There’s a real good chance — in fact, let’s face it, it’s all but a given — there will only be a handful of ballers from this national senior men’s team which took on Chile last night at Mile One Centre wearing the maple leaf in China and the World Cup next September.
With the NBA guys doing their thing, and NCAA players in the midst of their collegiate campaigns (hello R.J. Barrett), it’s the unsung heroes of this particular edition of the national men’s team that’s done the heavy lifting for Canadian hoops.
And living up to their end of the bargain are a handful of former Canadian college players, proof that while the NCAA is, and always will be, the breeding ground for pro basketball athletes, it’s not the be all, end all.
“I think we’re able to do a great job with the kids who do stay home,” said Roy Rana, keeping the national team coach’s seat warm while Jay Triano serves as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
Rana knows a thing or two about Canadian university — U Sports — basketball, piloting the Ryerson University Rams for the past nine seasons, and into five national championship tournament appearances.
Now, Rana is no fool, and nor is he delusional. He knows more than anyone Canadian schools will never be able to compete with the Dukes of the world, and keep a player like Barrett — a slam dunk lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft, and a candidate for No. 1 along with Blue Devils teammate Zion Williamson — at home.
“Let’s face it,” Rana said after the Canadian team’s practice this week at Mile One, “that’s always going to be a challenge until we have an economic model that can match what they receive down south.
“For what R.J. gets at Duke, and the rest of our guys at Michigan and other major programs, it’s difficult to match the type of investment they put into their athletes. Not to mention the exposure on national TV.”
U Sports athletics, however, remains highly competitive, if not highly underrated.
Five players on the current roster helped Canada clinch a berth in the World Cup next September with a 94-67 rout of Brazil in December — Conor Morgan (UBC), Phil and Thomas Scrubb (Carleton) and Aaron Best and Adika Peter-McNeilly (Ryerson).
“I think we’re doing a great job,” Rana said, “with the kids we do keep at home, developing them into high-level European players. Hopefully one day we can develop them into NBA players.”
Canadian basketball, as a whole, is getting high grades for producing professionals. When the NBA kicked off its 2018-19 season, 13 Canadians were on various rosters.
It wasn’t that long ago, Rana said, that when a Canadian was drafted into the NBA, it was cause for celebration. There has been at least one Canadian player selected in the past nine drafts and in 2018, guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of Hamilton, Ont. and forward Justin Jackson of Toronto became the 26th and 27th Canadians selected in the draft since 1983.
It’s at a point, Rana says, where there’s a sense of disappointment if Canada doesn’t have a lottery pick.
There are six NBA players — Tristan Thompson (Cleveland), Kelly Olynyk (Miami), Cory Joseph (Indiana), Dillon Brooks (Memphis), Khem Birch (Orlando) and Jackson (Orlando), — on the Canadian roster, but currently not with the team.
Young Minnesota Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins could join the Canadians in China, along with Barrett. The latter’s availability depends of which teams drafts him, and whether it is willing to let him play on the World Cup shortly before training camp opens.
Barrett’s father, Rowan, is the team’s assistant GM and executive vice-president.
In 2017, Rana was the architect to Canada’s thrilling gold-medal performance at the world U19 championship, this country’s first gold medal in a FIBA event.
“The game is growing in a lot of different ways, starting simply with participation,” said the Toronto native. “There are a lot of young men and women playing, kids of all ages. So the bottom of the pyramid is growing.
“And, obviously, the top of the pyramid has exploded. We’re expressing this incredible amount of talent at the highest level. The spotlight is stronger, and the ability of our players is getting better.”
Pinpointing a single reason why the game is trending upwards is difficult, Rana said. Instead, there are a number of factors that have come together to make a perfect storm of progression.
"We’re expressing this incredible amount of talent at the highest level. The spotlight is stronger, and the ability of our players is getting better.” — Roy Rana
There’s Steve Nash’s rise to NBA MVP and eventual Hall of Famer. There’s Canada’s immigration patterns. There is, Rana says, the high cost of hockey and all that comes with it (camps, etc.) that is steering kids towards basketball. And certainly there’s the exposure to the NBA game here in Canada.
“Vince Carter’s story while he was with the Raptors was impactful, and certainly having that opportunity now to see a pro game at home has been impactful,” Rana said.
With the win in Brazil prior to Christmas, Canada appearance at the FIBA Basketball World Cup will be the team’s 14th at the tournament, and the first since the 2010 championship.
A top seven finish in China would give Canada entry into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, its first Olympic berth since 2000.
While Canada has already qualified, a win Sunday against Venezuela at Mile One would give Canada a high seeding in China.