July 12th, 2024

Canadian basketball shows bright future for men’s, women’s sides in successful 2023

By Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press on December 18, 2023.

Canada guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives past U.S. forward Mikal Bridges (5) during the Basketball World Cup bronze medal game between the United States and Canada in Manila, Philippines, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. A corner was turned on the heels of disappointment for Canada Basketball. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Conroy

A corner was turned on the heels of disappointment for Canada Basketball.

The Canadian senior men’s attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Games ended in July 2021, when it lost to Czechia in the semifinals of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament in Victoria.

Canada Basketball’s front office altered its approach after failing to qualify for its first Olympics since 2000, with 14 players signing three-year commitments in May 2022.

One year later, Canada won its first-ever FIBA World Cup medal, taking bronze with a win over the United States in September, and qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“Our failure to qualify for the previous Olympics, we just completely changed our approach,” said general manager Rowan Barrett. “It’s a privilege to play on your national team and to represent your country “¦ and we determined that we wanted a three-year commitment at that point.

“Players that could not (commit), for whatever the reason, and sometimes they’re good reasons, “¦ we said, ‘OK, you know, we’ll move on from them and we’ll maybe look at them again in the next quad if they’re able to commit.’

“But we’re going to go with the guys that are able to commit so that we could build continuity as a team and not try to show up like an all-star team, but as an actual team that’s growing each year and able to build systematically on top of each year.”

That group of players included Oklahoma City Thunder superstar guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray, New York Knicks guard-forward RJ Barrett and Houston Rockets forward Dillon Brooks.

While Murray pulled out following training camp to recover – camp was just six weeks after Denver won the NBA title – the other three furthered their names on the international stage, especially Gilgeous-Alexander who was a World Cup tournament all-star.

Canada’s bronze-medal win over the U.S. caused some American NBA superstars that did not compete, including Kevin Durant, to express interest in going to Paris.

While U.S. didn’t have its absolute best lineup at the World Cup, Canada had its share of impactful NBA players that did not compete and some that have not committed. But Rowan Barrett isn’t keen on an overhaul.

“All-star teams are proven to not necessarily win in these tournaments,” he said. “It’s really not about the collecting of the most possible talent.

“It’s about creating the best team. “¦ You add things in and maybe you add the wrong things and then maybe the synergy is not the same.

“Are we open to making a tweak or a change here or there? I think we almost have to do that and make sure that we are strong in every area. It’s about shoring up any potential weaknesses that we feel we have is more I think my focus as opposed to, let’s throw as much talent in here as we can. I think we are talented.”

With much of its NBA talent on the younger side, Canada – which climbed from 15th to sixth in the FIBA rankings – still has room for growth. That group includes reigning consensus NCAA national player of the year, Zach Edey, a seven-foot-four centre who provided much-needed depth in the frontcourt.

“Being surrounded by the type of talent that I was surrounded by all off-season, it’s really cool,” the Purdue Boilermakers senior said. “It was really cool to see them work and all the time they really put into their games. It was a learning moment for me.

“Just to go out and win the bronze, first time in Canadian history to medal in that event, it’s really, really cool. For the rest of my life, I’m going to be able to say that I was on that team that did that, so it’s an honour.”

The senior women’s team is trending in a similar direction.

Laeticia Amihere, a 22-year-old whose finished her rookie season with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, and UConn Huskies star senior Aaliyah Edwards, 21, already competed at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

But rising Notre Dame sophomore Cassandre Prosper and ESPN’s 11th-ranked 2024 prospect and Michigan commit Syla Swords were on the senior team for the AmeriCup and Olympic pre-qualifying competition this year.

Prosper, Swords and ESPN’s ninth-ranked 2024 prospect and Duke commit, Toby Fournier, starred at the FIBA U19 Women’s Basketball World Cup, where Canada won bronze. Fournier was a tournament all-star, while Prosper led the team in scoring.

The influx of young talent could serve the national women’s team well as it seeks to qualify for Paris at a tournament in February, and beyond.

“We have a lot of talent coming and I think that’s going to translate into the senior women’s team too,” Fournier said. “When we got the bronze this year, we had a lot of different incredible talents throughout the team.

“It’s looking really good. The development of women’s basketball in Canada is just looking like it’s on a rampage.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2023.

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