TORONTO – Touching on it at the start of training camp, Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse alluded to the fact that with the personnel Canada has, it may struggle to score.
“The offence is going to have to do some of the scoring for the team,” said Nurse on Day 1 of Canada Basketball’s training camp ahead of the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup that will begin at the end of the month. “There’s not a ton of isolation scorers there.”
And true to his word on Wednesday night, in Canada’s first exhibition contest against Nigeria at Mattamy Athletic Centre, the Canadians laboured to find the bottom of the basket in the early goings.
They opened the game by missing their first seven shots before finally getting one to fall from the floor at about the six minute mark – a Khem Birch basket off a pick-and-roll, two-man action with Cory Joseph.
In all, Canada’s rough first quarter saw it shoot a dreadful 4-for-17 from the floor and turn the ball over six times as it trailed Nigeria 20-13.
Then, in the second quarter, a vision of what Canada could be took shape, predicated off what Nurse thought he might have from the start.
“I think that after I see them here today they do move the ball, they screen, they do re-space, they are really comfortable with trying to find the open man,” said Nurse.
Canada enjoyed a 37-point outburst in the second frame on the back of a three-point barrage courtesy mostly Kyle Wiltjer and Brady Heslip, who combined for 20 points on 6-for-8 shooting from deep. A whipping free-flowing ball-moving offence was also very reminiscent of Nurse’s championship Toronto Raptors.
“It was pretty good considering the short amount of time we had,” said Nurse of Canada’s second quarter. “You see flashes, right, there was probably 16, 18 minutes of really good and now it’s my job to extend that out and keep pushing those minutes out.”
Canada’s second quarter gave it a 50-41 lead, an advantage it was able to ride enough to hold on and beat Nigeria 96-87 despite at one point leading by as much as 17.
So it’s clear there’s still a fair bit of work to be done.
“I don’t think we are like even 50 per cent of our potential,” said Birch, whose 14 points matched Wiltjer for the team high.
Canada will need to cut down the number of turnovers after totalling 14 with the vast majority of them coming from errant passes bred mainly from unfamiliarity.
“You could see down the stretch it was hard to score and I was barking out, ‘back cut’ and there was a back-cut layup and then I’d say ‘slip the screen,’” said Nurse. “That’s just stuff we haven’t worked on.”
But more pressing than tidying up turnovers for Canada is the fate of Kelly Olynyk.
Slipping on a wet spot and limping off the floor early in the third quarter, Nurse said after the game he’ll be going for X-rays for what could be a knee injury. Should he be too injured to continue with Canada, it would be a major loss not only because he’s one of the team’s best players, but because there’s a chance fellow NBA big man Chris Boucher might also be out for the World Cup. Boucher was in street clothes for Wednesday’s game.
Adding further fuel to the speculative fire that he might also be hurt is centre Owen Klassen, who wasn’t on the final list of 19 players at Canada Basketball camp despite dressing against Nigeria but not playing.
“Just inactive tonight and we’re going to evaluate where we are tomorrow,” said Nurse of Boucher. “I think, obviously, we did bring another big in. We think with the way we’ve ended up so far, we’ve got Khem as a real good solid centre and we may need one more.”
Both the statuses of Olynyk and Boucher will be of great interest moving forward.
The same can be said of Florida Gators point guard Andrew Nembhard, just a lot more positively.
Despite being one of the youngest guys at camp, Nembhard looked like he belonged on Wednesday against Nigeria, playing key minutes down the final stretch to help secure Canada’s victory.
“He was great. That’s kind of what he’s looked like in practice. He’s kind of a guy that can make plays and create and get his own,” said Nurse. “He plays with a really good demeanour. He doesn’t play like a young kid and he just kind of does his thing and takes his openings when they’re there.
“He’s talented. He can play a couple, maybe one, two, three positions for us because of his size and he looked good out there.”
There was plenty we learned about this Canadian squad Wednesday as we progress toward the World Cup proper, and even more that we still need to find out.
Nigeria proved to be a good test and Canada will see them again on Friday in Winnipeg where more baby steps will be taken as Nurse and Co., does their best to prepare for China with what they got.