Sports

Everything you need to know about the FIBA Olympic Qualifying basketball tournament

BC hosts its most important basketball games ever—and its first major sport event since lockdown

By Cameron Welch
June 30, 2021
Sports

Everything you need to know about the FIBA Olympic Qualifying basketball tournament

BC hosts its most important basketball games ever—and its first major sport event since lockdown

By Cameron Welch
Jun 30, 2021
RJ Barrett will be stepping into the spotlight this week. Photo: Canada Basketball
Sports

Everything you need to know about the FIBA Olympic Qualifying basketball tournament

BC hosts its most important basketball games ever—and its first major sport event since lockdown

By Cameron Welch
June 30, 2021
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Everything you need to know about the FIBA Olympic Qualifying basketball tournament
RJ Barrett will be stepping into the spotlight this week. Photo: Canada Basketball

Canada is now a basketball powerhouse—can this reduced roster prove it?

The hometown team is the heavy favourite on paper going into the winner-take-all FIBA Olympic Qualifying basketball tournament. But it’s an uneasy favourite, and for good reason: Canada hoops fans have learned before that the games aren’t played on paper, but instead by either little men in your TV or big men in front of you in Save-on-Foods arena, depending on your ticket status.

Canada has the most current NBA players in the world besides the US (21 played last season), and most of them are either young or have shown recent improvement. The country has “the second-best team in the world, if you just go by names,” according to the Chicago Bulls’ Tomas Satoransky, likely the best non-Canadian player present in Victoria. 

But that talented group is one with less international experience together than the other teams, and that has burned Canada before. The country last made the Olympics in 2000 with Victorian Steve Nash, and despite years of basketball ascendance has yet to break through internationally. Longtime Canada point guard Cory Joseph called the mantle of tournament favourites premature on Monday, telling reporters “we haven't done anything yet.” 

Several years of disappointing qualifying-tournament play relegated Canada to this last-chance tournament with several high-level countries competing for only one of the four remaining Olympic berths. This week’s talented 12 may be too little too late. There's a chance this week will bring us both the entrance and the exit of the greatest basketball team this country has ever put out. 

Canada’s 21-man shortlist included 14 active NBA players, but only eight remain on the final roster. There are no Raptors, no Grizzlies, and few “bigs” (i.e. players above 6’9”). At full Olympic strength, Canada would be overly heavy on bigs, but comes to Victoria with few of those players in tow. Missing are Raptor big men Chris Boucher and Khem Birch, who both had breakout seasons in 2020-21, as well as former LeBron James sidekick Tristan Thompson and Kamloops-raised shooter Kelly Olynyk. There will also be no full-circle BC basketball story without the now-Memphis-based Grizzlies’ Canadians, Dillon Brooks and Vancouver-born Brandon Clarke

But where absences—of Steve Nash, Andrew Wiggins, or others—were once dealbreaking for Canada, the talent pool is now so deep that it will still field more NBA talent than the rest of the competitors combined. And NBA talent isn’t the end-all of international success, as team Canada has found out the hard way in the past. Other countries whose rosters play together more often have been more cohesive, and more accustomed to the international game’s differences, which include more physicality, shorter games, a shorter three-point line, and the ability to interfere with the ball while it’s on or above the hoop.  

Canada, of course, also has home-court advantage, and a good luck charm in the court itself. The former Golden State Warriors floor, which the Toronto Raptors and Nurse won Canada's first and only NBA Championship on in 2019 NBA, was bought and brought in from Oakland for the tournament. 

Canada should also have a coaching edge with Nurse, the inventive (but often visibly furious) 2020 NBA Coach of the Year. 

Canada faces Greece and China in its subgroup first, with the top two facing the best two of Uruguay, Turkey, and the Czech Republic and then a winner-take-all final on Sunday. Oddsmakers give the home team about a two-thirds chance of winning. But even if they don’t, Canada will still have a good chance at Olympic glory: the even-stronger women’s team is already locked in and is a major threat to medal.

Without Canada’s top young stars, who steps up?

Both Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder would immediately become the tournament’s best player if present—but both are currently out with injury. Murray’s devastating ACL injury deprives Canada of the hero of the Toronto Pan-Am Games. In 2015, a teenage Murray’s late-game excellence led Canada to silver and an upset over the US. 

Attempting to fill their shoes will be young up-and-comers RJ Barrett and Lu Dort. Those two took opposite paths to their 2020-21 breakouts, with Barrett drafted #3 in 2019 and Dort going undrafted. Barrett, the son of Team Canada's GM, has shown signs of delivering on that promise while playing second fiddle on the surprisingly-good 2021 Knicks, and has already brought a FIBA championship to Canada while on the under-19 team. Meanwhile, the former defense-only specialist Dort had a breakout offensive season that saw the tanking Thunder rest the Montrealer rather than risk winning too many games and worsening their draft position). Gilgeous-Alexander’s cousin Nickeil Alexander-Walker could also break out.

For Canada’s veterans, a chance at redemption

Canada’s long-serving veterans are former Raptor and solid NBA journeyman Cory Joseph and 35-year-old European leagues journeyman Aaron Doornekamp. Canada has initially looked to shore up its international experience level with few more of its longtime vets, but the final 12 is without Phil Scrubb and Kevin Pangos. Joseph and Doornekamp have a chance to, in four games, reverse many of the setbacks they’ve seen firsthand over the past decade. First-seeded Canada lost a 2016 Olympic berth to Venezuela in a stunning 79-78 upset in 2015 that was decided by a controversial foul call on Doornekamp. It was relegated to this week’s last-chance tournament by losses in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, with Joseph, Birch, and Victorian Kyle Wiltjer not enough to overcome the powerful Australia and Lithuania.  

