The eight Canadian NBA players headed to Victoria for the Tokyo Olympics basketball qualifying tournament June 29 to July 4 play on their clubs for big bucks. They represent Canada basically for free and for more personal reasons.
It will be no small thing for Nickeil Alexander-Walker when the 17th overall selection in the 2019 NBA draft dons the Maple Leaf jersey at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre this month.
“The opportunity to play for my country is not to be taken lightly and I want to make the most of this,” the six-foot-six guard of the New Orleans Pelicans said during a Zoom conference call Monday with the Canadian media.
“When I was younger and I had these chances, I was thankful to represent my country,” added the native of Toronto, who won silver with Canada in the 2016 U-18 FIBA Americas championship in Chile, leading the tournament with 17.4 points per game.
There are 19 players in the Canadian training camp taking place in Tampa, Florida.
“It’s been a lot of fun with a lot of great personalities. We’re finding the chemistry and common ground,” said Alexander-Walker, who starred at Virginia Tech in the NCAA.
Alexander-Walker represents the kind of depth Canada now has in hoops — and will need — as its 17 NBA players have been reduced to eight for the Olympic qualifier due to several reasons. But that’s still more than any of the other five teams in the qualifier.
Alexander-Walker joins fellow Canadian NBA players Andrew Wiggins (Golden State), R.J. Barrett (New York), Trey Lyles (San Antonio), Lugentz Dort (Oklahoma City), Cory Joseph (Detroit), Dwight Powell (Dallas) and Mychal Mulder (Golden State) headed to Blanshard Street.
Missing to injuries are Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray, out with an ACL tear and the biggest loss, Chris Boucher and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops and Khem Birch are about to become NBA free agents and as such don’t have insurance and simply can’t risk their livelihoods playing for Canada while they are between NBA teams.
Dillon Brooks and Oshae Brissett are not attending camp.
“Our No. 1 focus right now is on who do we have and what do we need to do to win … and bring this group together in all the roles,” said Canada GM Rowan Barrett.
Time is too short to be worrying about who is not in camp.
“We have to forge our own identity and be who we are and be comfortable in our own identity,” said Canada head coach Nick Nurse, via Zoom.
The Toronto Raptors NBA bench boss listed three keys to success for Canada: “Number one is defence. Number two is sharing the ball on offence. Number three is connected to heart and passion.”
Canada is attempting to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash of Victoria led the national side to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Current Brooklyn Nets head coach Nash, meanwhile, did Canada a huge favour by losing over the weekend. The Game 7 overtime playoff loss by the Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks means that Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, also a two-time NBA MVP, will not be available to his country for the Victoria qualifier, which includes Canada, Greece, China, Uruguay, Turkey and the Czech Republic. The tournament champion will advance to the Tokyo Olympics, beginning July 23.
Canada, which breaks camp in Florida this week and arrives in Victoria on Friday, will be the only team that will come into the qualifier without having the chance to play exhibition games. Greece has played three times in preparation of arriving on the Island this week.
“All the teams in our group are playing, and we’ve watched the majority of those games already,” said Nurse.