Andrew Nicholson was relaxing on vacation in Bali, Indonesia with his fiancée in late January, enjoying the five-day break that the Chinese New Year celebration afforded him from his duties with the Guangzhou Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association when he got the call.
Due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus emanating from Wuhan, China, the CBA would shut down operations as part of a number of government strategies to minimize the spread of the infection.
“They called us and told us they were postponing the season until like April,” said Nicholson, who is in the midst of his third campaign in the CBA after five NBA seasons spent in Orlando, Washington and Brooklyn. “We could either stay in Bali or come home so I decided to come home.”
First, they needed to return to China to gather their belongings and it was clear that things were changing rapidly.
“I knew it was pretty serious, especially when they cancelled the league,” said Nicholson. “Guangzhou itself was a ghost town when we went back.”
His return to Toronto coincided with a moment of need for the Canadian men’s national team who open qualifying for the AmeriCup with a home-and-home series on Friday night in Oshawa, Ont., at Ontario Tech University and Durham College, and Monday in Santa Domingo.
Since the NBA and the top leagues in Europe don’t release their players for FIBA’s in-season qualifying windows, rosters have to be sourced elsewhere.
Having a national team veteran and elite international scorer like Nicholson already in Toronto with time on his hands was a bonus.
“It’s such a coincidence. I was home, I need to keep fit for when they call us back (to the CBA), it was a good opportunity to do it,” said Nicholson.
“Being in China it would have been hard to (make it back) do so I told them ‘no’ earlier but now I’m here so I thought, why not?”
It doesn’t hurt that Nicholson has evolved into arguably the most successful Canadian professional outside the NBA.
In three seasons in the CBA – one of the most lucrative leagues in the world for imports – Nicholson has put up some eye-popping numbers. This season he’s averaging 26.2 points and 10.4 rebounds a game while shooting 53.3 per cent from the floor.
Even more impressive? The six-foot-nine Nicholson leads the CBA in three-point shooting, knocking them down at a rate of 49.4 per cent on more than six attempts a game, an aspect of his game he rarely got to demonstrate as a borderline rotation player in the NBA.
“It was always there,” he said his of ability to stretch the floor – a perfect complement to his already proven track-record as a low-post threat.
“I’ve always worked on it. I’ve always been able to do it and I’m showing it … being over there gave me a lot more confidence. I had coaches that trusted me and gave me an opportunity. I didn’t really have that in the league, most of the time.”
At age 30, he’s at the peak of his game and enjoying every minute of his experience overseas.
“It’s the best time,” he said.
Guangzhou is an international city of 16 million about 90 minutes from Hong Kong with a climate comparable to Florida. The money is good and Nicholson has been in demand, signing new deals each of his three seasons in China with the ability to choose his next destination.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had playing basketball,” he said. “Being able to go out there freely and have a good time, you know?”
The mind reels at what an out-of-the-box thinker, such as national team head coach Nick Nurse could do with a lineup featuring a big man who could shoot nearly 50 per cent from deep on high volume. While Orlando Magic centre Khem Birch has committed to play and sharp-shooting power-forward Kyle Wiltjer – enjoying a breakout year in Europe – is a likely holdover from the team Nurse took to the world championships last September.
Having Nicholson back in a Canadian uniform for the AmeriCup qualifiers could end up being more than simply a lucky coincidence for the national team program as they look ahead to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C., from June 23 to 28 and – should they win that six-team event – a potential berth in the Tokyo Games.
While men’s program general manager Rowan Barrett has made great strides this past winter, earning commitments for the OQT from a slew of Canada’s top NBA talent, there are some concerns about depth upfront.
Dallas Mavericks big man Dwight Powell is out of consideration after tearing his Achilles tendon, while Cleveland Cavaliers veteran centre Tristan Thompson will be a free agent as of July 1 and almost certainly won’t be available for the qualifying tournament. Similarly, national team veteran Kelly Olynyk of the Miami Heat could be a free agent if he opts out of the last year of contract.
His choices after that have talent but limited international experience or track record with the senior men’s team: Memphis Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke; Los Angeles Clippers rookie Mfiondu Kabengele and San Antonio Spurs power forward Trey Lyles.
Nicholson’s international experience runs deep. The former St. Bonaventure star and 19th pick in the 2012 NBA draft has been a constant with the program before a brief falling out that seems to have been patched over.
“It’s great having Andrew back in the fold,” said Barrett. “He’s played many, many years for Canada, even during his time in the NBA, he’s consistently shown up for his country.
“Travelling (from China) in-season is really hard, especially for the big guys, so it’s definitely a little fortuitous that’s he’s able to be here many days in advance, acclimatize, and all that, and he’s looked really, really good (in training).
“He can shoot, he can score on the block, he’s got a wide array of moves. We’re glad he’s on our side.”
After playing well for Canada as they won silver at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and at the 2015 Tournament of the Americas in Mexico City, where Canada just missed qualifying for the 2016 Olympics, left out of World Cup Qualifying in the summer of 2018.
He wasn’t happy about it.
It’s a scenario that will be played out over and over again given the growing pool of elite Canadian pros and the reality of a 12-man international roster.
“This is the part that’s hard, this is the part that’s difficult,” said Barrett who starred for Canada in their last Olympic appearance in 2000. “I played on the national team and I can remember not making it one year and, of course, it’s going to sting. If you love your country and you care and you really want to play, not making a team is going to sting.
“I would expect that and if it didn’t happen I would be shocked that there wasn’t some sting that flowed from that.”
Said Nicholson of his relationship with Canada Basketball: “We had our differences, but I’m back now. I’ve always loved playing for the national team, I’ve come every single year, so it’s good to be back.”
So keep Nicholson’s name in the pool as the crucial OQT rounds into view, although there is one complicating factor: He’s planning a wedding in Cabo, Mexico on June 20.
An interrupted beach vacation helped bring Nicholson back to the national team, a more significant one could prove an obstacle this time around.
“I do love (playing for Canada) but this summer for me is going to be tough,” he said. “I’m getting married so I have to get permission.
“(But) if she gives me the go-ahead, why not?”
It may not be Bali, or Cabo, but if it’s any consolation the weather in Victoria is typically very nice in June.