When Czech Republic guard Thomas Satoransky nailed an elbow jumper over the outstretched hand of Canada’s Lu Dort with 1.0 second left in overtime in the semi-final of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria B.C. last summer, it changed everything for the Canadian men’s senior basketball team. Satoransky’s two-pointer was the difference in a 103-101 Czech Republic win — one that would send Canada home in heartbreak for the second time in four years, their previous one being a loss to France in the final of the Olympic qualifiers in 2016.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the two teams that beat them happened to be proud basketball nations with roster continuity at the forefront of their programs, with many of the players playing for their national team together since they were teenagers. Despite having more NBA players than both of their opponents, the Canadians lost because they didn’t have the requisite chemistry or continuity.
So, Rowan Barrett — who succeeded Canadian basketball legend Steve Nash as the general manager of Canada’s senior men’s national team program in 2019 — and Nick Nurse — who Barrett hired as head coach after he led the Toronto Raptors to an NBA championship — gathered the best collection of Canadian basketball talent in history in Las Vegas during the NBA Summer League just months after that Satoransky jumper to say this: you’re either in or you’re out.
Gone were the days that Canadians NBA players could only join the team only when it was convenient to them. Either you commit to playing (or at least being at training camp and practices) for the next three years leading up to Paris 2024 — with the goal being to earn an Olympic berth through the 2023 FIBA World Cup rather than through another last-chance qualifier — or you sacrifice your guaranteed spot on the team and risk not having a roster spot come time for the Olympics.
Now, that might seem like the logical thing to do. After all, the Canadians haven’t made the Olympics in 22 years, and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But these are NBA players we are talking about — people making millions of dollars who are used to doing what is convenient to them. There are a number of things that make a long-term commitment from NBA players unlikely, including the possibilities of injuries, the time commitment after potentially going through a long playoff run and wanting family time, and the contractual status of players trying to sign their next contract. Andrew Wiggins declined to commit, while Dillon Brooks did not show up to training camp this week in Toronto.
It was a hard sell for Barrett and Nurse, trying to convince the guys that this was the only way to build a strong winning culture for the program and to one day take them to the promised land: Olympic gold. Fortunately, Shai GIligious-Alexander — the best Canadian in the game right now — stepped up before Nurse had even finished his speech during that dinner in Vegas to say that he was playing. But for the undecided guys, Barrett and Nurse had to push the right buttons, explaining how this was a unique opportunity to represent their country and inspire the next generation, how they could build friendships on and off the court, how much fun they could have playing together and reaching their goals, and maybe the most overlooked aspect of all: how they could use this opportunity to get better and advance their NBA career.
“I think a lot of people focus on what could go wrong when you come and play, but there’s a lot of stuff that can help you,” 31-year-old Kelly Olynyk, who made his national team debut as a teenager at the 2010 World Cup in Turkey, told the media during training camp for Window 3 of the FIBA America qualifiers. “(It can) boost you and propel you forward, and make you take a different trajectory.”
“I think that’s something that is a little overlooked sometimes, but happens a lot more than you think.”
Nurse notes that the summer is the time for NBA players to work on their games and get better, and what the national team goes through during training camp to prepare for a group of games is monumentally different than just going to a regular summer workout or a casual run.
“I just feel like, anytime you're doing high level, high intensity, high conditioning, strategic film watching, preparing versus, you know, just going to your workout for the summer, that's gonna make you better, right? And I just think that everybody benefits from that, from what I can tell.”
Nurse mentioned Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as examples, who won gold with Team USA at the 2016 Olympics and later went on to have the best seasons of their career, as well as Andrew Wiggins, who played with Team Canada in Victoria and then won a NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors last season.
While Nurse acknowledged that his job is to prepare the team to win, he said that he also monitors the growth of his players and the long-term plan for the program, similar to how he coaches the Raptors.
“What a coach should be is trying to get guys better and improve, build their confidence, get them to believe to get them to become more than maybe they even think they can become and open up some thoughts or some freedom or some avenues for them to just go to another level. Help them go to another level,” Nurse says. “And if we can build confidence here and they can take that with them back to their pro teams, that's certainly a big part of what we try to achieve here.”
There are a number of players on the national team that attribute some of their NBA success to their international experience, including veterans Dwight Powell and Kelly Olynyk.
“I think the offseason is an opportunity for everybody at every level to improve your game. There's the quiet hours, the gym, the dark hours, whatever you want to call it, where you're kind of just grinding away,” Powell explains. “But to be able to compete for something at a very high level during the offseason is a whole ‘nother advantage in terms of development.”
“So on one hand, that's been a huge key for me in terms of continuing my career is being able to fight during the summer for something that means the most to me, so that gears my development in such a way that I'm always working for a short term goal, which is great.”
Plus, there are opportunities for many NBA players to play bigger roles on their national teams than they would in the NBA, making them more experienced with on-ball reps, which is something Olynyk has experienced. As a mainstay of the program since a teenager when most of his NBA counterparts elected not to play, Olynyk is more of a role player in the NBA but has long been a primary option on the Canadian team.
“I mean, you just have the opportunities to do different things, you know, whether it's in college or the NBA or different pro teams, you kind of get pegged into a certain role or a certain situation and you have a chance to come here and either grow that or change that or kind of play a different role and keep continuing to grow,” Olynyk says.
“It's just about the opportunities and the diversification in your game and being able to do different things at different levels and just trying to expand and broaden your game physically, mentally, skill-wise, all that kind of stuff. The more you play at a high level, the better you get.
“Just all that experience helps even translate going back into the NBA world.”
While Powell and Olynyk have both carved out starting roles for themselves on good NBA teams during their careers, there are a number of Canadian NBA players committed to the program who are still trying to do that themselves. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was traded to the Utah Jazz at the deadline and struggled to find a spot in the rotation, Lu Dort is primarily used as a defensive weapon in Oklahoma where he rarely has opportunities to do anything but spot-up on offence, Khem Birch was only playing spot minutes in the Raptors rotation by the end of last season, and Oshae Brissett is still trying to push his way into Indiana’s starting rotation. They could all benefit from a strong summer of training and competition, with the increased reps helping them expand their games and feeling more comfortable in the NBA.
Part of that comfort should come from the increased confidence that Nurse tries to instill in his players by giving them different roles than they are used to. The other part could come from the opportunity to play in more pressure-filled situations than they are used to, especially if they haven’t been part of playoff teams in the NBA. The more opportunities to play with the pressure of their country behind them, the more comfortable players should get under the spotlight.
“Pressure is pressure: it's what you make of it. So, the more you can put yourself in those situations, the more comfortable you become over the course of your career. So it's definitely helpful,” Powell said.
We often focus on the negatives that come with committing to the national team, but it’s possible that that Satoransky jumper could change Canadian men’s basketball for the better, and that this summer could be the springboard that some of Canada’s best young players need in order to elevate their games at the NBA level.
The Canadians are currently 8-0 through two windows of qualifying. Tonight (July 1), the summer group will play the Dominican Republic in Hamilton, Ontario and then travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a second game of this window on July 4.
There are six FIBA World Cup qualification windows. The final three are Aug. 22-30, Nov. 7-15 and Feb. 20-28. Seven teams from FIBA Americas will play at the 32-team World Cup in 2023, which is a direct qualifier for the Paris Olympics.
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