With Olympics on the line, Wiggins and Canada would benefit from partnership

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS – Everyone knows Canadian basketball has come a long way in a short period of time, but consider this nugget:

When the men’s national team hosts the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C. in late June — the most important competition played on Canadian soil since the 1994 World Championships — the participation of the country’s two No. 1 NBA draft picks is not considered essential to the goal of advancing to the summer Olympics in Japan.

The circumstances around the status of Anthony Bennett — taken No. 1 overall in 2013 — and 2014 first-overall selection Andrew Wiggins are different, of course.

Bennett has simply never been able to get his career on track due to injuries and an inability to harness an incredible package of talent. He’s still only 26, of course, and so there’s no harm in holding out some hope that will change. But with the depth of Canada’s men’s program, something significant would have to go wrong for Bennett to end up playing this summer.

Wiggins is a different story. Even though he’s never quite reached the heights projected for him through six NBA seasons, he’s still a formidable talent. And as with everything concerning the gifted Minnesota Timberwolves wing, it’s hard to get a good read on what he’s thinking, where his passions lie or how deep they run.

Still, there is a cautious and carefully-guarded optimism around the men’s program that Wiggins will suit up for the national team for the first time since the ill-fated Tournament of the Americas in 2015 in Mexico City.

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Part of it lies in how things went down last summer in the lead-up to the World Cup in China. While a number of Canada’s NBA players were non-committal until late in the process or planned to play before changing their minds at the last moment, Wiggins was clear before training camp started: He wasn’t going to play.

The fact that he hasn’t said ‘no’ in 2020 is encouraging, but he’s not ready to say ‘yes’ publicly, in part – the thinking goes – to avoid the backlash that would come if he put his hand up to play and then backed out.

Because things can be fluid and because Wiggins isn’t too concerned about the optics of indecision, there is no expectation that even if he privately signals his plan to play in the coming weeks it would be accompanied by the kind of public announcement that so many of his Canadian NBA peers have made.

Even if he does decide to play, he may make his signal behind the scenes in the coming weeks and let the world know when he arrives at training camp.

For now, Wiggins is keeping his cards close to his chest.

“I’m not sure [about the summer],” he said Saturday after recording his first career triple-double in a Timberwolves loss to the Toronto Raptors. “Right now my team is struggling a little bit [they were five games out of the 8th seed in the West as of Sunday] so we have to get back and try to get in a playoff run. That’s my main goal right now. And after that I’m going to decide on Canada Basketball.”

“[But] I have great respect for coach Nurse and I plan on having a conversation with him eventually.”

Remaining publicly vague about his intentions is more evidence – as if any were needed – that the role that has been available to him since he was originally identified as Canada’s first real basketball prodigy as a 13-year-old is not one he’s interested in.

Wiggins may want to follow in his track star mother’s footsteps and become an Olympian, but he’s got no interest in leading from the front.

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That is fine. Canada’s talent pool now holds multiple candidates who are capable of leading the way, be it Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks and – eventually – RJ Barrett for the new guard, or veterans like Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk.

But Wiggins can still be a difference-maker for Canada internationally, and it would be foolish for anyone who badly wants the men’s program to qualify for their first Olympic tournament in 20 years and just the second since 1988 to pretend otherwise.

“We’re trying to get all the the best Canadian guys,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before Wiggins posted a career-best 11 assists against Toronto. “… When [Wiggins] first got in the league he would only go one direction [on drives to the basket] and now you kind of got to play him a little more square; his shooting’s improved. I thought, in a couple of recent games he’s, he’s made some good passes too.

“It’s always a progression, we’ve seen it with our guys like DeMar [DeRozan] — he went right [when driving] a lot and now he goes both directions. Now he passes a little better because they’re sending so many bodies at him, and I see some similarities there with Wiggins.”

When Wiggins chose not to play for Canada during the last-chance qualifying tournament in 2016 and was absent during World Cup qualifying, it led to speculation that there was a rift between him and the program, or that he wouldn’t play for former head coach Jay Triano – something he denied when I asked him about it in April of 2019.

But Wiggins’ apparent recent indifference about playing for Canada — it’s worth noting he won a medal for Canada in the junior ranks before his senior team appearance in 2015 — has even had some think what would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago: is Wiggins’ participation even necessary for the men’s program to reach its goals?

One of the benefits of having Nurse take over the program as head coach is that he brings fresh eyes to the process and has no problem seeing the obvious: Athletic 6-foot-8 wings who can averaging 22.6 points a game in the NBA are hard to come by.

Wiggins remaining one of the least efficient high-volume scorers in the NBA is always the rebuttal, although Wiggins’ strides as playmaker — he’s averaging a career-high 3.6 assists this season — softens that efficiency blow a bit.

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Another consideration is that it seems fair to assume one of the reasons the Raptors signed off on Nurse adding the national team duties to an already full plate was the long-game potential of having the opportunity to work up close with elite NBA players that carry Canadian passports.

Could it pay off one day in free agency? Would it provide an incremental advantage in the trade market one far off day?

Impossible to know for sure, but succeeding in the NBA is about finding every possible edge. Having the head coach of Canada’s only NBA team work first-hand with the country’s best professional players can’t hurt.

In that context, Wiggins is still an intriguing case study. Does he have more juice to give? Would his career look different outside the cozy confines of Minnesota, the NBA’s dysfunctional Mom n’ Pop shop? Presuming Wiggins plays, the Raptors will know. The rest of the league will be guessing.

But that’s all probably over-thinking it. The simplest assessment is that Wiggins has a lot to offer in a Canadian uniform.

Every game at the qualifying tournament and the Olympic tournament is essentially a 40-minute playoff series. Being able to roll out a starting guard/wing rotation made up of 6-foot-6 Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-foot-5 Murray and 6-foot-8 Wiggins — all capable of getting their own buckets in late-clock situations and all willing playmakers — is a luxury unique to any country other than the United States. Imagining how Nurse would deploy such a rich vein of skill and versatility is catnip for Canadian hoops fans.

Fortunately the program has enough depth – on paper anyway – that they can likely thrive without Wiggins. Brooks is having a career-year with the Memphis Grizzlies and brings a bristling intensity. Joseph is internationally proven and Barrett has shown flashes of being able to carry a significant load in his rookie NBA season.

The men’s program isn’t desperate to have the player everyone widely projected to be the best player ever from Canada not named Steve Nash. And Wiggins has shown over time he’s not necessarily desperate to represent Canada, either.

But sparks don’t have to fly to make relationships mutually beneficial.

Sometimes the best partnerships aren’t based on passion, but on a mutual recognition that each party has something the other can use, instead of desperately needs.

That’s the relationship Canada Basketball and Wiggins seem to have settled into, and it just might work out the best for all concerned.


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