Aiming for a 2016 Olympic medal next summer in Rio (and dreaming of gold in 2020) the Canadian team began its FIBA Americas tournament with an ugly loss to Argentina.
Canada could not stop 35-year-old forward Luis Scola was unstoppable, who scored 35 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a 94-87 upset.
It was supposed to be the dawn of the Andrew Wiggins era; qualifying for Rio a foregone conclusion. Nine NBA players are on Canada’s roster, more than any other country in the tournament. A major player in the Canadian program was sorely missed in Mexico City Tuesday afternoon. Tristan Thompson understandably took the summer off after a great playoff run with the Cavs, but maybe he could have stopped Scola.
Though he had 11 points 10 rebounds and four assists, Kelly Olynyk often lost track of Scola, who spectacularly played 34 of the game’s 40 minutes. Coach Jay Triano tried everyone on Scola, including Anthony Bennett and Robert Sacre.
Raptors fans, this writer included, will grow to love Scola, a solid NBA player who becomes great when playing for his country. Today, he was not Toronto’s favo(u)rite, exposing a defensive weakness that other teams will try to exploit.
It was a disappointing result for an optimistic nation. Wiggins has skills we didn’t see often enough today, putting up just 13 points and six rebounds on 5-of-9 shooting. As by far the most talented player, he needs to be more involved.
An NBA championship ring makes Cory Joseph the most accomplished point guard Canada has produced since two-time MVP Steve Nash, now the team’s GM. He seemed tentative during his eight point, seven-assist day on Tuesday, deferring to teammates.
This event is both a sprint (12 days) and a marathon (10 games) at high altitude. Every team’s depth will be tested.
Canada has no time to regroup, playing Cuba on Wednesday, Venezuela on Thursday and Puerto Rico on Friday to complete the Group B preliminary round. After Saturday off, every team plays another four games in as many days. After that second round, the top four nations make the semifinal next Friday.
Mexico enjoys home-court advantage and looked sharp in beating the Dominican Republic by 18 on Monday, while Venezuela trounced Cuba and Uruguay upset Brazil. Based on what we saw on Tuesday and in Monday’s 91-86 win over Puerto Rico, Argentina is a strong contender.
One loss by a young team making its international debut together doesn’t derail the dream.
If Canada still manages to qualify, everyone hopes Thompson will play in the Olympics and two talented youngsters will add to the backcourt depth. Nik Stauskas started against Argentina, Brady Heslip finished and neither had a big impact.
Recovering from shoulder surgery, Tyler Ennis hopes to be ready for training camp with the Bucks. The former Syracuse star is an exciting upgrade over Phil Scrubb.
Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray, just 18, arrived in Lexington just before classes begin to maintain his NCAA eligibility. The star of a silver-medal Pan-Am squad would have been the third guard and another scoring threat if he was allowed to go to this tournament.
The last few years have seen an unprecedented explosion of basketball talent from this hockey-mad land. Some credit Vince Carter for increasing the game’s popularity with kids back in his Air Canada days with the Raptors. Coaching, facilities and level of competition has also improved dramatically.
Jazz rookie Olivier Hanlan was the last cut and new teammate Trey Lyles — yet another Kentucky star —was born in Saskatoon but grew up to be Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. It’s hard to believe that players of that caliber aren’t guaranteed to make the national team anymore.
If all goes according to plan, the Canuck kids will answer today’s wake-up call and be ready for a re-match in the Final on September 12.
Soaking up the 2016 Olympic experience will be extremely valuable, and a bronze medal isn’t out of the question. By 2020, Wiggins will be 25, Murray 23 and old man Thompson only 29. Established powers like France and Spain are already much older; they need to develop new talent to replace inevitable retirements.
Beating the United States will always be extremely difficult. For more than 20 years, the Dream Team has continued to evolve, with a seemingly endless supply of superstar American talent.
From north of the border, that once-impossible gap is shrinking. Canadian basketball fans finally have something to cheer for. Just not on this day.