Canada getting acclimatized in Victoria as final roster takes shape

Barrett-Nembhard

Canadian men's national basketball team guards R.J. Barrett, left, who has committed to play for Duke starting later this year, and Andrew Nembhard leave the court after practice in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday June 20, 2018. (Darryl Dyck / CP)

VICTORIA, B.C. – The countdown clock is winding down, the ball will be going up soon enough.

The Canadian senior men’s team has been in Victoria, B.C. in advance of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament since Thursday, getting acclimatized to the time change and life in yet another bubble.

Fourteen players made the trip and, although there aren’t any big surprises from the 19 head coach Nick Nurse had with him in Tampa, some intriguing decisions have been made, and may yet be made, before the roster is finalized Monday afternoon.

Those who didn’t make the trip to Victoria predictably included youngsters Charles Bediako (Alabama) and Bennedict Mathurin (Arizona), who are expected to join what projects to be a very strong under-19 entry at the world championships next month, while European pro Isiaha Mike was a long-shot given the NBA depth Nurse and general manager Rowan Barrett had on hand.

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Due to the lack of overall depth among the bigs, it was somewhat unexpected that long-time national team stalwart Owen Klassen didn’t travel to Victoria. Meanwhile, Melvin Ejim – perhaps the player with the most appearances for Canada in the past six or seven years – had to bow out due to personal reasons, which had to be a difficult decision given his loyalty to the program over the years.

The remaining 14 will yield the deepest national team Canada has ever fielded, with potentially eight current NBA players and two more – former first-rounder Andrew Nicholson and 2013 first-overall pick Anthony Bennett – with recent NBA experience.

It’s telling that seven-foot-four Purdue freshman Zach Edey travelled to Victoria and it will be more so if he makes the final roster. With NBAers Khem Birch, Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk not available, Canada is a bit thin up front. Even with Dwight Powell and Nicholson on hand, the roster lacks the one true big that could match up with some of the more traditional bigs that China and Turkey can put on the floor. At just 19, Edey is listed at 285 pounds and averaged 8.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks on 59.7 per cent shooting in just 14 minutes a game last season.

Since FIBA doesn’t have a defensive three-second rule as in the NBA, having a true big to plant in the paint is still considered useful, if even situationally.

“Zach, as you know, he’s big. He’s big and he’s got some hands, man,” was Nurse’s assessment of the Toronto native early in training camp. “You throw it up to him and he goes and catches it down there. I think it’s a great learning experience for him and it’ll be interesting, again, to see how he progresses.”

If Edey – who is still eligible for Canada’s U19 team – is on the final roster, it could mean that Bennett, coming off a knee injury, or long-time national team veteran Aaron Doornekamp, who has been playing in Spain’s top league, won’t be. Both slot as big wings who could play some small-ball five.

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The other interesting choices will be likely be between point guards Andrew Nembhard, who played for Canada at the 2019 World Cup and starred at Gonzaga during their Final Four run this past spring, and Trae Bell-Haynes, a late bloomer who had a career year in Germany and helped Canada during a number of qualifying windows.

Canada practised twice Sunday and had team and individual pictures done for FIBA. Its first media availability will be Monday afternoon at 2 p.m. local time.

Canada opens the six-team tournament against Greece on Tuesday and plays China on Wednesday. Turkey, Czech Republic and Uruguay are in the other pool. Four teams advance to the semifinals on Saturday and the winners play in the final Sunday. The last team standing advances to the 12-team Olympic tournament in Tokyo July 23-Aug. 8. The last time the men’s team qualified for the Olympics was in 2000 in Sydney.

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