In 2022 and beyond, the future for Canadian basketball is endlessly bright

Former Toronto Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald joins Brad Fay and Sherman Hamilton to discuss the growth of basketball in Canada.

Here’s to new beginnings.

The Canadian basketball calendar has always operated on four-year cycles, tied to the summer Olympics.

That got thrown off due to the pandemic. The summer of 2021 was really supposed to be the summer of 2020.

And now 2022 – rather than being a typical post-Olympic year where programs can regroup and build toward a distant goal – is more of a base camp from where the men’s and women’s programs can briefly gather before attempting the next two not-so-distant summits: the 2022/2023 World Cup tournaments and the 2024 Olympics.

There is everything to look forward to for fans of Canadian basketball in 2022 and beyond.

The executive summary?

On the women’s and men’s side, Canada has arguably never been better positioned to breakthrough on the international stage and bring home medals at the highest level of the sport.

But like any summit attempt, the going can be treacherous, the conditions unpredictable and the outcome ultimately dependent on elements beyond the program’s control, even though under new chief executive officer Michael Bartlett everything is being done on the business side grow revenues, reinvest and control what they can.

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Before we look ahead, a quick review:

With gains come expectations and by that measure there’s no escaping that 2021 was marked more by disappointment than triumph.

This was supposed to be a moment in the distant future when Canadian basketball was going to finally be recognized on the world stage as a global power.

That was the long-term vision nearly a decade ago when Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett gazed out upon the coming wave of Canadian hoops talent and saw a group in their prime, ready to lead the charge against the world’s best.

We all know how that worked out. After a short-handed team failed to earn an Olympic berth at the FIBA basketball World Cup in 2019, a significant effort was made by a local group in Victoria to host the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the summer of 2020.

It was envisioned as a festival for the sport, a galvanizing moment for the national program on home soil and a source of momentum for head coach Nick Nurse’s team that would propel them to the Olympics. Unfortunately, the pandemic pushed everything back a year and the OQT in Victoria was played under significant restrictions and a mostly empty arena, without any significant ancillary events.

Whether any of that was a factor in the men’s semi-final loss to Czech Republic we’ll never know, but when Tomas Satoransky’s leaning, bank shot over the outstretched fingers of Lu Dort fell in, the painful truth remained: The Canadian men would mis the Olympics for the fifth straight time and the sixth time in seven chances, dating back to 1992.

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On the women’s side, there was a different type of disappointment. An experienced team that was heading to their third straight Olympic tournament with a No. 4 world ranking and plans for a medal came up short.

Canadian basketball file folders are full of excruciating losses, but the women losing their tournament opener to Serbia despite forcing 28 turnovers (to 16 of their own) and having 11 more field goal attempts should be filed somewhere near the top. The loss put Canada in tough position in a tough group, and they fell short of the medal round when they lost to Spain even though they were plus-11 in offensive rebounds, plus-eight in shots and plus-three in turnovers.

The common thread? In two critical games sandwiched around a blowout win over Korea, Canada shot 38 per cent from the floor, including 28 per cent from deep, and didn’t help their cause with 67 per cent free-throw shooting either.

But all of that is in the past and the future starts now with a busy slate of international events – the possibility of a new domestic summer tournament for under-22 talent that would allow Canadians the opportunity to play at home while representing their country, among them. As well, the NCAA tournament will undoubtedly feature Canadians playing key roles on powerhouse teams while the NBA draft will certainly have a Canadian flavour as well.

Lisa Thomaidis looks on as Canada plays China in the preliminary round of women’s basketball action at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016 (Sean Kilpatrick/CP).

The women’s program (amicably) parted ways with head coach Lisa Thomaidis, a constant with the senior team for two decades and one of the most successful coaches Canada has ever had, with two Olympic appearances and a fifth-place finish at the World Championships on her resume.

The search for her successor is on-going, with interest from coaches all over the world looking to attach themselves to an experienced team that can still look to a future buoyed by the obvious promise of youngsters like Laeticia Amihere, Aaliyah Edwards and Shaina Pellington.

The first test of the women’s next phase comes in February when they travel to Tokyo, Feb. 8-10, for a World Cup Qualifying event in a pool with host Japan, ranked No. 8 in the World, along with Belarus (11th) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (27th).

The top three teams will advance to the 12-team World Cup scheduled for Sept. 22-Oct. 1 in Sydney, Australia.

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Normally you would expect Canada to be a lock to move on, led by WNBA stalwarts Natalie Achonwa, Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton. But these aren’t normal times.

In addition to having a new – as yet unnamed – coach, they will be trying to qualify without Nurse, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in early October. Missing also will be veterans Miranda Ayim and Kim Gaucher, who have retired. As well, it’s unlikely that Canada’s top NCAA talent – Amihere, Edwards and Pellington – will be available given the OQT falls during the most critical phase of the college basketball season.

Canada should be a medal threat at the World Cup – more so if Nurse can be back in form by then – but getting there shouldn’t be taken for granted.

On the men’s side, they will be working to build on the impressive start in qualifying for the 2023 World Cup. The expectation is that the bulk of the group what went 2-0 in blowout wins over Bahamas in November will be available for the next window when they will be heavy favourites against the Dominican Republic (Feb. 24) and the U.S. Virgin Islands (Feb. 27), and again on July 1 and July 4 when they play both teams again, except at home. The first window of the next phase – Aug. 25–29 – will also likely be in Canada before another road swing in November.

While the men are prohibitive favourites to advance to the World Cup in 2023, the summer windows will offer a more significant test for the program.

Who will play?

Nick-Nurse Canada’s head coach Nick Nurse is pictured before FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 exhibition game action against Nigeria, in Toronto on Wednesday August 7, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)

When Nurse committed to coach the men’s team through the 2024 Olympics, he made clear he and general manager Barrett would prioritize continuity over star power when it comes to the on-again, off-again relationship so many of Canada’s top NBA players have had with the program. Want to play in the Olympics? Showing up in the summers of ’22 and ’23 would be required, was the message.

How deeply that resonated among Canada’s top players will get its first test this summer.

On the youth side, the train keeps rolling. Canada’s age-group programs are among the most prolific in the world, with the boys carrying a cumulative ranking of No. 2 and the girls No. 4 as they begin qualifying for World championships scheduled for 2023.

Once again, it looks like Canada will be well represented during the NCAA tournament, with Olympians Amihere, Pellington and Edwards playing key roles on South Carolina, Arizona and UConn, programs ranked first, fourth and 11th, respectively, in the latest polls.

On the men’s side Zach Edey, Andrew Nembhard and Ben Mathurin are essential pieces at Purdue, Gonzaga, and Arizona, programs respectively ranked third, fourth, and ninth.

Come time for the NBA draft in June, it’s likely those three, along with Caleb Houston at Michigan, will represent that latest class of Canadians to be among the 60 names called out.

Canadian basketball’s future remains endlessly bright, but in 2022 it will be time to begin turning promise into results.

It’s time to begin something new.


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