Canada leaning on versatile Wiggins, Barrett to be game-changers

Canada dominated China 109-79 to improve to 2-0 in Group A action.

VICTORIA, B.C. — It’s a pretty simple concept: Play your best players as much as you can and you’ll have a good chance to win the game.

And in the case of the Canadian national basketball team at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C., it’s looking more like play at least one of your two best players for the whole game and you will win the game.

Over the course of Canada’s first two games at the OQT, if you thought you’ve been seeing a lot of Andrew Wiggins and R.J. Barrett on the court for Team Canada then you would be right.

After two games, either one or both of the two stars have been on the court for all but the last 3:36 of Canada’s 109-79 blowout victory over China on Wednesday, which secured first place for them in Group A and saw them advance to the semifinals of the tournament.

This has been a deliberate decision from Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse because, obviously, Wiggins and Barrett are two of his top dogs and they add a layer of versatility for him to mix and match lineups a little more freely.

“I think they’re probably two of our primary guys, two-way players,” said Nurse after Wednesday’s game. “I think it gives us some versatility to play a little bigger. That’s a pretty good two-guard/small forward combo, whichever way you want to look at it.

“They both can play two, three, four, which enables us to do a lot of things defensively, because they both can handle themselves on the low block defensively, as well. It gives us a chance to bump down big and bump up small, if that makes any sense.”

More so than the defensive versatility they provide, it's a tremendous luxury for Canada to have a legitimate go-to threat on the floor at all times in Barrett and Wiggins given the pressure it puts on opposing defences.

Especially when one of them is rolling the way Wiggins is.

The Vaughan, Ont., native followed up a 23-points-on-16-shots performance Tuesday against Greece with 20 points on just nine field-goal attempts vs. China on Wednesday.

Yes, it’s only been two games, but Wiggins has been putting on a master class in efficiency, not that it’s been any surprise to his teammates.

“I played with Andrew growing up and, of course, in the league, so I know what he's capable of,” said Canadian forward Trey Lyles. “So, for me, personally, this is what I expected of him and it's just up to him to go out there to play and go do it.”

Added Canadian guard Luguentz Dort: “I already know he’s a great player. He’s got a lot of confidence in his game and he can make a lot of good plays. We trust him to make good plays for us and when the game is on the line we might go to him to make a big play for us. He’s good for that, to take big shots like that. We’ll just trust him, we’ll get him the ball and then we just play as a team.”

The praise Dort heaped upon Wiggins can also apply to Barrett, who wasn’t very efficient Wednesday, shooting just 5-of-14 from the floor, but still finished with 16 points as he remained aggressive going to the free-throw line and hitting his open looks from three.

There’s a level of comfort with these Canadians in Victoria that’s uncharacteristic of past teams, and a big part of that appears to be because this is a squad confident in its ability to score the ball.

Wiggins and Barrett are a large part of that, as are almost all of the other players on this roster.

“I think everybody can score,” said Lyles. “(Wiggins and Barrett) are good scorers, but I think Nickeil (Alexander-Walker’s) a good scorer, I can score, Dwight (Powell) is a good low-post player. So I think when we have any of those guys on the floor we'll be able to score the ball.”

During Wednesday’s game, Canada had seven different players score in double-digits, so this team obviously has a lot of offensive talent to go around, but the combination of probably the team’s two best players — Wiggins and Barrett — always on the floor — with the exception of the garbage time that was played at the end of Wednesday’s game, of course — looks like a real game-changer for Canada.

Opposing defences always need to account for one of these lethal weapons on the Canadian side, which opens up so much more for everyone else on the floor for Canada.

This Canadian team is just two more wins away from reaching its goal, and chances are, if they do end up meeting it, it’ll be one of or both Wiggins and Barrett leading the charge for the team.

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