Canada Basketball can't worry about hurt feelings with Olympic medal on line

Now a basketball powerhouse, hard choices have and will be made ahead of Paris.

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For many years whenever Canada’s senior men’s basketball team gathered for camp, the talk would largely focus on which players weren’t on hand, instead of who actually showed up.

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But with record high interest in playing for the country shown by the large number of Canadian NBA players, the topic did come up again on Wednesday, though it was merely a sidebar, which is how Canada Basketball wants it to be.

“There’s 26 (Canadian) players in the NBA, there’s so many, a record number in Europe, if I had my way, I’d have them all (trying out),” Canada’s general manager Rowan Barrett said when the invite list was unveiled on Wednesday.

“You have to make some very difficult decisions, it’s not easy but I’d much rather have a conversation about the bevy players that we have and the difficulty of not being able to invite everyone, than not have the players and understanding why they are not showing up,” he said.

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Canada should have, for the first time, its three best NBA players on the same team (assuming Andrew Wiggins is healthy, he would join MVP runner-up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray, who has averaged 24.2 points in 65 playoff games and won an NBA title, like Wiggins. There’s also RJ Barrett, who played the best basketball of his career upon joining the Raptors and only turned 24 last week, as well as standout defenders Dillon Brooks, Lu Dort, last year’s captain Kelly Olynyk, also of the Raptors, and more.

But there are big names missing to be sure. That’s just how it’s going to be from now on if Canada consistently qualifies for Olympics and World Cups. Sportsnet had reported on the eve of this camp that veteran Cory Joseph, a past team captain, was “mad” and disappointed at not getting an invite. Joseph had participated for years, but after 13 years in the NBA, time and injuries have caught up with him and he was considered unlikely to make the cut. He also pulled out before last year’s World Cup, leaving the team short at point guard, but it was still odd that he didn’t even get an invite. Perhaps they wanted to avoid a possible distraction. Veteran point guard Kevin Pangos has battled injuries and wasn’t called on either.

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“I love both of these guys. They’ve been with us for so many years and they’ve given quite a lot to the country,” Rowan Barrett said. “I think their effort and their commitment are to be commended over the years and, look, I’ve known Cory since he was just above my knee and I used to play with his father in men’s leagues. I mean, there’s a tremendous amount of love here for him and Kevin,” Barrett said. “I used to be on the court in the gym with (Pangos) working when he was in high school. We love these guys. At the same time … We are putting together the strongest possible roster that we can put together in the areas that we believe we need in order to compete and be successful at the Olympics in Paris.”

Veteran big men Tristan Thompson and Chris Boucher were also not invited. Thompson has only played sparingly over the years and is also well past his prime, while Boucher has declined to play on several occasions. Memphis big man Brandon Clarke, who missed most of the season, could be an option in the next Olympic cycle but wasn’t this time around, while young NBA prospects such as Olivier Maxence-Prosper, Shaedon Sharpe, Bennedict Mathurin, Leonard Miller, Dalano Banton and more could be called on down the line (Sharpe and Mathurin will take in camp as Miller did last year).

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“It’s larger than us. It’s larger than our feelings,” Barrett said. “We must work towards winning. And to do that, we have to tweak here and there along the way, as we evaluate and as we continue to grow,” he said.

“And I believe that this is the beginning. Why do I say the beginning? Well, the work that we’ve been doing over the past decade to build our system, to build our athletes, to build our programs, driving things with the coaching and our organization’s growth over that time has put us in a position now that I believe firmly that we have a player pool in the pipeline that stocks us out to the 2032 Olympics and beyond. This is the beginning for us, we believe. We are ready and we will be taking on all comers.”

Canada used 44 players in the run-up and through the World Cup. Most of those men won’t make the cut. As the quality of the omissions for the Olympics indicates, Canada, isn’t just going to Paris to bask in the experience. They are there to get a medal.

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“We’re trying to get up to the top of the podium. It looks like two small steps (from bronze at the World Cup). It is not,” Barrett said. “They are two large steps that you have to jump up. And with these teams reloading all around the world, and looking at some specific areas that we felt we need to bolster and strengthen.” That’s why Wiggins and young Andrew Nembhard and veteran floor-spacing big man Trey Lyles will get a shot at enhancing the group.

“And then let’s kind of compete and have at it,” Barrett said. The battle for spots kicks off next week, with cuts expected before the team heads to Las Vegas on July 7 ahead of an exhibition with gold medal favourite USA.

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