Canada Basketball announced its list of training camp invites on Tuesday afternoon ahead of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China later this summer.
What followed was a 29-man roster absolutely brimming with talent representing a wide range of experience levels and, notably, featuring Canada’s top NBA player, Jamal Murray.
Not included? The man who recently held that title: Andrew Wiggins.
Canada’s training camp roster is flat-out loaded — deep at key positions with complimentary weapons across the board — and good enough to leave Canadian hoop fans optimistic despite what is sure to be a tough group stage.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the roster announcement, much of the reaction on social media and from Canada’s sports media outlets — Sportsnet included — concerned Wiggins’ absence.
And it’s understandable. It wasn’t long ago that Wiggins — dubbed “Maple Jordan” following a standout amateur career — carried the hopes and future of Canadian basketball on his bony shoulders. He was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014, a much-hyped teenage phenom who had risen to the top ranks at every level before reaching the NBA. As recently as five years ago he was an anomaly: a Canadian poised to carve out a starring role wherever he played.
But times change, and, man, have they ever when it comes to Wiggins and the Canadian national program.
To say we’re in the golden age of Canadian hoops feels like an understatement. But between the Toronto Raptors taking the NBA crown and a nation of fans embracing the game like never before, recent international success on the junior level, an NBA-champion coach in Nick Nurse taking reins of the senior team, and record-setting numbers of Canadians joining the NBA ranks each year, it certainly seems fair.
All you have to do is look at those who did crack Canada’s list.
What immediately stands out is the sheer depth of talent. There are established NBAers and Team Canada veterans like Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson and Dwight Powell, along with rising global stars like potential 2020 NBA all-stars in Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — centrepiece of the Paul George trade to L.A. — and third overall pick RJ Barrett — certainly the most hyped Canadian prospect since Wiggins.
The training camp invites also include a group of upcoming NBA rookies and collegiate standouts in Barrett, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Lugentz Dort, Mfiondu Kabengele, Andrew Nembhard, and recent Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke.
Throw in familiar names starring in the upper-tiers of leagues around the world — Melvin Ejim, Kyle Wiltjer, Kevin Pangos, Aaron Doornekamp, the Scrubb brothers, Thomas and Phil, Brady Heslip, and several others — and, without Wiggins, Canada’s training camp roster is simply the most impressive and loaded assemblage of talent the program has ever seen.
Don’t get me wrong — while he’s disappointed on the NBA stage, Wiggins is a legitimate weapon for Canada at its only real position of need on the wings. He’s also likely far more effective in the international game, where his athleticism is a greater weapon than in the NBA, where he’s veered toward the wrong side of “average” as his career has progressed.
When he last played for Canada, it was clear Wiggins could be a difference-maker for the national program. At the FIBA AmeriCup Olympic qualifying tournament in 2015, Wiggins scored 18 points in a pivotal 87-86 win versus host nation Mexico, which secured Canada’s first bronze medal on the international stage since 2001. He was the lone Canadian named to the All-Tournament team.
He’s repeatedly turned down invitations to play for his country in years since.
“We’ve had some conversations with him,” GM Rowan Barrett said Tuesday of Wiggins’ decision to skip the 2019 World Cup. “At the end, it’s come out to him not feeling like this was the right time for him. We have to respect that and now we’ll move forward.”
Wiggins was a key player and go-to scorer for Canada four years ago. But this time around there are no shortage of candidates to carry the mantle.
Olynyk has certainly done so in the past, most recently last fall where he was dominant in helping Canada qualify for the upcoming World Cup, which will help punch a ticket to the Olympics.
Murray is probably the best bet to star for Canada. The 22-year-old is already one of the NBA’s most potent scoring guards and is fresh off a breakout playoff performance with the Denver Nuggets. Even in the more physical international game he could prove to be as close to an unguardable offensive threat as there is for Canada.
Barrett, the 19-year old tasked with revitalizing the New York Knicks franchise, is the biggest wild card and has carried Canada to gold in the past.
Head coach Nick Nurse has coached at the FIBA level before, including the 2012 London Olympics when he was an assistant with host Great Britain, and is more concerned with matching the force of group stage opponents and notorious bruisers like Lithuania and Australia.
“I’ve coached many times against Lithuania in the past and a few times against Australia,” Nurse said Tuesday. “Their trademark is physicality. We’re going to have to understand that going in. We have to be ready and to play through some physicality.”
The World Cup tournament tips off Aug. 31 and represents not only an opportunity to further grow the game of basketball in this country but for Canada to return to the Olympics for the first time in 20 years. If they pull it off, they’ll do so without the player many tabbed to help lift Canada to what seemed like such lofty goals earlier this decade.
Wiggins represented hope. He represented legitimacy — a star in the making. While he’s opted to focus on his NBA career, a lucrative one that, until Murray signed a new contract with Denver a few weeks back, had led him to become the highest-paid Canadian athlete in history.
But now? He’s just another on a long list of NBA talent at Canada’s disposal. His inclusion would still be welcome, but it’s no longer necessary for Canada to be successful.
That’s where we’re at now, and that’s where we’ll be at going forward as Canada’s talent pool gets deeper and deeper. So fixate on Wiggins all you want. The rest of us are moving on, and the road ahead looks as promising as ever.