Canada Basketball says Wiggins, others will have to fight for Olympic spot

‘We’re not giving away any spots’: GM Rowan Barrett

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Canada Basketball has announced an impressive group of men who will compete to make a team heading to the Olympics for the first time since 2000.

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And compete many of them must, no matter how well-known they are.

That means you, Andrew Wiggins, a one-time all-star and NBA champion. And you, Andrew Nembhard, a standout in the recent NBA playoffs. And Trey Lyles, a veteran who has played for Canada in the past and for head coach Jordi Fernandez in the NBA.

“We’re not giving any spots, regardless of how big the name is that’s coming in, that hasn’t been here,” general manager Rowan Barrett said at a Wednesday media session after the 20-man camp roster was announced.

“Here” would refer to the core group that helped Canada win bronze at last year’s FIBA World Cup. Those players are safe. The group is led by superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who just finished second in NBA MVP voting, wings Dillon Brooks, Lu Dort, RJ Barrett and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, big men Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell plus Jamal Murray, who has been at camp but unable to compete the previous two years. They’ll likely comprise eight of the final 12 names heading to Paris. The 7-foot-4 Zach Edey is a wildcard (more on that later). Assuming they are healthy, Wiggins, Nembhard and Lyles should make the cut, despite what Barrett said Wednesday, though they won’t get a cookie just for showing up.

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“Whoever’s coming in here, they have to try out for this team. I think Jordi has been very, very clear. You gotta try out,” Barrett said. “And so hopefully everyone will come in healthy, they’ll work as hard as they can. Why should it be any other way?”

It all felt very foreign for long-time observers of the Canadian hoops program. For many years they did everything short of beg for the best and the brightest to show up.

They’ve never had anywhere close to this many elite players want to play. And as Canada Basketball president and CEO Michael Bartlett said Wednesday, the surge of interest has carried beyond the court, too. Corporate Canada has been stepping up considerably, trying to catch a wave Bartlett says he hopes will echo the ones Vince Carter and the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors brought about in this country.

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Bartlett mentioned Canada Basketball previously existed on government funding that was in excess of 70% of its support. Now he says the governmental cut of funding is closer to 25% while overall money is up thanks to the Global Jam event Canada Basketball put on in Toronto and through hosting FIBA qualifiers.

A strong result by the men’s and women’s sides in France would put the organization in an even better spot.

And on that, Wiggins could be a key. Barrett is hoping Wiggins is ready to deliver again after a rough season in Golden State where he dealt with injuries and personal issues following his not being available for the World Cup last summer.

Previously Wiggins had starred for Golden State on the way to a title and also was arguably Canada’s best performer in both 2015 and 2021 Olympic qualifying tournaments where his teams fell just short of getting back to the Olympics for the first time since Barrett was the captain and Steve Nash the team’s best player.

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“Andrew Wiggins is a pro, every time he’s been within our walls, he’s played extremely good basketball,” Barrett said. “A healthy, strong, Andrew Wiggins is a very, very, good player.”

Adding Nembhard at a position of need — backup point guard — should also be big for the team. And Murray could be the trump card.

“From everything I understand, he’s ready and he wants to be here. He’s here with all of his powers … sometimes when you’re going into a war, you need a nuclear option and he’s that,” Barrett said of the Denver Nuggets guard who is widely considered one of the best big-game players in basketball.

Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray have a case as being the best backcourt in the world. Size could be an issue, but Canada will try to be faster and more athletic than everyone but the United States, should they meet at the Olympics to try to make up for that.

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And there’s a chance Edey could be there. The two-time reigning NCAA player of the year will be drafted next week, possibly in the lottery, and though teams usually don’t allow incoming rookies to play international ball the summer they are picked, Barrett responded to a Postmedia query by saying in an Olympic year teams seem more willing to allow it. Plus, Canada Basketball will be on the phone with Edey’s new team immediately asking for his release for Paris, Barrett said with a smile.

If Edey gets the go-ahead and Wiggins, Nembhard and Lyles are deemed the best choices, it means four players from the World Cup roster — Melvin Ejim, Phil Scrubb, Kyle Alexander and Trae Bell-Haynes — will miss out, along with fellow invitees NBA veteran Khem Birch, who has represented Canada many times in the past, new NBA champion Oshae Brissett, former Carleton University star Thomas Scrubb and G League veteran Mfiondu Kabengele, the nephew of Dikembe Mutombo. Young NBA players Bennedict Mathurin and Shaedon Sharpe will attend camp but aren’t in contention for spots, Barrett said.

@WolstatSun

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