Mission accomplished — or at least Stage 1 of the mission.
The senior men’s national team will spread to the four corners of the globe having swept both games from the Bahamas and to get off on the right foot in qualifying for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Canada is 2-0 in Group C after following up their 42-point win over Bahamas on Sunday with a 113-77 win in the second game.
The next qualifying window is Feb. 24-28, so it will be nicer for all concerned to sit on a pair of strong wins for the next three months than the alternative.
Canada was a big favourite and played like it. Their plus-78 point differential could be helpful too in any tiebreaker scenarios.
It was tougher than Sunday’s game with the Bahamas pushing the pace and hurting Canada in transition and on the offensive glass. It was a 12-point game at half and an eight-point game early in the third quarter before Canada separated themselves with an 18-4 run that carried them home.
Kyle Wiltjer led Canada in scoring once again as he put up 25 points in 25 minutes, but he had help as Canada shot 17-of-34 from deep with seven different players counting at least one triple. Canada held Bahamas to just 40 per cent shooting in the second half.
• There are some merits to the current qualifying format – the soccer-style windows format that spreads the competition over a couple of years compared to the old method where teams would gather for a two-week “Tournament of the Americas” to determine who advanced to the World Cup the following summer. The current version allows more players and coaches to be exposed to the national team program and it helps keep the international conversation going throughout the year, compared to loading it all into the summers.
But man, does it have flaws, and they impact Canada more than any other country as their pros have to travel from Europe and back for a pair of games. It’s no big deal for European teams to assemble during the qualifying windows. How tough was it for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national team to travel to Bulgaria, or the Netherlands to huff it to Italy? Not that tough.
But how would you like to be Canada’s Anthony Bennett stuffing his 6-foot-8, 270-pound frame into a plane for a 14,230 km trip back to his club team in Jerusalem from Santo Domingo? Or 6-foot-9 Wiltjer buckling up to meet his Turkish team in Spain? Or Kenny Chery and Phil Scrubb sorting out their itinerary from the 13,000 km trip from the Dominican Republic to Saratov, Russia?
That’s why I never take for granted when Canadian athletes make the effort to play for the national team in these windows. It’s no small commitment.
• During the qualifying process for the 2019 World Cup, Canada used 35 different players over six different windows, spread over 15 months. The depth of your program is key. That’s why it was so impressive to see the way the likes of Aaron Best, Kassius Robertson and Bennett played coming off the bench for head coach Nate Bjorkgren.
Best has a G-League season under his belt and has played in some good leagues in Europe but is without a contract at the moment. You wouldn’t know it as Best followed up his 21-point outing Sunday with 10 points and three steals in his 20 minutes; Robertson is a “never leave him” type of deep threat who shot 6-of-13 from three while putting up 24 points over the two games and Bennett chipped in eight points, eight rebounds and a pair of assists Monday, playing easily and unselfishly off the bench.
Who knows if any of the trio will be part of the World Cup team in 2023, but Canada will need those kinds of contributions to get there.
• It’s hard to get easily accessible information on FIBA competition — or at least information that’s easily compiled — so I’m not sure exactly how many games Phil and Tommy Scrubb have played for Canada, but it’s a lot. And so often they deliver.
While Wiltjer has grabbed his share of his attention for his knack for scoring at better than a point per minute and Chery was excellent in both games, Phil Scrubb was quietly superb and brother Tom at his understated best on Monday. Phil followed up his 11 assists on Sunday with a “perfect” game as he made all five of his field-goal attempts including three triples and made a pair of free throws while adding three more assists. Tom had 10 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block in his 20 minutes.
The guys know how to play and Canada is lucky to have them.
• I was really impressed with Wiltjer’s passing, which is saying something given he scored 48 points in 45 minutes on 61 per cent shooting (including 60 per cent from three) over the two games.
He had only two assists Monday, but Bahamas ran doubles at him early and often, and he got off the ball with purpose and it unlocked the Canadian offence. Several times it wasn’t his pass that led to an assist, but his quick first look that scrambled the defence and led to an open shot or lane a pass or two later.
When someone as automatic as Wiltjer can be also such a willing passer, it makes life easier for all concerned.
• The Toronto Raptors and parent company MLSE’s commitment to Canada Basketball is no small thing. From lending facilities for training to helping with marketing efforts to chipping in with funding, Canada’s NBA team has been a significant partner for the national federation.
But it’s not just in money or goods-in-kind. Having Raptors head coach Nick Nurse as the national team coach is meaningful, both for his expertise and the resources he can leverage. And it’s no small thing either that Nurse and the club would be okay to have NBA assistants Bjorkgren and Nate Mitchell leave the Raptors for a week in the middle of the season to coach in the qualifying windows – a duty Bjorkgren and Mitchell will take up again in February.
And now? Back to their day jobs. They’ll be on a flight first thing Tuesday morning and head straight to Scotiabank Arena where the Raptors host Memphis on — fittingly — Canada Basketball night.