After a disappointing start to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, something finally broke right for the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team.
Even with their truncated roster, beating Senegal was always the expectation. And yet, given all the bad press surrounding the ineptitudes of the Canadian program, this 82-60 win came as a sigh of relief. If nothing else, this result should deliver a confidence boost for the Canadians as they look to salvage the tournament with a strong showing in the consolation round.
At first, it seemed as if another humiliation was on the horizon, as Senegal raced out to a 22-9 advantage. However, the Canadians regrouped and dictated the terms from thereon, as they won the final three quarters of the game and claimed a stress-free win to secure third place in the Group of Death. Canada will now face Jordan in their first consolation game on Saturday.
Here are three takeaways from Thursday’s victory:
Captain Cory to the rescue
Cory Joseph deserves to be celebrated for always showing up for his country, no matter the circumstances. Yes, it looked for a time that Joseph would waiver in his commitment this summer with so many dropouts, but the 28-year-old ultimately suited up and he’s been the program’s best player.
Joseph was nothing short of sensational against Senegal, as he led all scorers with 24 points in 30 minutes. Joseph was steady throughout, but he came alive in the third quarter by knocking down three triples in short succession to break the game wide open. Thanks to his efforts, Canada was able to hit cruise control in the fourth.
Coming up on his ninth season, it’s clear that Joseph will be a career backup in the NBA. There’s no shame in that, as Joseph has never once missed the playoffs in his three stops through Toronto, San Antonio, and Indiana. But by playing in these international competitions, Joseph is able to showcase the full breadth of his game that his NBA role would otherwise limit.
Joseph did a bit of everything in this win. He got to the rack at will, but also showcased the perimeter game. Joseph’s crossover consistently creates space for his trusty midrange pull-up, and he was on such a roll from deep that Nick Nurse was drawing up plays for Joseph to come around pin-down screens to catch and shoot as a shooting guard would.
Another positive sign moving forward is that Joseph finally seemed to click with Kevin Pangos in the backcourt. Both players have contributed, but it’s been an awkward partnership at times with each guard trading turns in leading the offense. Joseph and Pangos looked to have finally found the right balance in the third quarter, as both players fed off each other to pick Senegal apart. Admittedly, these kinks could have been worked out earlier had Joseph appeared in the full exhibition slate, but that’s water under the bridge.
Khem Birch showing more
Canadian legend Steve Nash grabbed headlines for criticizing this generation of players for failing to represent the national team. But the larger point that he was making was that playing internationally benefited his career, and he hopes that today’s players can recognize the value in that.
Birch can attest to the additive value of playing in the World Cup. Initially, he expected to be a backup, but with injuries and absences piling up, Birch found himself as the most important player on the roster, and he sees the benefit of having added responsibilities.
"Coach Nurse gives you the freedom to do that stuff. A lot of guys say they want to stay home and work on their games, but there is no better way to do that than in an actual game and I’m doing that right now," Birch told the Canadian Press.
Birch’s role with the Orlando Magic is reductive. He’s strictly a shot-blocker and a dunker, as over 95 percent of his attempts came from within 10 feet of the rim last season. There is no room for growth because that’s not what his club needs. The Magic already have Nikola Vucevic locked into a $100-million deal, so Birch is stuck in his role as an energy big.
And look, it’s not as if Birch is the next Tim Duncan, but there’s more in his game than his NBA role allows, as evidenced by his performance with the national team. Nurse has given Birch the green light to do a bit of everything: Birch will grab the rebound and start the fast break, he’ll step into midrange and the occasional three-point shot, he’s being featured in the post, and most importantly, he’s being empowered to make his own decisions on the floor.
There’s value in Birch getting reps in live action. Hustle bigs are a dime a dozen, but teams pay handsomely for versatility from the center position. Birch is already a success story — he toiled in the G-League and played in Turkey after going undrafted — and there’s no reason to limit himself. Birch is entering his third season in the NBA, and if he keeps on improving, he’ll be in line for a significant raise in free agency next summer.
What happened to the secondary options?
With all due respect to last-ditch replacements in Conor Morgan and Owen Klassen, Canada needs more talent to reach their goals, and even with so much of their NBA talent missing, better options should still be available.
In the frontcourt, either one of Andrew Nicholson or Andrew Bennett would have been an improvement. Klassen plays like Tyler Hansbrough without the physicality, and it’s disheartening to see him repeatedly blocked at the rim by guards. Bennett flamed out of the NBA after going first overall, but he has since re-established himself as a star at the G-League level. Even Nicholson would have contributed, as he stands 6-foot-9 and can stretch it out to the perimeter.
As for wings, players like Nik Stauskas or Xavier Rathan-Mayes could have been useful. Neither one matches Morgan for size, but both best him in skill. Stauskas is a lights out shooter who could play small forward in a pinch, while Rathan-Mayes is a microwave scorer with more shot creation ability than anyone on Canada’s bench.
What’s strange is that none of the aforementioned names were even among the 29 Canadians invited to training camp. It’s almost as if the Canadian program went all-in on NBA-level talent and failed to even consider a backup plan. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that Canada shouldn’t ever have to dig so deep when the country is producing so much talent.
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