Grange: The lowdown on Team Canada

San Antonio Spurs guard Cory Joseph. (AP/Martin Mejia)

Thursday night marked the start of what could, and should, be the most exciting era ever for the Canadian men’s national team as the squad begins to build toward the 2016 Olympics and beyond.

The two-game series against the Jamaican national team at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre Thursday and Saturday was the debut of the new-look program under the executive leadership of former national team stars Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett along with head coach Jay Triano.

Canada got off to a good start with a 81-72 win over Jamaica.

Here’s a primer on what else to look for and why it matters:

1. What’s at stake (i): Canada’s best result at a major international tournament in the modern era are a pair of fourth-place finishes at the Olympic Games in 1976 and 1984. They’ve qualified for one Olympics since, back in 2000, where they finished seventh.

From that point on, the program has been in the doldrums, beset by money problems and organizational deficiencies. In the meantime the sport has mushroomed globally with Canada falling far behind even as the grassroots passion for the sport has bloomed. The disconnect between what was happening to the game on a local level and the floundering internationally was tough to take for anyone who cared about basketball in the country.

With an unprecedented wave of talent arriving – inspired by the NBA in Canada, Nash’s success and the megawatt stardom of Vince Carter in his early Toronto Raptor days — the goal now is to build a sustainable program that can compete for a medal at the Olympics and World Championships. Nash and Barrett came on board 18 months ago; Triano was re-hired and the rubber hits the hardwood tonight.

2. What’s at stake (ii): Qualifying for the World Cup of Basketball (aka: the world championships) in Spain next summer. These two games are part of the preparation for the FIBA Americans tournament in Caracas, Venezuela Aug. 30-Sept. 11. The top-four teams in Caracas qualify.

3. Getting to the World’s is important because… : Canada’s best players are young: Andrew Wiggins is projected to be the first pick overall in the 2014 NBA draft but just finished high school. Anthony Bennett, the No.1 pick in 2013 has yet to play an NBA game, as has Kelly Olynyk, the No.13 pick. Tristan Thompson (22) and Andrew Nicholson (23) are making their senior national team debuts Thursday. Cory Joseph, 21, has just 57 NBA games under his belt. Logically the core of this team will be at it’s peak for the next Olympic cycle in 2020. That said, they can be a threat in 2016 in Brazil – they could start five first-round NBA picks — but getting international experience now is essential. If they fail to qualify this summer, next summer becomes a wasted opportunity from a development point of view and also would hamper efforts to raise corporate support; less than ideal with Olympic qualifying around the corner in 2015. Getting to Spain would be a great kick-start to the new era in every way.

4. Is Andrew Wiggins playing?: No, he’s not. Wiggins, who was at the game last night, elected to use the summer to recover from a whirlwind final high school season when the uber-talent from Thornhill, Ont. became the talk of basketball. He will gain some rare downtime in advance of what promises to be an even crazier year at Kansas University as he competes to be the No.1 pick in the draft in 2014. He has given every sign of being committed to play for Canada long-term and was part of the initial team meeting Triano and Nash held before national team training camp began last week.

5. Who else is missing?: The only other absentees are Bennett, the No.1 pick of the Cavaliers and Olynyk, who will suit up for the Boston Celtics and Robert Sacre of the Los Angeles Lakers. Bennett is recovering from shoulder surgery and Olynyk has been shut down due to plantar fasciitis. Sacre declined to play, though he was projected as the third centre at best. Of the three Olynyk is the biggest loss only because his perimeter skills as a seven-footer are tailor-made from the pick-and-roll game that is such a big part of international basketball.

6. How good is this team now?: They will enter FIBA Americas as the 26th-ranked team in the world and the 6th in the Americas, although they gain a spot because the USA – defending Olympic champions – won’t be there. Canada needs to finish in the top-four to make it to Spain with the stiffest competition coming from Brazil, Argentina, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The team features depth at all five positions and a good mix of NBA players – Thompson, Andrew Nicholson, Joseph and Joel Anthony – with some capable veterans of international basketball, including Jermaine Anderson, Carl English, Levon Kendall, Jevohn Shepherd and Andy Rautins, who are holdovers from the team that finished fourth at the 2009 FIBA Americas championship. This is a team that should qualify and could contend to for a medal this summer depending on who plays for the other countries (Brazil, for example will likely be without the likes of NBA bigs Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao).

7. Strengths: Joseph and Anderson should provide a capable 40 minutes at point guard while Thompson and Anthony are proven rim-protecting bigs that can rebound the ball at both ends and run the floor. The team is deep enough that the falloff from the first to the second unit should be negligible. Rautins led Canada in scoring in 2009 and shot 44 per cent from behind the three-point line in the NBA development league last season while English led the ACB league in scoring while playing for Estudiantes in Spain.

8. Question marks?: A big one is how capable this team will be shooting the ball from the perimeter. International teams will zone teams that are more athletic and force them to shoot their way out of trouble. Big men that can shoot are essential and if Thompson and Anthony have a weakness it’s that neither are strong perimeter shooters, at least by international standards. For this reason, expect Andrew Nicholson to be a key element for the team this summer. He is the team’s best shooting big man and will be an important factor for that reason and even a potential team MVP. Similarly, good health from Rautins and English is key.

9. Health?: Always the x-factor. So far the team has gotten through the first week of training relatively unscathed. The biggest question mark is English, who has some leg and back issues that have kept him from scrimmaging so far. The team is planning to monitor him for the next week and if there is continued improvement will likely include him on the 12-man roster for Venezuela. Otherwise all systems are go, for now.

10. What are biggest position battles?: There are 17 players in camp and Triano expects to take 14 to Puerto Rico for the Tuto Marchand Cup — a five-team tune-up event — before cutting down to 12 for FIBA Americas. Health permitting, Joseph and Anderson are locks at point guard; Rautins and English at shooting guard while the big man rotation should feature Thompson, Anthony, Kendall and Nicholson. At small forward Jevohn Sheppard has impressed, which makes nine and Kris Joseph, who saw time with the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets last year, should bring some offensive punch and perimeter shooting to that position, though there are concerns about his conditioning as he’s been nicked up in camp. The battle for the third guard spot will be a tight one between Devoe Joseph (brother of Cory) and Phil Scrubb of Carleton, with Brady Heslip getting some consideration due to his deep range. The fifth forward spot will likely come down to a choice between national team vet Aaron Doornekamp, who is recovering from ankle surgery, and Kyle Landry who had a solid year in Russia.

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