TORONTO – There was much optimism in the air Monday morning as Canada’s senior men’s national team arrived for Day 1 of training camp in preparation for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
How could there not be?
Even with the word that big Canadian NBA names such as Tristan Thompson, R.J. Barrett and Dwight Powell wouldn’t be in attendance – each withdrawing their commitment from the World Cup in the weeks leading up to camp – there was still expected to be a bevy of top-quality NBA players that were going to be on this team and lead the Canadian men’s team to its first Olympic Games since 2000 in Sydney.
Guys such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or promising NBA rookies like his cousin Nickeil Alexander-Walker. And of course, the key centerpiece of Canada’s World Cup hopes, Jamal Murray.
Then a press release from Canada basketball at about 11:30 a.m. ET dropped — just about 30 minutes until media that had assembled at OVO Athletic Centre for training camp would be allowed into the gym — and everyone then realized that most of the men that could be heard screaming and going hard at practice weren’t the guys everyone expected to see.
Whittled down from the list of 29 initially invited to training camp that sparked so much hope for the program was a group of 19 names very noticeably devoid of most of that original group’s NBA star power.
Included in the names that weren’t on this new list of men competing for a spot in China were: Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder), Alexander-Walker (New Orleans Pelicans), Dillon Brooks (Memphis Grizzlies), Trey Lyles (San Antonio Spurs) and even players who are playing in Europe like Nik Stauskas, Andy Rautins and Aaron Doornekamp.
Most crushing of all, however, is the little asterisk that was seen besides the names of Barrett and Murray, denoting they are participating in light workouts during camp but won’t be on the final squad.
Barrett, of course, was expected to not take part after he withdrew with a calf injury, but the Murray news was a big shock and an even bigger blow to Canada’s chances in the tournament.
At the moment, Canada is without a true primary offensive option, something that Murray would’ve been without question. The Denver Nuggets star recently signed a five-year, $170-million extension because of his ability to get buckets and now Canada will be scrambling to score, by the looks of things.
"I think one thing is, the offence is gonna have to do some of the scoring for the team, there’s not a ton of isolation scorers there," said Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse of what he saw of his team’s offence on Monday. "But I think that after I see them here today, that’s good, they do move the ball, they screen, they do re-space, they are really comfortable with trying to find the open man."
Team basketball is obviously great and it’s not as if Canada won’t be able to score, but devoid of an option like Nurse had with Kawhi Leonard with the Toronto Raptors on this Canadian squad the way Murray would’ve been, there’s going to be times where Canada will be in real tough.
Murray said the injury he suffered was an ankle injury and that he tweaked it a couple days ago. And while he is "disappointed" that he won’t be able to play he has a lot of confidence in the guys who will be representing Canada in China.
"I have a lot of faith in my young guys, that’s why they’re here, the reason they’re here, to prove themselves, go out and show the world," said Murray. "So, it was a big plan for me to come here and help them, lead them, show the world what we can do next year in the Olympics.
"I have a lot of faith in these guys, I have no doubt they’re going to go out there and make Canada proud."
Barrett issued similar sentiments, believing it important for him to be with the team at least through camp as a sign of strength.
"I just want to show my support," said Barrett. "I wish I was out there with the guys. I’m watching practice, seeing how they’re doing but wishing I could be involved with the guys."
These are the right things to say if you’re Murray and Barrett. And while their reasons for not being in China is very legitimate with injuries, they’re still messages that ring a little hollow because of everyone else that decided not to show up.
Of the talent available Nurse went from having, potentially, an entire roster of NBA players to now just five guys — and really only four as Oshae Brissett is likely just a training camp invite of the Raptors.
It’s a question that’s been asked forever since this so-called "golden generation" of Canadian basketball began about a decade ago, but given the circumstances and what’s at stake at the World Cup, it’s worth asking again: Why can’t Canada get its best basketball players to play for the national team?
"I think you can see all across the world that this was a challenging thing," said Rowan Barrett, general manager of Canada Basketball’s senior men’s national team, and father of R.J. "We managed the best that we could. We’re consistent in our approach, which is we need to build a big and strong pool understanding that each summer we’re going to miss players. Sometimes it’s injuries. Sometimes it’s something in their life. It could be a trade. It could be a contract. Something can come up. So you have to have a wide enough base of players so that if you’re missing a few players, you can still field a strong, competitive team. I think we’ve done that."
Chris Boucher is seen during a practice for the men’s Canadian basketball team at the OVO Athletic Centre in Toronto. (Cole Burston/CP)
Like Murray and his son, Rowan is saying the right things here, but it’s something that he’s had to say many times since taking the reins of the national program in March and you’d have to think at some point he’d get tired of it.
But no, the broken record keeps on spinning, much like the commitment level involved when it comes to Canada’s men’s national basketball team.
And this isn’t to say that the guys who weren’t at camp Monday didn’t have good reasons for not wanting to participate.
There are, of course, injuries — as seen with Barrett and Murray — along with the fact that Canada Basketball is asking for a six-week commitment that won’t end until right before NBA training camps open. That’s a big ask if you’re an NBA player.
Additionally, the exhibition schedule of needing to go to Australia and then China could be seen as another deterrent as we’re talking about one obscenely long flight from Canada to Australia before another one from Australia to China.
These are all things that suck and are major inconveniences, but at the same time these are the sacrifices that must be made by players if they’re truly as gung-ho about the national program as they might claim to be.
"I think we have players that are here, that are sacrificing," said Rowen when asked about players such as Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk who answer the call every summer. "I think we have some that are consistently sacrificing over time, some of our better players."
Only "some" players aren’t nearly enough, though and if only the glamour of playing in an Olympic Games will be what gets guys up to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to play for Team Canada then perhaps Rowan is right after all. There’s no need for "what ifs" and dwelling on the guys who won’t be there representing the country.
"At the end of the day, I’m still Canadian. I’m still Canadian. That blood is pumping through my veins. I want to give us the best opportunity to win," Rowan said. "We want to get as many of the players as we can out there. The reality is we put a lot of players out there, we were going to have to cut some players. No matter what we did, there were some players that were just not going to be able to be make. There was going to be some disappointment kind of any way you cut it.
"For us, when I look at some of our players, and I know they want to play. If you’re injured, you just can’t play. It’s pretty simple. With each guy, there’s always something. I think the worst thing you can do is look at each individual guy and say, ‘Well, you could have played. You could have played. You could have.’ We’re not going to do that. We’re going to focus on who’s here."
It’s easier said than done, but this is the right attitude to have. Why should we even bother with those who aren’t bothering, themselves?