TORONTO — Just a week after R.J. Barrett made his debut for Canada’s senior basketball team, it was tough to spot the boy among the men Friday night.
The 18-year-old phenom scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds to help Canada to a thrilling 97-61 win over the Domincan Republic in the FIBA World Cup qualifying game, giving the Canadians top spot in their group.
"Everyone thinks because I’m the young guy, I’m going to be weak or something," Barrett said afterward. "I’m still strong, can still play with them, so you know, just try to play my game."
Kelly Olynyk, Dillon Brooks and Melvin Ejim all had 14 points, while Dwight Powell and Cory Joseph chipped in with 11 points respectively. Olynyk had a team-high nine rebounds, while Joseph dished out eight assists in front of a lively crowd at Ricoh Coliseum.
"I think that’s one of the things that is our strength is the depth that we have," coach Jay Triano said. "We’re able to play a lot of players, we’re able to play players who have the unique ability to switch on to smaller players and keep them in front. Our assist-to-field goal ratio was very good tonight, what was it, 27 assists on 35 field goals, so we’re able to share the ball.
"Talking to the players before the game, it was: trust each other. You don’t have to make the home-run pass, just swing-swing, make the hockey assist. I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight, sharing the ball."
Canada and the Dominican Republic sit atop their group at 4-1, but the Canadians lead on point differential and would clinch top spot with a win over the U.S. Virgin Islands in their opening-round finale on Monday in Ottawa.
Playing their first significant international game in Toronto since the 2015 Pan American Games, the Canadians started an impressive group of Barrett, plus NBA players Joseph (Indiana), Brooks (Memphis), Olynyk (Miami), and Powell (Dallas), against a Dominican team that had zero NBAers.
Olynyk said playing a significant game on homecourt was a rare thrill.
"We all have obviously have something in common being from here, I think that’s huge, and to be able to come back and reunite with everybody, after your seasons, and come here and play for one common goal, and try to take this country to somewhere they’ve never been, that’s what we’re trying to do right now," Olynyk said.
"To build that chemistry is not easy, it’s not going to happen overnight, but the more we can get together, the more we can play these games before the world tournament or the Olympics or whatever it is comes up, the better off we’ll be."
Canada was missing a few NBA players in Tristan Thompson, Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins, but the play of teenagers Barrett and Andrew Nembhard made for an entertaining evening.
The night was virtually a coming out party for Barrett, who brought the fans out of their seats with a hard drive to the hoop with two opponents swatting at him in futility.
Does it feel like playing alongside a teenager?
"It depends what play you watch," Olynyk laughed. "Sometimes you feel like you’re playing with an NBA all-star. He does make a few mistakes but he hasn’t had enough reps against high level competition but it’s going to come."
The Canadians had dropped an 88-76 decision in the Dominican Republic in November of 2017, but they had no NBA personnel at their disposal, a dilemma they’re going to face when the second round of qualifying gets under way in September.
Perhaps the one negative on the night were the sections of empty seats in the 7,700 arena, normally home to the Toronto Marlies.
"I think it may take Canadians a little bit of time to understand. If we’re playing this game in the Dominican Republic there are drums in the building and pounding and people standing and singing the whole time, almost like a European soccer atmosphere," Triano said. "We’re gonna need their support, because we’re gonna play games that are meaningful in this country, and we need to fill buildings and we need to have that little extra push. I thought the crowd tonight was very good. It would have been great if it was double the size and the volume was twice what it was.
"These guys deserve it because they represent Canada, they love to play the game of basketball and they love their country, so I hope more people will come out and celebrate that."
A handful of stars took in the game though, including Thompson, who helped with a halftime ring ceremony for the Canada’s FIBA U19 world champions, Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and fellow Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary.
Joseph led the way with six points in a first quarter that saw the lead change hands a couple of times before the Canadians settled in their game and took a 25-21 into the second.
Barrett led the way with seven second-quarter points and Canada would stretch its advantage to 14 points before taking a 45-33 lead into the locker-room at halftime.
The Dominican Republic pulled to within eight points on back-to-back threes late in the third, and Toronto led 65-54 with one quarter to play.
Powell had the crowd roaring early in the fourth when Brooks found him with a hard pass, he scored and was fouled while tumbling over backwards. Ejim then drained a three — putting one hand to his ear to encourage the crowd — to make it a 20-point Canadian lead with 7:43 to play, and it was virtually game over.
The Canadians have already qualified for the second round of qualifying but the results carry over. The top three teams in each of the four qualifying groups will be split into two new groups of six teams each. Canada will likely play Brazil, Venezuela and Chile in the second round, in home-and-away series. Games are in September, November and February.
The World Cup, which is the qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is Aug. 31-Sept. 31