For about a decade now, Canada Basketball executives past and present like Rowan Barrett, Wayne Parrish, Steve Nash, Michele O’Keefe and Glen Grunwald would muse about a time when the program would have to say “thanks, but no thanks” to NBA players who wanted to suit up for their country. Coaches Leo Rautins, Jay Triano and Nick Nurse would say it too.
Given the history of the men’s program, it was easy to nod along but, deep down, it felt a bit pie in the sky.
After all, for many years Nash was either the lone NBAer on Canada’s roster, or maybe had one other player of that caliber beside him.
After he hung up his jersey, Canada eclipsed France as the NBA’s second-biggest provider of talent, yet it seemed like an impossible task to field a roster with most of the best from that crop.
While there were constants like Kelly Olynyk, Cory Joseph and Dwight Powell, you’d see Andrew Wiggins or Tristan Thompson for one event, but then not again for a long time.
It was always relatively easy to welcome any NBA player with open arms. But the day is finally arriving where Canada Basketball president Michael Bartlett, general manager Barrett, head coach Jordi Fernandez and Co. will truly have to make the tough calls that have been promised for so long now.
Canada’s immense hoops success this summer — winning a bronze medal at the FIBA World Cup and qualifying for the Olympics for the first time since Nash and Barrett were the key players on the 2000 squad — means players will be lining up to bolster the Canadian side in Paris.
How many will be added? How many should be added? And which loyal participant from this summer’s team has to be pushed aside?
That’s a lot of questions.
Canada put itself in this position by demanding a three-year commitment from those interested in competing at the World Cup and then at the Olympics, if Canada made it. Either they had to play last summer and this summer to be invited next year, or at least to attend camp in 2022 and 2023.
Jamal Murray, Canada’s second-best player behind all-world guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, coming off a magnificent playoff run that culminated in a championship for the Denver Nuggets is a lock, assuming he’s healthy and his new contract has been worked out with Denver.
That would give Canada the best backcourt in the entire tournament, but a little help at backup point guard would be useful, too. Veterans Joseph and Kevin Pangos, who have participated many times in the past, would be options. But what about Indiana Pacers standout Andrew Nembhard, who dropped 25 points and 10 assists on the Raptors in Toronto this season?
While Nembhard doesn’t meet the three-year commitment criteria, he did play for Canada at the previous World Cup and several times as a teenager in various events.
What about players who could be important future pieces, like Nembhard’s teammate Bennedict Mathurin, or incoming rookie Leonard Miller — who sat in on camp to get a taste — or Shaedon Sharpe or Olivier Maxence-Prosper? It’s probably not yet their time.
The team could use some help up front. Olynyk and Powell will both be 33 next summer and are undersized to begin with. There is no viable legitimate 7-foot option to join up, but Memphis big man Brandon Clarke could be of help anyway, though he is coming off a major injury and hasn’t previously suited up for Canada.
Raptors’ Chris Boucher hasn’t played for Canada, so probably isn’t an option. Trey Lyles has but might not be the answer.
Of course, the biggest wildcard is Golden State’s Wiggins, who has made it clear he’d like to play at an Olympics (his mother was a track star in the Olympics) but opted not to commit for multiple years in 2021.
Wiggins arguably is Canada’s best two-way player (he’s not at Gilgeous-Alexander’s level offensively, but is a better defender and a solid scorer in his own right) and has been an elite performer for Canada in both 2015 and 2021, when they came close to getting to the Olympics.
CEO Bartlett left the door open in an interview on the FAN Morning Show this week. Bartlett said that Joseph, Pangos and Indiana’s Oshae Brissett, who were hurt this summer, “are still considered part of the core,” (meaning they’d likely be strong bets to be added, if possible), but “ultimately coach Jordi and Rowan will have some difficult decisions to make. Those decisions will be based on our competitive outlook and what we need to look like in order to be the best at the Olympics,” Bartlett said.
NBA takes bold steps to try to ensure its star players appear in more games
Canadian men finally reached their potential at FIBA World Cup and there’s more to come
“But certainly, the athletes that are in our Core 16 continue to be the ones that we are focused on. We know there will be others who will be interested and that’s great. This is again a program that has wanted people interested for a long time, so we’re not discouraged by that.
“But ultimately, those that have made the commitment to us, we believe very much in a two-way promise. They’ve made promises to us and we’ve got to keep those promises to them. So there’s most certainly going to be some tough decisions.”
Other countries will be powering up their teams significantly. Serbia, which easily handled Canada before falling in the gold-medal game to Germany, will get two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, plus two other starters.
Team USA, embarrassed by Canada and other countries, could have LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and many other superstars.
France, perhaps the tournament’s biggest disappointment, will be at home and will welcome super-prospect Victor Wembanyama.
Adding Murray obviously would be a sizeable boost for Canada, too, but it will be interesting to see if there is another significant change or two as well.
Go with the core or add more?