TORONTO — The Canadian men’s basketball team may have to get past NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to get to the Tokyo Olympics.
The good news for Canada is it should have the players to do it.
Canada drew seventh-ranked Greece, plus the Czech Republic (No. 10), Turkey (15), China (27) and Uruguay (43) for its last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament June 23-28 in Victoria — the biggest Canadian men’s tournament held on home soil in 25 years. The Canadian men, ranked 21st, must win to secure their first Olympic appearance since the 2000 Sydney Games.
“The draw is tough, it’s tough,” said Nick Nurse, who was hired last summer to coach the team through Olympic qualifying. ”There’s three teams in the top 15 in the world in our group… so I think it’s a very challenging group and a very challenging prospect, but it should be, right?
“There’s only a couple of teams that get a free pass to the Olympics and most of them have to really earn their way through it and we’re going to have to earn our way too. It’s a hell of a goal, and certainly a worthy thing to accomplish and we’re going to have to earn it through some really good teams.”
The draws for both the men’s and women’s Olympic qualifying tournaments were held Wednesday at FIBA headquarters in Switzerland.
There’s no guarantee Antetokounmpo will suit up for Greece — his Milwaukee Bucks could play deep in the post-season, and the qualifying tournament opens just two days after a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The draw comes amid a heady 24 hours for Canada’s men’s program. A favourite target of criticism for its absent NBA talent, several key players have committed to playing this summer. Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray got the momentum rolling when he announced he was all in.
“I want to play my part to help push our team into the Olympics and compete at the highest world stage. Let’s go Canada,” Murray tweeted. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and New Orleans Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker added their names to the list a few hours later.
Knicks rookie RJ Barrett followed suit Wednesday morning, hours before New York played the Toronto Raptors.
“There’s a number of really good (NBA) players, and I think they should be proud to play for the team and it looks like they’re going to, and all that stuff’s been great news, I think it’s super exciting,” Nurse said. ”It’s going to be a hell of a tournament out there in Victoria, a hell of an opportunity.”
Dillon Brooks, Dwight Powell and Khem Birch have also said they’ll play, while Kelly Olynyk and Cory Joseph never turn down a national-team invitation.
“Recently we’ve witnessed positive momentum with several players committing to play for Canada this summer, and we expect that trend to continue over the next several months,” said team GM Rowan Barrett.
Missing most of its NBA stars, Canada finished a disappointing 21st at the World Cup this summer. Birch and Joseph were the only NBA players to make the trip to China, from which seven countries earned automatic Olympic berths.
But momentum has been on Canada’s side in the past couple of weeks.
“I think just getting into the Olympic qualifying tournament was a necessary step, really big news to be hosting the tournament, and we all know there’s a number of players playing in this league that are Canadian,” Nurse said.
Nurse said he enjoys keeping tabs on how Canadian NBA players — there are 20, including four players on two-way NBA/G League deals — are doing around the league. Asked whether he watches them as Raptors opponents or if one eye is on how they might fit into the national team, Nurse said: “One eighth of my eye is looking at the national team and 7/8 of my eyes are trying to do this job, focusing in on this.
“I think every time I got a game on, and these guys are playing. I watch personnel closely, especially a little more concentration on the guys who can possibly be playing no doubt, see how they’re doing. As a group, they’re great dudes man, you’re pulling for them, except when they’re playing you, you’re pulling for them.”
Canada is in Pool A with Greece and China. The top two teams of each pool cross over to play the semifinals, the winners of which meet in the finals.
The Canadian women, meanwhile, will face Belgium, Japan and Sweden in their final Olympic qualifying tournament February 6-9 in Ostend, Belgium.
The Canadians, who were recently ranked a career-best fourth in the world, need only finish top three in the four-team tournament to book their spot in the Tokyo Games.
Coach Lisa Thomaidis downplayed Canada’s strong chances, saying her team was drawn into a “tough pool.”
“You should have to beat some great teams to qualify for the Olympics,” Thomaidis said. “(We) will face some good competition with European opponents and a Japanese team that recently beat Australia in the Pre-Qualifiers.”
Host Belgium is ranked ninth in the world, Japan 10th and Sweden 22nd.
The Canadian women were ousted in the quarterfinals in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.