DONGGUAN, China — Two NBA players. A couple of Euroleague standouts. Four Canadian university grads.
Canada’s final roster for the FIBA World Cup looks nothing like what many people had predicted — and even more people dreamed about — only a few weeks ago.
But head coach Nick Nurse, who was tasked with assembling a roster that was slammed by big-name no-shows and hit by injuries, praised the dozen players he has in China. Beginning Saturday, Nurse’s odds-and-ends roster will try to clinch Canada’s men’s basketball team it’s first Olympic berth since the 2000 Sydney Games.
“I’m gonna coach as hard as I can with this group, right? Maybe we had to work extremely hard, or a little harder, I don’t know,” Nurse said after Thursday’s practice at Dongguang Basketball Centre.
“It seems like we’re putting a hell of an effort out to get these guys to play the best that they can, the guys are amazing. I’m super proud of them already, I was proud of them on Day 1 of training camp. They’ve played some cool basketball. I think that anybody that’s turned on and watched us would say ‘Man, those guys are all right,’ right? And maybe surprisingly so, because of the roster.
“So it’s we can ask for, and it’s all we can do.”
There was both good and bad news for Canada on Thursday, with the arrival of Sacramento Kings guard Cory Joseph, and the loss of Oshae Brissett to injury.
After rumblings about Joseph potentially backing out of the World Cup, he rejoined the team in China after skipping a five-game exhibition series in Australia.
“I have no idea where that (rumour) came from, there was no confusion on this end, me, coach, Rowan (Barrett, Canada Basketball’s general manager), everybody, we’ve talked from Day 1, from training camp about what was going to go down,” said Joseph, sporting a newly-shaved head.
Joseph and Orlando Magic forward Khem Birch are the only NBA players for No. 23 Canada, which tips off the tournament against 11th-ranked Australia.
Brissett was among the team’s leading scorers in Canada’s tune-up games, but returned home after injuring his leg against New Zealand last week.
“It was a tough one because he was playing outstanding, really fit that slot we needed, he was shooting just enough, he was driving a bit, he was rebounding like crazy, double-figure rebounds from the small forward spot, and was playing great defence — really a good solid piece to the puzzle,” said Nurse.
“Probably could have played and been OK, but just didn’t think it was the right thing to do, we sent him home to get rehabbed and 100 per cent and ready to go his next assignment.”
Nurse made a couple of roster moves ahead of Thursday’s deadline, releasing guards Aaron Best and Duane Notice.
With Canada’s mushrooming depth in the NBA, this summer was expected to see the country’s best basketball squad ever assembled. But numerous big names opted to skip the World Cup including Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, R.J. Barrett, Tristan Thompson, Dwight Powell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Miami Heat centre Kelly Olynyk reported for camp, but then injured his knee in Canada’s first exhibition game against Nigeria.
How did those in attendance react to all those who were absent?
“We just went with the flow,” said Kevin Pangos, who plays for Euroleague powerhouse FC Barcelona. “Whoever was able to come and play for the team, they came. Everyone’s situation was different. Some guys had contracts, some injuries, this or that. We didn’t pay it too much attention. Whoever was here we worked with it, and we’re excited.”
Nurse, who coached the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship less than three months ago, admitted there could be “some difficulties” fitting Joseph back into the fold after he missed five games in Australia.
“I think you just don’t really know how they fit,” Nurse said.
He experimented with playing Joseph and Pangos together in the first game versus Nigeria, but said “I’m not sure it was great. I didn’t get a great feel for it.
“And Kevin, since Cory left, has looked outstanding, right? Like he should be the point guard, and so there is a little bit of give and take there to figure out, and I’m still kind of turning it over in my head. But, saying this, there’s a couple of things I do know about Cory having coached him (with the Raptors) before that he’s super competitive, he can really guard, he can really guard late in games, and we need that.”
Australia boasts two excellent NBA point guards in San Antonio’s Patty Mills and Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova.
“We’re definitely going to need some defensive presence out there, and Cory is pretty good at that,” Nurse said.
With only a couple of weeks between the World Cup and the beginning of NBA training camp, Joseph said he skipped the Australia trip to attend to some personal matters.
Otherwise, Joseph has been one of the team’s most dependable players, always there when Canada’s come calling.
“I’ve been playing for a long time, it wasn’t a hard decision for me, I set a goal (to qualify for the Olympics) and I’m trying to reach it,” said the Pickering, Ont., native.
Seven teams from the World Cup will qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Canada must finish top-two among teams from the Americas. Another 16 teams will play in last-chance Olympic qualifying tournaments next summer.
The Canadians play sixth-ranked Lithuania on Monday, then No. 33 Senegal on Sept. 5.
Canada is making its first World Cup appearance since 2010. The Canadians went 0-5 to finish 22nd out of 24 teams that year in Turkey.
The team went 4-3 in pre-World Cup action, splitting a pair of exhibition games with Australia and Nigeria, beating New Zealand twice, then dropping an ugly 84-68 decision to the U.S. on Monday. They then flew 12 hours to China on Tuesday.
Khem Birch, Montreal, Orlando Magic; Melvin Ejim, Toronto, Baloncesto Malaga (Spain); Brady Heslip, Burlington, Ont.; Istanbul BBSK (Turkey); Cory Joseph, Pickering, Ont., Sacramento Kings; Kaza Kajami-Keane, Ajax, Ont., Mitteldeutscher BC (Germany); Owen Klassen, Kingston, Ont., Antwerp Giants (Belgium); Conor Morgan, Victoria, Divina Seguros Joventut (Spain); Andrew Nembhard, Aurora, Ont., University of Florida (NCAA); Kevin Pangos, Newmarket, Ont., FC Barcelona Basketball (Spain); Phil Scrubb, Richmond, B.C., Club Estudiantes (Spain); Thomas Scrubb, Richmond, B.C., SIG Strasbourg (France); Kyle Wiltjer, Portland, Ore., Turk Telekom (Turkey).
Lori Ewing , The Canadian Press