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Canada’s national basketball team has high hopes for rookies

Andrew Wiggins of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepares to take a free throw against the Milwaukee Bucks in an NBA summer league basketball Friday, July 11, 2014, in Las Vegas.

John Locher/AP

Competing demands and the crunch of time this summer means Canada Basketball will not be able to field an ideal roster for a run of important exhibition games in Europe in late July and early August.

But even with the swirl of difficult logistics, everyone involved – players, national team bosses and NBA executives – is working to strike a happy balance for this summer's games to be well prepared ahead of next year's August qualification tournament for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The biggest name, 19-year-old Andrew Wiggins of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is "leaning towards" playing for a portion of this summer's schedule, according to his father, Mitchell.

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Canada Basketball met Sunday night with Cleveland executives, including general manager David Griffin, who were in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League.

The Cavaliers understand how important Wiggins, last year's No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, 2011 No. 4 pick Tristan Thompson and the recently acquired Stanford grad Dwight Powell are to the Canadian national team. Canadian officials, led by general manager Steve Nash and assistant GM Rowan Barrett, know there's a long and grinding 82-game NBA regular season and maybe playoffs ahead for the rookie Wiggins; he played only 35 games for the University of Kansas last winter.

Canada Basketball stages a three-day training camp for the senior men's national team starting Sunday at the Toronto Raptors practice facility at the Air Canada Centre – Sunday being the final day of Summer League where Canada's top NBA prospects are playing in Las Vegas. But Wiggins, Bennett and Powell could miss the national team camp if the Cavaliers qualify for Monday night's Summer League final, an example of the tight off-season basketball schedule.

After the July 20-22 camp, Canada Basketball has arranged an 11-game exhibition schedule in Europe, July 24-Aug. 12. Canada last year failed to qualify for this summer's FIBA World Cup in Spain, and instead arranged the exhibition games to stay battle-ready for the FIBA Americas tournament in August, 2015.

The national team fortunes don't fully rest on the young shoulders of NBA rookies such as Wiggins, Nik Stauskas (Sacramento) and Tyler Ennis (Phoenix). Players such as Thompson, Los Angeles Laker Robert Sacre and Boston Celtic Kelly Olynyk already have NBA experience.

Even with the recent surge of young basketball talent, it will not be easy to qualify for Rio. If Canada does make it – which would be the first time the men have reached the Olympics since 2000 in Sydney – the possibilities begin to flourish. The Olympics' 12-team tournaments can be upset-prone, and by then the young core of Canada's team will have earned a couple more years of NBA experience. Winning a medal would not be completely unrealistic.

The longer-term outlook, casting an eye to 2020 at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, sees Canada as a true medal contender, when Wiggins is 25 and this potential golden generation is in its prime.

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Right now, the rookies are trying to figure things out, with the rush of everything new as they arrive in the NBA. It isn't a question of desire – the players want to represent Canada – but the timing is tough. Stauskas, chosen eighth in the draft by the Sacramento Kings, said he has spoken with Nash about playing. "We're still trying to figure it out," Stauskas said on Monday in Vegas.

Playing together to forge a team bond is essential. It helps that players such as Wiggins, Ennis, Bennett and Thompson grew up playing together in the Toronto region in the elite CIA Bounce club for teenagers, and Wiggins, Bennett and Thompson will get to know each other even better in Cleveland. As well, Phil Handy, a Cavs assistant coach, also works as an assistant for Canada Basketball under senior coach Jay Triano.

"We have good young players, but we don't know the international game and we don't know each other well enough yet," said coach Triano in an interview with The Globe a month ago. Desire to play for the red-and-white is not an issue, he added.

"It really hasn't been a hard time selling it to the Canadian kids," said Triano. "When they look across the border and see Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and Kevin Durant and the best players in the game are all … playing for their country in the Olympics, they go: 'Whoa.'"

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More


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