PERTH, WA — When Canada first named its extended squad for the 2019 FIBA World Cup campaign, the eyes of those who live north of the border naturally lit up.
It was only a list of those invited to training camp, but there were 17 NBA players on that list, while Nick Nurse had just been named as head coach, just over a month after leading the Toronto Raptors to an NBA Championship.
It looked like a continuation of an unprecedented year for basketball in Canada, until it wasn’t.
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Now, as the team prepares for a pair of warmup games against the Australian Boomers in Perth, just two NBA players remain on the squad, with one of them – the Sacramento Kings’ Cory Joseph – still yet to arrive in the country, according to a Canada Basketball official who spoke to foxsports.com.au.
Kelly Olynyk was just ruled out of the World Cup after suffering a bone bruise to his knee, so, what looked like a squad that had the talent to be regarded as one that could compete for a gold medal, has quickly turned into one that will have to rely on continuity and chemistry to get them over the line.
“We have to come together as a group the best we can,” Canadian guard, Kevin Pangos, said during a Wednesday media availability. “I think we have to play hard defensively. We can’t make mistakes. Just coming together as a team is probably the biggest thing that will accelerate our team.
“I think we’ve seen some improvement. There still haven’t been that many games. We kinda just went right into it. We have time here to work out the kinks, and try to become as strong as we can by the time the World Championships come around.”
The players that were eligible to play for Canada included the likes of Olynyk, Jamal Murray, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but now Nurse will be forced to lean on the team’s veterans.
Pangos is one of many of the players remaining on the squad who has experience playing at a high level in Europe, while Melvin Ejim is someone who’s been a mainstay for Canada’s team.
“It’d be great to have (the NBA players), but everyone’s situation’s different,” Pangos said. “We really can’t think about that too much. We get caught up in that, then we’re not gonna be the best team we can become. We’re just focusing on who’s here.”
For Phil Scrubb, a guard who put together a storied college career in his home country, the circumstances his team is now in is a chance for everyone else to step up and make an impact.
“Obviously we were expecting a few more guys to come, and with Kelly now injured, it’s tough,” he said. “Over the past few days, we’ve kinda grown as a group. All of us have played together at some point in time, so I think we’ve got good team chemistry at least.
“This has been a pretty long process, just to get to the World Cup. A lot of guys have played and sacrificed for the team to get here. Bringing home a medal is pretty big.
“Guys that come in, are excited to play, and I think just hard work and effort. Obviously we don’t have many guys in the NBA, but we have guys who are ready to play, and are pretty tough… Just wanna be tough, and obviously shoot the ball well.
Scrubb continued: “It’s the most important team I’ve played for. Ever since we were young, we kinda looked up to guys that played for the national team, and support the team. I think, for me personally, a lot of people have helped me get to this point. Any chance I get to play, I will.”
The constant ins and outs are difficult for the players, but it’s even harder for Nurse, who’s forced to make adjustments on the fly.
The 52-year-old has seemingly coached at every level, so he’s used to the volatility that comes with roster changes, and believes the system’s he’s developed over his career can get Canada to where it needs to be.
“In the ideal world, you’ll love to have your team on paper six months ago and just dream about them, but that just isn’t reality,” Nurse said on Tuesday.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs in the minor leagues, and even lower level European, and especially in the minor leagues, you don’t who’s gonna play for you until an hour before the ball goes up.
“There’s an ideal style that would suit me as a coach, that I’ve kinda tried to develop over my 30 years as a coach. But, I think you’re alway shaping that, depending on who’s out on the floor for you. I say this simply a lot of times, and it doesn’t sound great. We wanna play defence, and we wanna hit the open man on offence.
“I know that sounds like summing it up too simply, but we’ve worked hard on developing foundational defence. We’ve certainly got some challenges, maybe at size or depth or whatever, but that’s my job to try to minimise those, or cover those up, and put our guys in better positions on those things. Offensively, we wanna run hard, we wanna cut hard, we wanna pass the ball, and we’ll shoot our fair bit of threes, and go from there.”
The Australian team had a mini exodus of its own, losing Ben Simmons (NBA commitments), Thon Maker (NBA commitments), Ryan Broekhoff (birth of his child), and Danté Exum (injury), but still managed to keep its core of NBA players intact for the World Cup, which begins in China on August 31.
Australia and Canada face off twice – at RAC Arena on August 16 and 17 – and Nurse’s team is preparing for a Boomers side that plays like a well-oiled machine.
“Really talented,” Pangos said of the Boomers. “Really experienced as well. Some of the guys have played on the international stage before. I think that does a lot when you play together for so long, and be together. That’s important for them, and we’ve just got to try bring the best we can.”
At the end of the day, though, Canada is playing in its first World Cup since 2010, so they’re avoiding any sort of a defeatist mindset at all costs.
“We’re going to go in, try to compete every game,” Scrubb said. “I don’t think we’re intimidated by anyone, or scared of anyone. We’ve all played together before, and we’ve just got to go to battle and try and win.”
Olgun Uluc is the Senior Basketball Reporter for Fox Sports Australia. Twitter: @OlgunUluc