Canada Basketball’s progress unravels at disappointing World Cup

Basketball insider Michael Grange joins SN Today to discuss his optimism that the Canadian Men's team will still be able to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, even after their frustrating showing at FIBA.

So that’s it then.

It has been four years since a heavily-favoured Canadian team lost to Venezuela in the semifinals of the FIBA Americas Championships after coughing up a late lead against a team of unknowns they had blown out in pool play.

It was a crushing loss that turned on a controversial foul call with no time on the clock, robbing Canada of a 2016 Olympic berth in the cruelest possible fashion and setting the program back in ways that are still being felt today.

But almost from the moment the buzzer sounded the optimists in the crowd began looking ahead to bigger, brighter things, when Canada’s talent pool would grow and mature.

This World Cup — the one that already feels like it’s over for Canada after they fell 0-2 in pool play following Thursday morning’s blowout loss to Lithuania in Dongguan, China — was supposed to be Canadian basketball’s reset button. From here on everything would be different.

It is different. Incredibly, somehow, it feels like things have gotten worse.

The higher the hopes, the greater the crash.

In the buildup to China everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. After an uncertain coaching search, they were able to snag Nick Nurse, moments after leading the Toronto Raptors to an NBA championship. There were going to be 17 NBA players under contract for the 2019-20 season to choose from, a mixture of veterans in their prime with some decent international experience (Tristan Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Dwight Powell, to name a few) and some promising stars on the rise (Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett). The pool of international pros to round out the roster had never been deeper either.

For once it looked like — from the perspective of a fan of Canadian basketball — Charlie Brown would get to kick the football. Would that translate into a medal at the World Cup? Would it mean they would be able to earn one of two spots available to the Americas at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?

Who knew, exactly, given the depth of the field and the unpredictability of international basketball. But it felt like it was time to really get excited about something. It felt like it would be stupid not to. No one wants to miss out on the ground floor of something big.

With the Raptors championship run so fresh in everyone’s minds, it felt like a Canadian team making noise on the world stage would be so much icing on a rich cake and, better yet, it would just be the beginning. It didn’t seem too much to ask for, did it?

But instead of a new peak, it feels like a new low, even if anyone paying attention could see it unfolding in slow motion.

Canada’s Thomas Scrubb works his way around Nigeria’s Jordan Nwora. (John Woods/CP)

The gut punches came early. Of those 17 NBA players invited to a four-day training camp held at the Raptors world-class practice facility in Toronto, only six even bothered to attend. The dropouts came fast and furious. Andrew Wiggins ended any speculation that his estrangement from the national team had anything to do with a falling out with former head coach Jay Triano — it turns out the Minnesota Timberwolves’ $150-million man simply doesn’t care.

Thompson pulled out after signalling otherwise all year long. Powell — likely bowing to not-so-subtle pressure applied by the Mark Cuban-owned Dallas Mavericks (Cuban has balked at having his high-priced talent risk their health for free, going back to the Steve Nash days) — pulled out on Aug. 1, two days before camp.

Murray hurt his ankle before camp opened, although details have been vague. Barrett cited a calf injury that the New York Knicks certainly weren’t worried about when he led their summer league team in minutes played in Las Vegas. Raptors hopeful Chris Boucher pulled out after three days of camp and Olynyk dropped out after bruising his knee in the first exhibition game. So many others didn’t bother to even take a look under the hood.

In the end only two NBA players — Khem Birch and Cory Joseph — made the trip to China, and Joseph only after skipping Canada’s three-week exhibition tour in Australia.

It was like word got out that the party was a dud — the DJ sucked and they had run out of ice for the beer. It became the place not to be.

At this point we have to pause to recognize the commitment of those that are playing for Canada. It some cases it is extraordinary. Melvin Ejim watched his second child being born on his iPhone, half a world away, and then went to a team meeting before Canada’s opening loss to Australia.

Thomas Scrubb got married on Aug. 2, was in camp on Aug. 4 and hasn’t seen his new wife since. Kevin Pangos finished his club season with Barcelona on June 28 and was at the national team training camp on time. He struggled with a foot problem last season and his wife is expecting their first child in September, but Pangos hasn’t missed a minute and has likely been Canada’s best player.

Depth bigs Owen Klassen and Connor Morgan flew halfway across the world on a moment’s notice when roster spots suddenly opened up. Duane Notice and Aaron Best flew all the way home after being dropped from the team at the last minute; Oshae Brissett got hurt on the eve of the tournament. Nurse and fellow Raptors coaches Jon Goodwillie and Nate Bjorkgren gave up precious vacation time after a long season.

