Grange: Canada halfway, but not close to done

Heading into the second round Cory Joseph is averaging a team-best 16.5 points a game, tops among guards in the tournament. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Nearly halfway home, but not even close to being done.

That sums up the status of the Canadian men’s national team as they take a brief pause at the FIBA Americas tournament in Caracas, Venezuela.

The event has reached the second of three distinct stages. With their blowout win over Uruguay late Tuesday night in a game delayed nine hours due to a power outage, Canada concluded group play with a 3-1 record and advanced from Group A in second place.

They now have four games against the top four teams from Group B, beginning with their game at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday against Mexico, followed by contests against host Venezuela, Argentina and Dominican Republic.

The top-four teams of the remaining eight advance to the medal round, which is the final stage, but what happens there is less significant than getting there: a spot in the semi-finals guarantees Canada a ticket to Spain next summer for the FIBA World Cup, a significant achievement for a country that is trying to build some momentum in its basketball program, both to serve and benefit from the waves of young talent lapping at the edges of the senior men’s team.

But for now it’s a young group at its core that’s learning every game.

After the first four games of the Steve Nash era, these are some of the things we’ve learned about them:

1. Canada has a point guard

Cory Joseph was always going to be the starting point guard this summer – with two years of NBA experience under his belt, he was more dynamic than incumbent Jermaine Anderson, who he played behind in 2011, and more advanced than the youngsters nipping at his heels – Junior Cadougan, Kevin Pangos, Tyler Ennis and Myck Kabongo, among others.

The question was would Joseph, a part-time player with the San Antonio Spurs the past two seasons, make the job his own? There have been some shaky moments – in the six games Canada played preparing for the FIBA Americas, Joseph (albeit in sporadic playing time) had counted 13 assists and a concerning 13 turnovers.

In Caracas he shone against Jamaica (17 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds against three turnovers); struggled against Puerto Rico’s veteran backcourt (4 points, 3 assists and 2 turnovers on 2-of-10 shooting) and has been dominant since.

Heading into the second round Joseph is averaging a team-best 16.5 points a game, tops among guards in the tournament, is second in the tournament with 5.8 assists while hustling for 6.5 rebounds along the way, all while shooting 50 per cent from the floor and committing just nine turnovers.

“The progress he’s made in a short time is remarkable,” longtime NBA executive Maurizio Gherardini and Canada Basketball fixer said on the phone from Caracas. “He’s a student of the game and of his own game. He’s been very clever about studying his weaknesses and learning the international way to doing things.

2. Canada has a big man tandem to be reckoned with

Andrew Nicholson and Tristan Thompson were a bit of an unknown heading into the event. The pedigree was undeniable – never before has Canada had two NBA first-rounders to start at the power forward and centre spots.

But between them, the pair had as many games with the senior national team as I do. How would they adjust? How would they work together?

The short-term returns have been outstanding. Nicholson has settled comfortably into the kind of scoring role from the four spot that made him a 20-point man at St. Bonaventure before being drafted by Orlando in 2012. He’s averaging 14.8 points a game and shooting 50 per cent from the three-point line – a crucial skill for big men in the international game.

Meanwhile, Thompson is averaging 13 points and eight rebounds while elevating the team with his bottomless well of end-to-end energy. Throw in the fact he’s made 24-of-27 free throws as a newly converted right-handed shooter and Thompson might be the best big man in the tournament, despite struggling to finish at times, as his 39 per cent field goal percentage would indicate.

Given that Nicholson and Thompson are just 23 and 22 respectively, it seems Canada will more than hold its own in the paint at this event for years to come.

3. Canada is deep

At one point during Canada’s win over Uruguay, what had been a 30-point lead was shrinking as the Central American country made a second-half run. No matter. Head coach Jay Triano was able to roll out a second-unit featuring Joel Anthony, Levon Kendall, Aaron Doornekamp, Andy Rautins and Jermaine Anderson.

They just happen to be Canada’s five most experienced international players and more or less the starting lineup from the team that finished fourth at FIBA Americas in 2009 to qualify for the 2010 World Championships.

It’s an asset that’s not to be overlooked – while the likes of Thompson, Nicholson, Joseph and others may represent Canada’s NBA-driven future, the luxury of bringing such quality and international experience off the bench (with the exception of Rautins who has started every game) is exactly the foundation this team needs if it’s to advance to Spain.

4. The wing position remains a challenge

Much of the excitement about competitions to come is that Canada will potentially have blue-chip talents like Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to attack from the wings and create their own highlight reels. It’s staggering to think about. But that won’t come any sooner than next year, and even then Wiggins and Bennett will be playing in their first senior events for Canada, so there will be a learning curve.

Without them and with Carl English – Canada’s leading scorer in the past two FIBA Americas – missing the tournament due to some nagging injuries, Triano has had to juggle.

Brady Heslip has gotten his share of minutes off the bench and, while his offensive game has its delights, the third-year guard from Baylor University is proving to be too small and lacking in the kind of quickness needed to guard wing players who are five and ten years older and universally bigger and stronger.

Devoe Joseph has the quickness but is otherwise undersized and lacking in strength and experience. For some reason Triano has been hesitant to use Jevohn Sheppard for any significant minutes despite a strong showing at training camp and exhibition play. He seems to have settled on Aaron Doornekamp at small forward alongside Rautins at the off-guard spot. It’s working for now, but it’s one place that Canada will need to get more from against better competition.

5. The team is becoming a team

There was some question about how the old guard from the national program would mesh with some of the newer and more high-profile faces. Also, how would the NBA contingent adjust to the less cushy international scene?

“You can tell guys stories,” says Kendall, who has played more than 100 games for Canada, by far the most on the team. “I remember when I first came into the national team you hear all the stories from the other guys and what the game is like and what life is like.”

“Just travelling is a pretty big shock for the NBA guys. They’re used to that private jet with the snack table. They don’t realize when you’re going down to Venezuela that maybe the food’s not great and you have to carry your own bags and you’re on whatever little plane they have. I’ve never been in the NBA but I’ve had a little bit of that in college and it’s a pretty big contrast. It’s a different ball game. “

But telling stories and living them are different things. In some ways Caracas has been a perfect venue for a new team to come together. It’s one of the most violent cities in the world, so there has been little venturing from the hotel compound the teams are staying at and the ring of armed guards that surrounds it. There is no choice but to hang out.

Tuesday’s topsy-turvy day – where the team was schedule to play at 2 p.m., then 3 p.m. and finally 5 p.m. before it was pushed back for good until 10:30 p.m. – gave the group their own crazy international story to tell. That it ended with a blowout win only made it better.

“Our focus has been good,” Gherardini says. “Our chemistry continues to develop. The attitude is very positive, the roles are becoming clearer.

“We are improving.”

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