Especially after the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Finals, excitement for Canadian basketball is riding high. But it isn’t all good news.
Following the momentous victory for the Raptors, NBA veterans Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk were expected to lead the charge for Canada during the 2019 World Cup in China. Olynyk, however, reportedly slipped on a wet court during an exhibition game against Nigeria and bruised his right knee and has been ruled out.
2019 G League MVP Chris Boucher, who was on a two-way contract for Toronto when they won the title, pulled out after just two days on the roster. Meanwhile, Joseph reportedly did not arrive in Australia for warmup games without any reason publicly provided.
Even though Joseph did not immediately join his team for exhibition games, he is expected to play for Team Canada in the World Cup.
That leaves just Joseph and big man Khem Birch as the only players for Canada who have NBA experience that will play in the tournament.
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who will lead the Canadian Men’s National Basketball team, was recently asked about some of the more notable absences (via CBC.ca):
“I know it’s a hot topic but it hasn’t entered my mind who isn’t here. I can’t function that way. I don’t want to function that way. I’ve got to go with what we got and I’m excited. I keep using the word ‘exhilarated.’ This is a hell of an honour for me to be coaching the Canadian national team and with the chance to do well in the World Cup. We’re going to the World Cup, man, that’s a hell of a tournament and a chance to go to the Olympics. So it’s a lifelong dream of mine.”
Outside of Joseph and Olynyk, the first player missing that comes to mind who is not on the roster is former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins. But the Minnesota Timberwolves wing has not played with the senior national team since 2015 and was never expected to participate this time around.
Especially without Wiggins, their star power became a lot less flashy when The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that rookie wing RJ Barrett would not compete in the tournament.
Barrett, who is attending training camp for the national team, suffered a mild calf strain during summer league with the New York Knicks. He led his country to win the gold medal at the U19 World Cup in 2017 and won MVP honors, averaging 21.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. His father Rowan Barrett, who helped lead the national team to silver at the FIBA Americas tournament in 1999, is the general manager of the program.
Other significant absences include legitimate rising stars in the backcourt like Jamal Murray (who joined Barrett at training camp but suffered a tweaked ankle) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Solid NBA role players like Tristan Thompson, Dwight Powell, Trey Lyles, Dillon Brooks and 2019 Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke are all eligible but not active.
We can add Nik Stauskas as well as NBA rookies Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Mfiondu Kabangele, Ignas Brazdeikis, Luguentz Dort and Marial Shayok to this list as well.
Donovan Bennett offered an explanation for the lack of participation in the upcoming tournament, noting that the omissions are not isolated to Canada and are impacting national teams around the world (via Sportsnet.ca):
“When longtime stalwarts who have been outspoken about their allegiance to the program like Powell and Brooks aren’t playing, it shows the issue is systemic and not just a reflection on the program.”
There are several factors in play beyond just national pride, including the massive total distance time required and the lack of time separating the end of the World Cup and the start of the NBA season. Plus, the Olympics are just one year away — which is a lot more enticing and also offers far more exposure.
While the recruiting challenges are not unique to Canada, the story is not one new to 2019. Samuel Dalembert, for example, became a Canadian citizen in 2007. He was unexpectedly dismissed from the team shortly after and refused to play for former head coach Leo Rautins, who stepped down in 2011.
Jamaal Magloire (an NCAA champion and NBA All-Star who never played for Team Canada) and three-time NBA champion Rick Fox raised eyebrows for their omissions in the early 2000s, as noted by Robert Macleod (via The Globe and Mail)
“[Magloire’s] relationship with Canada’s national team has also been strained and both [he and Fox] … were roundly criticized in some media quarters during the summer for their refusal to play for Canada in the Olympics.”
Steve Nash, the most heralded basketball player from the country, was once a fixture for the team and helped them qualify for the Olympics in 1999. He was named MVP at the FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament in 2003.
Canada, however, finished fourth overall and did not make the Olympics the following year. Jay Triano was fired as head coach and Nash never suited up as a player after that. For what it’s worth, Nash served as general manager for the national team in May 2012 and re-hired Triano. The legendary point guard and two-time NBA MVP is now the senior advisor for the program.
Here is a breakdown of some of the biggest omissions from top players in recent Canadian basketball history.