Grange: From hype to hope for Canada Basketball

Basketball Canada general manager Steve Nash, right, listens as head coach Jay Triano speaks during a news conference in Toronto.

Toronto — The buzz has been building for years, starting as names like Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Andrew Wiggins and many more got whispered about, Tweeted about, YouTubed and ranked when they were in their early teens.

Canada is coming.

The buzz got a jolt just over a year ago when Steve Nash came on board with Canada Basketball as the general manager of the men’s senior national team. The hum got louder when Anthony Bennett became the first Canadian to be taken first overall in the NBA draft last month and Wiggins became the most talked about non-NBA player in the world this past year and the leading candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in 2014.

Sports Illustrated noticed. ESPN has noticed. The world has noticed.

“This really is the Golden Age of Canadian basketball,” said Nash on Monday as he and his hand-picked head coach Jay Triano announced the 18-man training camp roster for the first team that will compete for Canada internationally since he took charge of the senior men’s team last May. “We’re thriving. We have talent, potential and depth at every age group.”

On Friday, arguably the most gifted group of Canadian basketball players yet assembled — true even despite a few key absences — will begin training camp to prepare for the FIBA Americas Championship in Caracas, Venezuela from August 30th – Sept. 11th.

Canada is coming, there is no questioning that. The question of course is when and where exactly Canada will end up and how to keep the pot simmering without turning the heat up too high or too soon.

Now, finally, the hype hits the floor, and everyone will get to find out if the Golden Age will translate into an international medal of any kind — it’s been a while, after all.

The Canadian senior men’s team won silver at the 1936 Olympics, the first time basketball was included. Fair to say the international talent pool has gotten deeper over the past 80 years.

Canada’s best result at a major global competition since is a fourth-place finish at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and again at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where the field was weakened by the Eastern Bloc boycott. Canadian men last appeared in the Olympics in 2000 when Nash was still playing for the team and Triano was in his first stint as coach. Their most recent World Championship result was 22nd out of 24 teams in 2010. There is nowhere to go but up.

A top-four finish is required for Canada to qualify for the World Championships in Spain next summer — considered a key step in getting a young Canadian team crucial international experience in advance of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Efforts are being made to keep things in perspective — the 2018 Worlds or 2020 Olympics are better bets for a Canadian podium appearance given how young Canada’s best projected players are now — but that will only get harder as more NBA talent comes on stream.

“We’re desperate to qualify (for the Worlds next summer) but we may not,” says Nash. “But no matter what we have to stick to the plan and the plan is to develop our players, to form a chemistry, to give them experience at an international level and the best way to do that is to qualify and give them another experience next summer.

“But the truth is it’s going to be a real challenge (this summer),” Nash said. “We have a very young team, a team without a lot of international experience and a team with very little experience playing together.”

Nash is right. Canada may not qualify this summer and focusing on the process and the longer-term goals for the program is sound thinking.

The only problem in his logic is that Canada should qualify for the Worlds this summer and failing to do so would be a considerable sideways step, if not a backwards one for the program. Part of Nash’s job is raise private money for the program, an easier task if momentum is building. Playing next summer means more experience sooner for young players that badly need it and badly need to play together. The powerhouse USA won’t be at the tournament as they have already qualified for the Worlds. Stalwarts such as Argentina and Brazil having aging cores and won’t be sending many of their top players. The field is open.

Among the 18 players invited to training camp are four players who will be on NBA rosters in the 2013-14 season — Thompson, the emerging power forward with the Cleveland Cavaliers; Joseph who backed up Tony Parker with the San Antonio Spurs on their run to the NBA Finals; veteran reserve big Joel Anthony of the Miami Heat and Andrew Nicholson who just finished his rookie season with the Orlando Magic. Two others — Andy Rautins and Kris Joseph have recent NBA experience while the likes of Carl English, Levon Kendall and Jermaine Anderson are veteran pros with experience in top leagues in Europe and competing for Canada overseas.

It’s the foundation of a pretty good team, at least on paper.

“Back in 2000 we had two NBA players — we had Steve and we had (since retired) Todd MacCulloch and we were like, ‘man, these guys are great’ and we built around them,” said Triano, who helped coach that group to a 5-2 record in Sydney and within a whisker of a medal. “Now we have so many other options. The depth in our country is great.”

It would greater still if Bennett, the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers wasn’t recuperating from shoulder surgery, Kelly Olynyk of the Boston Celtics, taken 13th overall, wasn’t on the shelf with plantar fasciitis, Los Angeles Lakers centre Robert Sacre hadn’t declined an invitation to camp and Wiggins, the 18-year-old phenom set to attend the University of Kansas, hadn’t decided to use the summer to get ready for college and his push to justify projections that have him going first overall next season.

It should make for a competitive training camp in advance of exhibition games against Jamaica on August 8th and 10th in Toronto as Triano tries to get the roster to 12 for Caracas.

“At one point I said to Steve, man, this is not an easy job. It used to be we had a hard time convincing NBA players to play for our country and now we’re going to have to cut an NBA player,” said Triano.

“And Steve goes: ‘that’s great’ and I’m like ‘not for me, I don’t want to be that guy’ But that’s where we are, and it’s still going to be tough to find playing time for players who play in the NBA. And that’s one of the things we’re going to talk about. Some of these guys are going to have to make a sacrifice for the team and for their country and take a little bit of a different role than what they maybe expect because of who they are and where they come from.”

The buzz has been building for years and the best may yet be to come, but at last the future of Canada Basketball can get started.

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