Victoria's Conor Morgan leads Canada into AmeriCup basketball tournament

The silken six-foot-nine Conor Morgan of Victoria, with his seamless inside-outside game, continues to forge a reputation as one of the best Canadian players not in the National Basketball Association. Also vying for that honour are currently unaffiliated Anthony Bennett, the first overall selection in the 2013 NBA draft, and French pro league veterans Phil and Thomas Scrubb of Richmond.

Morgan, Bennett and the Scrubb brothers lead Canada into the FIBA 2022 AmeriCup qualifying tournament beginning today in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which doubles as the first round of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

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“It’s always an honour to put on the national team jersey,” said Morgan.

Not that it was easy to do this time around for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games silver medallist. A pandemic will do that to you.

“It was quite the procedure to get here, requiring travel ­waivers and two negative tests,” said Morgan, from San Juan.

Morgan arrived from Spain, where he has helped lead Joventut of Badalona into the Euro Cup Sweet 16. The Spanish league is considered the best basketball league outside the NBA. (All non-NBA pro leagues have halted for two weeks for the FIBA international window).

“It’s been a different season with and without fans,” said the former Mount Douglas Secondary Rams star and two-time Canada West MVP with the UBC Thunderbirds.

“We are allowed 50 percent capacity in Spain while we played in packed arenas in France and an arena with no fans allowed in Belgrade. It’s been interesting to see how they are handling it from country to country.”

Morgan understands the precautions. He had COVID-19 last spring during the initial outbreak in Spain but was fine and had no symptoms, in keeping with the pathology of the virus when it comes to younger people.

Morgan, 26, was the featured player in the Euro Cup ­magazine write-up heading into the ­playoffs. Could it lead across the Atlantic? It’s generally ­acknowledged in the sport that the ­bottom third of NBA rosters are easily interchangeable with the top third of team rosters in the better European leagues.

“The NBA has always been in the back of my mind,” said Morgan. “Maybe I’ll take a stab at it. I’ve been thinking about it.”

There are a record 17 Canadians currently in the NBA. That leaves plenty to choose from for the last-chance Tokyo Olympics qualifying tournament June 29 to July 4 at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. Players from all but the four teams in the NBA conference finals will be available to their national teams for the Victoria qualifier. That may leave Morgan and the Scrubb brothers on the sidelines for Canada. But how sweet would it be for Morgan to return to his hometown in Canadian colours for the Tokyo qualifier? Island players on the Canadian team at the Olympics — from medallists Doug Peden and Art and Chuck Chapman to semifinalists Eli Pasquale, Gerald Kazanowski, Greg Wiltjer to captain Steve Nash — used to be a regular occurrence. But not so much lately. Morgan would love to re-ignite the tradition.

“It would be so special for me to come home to play in the ­Victoria qualifier for Tokyo and it would be a huge moment in my career,” said Morgan.

“I would love to go to the Olympics with the NBA players on Canada. I hope I get invited to the [pre-Victoria] camp in Toronto and get a chance to prove myself against them.”

But first up is the initial qualifying step for Paris 2024, beginning today in Puerto Rico as Morgan and world No. 21 Canada takes on No. 51 U.S. Virgin Islands in the 2022 AmeriCup qualifying tournament. Canada plays No. 19 Dominican Republic and No. 63 Cuba later in the week. The top team advances to the AmeriCup next year, which is the second stage of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Gordie Herbert, assistant coach to Nick Nurse on the full national team, is Canadian team head coach in San Juan. Herbert would also be head coach in Victoria for the Tokyo Olympics qualifier if Nurse’s Toronto Raptors make it to the NBA conference finals, which does not seem likely at this point. But if the Raptors do, then Nurse would join the national team in Tokyo should Canada qualify.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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