In basketball, we often hear that player development is not linear, and that's also true in a team context.
Take the 2022-23 Toronto Raptors, for example: a talented team that was expected to take a big leap forward from its encouraging 2021-22 campaign, and instead took a massive step back.
There were all sorts of reasons for that setback, from players wanting bigger roles to the wrong mix of personalities in the locker room to a head coach that failed to get them to all buy into his schemes. But the single biggest issue for the 2022-23 Raptors might have just been that their competition got stronger while they plateaud.
The Canadian senior men’s basketball team is riding an all-time high after defeating the U.S. to win bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup and securing a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics while setting a new standard for the program. But in order to consistently achieve that level of success and become one of the best programs in the world, Canada Basketball would be wise to reflect on what enabled it to have so much success in the first place before moving forward.
After all, it’s obvious that talent alone doesn’t beget success in international basketball, as evidenced by Team USA’s fourth-place finish. In a sport as fluid and multidimensional as basketball, the recipe for success is always a whole lot more complicated.
So, what exactly did Canada do right at this World Cup? And where does the program go from here knowing the competition is only going to get stronger in Paris?
One thing Canada Basketball can’t take for granted when reflecting on its World Cup team is the character of the individuals on the roster and the way the twelve players got along with each other over the course of a six-week span.
After all, when asking players to spend their summers traveling the globe without any real monetary compensation, you want to make sure they enjoy their experience. And as much as winning eliminates all other problems, having team camaraderie can go a long way towards determining how players perform on the court and whether or not they continue to want to spend their summers suiting up for the national team in the future.
Canada Basketball is very lucky in that regard, as most of its talent pool has proven to be exceptionally high-character — guys who genuinely get along after having known each other since childhood. In fact, the Canadian basketball community is relatively small, and the support from the pros to the up-and-coming players is evident in the way they show up and sit courtside at CEBL and GLOBL JAM games every summer.
That’s not to say this is an ego-less bunch, but compared to many NBA players, the Canadians seem to root for each other's success and play together in a selfless way.
“This team was amazing, special. It's the beginning of something that it's going to last for a long time,” head coach Jordi Fernandez said. “And from the first guy [down] — all 12 guys came in and worked every day since August 1st. They got better at least one percent or better every day. And they built the identity that we just showed, the resiliency.”
Asked about what he learned about the personalities of his players after getting the head coaching job just one month before training camp, Fernandez said: “I've learned that they're great people and that I would take them on my team from now until the end of my career, all of them.”
Kelly Olynyk, the captain and 13-year senior team veteran, said this “is one of the closest knit groups I've been a part of with the national team, on and off the court.” Adding that “it's a testament to the character that everybody has in this locker room.”
That togetherness showed up on the court, too, especially in the moments when they had to dig deep and figure out ways to win tough games, including against Spain and against Team USA. In both instances, the Canadians trusted each other by sharing the ball instead of being selfish. And they were rewarded with monumental wins against top-ranked teams, proving the entire group has to be on the same page in order to have success, because even one bad apple can ruin a good bunch.
It’s become well known that last summer Team Canada asked for a three-year commitment from NBA players, establishing a 14-man summer core. It was said that those 14 players would be all but guaranteed a spot in international tournaments as long as they showed up for every required training camp and competition, the idea being that international basketball is about more than just talent and that chemistry and continuity were the new priorities for the senior men’s team.
In hindsight, it looks to have been a smart decision. All 14 players showed up to the two training camps in Toronto last summer — with the exception of Brooks, who was the lone unexcused absence — and then arrived in Toronto in early August to prepare for the World Cup. Of course, not all of those players made the 12-man roster, with Oshae Brissett, Kevin Pangos, Cory Joseph, Khem Birch and Jamal Murray not staying on for various reasons.
But the seven NBA players who did go to the World Cup got some very valuable experience playing together in the international game. In fact, it was one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the tournament, with a core made up of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (24), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (24), Lu Dort (24) and Brooks (27) all playing real minutes for the first time ever at a senior-level event, with RJ Barrett (23) playing in his second.
“We went through a lot. We played a lot of great games, tough environments, travel, adversity, ups and downs, different situations, whistles, everything, top to bottom, we experienced it,” Olynyk said about what the team went through this summer.
“We're young. We haven't played together… But we had a lot of adversity and we had to go through it,” Fernandez added. “So, that room for improvement is there. And we should be up there as a program for many, many years if we keep doing this.”
“I’m excited for our future, I'm excited for these guys and the young guys coming in having these guys as a role model and seeing how you work and how you work throughout the summer.”
Who those “young guys” turn out to be will be interesting. But after demonstrating the merits of chemistry and continuity, Canada Basketball will have to strike the right balance between rewarding talent and rewarding loyalty in the program going forward.
Exceptionalism for exceptional talent
Considering the 2024 Olympics are going to have more top-end NBA talent than the World Cup did, with Serbia likely adding Nikola Jokic, Greece likely adding Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Team USA likely adding several of their best, most veteran players, Canada will have to raise its ceiling if they want to return to the podium in 2024. After all, their bench — which was made up primarily of non-NBA players — struggled at times. And they should at least consider adding NBA players who were not in the Philippines to their Olympic roster.
“We have a great program. We have guys that are gonna want to be part of it. And we'll decide when the time comes. But all these guys have the number one ticket because they've made this happen and we believe in loyalty,” Fernandez said after the tournament. “Obviously, you [can] come and you fight for a spot, but we owe a lot to these guys. And if we want to build the right program, if we don't do it this way it would not make sense.”
Despite being non-committal about whether or not players who were not a part of that core-14 would be considered next summer, Fernandez hinted at the possibility of different players fighting for a spot. And that was the same message former head coach Nick Nurse and general manager Rowan Barrett have preached all along: that the priority will go to the core-14, but that other NBA players can fight for a roster spot if the circumstances are right.
Considering Birch and Pangos have been constantly injured, Joseph is getting older, and guys like Trae Bell-Haynes, Zach Edey and Phil Scrubb struggled in the World Cup, there should be spots up for grabs.
Murray will be at the top of the list and will likely have a spot if he is healthy enough to play given he showed up to training camps for the last two summers. But what about the others? The third best Canadian in the world is Andrew Wiggins, who played for the senior team in 2021 but would not sign a three-year commitment because of familial obligations. However, Wiggins told me last NBA season that “I would love to play [in 2024] if they made the Olympics.” Whether or not they ask him to is another question. And how the players feel about it is another one, still.
And then there is a host of young talent waiting in the wings — guys Andrew Nembhard, Bennedict Mathurin and Olivier-Maxence Prosper — who have played for Canada at the youth level but never got the chance to be a part of the core-14 because they weren’t yet in the NBA.
For what it’s worth, the players are already talking about recruiting for Paris. Because as much as continuity matters, exceptions are made for exceptional players.
“We all just wanted to make our country proud and let guys know that never came to the World Cup that we got to re-up for the Olympics,” Brooks said after defeating USA to win bronze. “We want gold. We know each and every team is re-ing up for the Olympics and we haven't been in the Olympics since 2000… So, we just want the best team possible that we can put out there and compete at a high level.”
“We have all the pieces, all the intangibles. We just got to be ready throughout the season, keep getting better each and every day, each and every month. And then, when we come back together [next summer], it's lock in, it's ready to go get that gold.”