Sacrifices have been made.

But as was evident in Canada’s 16-point loss to Australia on Sunday and even more so in falling to Lithuania 92-69 Thursday morning in a game in which Canada fell behind by 10 in the first quarter and could never quite reel in the thread, no amount of sacrifice can make up for a shortage of elite talent.

Lithuania couldn’t provide a starker contrast to where the Canadian program is at the minute. Where Canada’s top players are too indifferent to show up, Lithuania’s look like they are willing to die on the floor for each other.

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The small Baltic country has long been a basketball hotbed, one of the few — maybe the only — basketball-first nations on the planet. Out of 2.8 million people, they have only two NBA players at the moment — former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas and Indiana Pacers big man Domantis Sabonis — but their roster is full from top to bottom with players who compete at the highest level of European basketball and, more importantly, who are completely devoted to the national team program.

Valanciunas, for example, has played for Lithuania for an astounding 13 consecutive summers, going back to youth competitions. Tellingly while Sabonis and Valanciunas contributed to Lithuania’s overwhelming advantage on the offensive glass — it is hard to win a game when giving up 19 offensive rebounds in 40 minutes, as Canada did — Lithuania’s contributions came from everywhere on the roster as nine players in an 11-man rotation scored at least seven points.

The cohesion was evident. With Lithuania up 14 in the third quarter, they lost Joseph in transition, leading to a rare easy basket for Canada. The telling image was 34-year-old Jonas Maciulis — a veteran of three Olympics playing in his third World Cup and one of four players 32 or older on the team — absolutely blistering one of his teammates for the breakdown. His teammate didn’t clap back, but simply acknowledged his mistake on the way back to the bench. It was the kind of honest, in-the-heat-of-the-moment interaction that true teams are able to have.

You can only wonder when a Canadian team with their best players will ever feel comfortable enough to relate to each other that way because at the highest level, talent alone isn’t enough. Hear the passion with which Marc Gasol speaks about playing on the deep and talented Spanish teams over the years or Luis Scola and his connection to his teammates on Argentina and it is no surprise why those two countries have been able to challenge the U.S. internationally over the years.

But those connections will never be made if Canada’s best don’t show up.

I can’t explain why they don’t. Canada Basketball treats the athletes well. Even with limited resources, they provide first-class air travel, single rooms at five-star hotels and top-of-the line trainers and coaches. They have made strides in connecting with top talent at younger ages. They have tried to be accommodating with schedules where possible.

But the reality is playing basketball internationally as a professional athlete is an irrational choice, one that can only be driven by passion.

Self-interest has to be put aside and for whatever reason — and I really don’t think there is any single good reason — too many of Canada’s best players haven’t been willing to do that. The highly competitive women’s program has none of these issues, interestingly, which is a topic for another day.

The ripple effects are significant. Why would corporate Canada get involved with the men’s program when so many of the players with the highest profiles don’t want to be involved themselves? Now that it has almost become routine for top players to bow out of key international events, how does Canada Basketball make the case that participating is vital to the next wave of top talent? And if they do show up, will they ever have enough collective international experience to compete at the level their talent suggests they should be able to?

The good news is this never-ending (it feels like, at least) conversation can change quickly.

After playing their last game of the opening round against Senegal on Thursday, Canada will compete among the 16 teams that don’t advance for spots 17-32. If they can finish anywhere from 17 to 23rd — which shouldn’t be a problem, at least on paper — they will automatically qualify for one of four last-chance qualifying tournaments of six teams each — fields, dates, and locations as yet to be determined. They can earn a spot in Tokyo by winning one of those tournaments.

In some ways it’s a potentially an easier path than what they were facing in China, requiring them to win a maximum four games instead of the five, six or perhaps seven wins they would have needed at the World Cup. And while there will certainly be some top teams to face given only two teams from Europe will qualify from China to Tokyo this summer, it can’t be much more difficult than facing Australia and Lithuania just to advance from pool play.

So the rosy picture is next summer six or eight of Canada’s best NBA players are joined by the best of their European pros, Nick Nurse works his magic, they get hot and they make it to Tokyo.

From that base in 2020, the program can begin planning for the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics and beyond. A new tradition can be started.

It could happen that easily. The attitude toward the program could change that fast.

But enough players have to want to make it so, and until they pull on their jersey and commit to a cause for no rational reason other than passion, no one can be faulted for waiting until they see it before they believe it.

It’s a shame. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is.

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