Canada's Olympic Qualifying roster filled with talent despite absences

Team Canada's head coach Nick Nurse discusses where he sees this team's identity so far from the early days of training camp, and why it will always start on the defensive end.

TORONTO – Shrouded in an air of mystery and full of speculation of supposed sightings on social media, the training-camp roster of the Canadian men’s national basketball team, ahead of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria starting next week, has been a hot topic of discussion among Canadian hoops diehards.

On Monday, the fog covering who was at Team Canada camp and who wasn’t was finally lifted as Canada Basketball unveiled its 19-player training camp roster.

Some notable NBA names that aren’t in camp are Dillon Brooks, Oshae Brissett, Brandon Clarke, Kelly Olynyk, Khem Birch and Tristan Thompson.

Circumstances with real life and players’ contract statuses are all factors that go into the decision of playing for Team Canada or not, so these six men’s commitments to the program shouldn’t be questioned.

Besides, of the 19 that are in camp, the 12 players that will try to qualify Canada for the Olympics will still likely end up making up the most talented roster the Canadian men’s basketball program has ever assembled.

Right now in camp, there are eight NBA players (Nickeil Alexander-Walker, RJ Barrett, Luguentz Dort, Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles, Mychal Mulder, Dwight Powell, Andrew Wiggins), a host of good pros playing in leagues around the world and some younger, exciting college-aged kids who are likely in camp to get some reps with the senior team in advance of the Under-19 World Cup starting on July 3.

At the start of camp last week, Canada Basketball men’s team general manager Rowan Barrett said that all the players in camp had made a commitment to remain with the team all the way through Aug. 7, so if you’re still upset or disappointed that a certain player isn’t in camp with the team you’d better get over it fast, because this pool of 19 looks like is going to be it, and all attention should now shift to what this group might be able to accomplish.

“It has nothing to do with me right now,” said Barrett on Monday in regards to the level of commitment he’s got assembling this roster. “The players win games, the coaches execute, they put them in the places to do their thing, I work in the background to do what we can.

“Ultimately, we're judged on our performance. Right now, our focus is on how do we succeed in the OQT and get our team to the Olympics. This is our first goal this summer. It's a big one, and let's go do it.”

To that end, while Canada will certainly be talented, the preparation job this team is undergoing will, perhaps, have to be that much more intense, as this is a collection of players who haven’t played much together competing against programs that, on paper, may not look as tough as Canada, but have plenty of experience in big-time international competitions as a unit such as Greece, the Czech Republic and Turkey.

Therefore, as camp progresses, this is a team that will have to build chemistry and cohesion with each other.

“I would say it's probably just a lack of communication, because then you don't really know what guys are like,” said Canadian guard Alexander-Walker of some of the challenges of building chemistry. “If you’re just playing based off guessing or what you're used to and it's two different things, you might have something where some guy goes to back cut and you throw a pass and it goes out of bounds. So, I think any time things like that happen, we communicate it, we tell each other what we'd like to do or in that situation, I'll do this. Just for that next time, if it does occur, if it does pop up, we're ahead of it and we handle it.

“You just kind of let experience take its place and then from there you kind of learn from and grow from it, but each time making sure that you're taking advantage of that to learn, to grow. And Coach has done a great job of stopping, making points and saying if that happens, this is what we'll do, or this happens next time try to do this. And so I think a lot of us are starting to catch on that and it's helping.”

Added Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse: “Interestingly enough that we're on this topic, it was a point of emphasis for us, we thought that we noticed our communication was very good – this is common – it was very early in possessions, and as possessions wore on, when you're fighting hard for an entire possession, you've got to keep communicating, you've got to play through the entire possession defensively and you've got to keep communicating.”

Unlike other nations, like Greece who has already played multiple friendlies, Canada doesn’t have the luxury of warm-up games to work out kinks before the tournament, so everything must be put together on the practice court. This includes scouting possible opponents Canada will see in the tournament and practising specific coverages for those teams.

More so than anything else, however, Nurse emphasized that, for this team to find success, it’ll be paramount for it to just be itself and to try to make its opponents adapt to its identity instead of the other way around.

“We’ve got to be who we are, we’ve got to forge our own identity and be who we are and to the best of our ability be really comfortable in our own identity, that’s one thing,” said Nurse. “Hopefully that’s concerning to [our opponents], or troubling to them where we can make it an issue a little bit.”

And in case you aren’t sure what Canada’s identity is, exactly, Nurse was kind enough to remind everyone.

“There’s some components about who we are, I’ve mentioned them already but I’ll mention them again: There’s some defence, I think there’s got to be some sharing of the ball aspect and an intelligence of where the ball’s going and how we’re operating at the offensive end. The third component is how together, connected (we are), the heart, the passion, all those things have to be a part of our identity as well.”

The time for hand-wringing and griping about who’s not there for Canada is over. This is the team -- and while it isn't the full dream roster everyone wants to see, it is still tremendously talented.

And more than just a collection of talent, this is a squad that’s genuinely trying to come together as a true team.

“I'm really happy to see us from when we were younger, and had these dreams of being here, and now being here. So that's pretty cool,” said Alexander-Walker. “Just this whole opportunity. Like I said, I can't be any more thankful to represent my country, especially with the great group of players as well.”

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