This team can also deliver vindication for Canada’s only two number-one draft picks, whose careers have never panned out the way they were envisioned when the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Ontarians back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. Anthony Bennett was a surprise reach at number one from the start, and soon fell out of the league after a few years plagued by injuries, sleep apnea, and his dynamic college game not translating to the NBA. 

Andrew Wiggins was a teenage phenom, an athletic marvel, a chosen one. Nicknamed “Maple Jordan,” he was Canada’s big post-Steve-Nash hope and was widely expected to become its first number-one pick until Bennet usurped him a year earlier. Wiggins soon drew national ire when he declined to play for Team Canada in 2016, due to what he cited as a focus on his pro club in Minnesota (but was rumoured to be a rift with former Canada and Raptors coach Jay Triano, who benched Wiggins in the home stretch of that infamous 2015 loss.) 

The 2016 tourney was a last-chance Olympic qualifier like this one, and a Team Canada led by Joseph, Thompson, and Birch lost the title game to France 74-83. Many fans then blamed the absent Wiggins for further delaying Canada’s overdue rise in the international ranks. 

In the ensuing years, his turbulent star rose and fell and rose again. A prolific young scorer, he received a maximum contract of $148 million US but stagnated to the point of being panned as an inefficient non-winner, a careless defender despite his physical gifts, and the NBA’s worst contract. Now with Golden State, Wiggins has rejuvenated his career as a very competent and well-rounded (albeit still overpaid) role player. This week he returns to a national program that has grown beyond its desperate dependence on him, with dozens of others to now pin Canada’s hopes on.  

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Without its world-elite superstar and its Euro hoops legend, can Greece live up to its top ranking?

Team Canada’s first win in Victoria (97-91 over Greece on Tuesday) came, in a roundabout way, with an assist from its Victoria-raised former Olympic hero Steve Nash. It was Brooklyn Nets head coach Nash’s narrow Game 7 playoff loss this month to the Milwaukee Bucks that delivered Canada a tournament run safe from a fellow back-to-back NBA MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now, instead of making sixth-in-the-world Greece the favourite in Victoria, the seven-foot Greek Freak remains in Wisconsin with his brother Thanasis, hunting the elusive NBA championship that Nurse and the Raptors denied him in 2019. Also absent is longtime Greece leader and EuroLeague basketball icon Vassilis Spanoulis, 38, who just last week retired from a 22-year career. 

Without its past or future stars, Greece will lean on its roster’s international-play veterans, third Antetokoumnpo brother Kostas, and head coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was for decades an NCAA mainstay as coach of Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville college teams but spent recent years in a Mediterranean exile following scandals at Louisville over escorts and payments to recruits. Since losing his job (and his 2013 NCAA title retroactively), Pitino won the Greek League twice and is now back in the US coaching Iona College. But winning an Olympic berth with the national team he took the reins of in 2019 would be a higher-profile redemption for the former icon of college ball. l

A visit from Şengün’s squad: Turkey is likely Canada’s biggest threat

Fans of older-school basketball and post play have a champion in this tournament in one of its youngest players. Traditional big man Alperen Şengün, 18, has surged up 2021 draft boards with historic numbers in his MVP-winning Turkish league season. But questions remain whether the dominant and savvy but relatively slow and undersized centre can hold up at the NBA level without the advantages in size he enjoys at home. Şengün skipped the NBA Draft combine to be here, so this Victoria showcase will likely decide his future.

Number 15-ranked Turkey also boasts current NBA players Furkan Korkmaz and Ersan Ilyasova—both eliminated unexpectedly early from the NBA playoffs—and Cedi Osman. Their formidable shooting will be amplified by the closer international three-point line. Names further down the roster may not mean much to most North American fans, but the Turkish league has a fairly strong baseline of competition despite the country not having made the Olympics in 69 years. 

Former NBA bust returns to North America as accomplished international veteran

China’s Yi Jianlian and the Czech Republic’s Jan Veselý are generally seen as NBA draft busts, tantalizing foreign seven-footers on whom teams bet top-10 picks and lost. Yi was China’s would-be successor to gargantuan Rockets centre Yao Ming, but Yi’s own NBA career lasted only a year longer than his predecessor’s injury-driven 2011 retirement. Veselý, meanwhile, never put up an on-court highlight that eclipsed his famous draft-night smooch.

But since leaving the league, both have gone on to have superstar careers in their respective leagues. Yi has won multiple titles and MVPs with the Guangdong Southern Tigers in the Chinese Basketball Association (of which Yao is now president). Veselý stars for the Turkish league’s Fenerbahçe and was named EuroLeague MVP in 2019. Both could have returned this week seeking international success on the continent where professional success eluded them. 

Unfortunately, though, Yi bowed out with injury in mid-June, leaving China—a former Olympic mainstay turned 29th-ranked long-shot—further diminished going into its June 30 matchup with Canada. China is left relying on teen prospect Fanbo Zeng, who was slated to come to the Pacific Northwest full-time this fall but recently decommitted from Spokane’s Gonzaga. 

So a North American redemption arc will fall solely to Vesely, who is joined on 12th-ranked Czech Republic by Satoransky, who turned in an elite shooting and passing performance at the 2019 FIBA World Cup and looks to dazzle once again in Victoria. Expect them to threaten Canada and Turkey for the championship.

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Everything you need to know about the FIBA Olympic Qualifying basketball tournament