Could the time have finally come for Canada Basketball?
It’s hard to describe what it’s like walking into a gym that contains, quite possibly, the greatest group of talent that Canada Basketball has ever produced.
The floor screeches with sneakers moving at a frantic pace, as we in the media collectively gather at the end of the court to witness the final ten minutes of a controlled scrimmage.
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The pace is furious, as eight of the nine current NBA players on the roster do battle against each other as if it were the fourth quarter against old foe Argentina a few weeks from now.
The ninth chats with a trainer, cracking a smile while he cycles on the bike machine at a controlled pace, closely keeping one eye on the court at all times to see who he will be starting with to kick off the tournament.
His teammates are putting that vote of confidence to him as well, even considering this will be Wiggins first senior international tournament representing his country.
When NBA and Team Canada teammate, Anthony Bennett, was asked if there was anything Wiggins’ needed any advice about, going into his first senior FIBA event, Bennett replied, “it don’t matter, just put him out there and you will get a show.”
Antony Bennett speaks to the press after the final day of training camp. (Photo: Ryan Greco)
No, there will not be any “if we just had such and such,” or “if this guy wasn’t hurt,” conversations before, during, or after Canada plays in Mexico for the FIBA America’s, and the right to go the 2016 Rio Olympic Summer Games.
All the cards are on the table, and we will now truly see what this collection of young talented men are made of in just over a week from now.
Even without Tristan Thompson, who continues to do battle with the Cavaliers front office over a contract extension, this team is stacked with NBA talent, and GTA content for that matter as well.
Eight of the 13 players on this roster hail from within 45 minutes of Toronto. Even Canadian “Wonder-kid” Jamal Murray, who torched the Pan Am’s averaging 16 points in nearly 20 minutes a game, comes from Kitchener, just an hour and a half from the 6ix.
Murray was in street clothes on the sidelines just soaking in the atmosphere, much like us. The difference is, most people don’t get a chance to pick the brains of former Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell, or former Argos hall of fame running back Mike “Pinball” Clemons, while doing so.
He had participated in every training session until yesterday, when he was finally released so that he could fulfill his commitments to report to Kentucky later this week.
“it don’t matter, just put him out there and you will get a show.” – Anthony Bennett, when asked if their was anything Andrew Wiggins needed to learn about the international game.
Overall, the atmosphere seemed almost as much of a social gathering as it was a final day of training camp.
It was a who’s who of Canadian basketball, from media personalities, to former and current NBA players and coaches, that had any tie to this country’s now blossoming basketball scene.
You almost got the sense that they all understood just as well as I did when I walked into that practice facility, that they were watching history unfold.
Michael “Pinball” Clemons rallies the troops at the end of practice. (Photo: Ryan Greco)
Once the players finished their final minutes of the scrimmage, which I must say was the best scrimmage I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes, the entire team and coaching staff gathered at center court. Coach Jay Triano said a few words before Pinball took center stage, and in that instant it became clear why he was there.
A few inspirational lessons and words in self-confidence, some timely jokes, and about 10 minutes later, every player left the huddle looking relaxed and full of smiles, ready to get their individual workouts on.
Meanwhile, Coach Triano and a few of the veteran guys took the time to field the scrum media session the press originally came for.
First was Triano, who fielded a number of strategy questions from the TSN and Sportsnet field reporters that were in attendance.
I personally stayed out of this one, preferring to get a couple good snapshots of the experience, while letting the seasoned vets, like Michael Grange of Sportsnet, get their two cents in before the players began to come up.
Meanwhile, as Coach Triano stepped away from our media makeshift huddle, Toronto’s new favourite son, Cory Joseph, stepped into the fray, receiving some well wishes for celebrating his 24th birthday.
I had a chance to ask him what he might bring to the table in experience, despite his young age.
“I’ve had a chance to be on a lot of big stages and start my career with a good team, and with my experiences from two years ago with the last FIBA America’s,” said Joseph. “I’m just telling these guys to relax, play the game, and at the end of the day, it’s basketball, you put forth the effort, then you have to live with the results.”
Never forget, Joseph spent his lone college season challenging for an NCAA national title alongside Tristan Thompson, and went on to begin his pro career under the tutelage of future hall of fame coach, Gregg Popovich, and future hall of fame point guard, Tony Parker.
He’s won an NBA title, and has been looked upon to be the future of the Toronto Raptors now after signing this offseason with his hometown club, only the second Torontonian to ever do so.
Cory Joseph speaks to the media after practice. (Photo: Ryan Greco)
He speaks with a recognizable east end accent, a welcome change I’m sure most fans will embrace the more they get to know him. He even leaves the scrum cracking a joke, suggesting we bring champagne the next time he runs into us. We all got a good chuckle from it.
You can tell these guys like being around each other.
“We’ve all known each other for years now,” says Bennett. “We’ve all either played together through either the national program, AAU, college, or the NBA. Coming here is less like reporting to training camp and more like a family reunion in my opinion.”
Bennett speaks the truth, and although none of these guys will likely ever get to personally know the fans, I’m sure the feeling is mutual whenever we all get a chance to see them lace it up wearing the red and white.
Especially their generation, the 16’s to 26’s, guys that might have even had a chance to lace it up either in the parks, community centers, AAU programs, or simply just watched them from the stands at local high schools before they headed to bigger things down south.
This generation of ballers are the best we’ve ever grown, and yet, despite all of the ESPN highlights or games on TNT, they have never felt more real than ever before, never so easily to reach out and touch.
They are approachable like us in a typical Canadian way. They talk like us, clown like us, just as if they were playing pick up at the Harbourfront just a few blocks away, or the Hoopdome that’s a shot up the DVP and across the 401.
This is our team.
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There has never been a better representation of our country in one roster. From the slick talkers and sly smiles of the east end and Brampton in Joseph and Bennett, to the fiery and chip on the shoulder play of Quebec in Oliver Hanlan, to the reserve, yet confident intensity, always looking for the better play that is so well known from out west that Philip Scrubb and Kelly Olynyk bring in spades.
Men’s national team head coach Jay Triano Speaks to media after practice. (Photo: Ryan Greco
But when the chips are down and all else fails, there is only going to be one player this team will be looking at. It’s the same skinny kid from Vaughan that was riding the bike the moment the media walked into the gym.
Wiggins will be tasked with leading this new generation to a land only Steve Nash almost singlehandedly took them to, and nearly walked away with an Olympic medal for good measure, 16 long years ago.
This will not be a one man show this time, however.
Standing in their way is not the mighty US of A, but will in fact be some of the best the world has to offer, and just like Canada, they will be loaded with their own NBA talent.
They will be more battle tested in the international game, they will bring a foreign style to the court, from insane ball movement, to patented floaters that most of our kids only try out of desperation.
Some of these players from Brazil and Argentina will make that shot look easy.
But Canada Basketball has something going for it, the taste of failure and the lessons learned from it.
Between the defeats at the hands of Argentina back in 2013, to the recent drubbing at the hands of Brazil on home court during the Pan Am Games, this team now knows that NBA talent doesn’t automatically mean victory.
They will have to earn it.
Coach Triano will have to show them the way, and he’s got the best talent he’s ever had to work with, so the expectations, although leveled among analysts, are sky-high on the streets.
If We The North is truly here, this tournament is going to prove it.