Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks (24) gestures to teammates during the first half of Game 5 of their NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Salt Lake City.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Rick Bowmer

After months of speculation, Canada’s men’s basketball roster set ahead of qualifier

With a tantalizingly deep pool of talent, Canada’s men’s basketball roster has been the subject of speculation for well over a year. Fans and the media wondered who’s in and who’s out. They jotted down their personal picks in eager anticipation.

Finally, the roster is set, and the storyline has shifted to the ultimate task at hand: clinching a berth in Tokyo.

“I think our No. 1 focus right now is on who do we have and what do we need to do to win,” team GM Rowan Barrett said Monday from the camp in Tampa, Fla.

The Canadians must win the six-team last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament, which tips off June 29 in Victoria.

What was touted as potentially Canada’s most talented basketball team in history has some key names missing either to major injury, pending free agency or personal reasons.

But there’ve been welcome additions as well. Former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins is back with the Canadian team for the first time since 2015. Wiggins, veteran guard Cory Joseph, and young star R.J. Barrett headline the eight NBA players on the 19-player training camp roster unveiled Monday.

“For me the No. 1 thing is just experience,” Rowan Barrett said of Wiggins. “He’s seen more. He’s ready for more. Back then he was just young, talented, gifted and came out and played. Now after multiple years, there’s a lot that he’s seen that would prepare him for more.”

Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans), Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma City), Trey Lyles (San Antonio), Mychal Mulder (Golden State), and Dwight Powell (Dallas) are the other NBA players on a squad filled out by talented NCAA and Europe-based players.

Head coach Nick Nurse said building chemistry quickly will be key to getting the Canadian men to the Olympics for the first time since 2000. Communication has been a big point of emphasis, he said, in practice.

“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 (opponents) or troubling to them where we can make it an issue a little bit, and then we do the best we can with trying to talk about more the style of NBA to FIBA, just the rules in general. Probably half our team doesn’t play FIBA rules during the year so that’s a constant each day in practice.”

Alexander-Walker hasn’t stepped onto a FIBA court since he led Canada to a silver medal at the U18 FIBA Americas tournament in 2016, where he led the tournament in scoring with 17.4 points a game. He’s relishing the chance to wear Canada’s colours once again.

“Honestly, it’s been a lot of fun,” the 22-year-old said of camp. “I think there’s a lot of great personalities within the group of guys and it meshes well. I think that we’re talking a lot, which helps. We’re building a chemistry with each other and finding common ground with how we play and coming together

“It’s been a lot of fun for me personally, I’m enjoying it, and taking up as much as I can from this opportunity.”

Alexander-Walker, who averaged 11 points in 46 games for New Orleans this past season, is enjoying working with Nurse.

“He’s a great coach. Honestly, like through and through. Great guy as well. I appreciate how he approaches the game,” he said. “It’s very clear his style of play just fits well with me. And I’m just working hard trying to get better and this opportunity to play for my country is nothing to take lightly, so I’m trying to make the most out of that.”

Canada opens Group A action on June 29 versus Greece, who will be missing Giannis Antetokounmpo. Canadian fans cheered the Milwaukee Bucks’ recent Game 7 win against Brooklyn, as it keeps the Greek star occupied in the NBA playoffs. The Bucks are facing Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals, which conflict with the qualifier.

The Canadians play China on June 30. Group B has Uruguay, Czech Republic and Turkey. The top two teams in each group face off in the semifinals.

Scouting opponents amid the pandemic hasn’t been easy.

“In-person scouting has been on hold here for a couple of years anyway, right? So we’ve all gotten kind of used to that world,” Nurse said. “All the teams in our group are playing, and we’ve watched the majority of those already. Greece has played three times, so we do have at least that film to go off of and we’ll just go from there, and … there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes contacts and work and connections and things that you tie together to get as much information as you can.”

Canada’s biggest loss since the roster buzz began over a year ago is Jamal Murray. The Nuggets guard, who declared in November of 2019 he planned to play for Canada in qualifying, ruptured his Achilles tendon in March.

Dillon Brooks (Memphis), Oshae Brissett (Indiana), Khem Birch (Toronto) and Kelly Olynyk (Houston) are the NBA players missing who were on Canada Basketball’s initial invitation list.