TORONTO — Nick Nurse is already leaving his stamp on Canada’s national men’s basketball team just one game into his tenure as head coach.
Less than two months after guiding the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title, he earned a victory in his Team Canada debut — a 96-87 exhibition win over Nigeria on Wednesday.
"He gives us a lot of creative freedom. He pushes us to play really hard on defence, but also just on offence … using his system and just playing for each other and playing unselfish," Kyle Wiltjer said of Canada’s new coach. "And as long as we’re playing unselfish, he can live with a mixed shot, stuff like that, so it’s a really fun way to play basketball, no pressure out there, it’s just playing basketball."
Wiltjer and Khem Birch had 14 points apiece for No. 23-ranked Canada, while Kelly Olynyk had 11 points before leaving the game with an injury midway through the third quarter. Olynyk had to be helped to the locker-room after slipping and falling hard on his knee.
Nurse, who was an assistant on Great Britain’s team at the 2012 London Olympics, was named Canada’s head coach soon after guiding the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title.
He was pleased with what he saw.
"Pretty happy really with everybody’s performance," said the coach, who earned a warm cheer from the Mattamy Athletic Centre crowd. "I look down and there wasn’t one guy (who I thought) ‘Oh, he doesn’t belong.’ Everybody went out there and looked like they belonged on the floor in some capacity, offensively, defensively, whatever.
"That was encouraging."
Josh Okogie had 18 points to lead a 33rd-ranked Nigerian team that featured five players with significant NBA experience.
The Canadian team gathered on Monday to kick off an ambitious five-week commitment. The aim is a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — what would be a first for Canada’s men’s team since 2000. The top seven teams at the World Cup earn automatic berths. Failing that, Canada would face a last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament next summer.
In a summer that was suppose to signal the Golden Age of Canadian basketball, Monday’s camp turnout was disappointing, with numerous big names missing including NBAers Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett, Tristan Thompson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dwight Powell.
Murray and Barrett, who both cited injuries, participated in camp and were seated courtside at Wednesday’s game along with new Raptor Stanley Johnson.
"Unfortunately there’s a lot of obligations, guys have injuries," Wiltjer said. "We’re just excited for this group that we have, a lot of guys who have played international competition and we play really well together. We have a lot of good pieces, and if we just continue to work on getting better, we have a great coach, and I think the sky is the limit."
Now, Canada will field a mixed squad led by three players with significant NBA experience — Olynyk, Cory Joseph, and Birch — plus several who are standouts on European pro rosters such as Barcelona FC guard Kevin Pangos.
Nurse quickly became known for his laidback demeanour with the Raptors in their historic season. It’s carried over to Canada’s team.
"It really rubs off on us," Wiltjer said. "He has this sense of making you try to play really hard for him, but also you come out and it’s 20-0, you can’t be too high because it’s a long game and I think that’s really important in basketball. You’re going to have highs and lows in the game, you’re going to make mistakes but just continuing to fight through them."
When Wiltjer was pondering whether or not to commit a big chunk of his summer to the national team, his dad Greg, a former Canadian team player, had something to say about it.
"The first advice he gave me was ‘You’d better go,"’ Wiltjer said laughing.
"It was a big part of his life and a big part of me. (He said) ‘Just play your game, you don’t know if you’re going to play one minute or no minutes, but you’re playing for your country.’ And I think that’s the most important thing about this team, I could play no minutes in the World Cup or I could play 10. And no matter what I just want to be ready and give it my all for my country."
Wednesday’s game, particularly in the early going, looked like a getting-acquainted session. Canada trailed Nigeria by as many as eight, and was down 20-14 after one quarter in front of a full house at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, normally home to U Sports’ Ryerson Rams.
A lay-in by Wiltjer tied the game 35-35 midway through the second. The Canadians closed the half with four consecutive three-pointers and went into the second with a 50-41 advantage.
Canada led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter before taking a 74-62 lead into the fourth.
Canada plays Nigeria again on Friday in Winnipeg then departs for Australia for five exhibition games, against the Aussies, New Zealand and the United States.
Canada Basketball is expected to take 15 players to Australia before naming its final 12-man World Cup roster.
Canada tips off the World Cup on Aug. 31 versus Australia.
By Lori Ewing