his Gonzaga teammate Kyle Wiltjer’s game is too similar to Olynyk’s and Nicholson’s, and because the team could use additional shooting and ball-handling.

Taking a third point guard is never a bad idea as it ensures the team will have another strong ball-handler and decision-maker. Pangos has proven he excels in both of those capacities, and also sports a remarkable shooting touch.

Carl English, SG/SF
The last remnants of the post-Steve Nash era Leo Rautins teams, Carl English has seen pretty much everything international basketball can throw at you. Along with Anthony, the 34-year-old is the veteran presence in the locker room a team this young really needs. He’s also another wing Triano could use.

Sure there were other options to use at his spot—like Jevohn Shepherd, who also has a ton of international experience, or Melvin Ejim, if you’re not interested in another vet—but English is best choice because he’s still a productive player (averaging 16.6 points per game on A.E.K. Athens in the Greek league) and he’s also the best shooter available. In international basketball, you can never have enough shooting.