6 NBAers, including Gilgeous-Alexander, set to play on Canada's World Cup qualifying roster

·4 min read
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, centre, and Canadian national teammates applaud the crowd after a July game in Hamilton, Ont. Canada Basketball on Thursday announced its training camp roster for an upcoming World Cup qualifying window. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, centre, and Canadian national teammates applaud the crowd after a July game in Hamilton, Ont. Canada Basketball on Thursday announced its training camp roster for an upcoming World Cup qualifying window. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)

On paper, Canada's men's basketball can take one small step toward the 2024 Paris Olympics over the next week.

In reality, its two games hold slightly more significance.

Canada Basketball announced its training camp roster for a pair of World Cup qualifying contests on Thursday featuring six NBA players including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Oshae Brissett and veteran stalwarts Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell.

Additionally, five more NBA players — Jamal Murray, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Luguentz Dort and Khem Birch — will attend training camp but not play.

The team will be led by head coach Nick Nurse.

WATCH | Gilgeous-Alexander helps Canada beat Dominican Republic in World Cup qualifying:

The window represents an opportunity for Canada's top players to continue to gel and establish the chemistry the team lacked when it was eliminated from its last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria ahead of Tokyo 2020.

Canada will be back in Victoria for a game Thursday against Argentina before heading on the road to play Panama on Monday.

Halfway through World Cup qualifying, Canada sits atop Group E with six wins and no losses. There are two groups made of six countries each — the top three from each group, plus the next-best team, book their tickets to next year's tournament in Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia.

There, the top two teams from the Americas region earn berths to the Olympics. Otherwise, a good-enough finish lands you in a last-chance qualifying tournament.

Full core in attendance

In other words, Canada's upcoming games remain meaningful, even if a collapse resulting in missing the World Cup is extremely unlikely.

In May, 14 players committed to play when possible for Canada in the three-year cycle leading into Paris. Of those 14, 11 are NBAers — all of whom will be around the team in some capacity over the next couple of weeks.

Gilgeous-Alexander, his cousin Alexander-Walker, Powell and Olynyk each suited up during Canada's previous qualifying window.

The July appearance marked Gilgeous-Alexander's national-team debut. He had 32 points in a 95-75 win over the Dominican Republic in his hometown of Hamilton, Ont., and 24 points in a 113-67 win over the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Joseph missed the last window due to family reasons. Brooks was also absent, which reportedly put his guaranteed roster spot as part of the "core 14" in jeopardy.

Brooks, like Dort, Murray and Birch, is recovering from an injury suffered during the NBA season.

The three non-NBAers — seven-foot-four college centre Zach Edey and longtime national-team players Kevin Pangos and Melvin Ejim — were also named to the roster.

WATCH | Edey leads Canada past U.S. Virgin Islands:

Final windows during NBA season

The final two World Cup qualifying windows both take place during the NBA season. Canada hosts Venezuela (5-1) and Panama (2-4) in mid-November before going on the road to face Argentina (5-1) and Venezuela during the last week of February.

Those Canadian teams will likely be devoid of NBA talent in addition to Nurse. There's a good chance, then, that these two games are the last chance Canada's top players get to share the court with each other until next summer.

But even the World Cup, while important, may be viewed more through the lens of gaining valuable experience ahead of the Olympics.

"It's kind of the reverse of soccer," Canada Basketball president and CEO Michael Bartlett told CBC Sports recently. "Whereas soccer to a degree, it's the World Cup and then the Olympics next, FIBA's kind of different. It's like the Olympics first, World Cup next," he said.

Canada's men haven't reached the Olympics since a Steve Nash-led squad made the quarter-finals in 2000.

Also in Group E for World Cup qualifying are the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, each of whom Canada has beaten twice already.

Group F consists of the U.S., Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Colombia.

The FIBA AmeriCup, featuring many of the same countries, begins on Sept. 2. However, with nothing at stake beyond pride, there isn't expected to be many top players.

"I think what you're going to see is a mix of next generation guys that will be part of our system for a long time that aren't on the senior team right now. And then perhaps a mixture of some of our winter core guys just to kind of give some veteran and FIBA presence," Bartlett said.

Canada is currently ranked 18th in FIBA. It placed 21st of 32 teams at the 2019 World Cup.