Huge collection of talent gathers for Canada Basketball training camp with one absence

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It wasn’t Avengers assemble, but the most talented collection of Canadian basketball players ever gathered in one place was pretty impressive to see in downtown Toronto on Friday.

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Canada’s senior men’s team is returning to the Olympics this summer for the first time since 2000 and superstar guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (the NBA MVP runner-up) and Jamal Murray were on hand, along with stalwarts like RJ Barrett, Kelly Olynyk, Dillon Brooks, Andrew Nembhard, Lu Dort and many more.

“I always breathe a little easier when I see them on the floor. It’s good. There was some good competition out there,” Canada general manager Rowan Barrett said after the first practice. “Their bodies are generally in good shape, and the coaches ran ’em through the paces. Definitely a good first day.”

Though head coach Jordi Fernandez made sure to put the emphasis on the group over individuals over and over, Murray is the marque addition to a team that won bronze at last year’s FIBA World Cup and knocked off powerhouses like the United States and Spain along the way. The second-best player on the 2022-23 NBA champion Denver Nuggets is one of the best big-game performers in the sport and is reportedly set to sign a four-year contract extension worth more than $200 million U.S. And Fernandez is thrilled to have him.

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“It opens up a world of a lot of things that can happen in a good way,” Fernandez said when asked about it by Postmedia. “Superstar talent matching with what we had already, what we built last summer. He was actually around for a week with us (last year in training camp, but didn’t play at the World Cup), which you can tell already,” Fernandez said. “And again, we’re trying to build the team. The players are not the most important thing. The glue is the most important thing and we’re trying to find that glue day by day to come together as a team.”

Of course, for anyone familiar with the history, it wouldn’t be Canada Basketball without a wrench being thrown into the proceedings though.

That came in the form of late-breaking news that another expected key addition, veteran forward Andrew Wiggins, would not be joining up after all. Wiggins had been Canada’s top performer in both 2015 and 2021 and was expected to be a big help at both ends of the floor.

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But as Barrett explained it, the Golden State Warriors made a late call to change those plans.

“Well, for us, Andrew was fine. We were talking to him consistently. He’s been training for weeks and weeks getting ready for this. And then I got a call from Golden State a day or two before camp saying that they’re holding him out,” Barrett said. “So, from what I see, this is not an Andrew decision. This is from the team. And so he won’t be with us.”

A request for comment from the Warriors to Postmedia late Friday was not immediately returned.

Wiggins, the son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins and ex-olympian Marita Payne-Wiggins, had talked on a recent media tour of being excited to get the opportunity to head to Paris.

“Most of all, I’m disappointed for him. I think, he’s gone through a lot the last couple of years,” Barrett said of Wiggins, who has battled injuries as well as dealt with personal matters. “And then obviously his mother was an Olympian. This is something he (was) looking forward to and working towards and really on the uphill climb … especially ending the season last year.

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“Bummed for him. And I had a good conversation with him, and he’s definitely, trying to push the guys down the track almost, so to speak, hoping for the best for the guys.”

Barrett organized a gathering of many Canadian Basketball alumni in Toronto to get together to celebrate the return to the Olympics as well as to help inspire this group.

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“Nobody’s been in the Olympics that’s on the floor before and these guys are standing on the shoulders of those of us that have and I thought it was important for them to see them to hear from them,” Barrett said. “Maybe gain some understanding from them about the Olympics about that experience about what it meant to their lives and what it still means to their lives, as well as to make sure that Canada Basketball also showing love to those that came before.”

Barrett, himself the captain of the 2000 squad which went on a stirring run before losing to France, said he spoke to the players Friday morning.

“For me, the simple thing is history is upon us here. There’s tremendous opportunity here, but we’re not going to get it all in one day. We’ve got to somehow not think about all the expectations and just kind of focus one day at a time,” he said.

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