Canada selects versatile Olympic women’s squad that’s ready to contend

Canada's Aaliyah Edwards (15). (Jason Franson/CP)

Fast, versatile, athletic.

These are three words that most appropriately describe the roster for the Canadian women’s national basketball team roster that will be heading to the Tokyo Games later this summer.

Announced during half-time of the Canadian men’s national basketball team’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament opener against Greece on Tuesday, the women’s Olympic roster appears to be a formidable-looking squad that should be able to contend for a medal.

This is a team that features three WNBA players in Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa and, perhaps more importantly, six returning players from the team’s 2016 Olympic squad and, if you include players from the alternates list, nine returning players from the 2018 World Cup roster.

And though at first glance it may not seem like it, that alternate list could play an important role for Canada as there are still a couple of key names listed on the main roster whose status appear to be up in the air.

Veteran and star guard Kim Gaucher is in a battle with the IOC and the local organizing committee in Japan to allow her to bring her newborn daughter into the Olympic bubble so she can both breastfeed and take care of her daughter and try to fulfill her athletic dreams and goals at the Games.

Sportsnet’s Michael Grange outlined the outright sexism Gaucher is dealing with in this story here, but as unfair as it all seems there still appears to be a chance that her request will be denied and she may not be able to participate in her Games, something that would be that much more disappointing because at age 37 these Tokyo Olympics are likely her last ones.

And though not the same situation, forward Natalie Achonwa may also be forced to miss the Games because of a knee injury she suffered while playing with her Minnesota Lynx earlier in June.

“Really sad to hear about Nat getting injured, she’s an integral part to our team and I think right now we’re waiting to get all the medical information that we need to make a decision,” Team Canada head coach Lisa Thomaidis said of Achonwa when she heard about the news earlier this month while in Puerto Rico for the FIBA AmeriCup.

Both Gaucher and Achonwa would be major losses for Canada as they provide integral leadership and are just simply two of Canada’s best players as well.

In particular, finding a replacement for Achonwa may prove to be difficult as the list of four alternates are all guards and won’t be ideal fill-ins for the scoring, rebounding and defence that Achonwa can provide underneath.

With that said, recent reporting indicates there might be some hope that Achonwa could get healthy in time for the Olympics as Lynx head coach and GM Cheryl Reeve indicated on Monday that Achonwa wouldn’t be able to return to her team until after the Olympic break as she focuses on rehabbing to play for Canada.

That’s bad news for Minnesota, but potentially good news for Canada as if she’s turning all attention on getting right for the Olympics, which begin July 23, she might be able to suit up for Team Canada.

If she isn’t able to, however, all certainly won’t be lost for Canada in Tokyo, still.

As mentioned off the top, this roster is one that features plenty of speed, versatility and athleticism.

This is because, thanks to names like Nurse, Carleton Kayla Alexander, Miranda Ayim and youngsters Laeticia Amihere, Aaliyah Edwards and Shaina Pellington, only the United States should be able to rival Canada as far as raw talent goes.

Defensively, this is a team that should be able to switch everything and has solid rim protection with players like Alexander and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, and, offensively, expect to see this team get out in transition and run a lot because women like Pellington and Amihere can be like one-woman fastbreaks themselves.

Compared to the squad that played in the AmeriCup there isn’t quite as much three-point prowess, but that may be to Canada’s benefit as this is still a post-heavy attack, particularly with the veteran Ayim still very capable of getting buckets.

Canada’s Laeticia Amihere (FIBA/Canada Basketball)

Most exciting about this roster is definitely all the youth on it.

Canada disappointed at the AmeriCup, failing to medal, but during the tournament we certainly learned that collegiate players Pellington, Merissah Russell, and Amihere can all really play.

Amihere, in particular, was spectacular in Puerto Rico for Canada as she led the team in scoring (13.0), rebounding (7.7) and field-goal percentage (50.0).

At six-foot-four with track-athlete-level athleticism, bull-like strength, a strong handle and good shot mechanics, she looks like a future superstar for Canada’s national team program and seeing her play in Tokyo despite turning just 20 later in July will pay dividends for Thomaidis.

This level of talent is undeniable.

“[She’s] fearless,” said Thomaidis during the AmeriCup of Amihere. “And she’s so young and certainly doesn’t play like she’s a young one.”

With a good mixture of youth, experience, enough shooting, potentially devastating defence and a fastbreak attack that could be unstoppable Canada’s Olympic roster, at least on paper, looks good enough to medal in Tokyo.

It won’t be easy, but this is a program that’s catapulted to No. 4 in the world rankings with no signs of stopping yet for a reason.

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