Andrew Wiggins’ commitment to play for Canada significant in multiple ways

Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins (22). (Brandon Dill/AP)

In the dank hallways of the Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico City, a then 20-year-old Andrew Wiggins put words on a dream that in his own quiet way he’s been chasing since he made basketball the focus of his prodigious athletic talent as a middle schooler.

His father, Mitch Wiggins, was the former NBA player, who played alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and helped the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals. The youngest of his three sons followed his footsteps to the league when he became to No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.

But it was his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, whose accomplishments carried just as much weight in their house. The Canadian sprint star won two silver medals at the 1984 Olympics as part of the 100m and 400m relay teams, and just missed out on a bronze medal in the 400m, her specialty, although she still holds the Canadian record in the event. She represented Canada at the 1988 Olympics as well.

Wiggins was in Mexico City to help the Canadian men’s national team qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and with Canada only needing a win over seemingly over-matched Venezuela in the semifinals of the Tournament of the Americas, it looked it was bound to happen.

“It’s one of my goals, to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” said Wiggins at the time.

We know how that worked out. In one of the most painful defeats a Canadian team has ever endured in any sport, a young and talented group coached by Jay Triano blew a late lead and lost on a phantom foul with no time on the clock.

It was an excruciating moment that set back a men’s program that seemed on the cusp of an extended run of international success in countless ways, and it seemed to shake the bond Wiggins had developed with Canada Basketball going back to the bronze medal Canada’s u17 team had won at the 2010 World Championships.

Wiggins didn’t play for Canada at last-chance Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the summer of 2016; didn’t play when the national team played World Cup qualifying games in the summer of 2018 and declined the opportunity to play at the World Cup in 2019 in China where finishing first or second among teams from the Americas would have meant an Olympic berth for 2020. Wiggins was just one of several NBA players who opted not to play at the World Cup, and instead of setting the stage for Olympic glory, an undermanned Canadian team was seventh among Americas group and 21st overall in the 32-team event.

But it looks like Wiggins’ national team hiatus may be over, and just in time as Canada prepares for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria from June 29 to July 4.

The mission is simple: win and they earn one of the remaining spots in the 12-team Olympic field in Tokyo, a first for Canada’s men’s team at the Olympics since 2000.

The Golden State Warriors wing, coming off the best season of his career, announced his plans to play for the national team this summer with a typically understated post on Instagram.

It carried a powerful message.

“I think it’s good,” said men’s national team general manager and Canada Basketball general manager Rowan Barrett, who has been working tirelessly to field commitments from a deep pool of talent in the NBA and beyond. “It shows that he has a desire to play for his country and to help his country stake their claim this summer.”

“I don’t think there’s any question about what he can bring,” said Barrett. “The versatility he has at 6-8 with a tremendous wingspan and with the focus he has on defence now will help us. And as an offensive player, it’s clear. He’s got a career average of 20 points a game in the NBA. Clearly he can score the ball.”

Having Wiggins declare himself available for head coach Nick Nurse is a boost on several levels.

It sends a strong signal to the rest of Canada’s top talent that the team that will be in Victoria and — presuming they can win the six-team event — Tokyo will be a contender, one capable of winning the country’s first medal since the silver Canada won in 1936 when the games were played outside and on dirt.

And it’s a victory for Barrett and the rest of the national team leadership that have been working behind the scenes for nearly two years now to keep Canada’s Olympic goals in the minds of a pool of over 30 potential players spread all over the world.

Before the pandemic, Barrett was travelling regularly to be able to meet with players in person, keeping in touch, saying a kind word or simply being present — the kind of soft-sell diplomacy required to help build and maintain a connection for professional athletes that have careers, contracts and family concerns to balance before committing to use significant portions of their off-season to play internationally.

That effort could soon pay off, if Wiggins’s commitment is any indication.

A formal list of training camp invitees will likely be announced sometime this week with the OQT barely a month out, but Wiggins’ announcement builds momentum. Among the other players that have indicated they plan to play are Lu Dort, Dillon Brooks, RJ Barrett and Khem Birch.

But things can change rapidly.

How the roster rounds out will depend on how the NBA playoffs shake out, given the OQT conflicts with the Conference Finals. Barrett, Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Tristan Thompson and Dwight Powell are on teams with goals to get that far at least.

Contracts will be a factor too, as national team veteran Kelly Olynyk is a free agent, as is Birch, while Cory Joseph only has a partial guarantee on his deal for next season. Kevin Pangos — arguably the best point guard in Europe — is also a pending free agent

Several other potentials candidates — from Indiana Pacers forward Oshae Brissett to Wiggins’ Warriors teammate Mychal Mulder — are on non-guaranteed deals for next season.

Injuries are another wild card. Already ruled out is Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray, with a torn ACL, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was shut down by Oklahoma City for the last 29 games of the season due to plantar fasciitis. Given the unpredictability of that injury and that the OKC star has a chance to sign a maximum extension this summer — but not until after Aug. 2 — it’s probably unwise to bank on his availability for Victoria at least.

All of which makes Wiggins’s commitment so significant. Not only is he healthy, under contract and coming off a season considered his best — he averaged 18.6 a game while setting career marks for shooting efficiency and fitting in well as part of the Warrior’s fifth-ranked defence — his willingness to put his name out there will send a strong message to the rest of Canada’s player pool: Let’s get it done.

Wiggins’ Olympic dream was deferred in 2015, but six years later he’s putting himself out there in an effort to make it happen.

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