MONTREAL – The nature of the new qualifying format for the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball means constant change, with fluid rosters and coaching staffs, multiple far-flung venues and progress that can only be measured in months.
All of this so the Canadian men’s national team can get somewhere it hasn’t been in years – decades, even: competing among the very best on the planet.
So sometimes it’s nice to have something you can rely on.
For Cory Joseph who — along with Kelly Olynyk – has been the backbone of the men’s program in its slow transition from global also-ran to a potential power, seeing Tristan Thompson on the floor this week has been as comforting as a favourite pillow or a perfectly worn pair of shoes.
It just feels right.
“I love it,” said Joseph — who will be running the point for Canada in a crucial game against Brazil Thursday night at Place Bell as World Cup qualifying enters its second stage — when asked about what it will mean to see the Cleveland Cavaliers big man in a red-and-white uniform again.
The pair have been linked in the same sentence since high school as they starred at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas and then for one season at the University of Texas before they were each taken in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft, putting them very much at the forefront of the Canada’s long-simmering basketball revival.
They’ve played together sporadically since then – most recently when Canada lost to France in a last-chance qualifier for the 2016 Olympics – but the connection remains, easy to pick up at a moment’s notice.
“Obviously he’s my childhood friend, he’s still one of my best friends, [we have] a lot of chemistry, we know each other’s game [from] playing with and against each other for so long,” said Joseph. “Him, Kelly, all these guys, not just Tristan, everybody here, it’s much more than basketball. Off the court and on the court, it’s a brotherhood … that’s why I’m always here.”
Joseph is somewhat of an exception given the nature of international basketball when who’s not playing sometimes becomes a bigger story than who is. This week Canada will be without NBA talents Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Dillon Brooks, Nik Stauskas and Tyler Ennis. Health concerns have been cited for Murray and Brooks; Ennis is starting a new job in Turkey and Stauskas is battling for one in Portland. Lyles hasn’t played for Canada since he finished high school while Wiggins has been off the radar since Olympic qualifying in 2015.
But then again several countries are entering this qualifying window without any of their best NBA talent. In this context, that Canada has five NBA players ready to line up against Brazil (who don’t have any of their NBA players in Montreal) should be applauded.
Consider Thompson: As a key cog in the LeBron James-era Cavaliers’ run to four straight Eastern Conference finals, Thompson hasn’t been with the national team quite as regularly as Joseph or Olynyk, but few have.
That Thompson made the effort to be in Montreal speaks volumes about his determination to complete what he sees as unfinished business. At 27 he’s been with the national team in some shape or form for nearly a decade and clearly wants to not only earn a chance to compete for a world championship and Olympic medal – hardware that would go nicely with an NBA championship ring — but to see Canada make it a habit.
“It’s not just myself, it’s me, Kelly and Cory, we have a lot of experience both NBA and international where we can help these guys and kind of just build a culture,” Thompson said after practice Tuesday in Montreal. “I think that’s the most important thing, you’ve got to build a culture. You see that in the NBA, teams that have long-term success and longevity [are] teams that build a culture, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
It’s a process that needs to take the next step. No country other than the United States has put as many players into the NBA as Canada in recent years but that hasn’t translated to international success. Canada last played in the world championships in 2010, finishing 22nd out of 24 teams. It hasn’t made it to the Olympics since 2000 – the only trip the men have made since 1988.
A win against Brazil would further the cause significantly. With the first round of qualifying complete there are 12 teams in the Americas trying to earn seven spots for next September’s World Cup in China. The top three teams in two pools of six advance along with the team with the best record outside those six teams. Canada is one of five teams with a 5-1 record with six games to play. A win over Brazil – 5-1 – would put it in the driver’s seat for a spot; another win in Chile on Monday would almost seal it.
Thompson’s toughness and energy is essential to the cause.
“He has a big presence, a huge presence. Just his motor, just the way he plays, obviously always competitive, always getting second opportunities for us,” said Joseph. “I can just kind of throw up any shot, he’s going to get it. I think he’s going to get the rebound for us, or he’s going to get the putback where I just throw it up to him by the rim and he’s going to dunk it. Makes my job that much easier.”
Thompson’s role doesn’t expand too much while playing for Canada as compared to his NBA duties with the Cavaliers – screen-setting and generating second chances on offence while providing versatility defensively and energy in all phases of the game are qualities that translate on any level. But Thompson’s willingness to do the simple things makes it easier for everyone else to buy in to their roles.
“His presence is a tremendous confidence builder for everybody,” said Roy Rana who will be coaching Canada against Brazil and Chile as head coach Jay Triano starts a new NBA job in Charlotte. “His presence just changes the environment, everyone feels a lot more confident with him around and obviously he’s such a warrior, he impacts the game in so many small ways that people don’t see and he’s a winner, he’s won an NBA title, that’s always nice to have on your roster.”
It’s a roster Thompson wants to be on as Canada’s tries to unlock its bright basketball future.
“When you’re able to play for your country, and represent everyone back home, there’s no feeling like it,” said Thompson. “So it’s definitely something we’re trying to build up and have guys being prideful to play for their country, and take it serious … there’s opportunity here, and you don’t get it always.
“Right now we have a wave of really good players in the NBA, but who knows? Maybe 15 years from now we have a drought, so while guys are here and at a high level, let’s take advantage of it.”