TORONTO — Kelly Olynyk’s slip and fall Wednesday night could have been dire news for both Canada’s men’s basketball team and the Miami Heat.
The 28-year-old Heat centre suffered only a bruised knee in Canada’s 96-87 exhibition win over Nigeria, the team’s first game in its final road to next month’s FIBA World Cup. He’s expected to be sidelined about a week.
The fear of injury is an oft-cited concern of players who say no when their countries come calling.
But coach Nick Nurse believes there’s a huge benefit for suiting up for the national team.
“I think the guys that play, whether for us or for USA or for Senegal or whatever, they build some type of legacy for their careers,” Nurse said. “I use Kyle Lowry as like the best example of that. This guy is a five-time all-star, a world champion, a couple gold medals under his belt, he’s just coming off of a surgery, and he’s right back … he wants to play.”
The Raptors guard had surgery on the thumb that bothered him through most of Toronto’s historic NBA championship run. The fact he’s in the U.S. team’s World Cup camp this week in Las Vegas doesn’t surprise Nurse at all.
“I think it’s either in your heart or it’s not,” said Nurse, who earned a victory in his Canadian coaching debut Wednesday night. “You’re out there playing, stuff can happen in any pick-up game, any practice, any workout, anywhere you’re at. It’s part of it. I give the guys that are here a lot of credit. They love to hoop, they hoop for Canada, and they do it with a lot of pride and a lot of heart.”
When Canada opened camp on Monday, numerous big names were missing including Jamal Murray and RJ Barrett, who both cited recent injuries, plus Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Dwight Powell.
The one injury suffered during national team duty that really stands out was Paul George’s gruesome broken leg in an exhibition game for the U.S. team in 2014.
Olynyk will miss Friday’s exhibition game against Nigeria in Winnipeg, but hadn’t planned to play anyway. He’s the best man in a wedding in Kamloops, B.C.
Raptors forward Chris Boucher also withdrew from Canada’s pre-World Cup camp citing personal reasons. Boucher was on the bench but not dressed on Wednesday.
“I’m disappointed, because he was as good as I’ve seen him in our training camp,” Nurse said. “So I’m a little disappointed, but again, personal things come up. Life happens for some of these guys, and he’s going to need to withdraw.”
The Canadians fly to Australia after Friday’s game for a five-game exhibition series against the Aussie Boomers, the U.S. and New Zealand. They tip off the World Cup on Sept. 1 versus Australia in Dongguan, China, and with a top-eight showing would play right up until Sept. 14 or 15 — a couple of weeks before NBA teams open training camps.
For the players in camp, being conscious of work loads will be key. Thursday’s session was light and quick with no contact.
“They’re going out to perform in front of people and against competition, and whatever you wanna squeeze out of them on the practice court probably isn’t worth the confidence and stuff you’re trying to build on the court against competition. So you’re always balancing that,” Nurse said. “And from my standpoint, I’m all about what energy do you have mentally and physically at 7 o’clock when that ball goes up. The rest of it doesn’t matter that much, really.”
Less than a week on the job, Nurse’s influence can already be felt on Canada’s team. Lowry liked to talk about the coach’s laid-back demeanour, saying he might have yelled at the Raptors twice during all of this past season. Two months after Nurse guided the Raptors to their first NBA championship, the national team players are praising his positive vibe.
“Oh it’s very fun. Coach trusts everybody. He doesn’t limit anybody and he let us play free,” said Orlando forward Khem Birch, one of three NBA players on this national team. “It’s funny how a championship coach is so easy to play for. He just won a championship and he’s so laid back. It’s perfect.”
Birch, who scored 14 points Wednesday night and threw down some huge dunks, said Canada wasn’t even at 50 per cent of its potential in the game. In a shaky first quarter of getting acquainted, they shot 4-for-17 from the floor and coughed up six turnovers.
“I think it was lots of bright spots,” Nurse said. “I think there’s tons of teaching and learning, and I always the word ‘polishing’ up to do. Now you’ve got to teach them how to read some situations, both sides of the ball, and some of that comes with just feel.”
Canada will play host Australia in two exhibitions on Aug. 16 and 17 and New Zealand twice (Aug. 20-21). They wrap up their exhibition schedule Aug. 26 versus the U.S. before flying to China.
The World Cup has huge ramifications for the national program, as the top seven finishers qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Teams who don’t qualify are relegated to last-chance qualifying tournaments next summer.