With core pieces in place, Canada Basketball knows commitment is key to a World Cup ticket

The first step on the road to Paris began with a pair of practices for the Canadian men’s senior national team on Monday and, most importantly, just about everyone took it together.

Ostensibly, this week of practices are in preparation for Canada’s game on Friday against the Dominican Republic at home in Hamilton and then on Monday away against Virgin Islands to close out the first round of qualifying for the 2023 FIBA World Cup of Basketball. Canada leads Group C with a 4-0 record.

But, bigger picture, it represents the first gathering of Canada Basketball’s ‘summer core’: the list of 14 players who have agreed to commit to playing for Canada this summer in World Cup qualifying, next summer at the World Cup and — if everything goes to plan — at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, presuming Canada advances to the tournament for the first time since the Sydney Games in 2000 and just the second time since 1988 in Seoul.

With the notable exception of Memphis Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks, everyone who was supposed to be in Toronto for the four-day camp will be there. Canada Basketball’s understanding with the players who have agreed to be part of the ‘summer core’ is that they need to be present for practices and meetings, though family or business matters may take precedence, and that injuries and the like may preclude them from actually competing.

As an example, Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray was on the floor at the OVO Athletic Centre on Monday, participating in some light drill work in the morning session. It’s unlikely that Murray — who missed all of last season with a torn ACL — will make his first competitive appearance in 15 months playing for Canada against the Dominican, but having him on the floor, walking through drills and sitting in on meetings is a signal of his commitment to helping get Canada back to the Olympics.

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“That’s the point, right? The point is to have them here. If you’re on the team and you’re committed you need to be here,” said men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett. “I’ve dealt with NBA players for many, many years and they do not do anything they do not want to do. So if they’re here it’s because they want to be here. We don’t pay them. They’re here because they love their country, they want to be a part of this and they believe in what we can be when we’re all together.

“… I think also it’s important for them to see and understand the sets that we’re running, see it up close, sit in the team meetings, listen philosophically to what [the coaching staff] wants and what we’re doing as opposed to waiting until you’re actually gonna take the floor to start.”

It’s not exactly a hard line, but the expectation is that the players who make the commitment up front and follow through by participating in training windows will be guaranteed to be part of the program at the World Cup and the Olympics. Those that haven’t made the commitment — like Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins — or haven’t followed through, such as Brooks, will have to hope a spot opens up due to injury or other circumstance when the time comes.

The hope is that it should all make for a more connected group when they’re tasked with qualifying for the Olympics at the World Cup next summer and — ideally — at the Olympic tournament itself.

“I feel good about it. I feel like we’re further along for sure,” said national team head coach Nick Nurse, who is entering his third summer with the program and benefitting from the growing familiarity. “Just a few little things that I’ve been out there talking about this morning, you can just see them saying, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that’s part of what they do.’ Just simple offensive rebounding things and defensive transition things. I certainly feel like we’ve got just about everyone who’s been through with us. That’s good.”

Every little bit helps. Canada had just missed out qualifying for the 2016 and 2020 Games — even while boasting more NBA talent than other teams — thanks to heartbreaking losses to those who were more experienced playing together internationally.

“You need that continuity and that cohesiveness on and off the floor,” said national team veteran Kelly Olynyk. “You see it at all levels, whether its international, high school, college, university or even with NBA. Teams that are together for a long time know how each other play on and off the court. It’s just easier to commit to be great, and I think that that goes a long way — the familiarity on and off the court being together and having that continuity and cohesiveness.”

Why has Canada Basketball been able to bring together a group now?

“I think it’s it’s all coming together, you know? Guys are at good points in our careers,” said Olynyk. “We have a bunch of guys who are doing great things at a high level. Guys are settling into their careers. It’s hard when you’re young and you’re trying to make it and trying to make things happen. But I think we have a good group of guys now who have kind of settled in and settled down in their careers and are ready to kind of do something together.”

The momentum began shortly after Canada’s overtime loss to Czechia in the semi-finals of the Olympic Qualifying tournament last summer in Victoria. Canada Basketball convened a meeting for players at the NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas and laid out their plan to carry them through to Paris in 2024.

The vision made for an easy decision, says Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Utah Jazz guard from Hamilton who was one of Canada’s best players in Victoria last summer.

“Bringing everyone together in Vegas, I think, really did help as a show of commitment from other players. And I think sometimes guys don’t want to be the only one. But when they see that they’re not the only one and everyone’s kind of banding together, it’s easier to commit,” said Alexander-Walker. “… It was motivating and fun. You get excited about things; I get excited about basketball, and I can only imagine they do as well. And so, getting to play with a good team, going up against other countries and just the thought of an Olympic gold. That’s definitely something I’ve always had on my accomplishments that I’d like to achieve. So that’s probably one of the most motivating pieces.”

For this week at least, most of the pieces are in place.

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