Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, has his shot blocked by Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins during the first half of an NBA basketball Western Conference Play-In game Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Los Angeles. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark J. Terrill

Wiggins ready to suit up for Canada at Olympic qualifier

Wiggins ready to suit up for Canada at Olympic qualifier

Andrew Wiggins’ announcement was perfectly understated: a photo of himself, head bowed, during the national anthem posted on his Instagram page. “Team Canada” was written across it in block letters.

The former No. 1 draft pick in the NBA, who’s been the target of criticism for years for his seeming indifference around Canada’s basketball program, plans to play for the national team at its last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament later this summer in Victoria.

It will be Wiggins’ first appearance for Canada in six years.

“Definitely with him … (after) answering some of his questions, just like we’re doing with all the players, as well as his agency, his team, just the normal stuff we do with all the players, he’s confirmed to come and play,” said Rowan Barrett, the GM of Canada’s men’s team.

The 26-year-old last wore the Maple Leaf in 2015 at the 2016 Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico City, where Canada fell one win short of qualifying for the Rio Games, losing a 79-78 heartbreaker to Venezuela in the semifinals.

Wiggins didn’t travel with the team to a last-chance Rio Olympic qualifier in the Philippines, where Canada lost to France in the final.

The quiet six-foot-seven forward from Vaughan, Ont., has been bashed for his lack of participation virtually ever since.

“Any given year, you are going to miss a player. And there’s always tons of reasons for that,” Barrett said. “These guys are human beings with families, they have children, they get married, sometimes there’s contractual issues. There’s so many things.

“We’re not a sport that’s fortunate to have our competition during the middle of the season, where you can kind of be let out to go and play and come back. We’re asking them to play during their break when they are supposed to be resting. So it’s like a lot.”

Barrett said it’s particularly tough for players to commit this season, because COVID-19 created a jam-packed NBA season that pushed back the playoffs a month. If the NBA Finals go seven games, they would end on the eve of the Tokyo Olympic opening ceremonies.

The Olympic qualifier June 29 to July 4, which Canada must win to earn a spot, conflicts with the NBA conference finals.

Wiggins’ NBA season ended on Friday when his Golden State Warriors lost to Memphis in a play-in game.

The No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft had a solid season with the Warriors, averaging career highs in shooting percentage — 47.7 per cent from the field and 38.0 per cent from three-point range. He was 39th in NBA scoring, averaging 18.6 points a game.

“Obviously, he’s a versatile player, you watch him play with Golden State, you see he plays a number of different positions, offensively and defensively, he’s a tremendous athlete, and obviously he’s skilled,” Barrett said. “His experience is good now, he understands the game at a really good level. I’m sure that the coaches are going to have their work cut out to figure out exactly how they want to use him and as well as our other players.”

Nick Nurse, head coach of both Canada and the Toronto Raptors, re-posted Wiggins’ Instagram announcement.

If Wiggins had felt the pressure of carrying the Canadian program in past years, he’s expected to share the load with other stars now. Before the pandemic pushed back the Tokyo Olympics a year, Canada had expected to field its best men’s team in history. Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray led the way in announcing his intention to play, followed by RJ Barrett, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dillon Brooks, Dwight Powell and Khem Birch.

Murray, however, is out after suffering a torn ACL last month, while contract issues and playoff conflicts will impact some.

“In order for us to be successful, we have to be a program that’s able to put a really strong competitive team on the floor that can win, no matter who you miss, if it’s one or two players here or there,” Barrett said. “We’ve needed to get to a point where we’ve built up enough of a talent pool that we can compete, so that’s kind of been our focus here for a number of years.

“We finally feel like we’re getting to that space now, where we have enough athletes playing at the top level in Europe, playing high-level roles on their teams, as well as now obviously in the NBA, and as well as even in college, some guys who are playing on big-time teams with big huge responsibilities.”

Putting a stacked team on the floor, however, doesn’t diminish the pressure any one player, Barrett said.

“Any time you’re playing international basketball, and you’re playing for all the marbles, there’s always pressure, no matter what your position is, No. 1 or No. 12 (on the depth chart), coaches, everyone, because you’re playing for your country, man,” Barrett said. “You want to make your country proud and you’re defending the flag.”

Wiggins’ mom Marita Payne-Wiggins ran for Canada in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, and still co-holds the Canadian record in the 400 metres.

Canada Basketball is expected to announce some key player commitments in the coming days.

“We’re excited, we’re ready to go,” Barrett said. “Obviously, we have a big task here to qualify. We just need to be ready.”

Barrett’s son RJ, meanwhile, is having a breakout sophomore season with the New York Knicks. Barrett and RJ’s mom Kesha were in the Madison Square Garden crowd on Sunday when RJ threw down a massive dunk over Bogdan Bogdanovic in Game 1 of New York’s opening-round playoff series against Atlanta.

“My wife and I couldn’t hear each other and we were side by side,” Barrett said of the raucous crowd’s reaction. “It was pandemonium.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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