FIBA World Cup: Why did the top Canadians sit out?

The 2019 FIBA World Cup turns out to be a massive disappointment for Canada, as they are eliminated in the group stage after failing to register a win against Australia or Lithuania. (Photo: Canada Basketball)

On Tuesday, Canada was eliminated from the FIBA World Cup after losing to Lithuania 92-69, which was preceded by a loss at the hands of Australia, 108-92. The Canadian roster for the 2019 FIBA World Cup boasts just two current NBA players, Cory Joseph of the Sacramento Kings and Khem Birch from the Orlando Magic. Kelly Olynyk of the Miami Heat would have made that three NBA players, but he’s dealing with a knee injury.

Canada’s roster is not supposed to be this bleak. The great white north is home to the second-most amount of players in the NBA behind the United States. Canada Basketball listed 17 NBA players on their camp invitation list, yet just 2 chose to play for their country.

As Canadians and as basketball fans, it’s hard to be angry at a player for declining to play. NBA players go through a rigorous 82 game schedule on top of travel, practice, media availability, etc. Even if they don’t play all 82 games, the preparation itself can be draining over long periods. These guys work enough, and they need some down time just like the rest of us.

“This really is the golden age of Canadian basketball” – Steve Nash, 2013

However, a Canadian team with most of their NBA players on the squad could compete in this tournament. With the juggernaut American team having trouble recruiting players, the field is wide open. What better way to cap off the Toronto Raptors’ championship than winning or even medalling at the FIBA World Cup? It would continue an exceptional 2019 for Canadian basketball.

The grassroots programs are better now than ever before. It feels like basketball is slowly working its way into the fabric of Canadian sports. The “Golden Era” of basketball is now in Canada, yet the FIBA team roster is quite the opposite of golden.

It’s not as if there’s a lack of encouragement for the best Canadians to play. Head coach Nick Nurse is coming off one of the best seasons ever displayed by a rookie head coach, winning the NBA title in his first season with the Raptors. That aspect itself should peak a player’s interests. Canadian basketball legend Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett, father of future Canadian NBA star RJ Barrett are running the ship. They’ve done a magnificent job in creating a foundation and culture in which Canadians can be proud to don their nation’s colours.

Here’s what Canada’s starting five could look like, if their top players were on the roster:

PG – Cory Joseph – 6.5 ppg, 3.9 ast, 3.4 trb in 2018-19

SG – Jamal Murray – 18.2 ppg, 4.8 ast, 4.2 trb in 2018-19

SF – Andrew Wiggins – 18.1 ppg, 2.3 ast, 4.8 trb in 2018-19

PF – Dwight Powell – 10.6 ppg, 1.5 ast, 5.3 trb in 2018-19

C – Tristan Thompson – 10.9 ppg, 2.0 ast, 10.2 trb in 2018-19

With players such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trey Lyles and Kelly Olynyk coming off the bench, Canada could compete with the likes of Australia and Spain in this tournament. They could certainly give the United States headaches as well. Canada clearly has the talent and pedigree, they simply lack participation at this point.

Could there be another reason for the lack of NBA talent on the Canadian roster? Perhaps some players believe that Canada won’t compete in the tournament anyways. Thus, there’s no reason to sacrifice preparation for the NBA season. With the lackluster manner in which Canada has performed on the international stage, why bother? If there’s not much trust in the program from players, then only results will change that. It’s a vicious cycle in which the best Canadians don’t have the desire to play, which leads to poor results. In turn, it encourages less and less players to participate.

With the way that Canada qualified for the FIBA World Cup, many Canadians were optimistic. It seemed like Canadian basketball was on the trajectory of causing real problems for the world’s best in 2019. Alas, the team has been eliminated after just two games. This tournament will be nothing more than a footnote in Canadian Basketball lore.

Let’s hope that by 2023, young talents Jamal Murray and RJ Barrett take Canada by the reigns and encourage their peers to do the same. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine a bright future for Canada on the world stage.

Statistics and info courtesy of Sportsnet, Toronto Sun and basketball-reference.com.

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