Pivotal summer for Canadian men's basketball begins with Tampa training camp

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Canada Basketball general manager Rowan Barrett, left, and head coach Nick Nurse, right, look to pick their 12 best players for an upcoming last-chance Olympic qualifier during training camp in Tampa. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada Basketball general manager Rowan Barrett, left, and head coach Nick Nurse, right, look to pick their 12 best players for an upcoming last-chance Olympic qualifier during training camp in Tampa. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)

In 2021, the centre of the Canadian basketball universe is Tampa, Fla.

First the Toronto Raptors relocated there, followed by the Canadian women's team in preparation for the AmeriCup (where they are currently undefeated).

Now, the senior men's team has moved in, with head coach Nick Nurse making his return to the hotel training facilities where training camp began on Wednesday.

After around 10 days in Florida, the team will head back north to Victoria for the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament, which runs June 29-July 4. All of Canada's games will be broadcast on CBC TV.

Canada, which boasts the second-most NBA players of any country, should be an instant podium contender if it reaches Tokyo. But the Canadian men haven't reached that stage since 2000, when a surprising round-robin run gave way to a heart-breaking quarter-final loss to France.

It's been 21 years since then — long enough for guard Rowan Barrett to graduate to general manager of a team likely to feature his son, RJ.

"We're happy with the group that we have. And our goal hasn't changed. Our plan is to qualify this team to go to the Olympics," Barrett said in a media availability on Wednesday.

In May, Canada Basketball released a list of 21 names who had committed to attend training camp. But on Tuesday, Sportsnet reported Dillon Brooks, Tristan Thompson and Oshae Brissett would no longer be with the team.

A day later, a 24-man Canadian roster appeared on the FIBA website. Additions included a group of young players likely destined for U19 camp after gaining some senior experience. Subtractions included Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Clarke and Khem Birch, though Brooks and Brissett remained on the list.

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But if all are confirmed to be absent, that would mean six more NBA players Canada will be without, including four players experts agreed should make the final 12-man roster.

"Some of them committed to us during their season, the time of their playoffs. And then you come out of that time and some might have injuries, some minor challenges," Barrett said, choosing not to mention specific players by name.

"We want to make sure that we don't take our focus off of the players that are here and make sure that we honour them for the time that they are committed and coming back into a bubble and sacrificing their time."

Birch and Olynyk are slated to hit NBA free agency on Aug. 2.

Talent for Nurse to work with

Still, Canada promises to have plenty of talent at its disposal. Cory Joseph, Andrew Wiggins, Lu Dort, RJ Barrett and Dwight Powell make up the core of a team Nurse says has strengths at point guard and on the wing.

"It's not necessarily about having 12 all-stars," Barrett said. "It's about making the best team that you can make. This is not an all-star competition."

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One issue that remains, regardless of who is in camp, is a lack of chemistry and reps together. Joseph and Birch were the only NBAers to play in the 2019 World Cup, where Spain showed how much experience matters specifically in FIBA by winning gold.

That makes training camp, and Nurse's job in Tampa, even more vital.

"You do everything you possibly can to build some chemistry, some understanding of roles, lots of trying to figure out the right groups and get them playing together and fending together and doing stuff together and trying to get to know each other and connect," Nurse said.

Fans in Victoria a possibility

If the summer is a success, chemistry will be less of an issue moving forward. Players, coaches and staff have committed to be with the team for seven weeks. If Canada wins in Victoria, it would then move to Hawaii to begin acclimatizing to the time change in Japan before heading to Tokyo.

Powell, who returned to the NBA's Dallas Mavericks this season after suffering a torn Achilles, said a challenge lies ahead.

"Especially in these kind of strange COVID pandemic times where we're going to be under rather strict protocols to make sure that everybody is safe and we can keep all our guys together. But when that reason is to compete for your country, it makes the decision a little bit easier," Powell said.

When Canada last played in the Olympics, it qualified with a win in Puerto Rico against the host nation. Having a home crowd in Victoria could be a bonus.

Tournament organizers told CBC Sports a request was made to B.C. to allow 10 per cent capacity for Canadian games. Barrett also suggested on Wednesday a plan to fill some of the stands was in the works.

The decision from the province is expected to come by the end of next week, days before the tournament begins.

For now, Barrett, Nurse and Canada Basketball will spend time evaluating the players currently in Tampa to pick the best 12 for Victoria.

"It starts with the commitment and the love that the players put into it. And then it goes to staff and organization and goes up into the bleachers," Nurse said.

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