TORONTO — Pulling on the Canada jersey never gets old for Cory Joseph.
The 27-year-old point guard has dedicated a good chunk of every summer to Canada’s national basketball program for more than a decade, inspired partly by the 2000 Sydney Olympics — the last time Canada’s men’s team made an Olympic appearance.
So when Canada came calling asking for a five-week commitment this summer, Joseph’s answer was virtually: where do I sign up?
“It doesn’t get old. I’m getting a little older but I’m still young. Don’t put that tag on me yet,” the Sacramento Kings guard laughed. “Still very young. But yeah, it doesn’t get old. It’s an honour. I’ve been doing it for a long time to have a chance to make it to the Olympics and we have another chance this summer so we’ve gotta go out there and get it.”
Joseph and Kelly Olynyk, a Miami Heat centre, comprise the backbone of Canada’s team for the World Cup, which tips off Aug. 31 in China. The World Cup is the main qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — the top seven teams earn automatic berths.
“It would mean a lot,” Joseph said of playing in Tokyo. “When I was growing up, I watched last time they were in the Olympics with (Steve) Nash and guys like Rowan (Barrett). I watched them a lot and that inspired me to play basketball and work on my game to hopefully one day be there in the Olympics.
“It would be a dream come true.”
While the roster is missing some key players such as Denver guard Jamal Murray, Joseph and Olynyk have given the team some valuable continuity.
“They’re obviously the backbone, they’re super high-level players, they’ve been through it, they’re committed leaders. What more can you say?” said coach Nick Nurse, whose team faces Nigeria in an exhibition game on Wednesday. “They’re a good pick-and-pop combo, a good defensive combo.
“I was watching some film this morning of some of the last games and it was amazing watching them guard the screen and roll. Just Cory doing it on his own sometimes and then he’d get in trouble and Kelly would switch for him. They really have a rhythm at both ends together and that comes from their time playing together and just their high level of skill in general.”
Melvin Ejim, a 28-year-old who plays for Unicaja in Spain, is another mainstay of the national program. Nurse called the versatile player an “X-factor type of guy.”
“You never really know what you’re going to get. I like him. I’ve liked him for a long time. He went to Iowa State (Nurse is from Carroll, Iowa). That always helps, too,” Nurse said with a grin. “I favour him a little bit.”
Joseph called Ejim “one of the hearts and souls of this program.”
“He’s been doing it year in and year out. He’s been a key, key, key factor in any success that we’ve had, and he’ll continue to be,” Joseph said.
The international experience of players like Ejim, Kevin Pangos (FC Barcelona), and Phil Scrubb (Movistar Estudiantes) will be invaluable when the team steps on the floor at the World Cup.
“There is a lot of ruggedness that won’t surprise them… . what are the things you go through over there? You go through a tough journey to the gym, a tough gym, a funny gym or whatever and you just get on with it,” Nurse said.
“I’d see that in the (G League) all the time. You’d have three or four guys on the team every year I knew that if you’d play in Bismarck, you’d jump on the bus for seven hours down to Sioux Falls and they’d come off the bus and compete. They were hoopers, they were ballers. Wherever, whatever, it didn’t matter, they were ready to roll. Those guys have some of that in them.”
Asked whether any players have particularly impressed him two days into camp, Nurse singled out Pangos and Florida Gators guard Andrew Nembhard.
“There are a couple guys that I really like the way they’re playing. Pangos is a hell of a player, hell of a player,” Nurse said. “Nembhard is a surprise to me. I’ve seen him, so I shouldn’t be that surprised. (But) he’s been really good. Really good.”
Pangos led Lithuanian team Zalgiris Kaunas to its first EuroLeague Final Four appearance in 19 years in 2018, and then was signed by Barcelona, one of the world’s top pro clubs.
He was a key part of Canada’s team that won bronze at the 2010 U17 world championship, earning all-tournament team honours. But a variety of factors kept him out of the Canadian program until last September, when he played in a World Cup qualifying game in Montreal.
“You can tell his IQ is up there. He runs the team. He does a lot of good things rhythmically with the offence,” Nurse said of the 26-year-old guard. “He’s way more explosive than I thought. He’s fast. He’s quick. His start-stop athleticism is really good.”
Canada will play Nigeria again Friday in Winnipeg before flying to Australia for a series of exhibition games there.