The FIBA Basketball World Cup is still nearly two years away, but the path to the 32-team event has already begun.
The Canadian senior men’s team took its first step on Sunday as it opened a two-game set against the Bahamas, broadcast on Sportsnet. The second game will be broadcast as part of our FIBA rights package, on Monday at 4 p.m. ET.
The basics of this part of qualifying: Canada plays the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Virgin Islands in three windows: The current one, another in February and the third in July. As long as Canada finishes in the top three in its group, it advances to the next round of qualifying, where seven of the remaining 12 teams from the Americas will advance to the World Cup, which also serves as a qualifier for the 2024 Olympics.
Something really bad would have to happen for Canada to fail to qualify for the World Cup, but it was still encouraging to see quickly assembled group get off to such a solid start as they thumped the Bahamas 115-73 on Sunday.
• Canada is fortunate that players of Kyle Wiltjer’s caliber are so willing to play for their country. The lanky 6-foot-9 forward led Canada in scoring at the 2019 World Cup, has been a double-figures scorer at the highest levels of European basketball and is one of the players on the roster that is easy to project as having a role in 2023 and beyond. He has a reputation as a specialist, a conscious-free floor stretcher, but for Canada Wiltjer brings so much more. Canada got off to a sluggish start, trailing 13-11 early in the first quarter against the Bahamas, and it was Wiltjer who helped take the lid off the basket. He nailed a three and then whipped a pass from the post to find Kenny Chery in the opposite corner for another triple. He did the same thing after halftime, as he knocked down a three, a fadeaway jumper and assisted on another three by Chery as Canada put the game away. He finished with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-9 from deep – all in just 19 minutes — and flashed game beyond his primary ability to make threes in volume.
• The scariest moment in a game that had almost no drama came early on when Kyle Alexander got his feet taken out from him on defensive rebound and fell hard on his back. Getting hurt in the opening moments of your first game is no way to begin an international career. But Alexander shook it off and proceeded to show why Canada Basketball has been so eager to get him into the program. The 6-foot-10 25-year-old set excellent screens, made some even better decisions as a passer out of the short roll while also adding the rim protection head coach Nate Bjorkgren was hoping. But the younger brother of two-time women’s Olympian Kayla Alexander was just getting warmed up. He rocked the gym in Santa Domingo with a pair of second-half dunks – one on a spin move out of the post and another in transition as he showed his complete package. He finished with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds, and had three assists – all for triples.
• Chery, who played at Baylor after picking up the game in Montreal, was another starter making his senior team debut. He’s been climbing the ranks in Europe and shares the backcourt with Phil Scrub for Avtodor Sarotov in the top league in Russia. It’s unusual for someone to make their national team debut at 29, but Chery made it look like he’s been part of the program for a decade. He was arguably Canada’s best player – that he was plus-31 would help make the argument. But perhaps more telling was that he counted seven assists without a turnover – hard to do as a point guard in your first game with a new team. He did a good job both getting into the paint and then relocating off the ball for open looks from deep. He finished with 18 points, seven assists and four rebounds on 6-of-11 shooting on 24 minutes.
• Canada’s depth is growing at all levels, but since the NBA and the EuroLeague aren’t releasing players for the qualifying windows, it’s important to get contributions from those who might project to be further down the depth chart. As an example, 35 players helped Canada qualify for the 2019 World Cup. In that context, how about some appreciation for Aaron Best? The former Ryerson University star is without a contract after playing professionally in Lithuania, Germany and France as well as for a season with Raptors 905 in the G-League. But he’s kept himself in great shape and his skills razor-sharp, and was ready when Basketball Canada reached out. He looked like he’s got 20 games under his belt already this season as he came out firing with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting. He made three straight triples in three minutes to bridge the first and second quarters as Canada cracked the game open. Best may not have a contract, but now he’s got some pretty good game tape and likely the trust of Bjorkgren for Monday and beyond.
• It’s always a bit awkward to ask players to travel halfway around the world in some cases with no guarantee of role or playing time or future with the program, but that’s what the FIBA World Cup qualifying process requires. With Canada taking control of the game for good in the third quarter — it won the period 31-13 and led 92-51 to start the fourth – Bjorkgren was able to empty his bench and make sure everyone got good minutes. That meant vets such as Owen Klassen – a long-time loyalist — could get loose and a youngster such as 21-year-old AJ Lawson, who has NBA tools but is still learning the game at the professional level — can get his feet wet as well. That the win and the point differential carries over into the next round for tiebreakers can’t hurt either.