Canada Basketball rolled through the Group Stage of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C.
An inspired comeback win over Greece and a dominating win over China puts Canada just two wins away from claiming one of the four remaining bids for the Tokyo Olympics.
Can Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett and company pull off back-to-back victories in the Knockout Stage to give their country a chance to compete for a Gold Medal?
If you missed either of the first two games, here are some takeaways from Canada's pursuit to the Olympic stage.
Andrew Wiggins' return to Canada Basketball
Prior to the opening game of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Canada Basketball star Andrew Wiggins had not suited up for his country since 2015 when they failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Coming off of a strong season with the Golden State Warriors - where the former No. 1 pick shot with career-best efficiency and made strides as a versatile defender - his confidence was sky-high, ready to represent Canada in pursuit of a spot for the Tokyo Olympics.
The expectation was that Wiggins would be Canada's primary scorer while bringing the same hard-nosed defensive presence we saw during the 2020-21 NBA season. Through the Group Stage, Wiggins has more than met expectations, showing exactly why the entire country so badly wanted their highest-anticipated prospect to don the red and white on a global stage.
Wiggins was the team's leading scorer in both Group Stage games, keeping the country's Olympic dreams alive and well. He went for 23 points in a comeback win over Greece, converting clutch buckets down the stretch to put the game away, and tallied 20 points in a blowout win over China. Shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point land, his efficiency from the NBA season has carried over to FIBA play.
He displayed the demeanour of a go-to scorer that was ready to be the guy on this Canada Basketball team that is missing more than a handful of stars due to injury. If he can continue to play with this type of attitude and swagger during the Semi-Finals stage of the tournament, Canada will be a tough out in their pursuit of a spot in Tokyo.
- Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)
RJ Barrett shining for the Senior Men's National Team
Barrett is no stranger to big performances for Canada Basketball.
At the FIBA U-19 World Cup in 2017, Barrett showcased future superstardom when he erupted for 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists to lead Canada past a loaded United States roster. He went on to lead the Canada U-19 team to the Gold in Egypt, earning tournament MVP honours for his efforts.
There wasn't much doubt that he'd be capable of doing the same for the Senior Men's National Team, but he's already proving that theory correct. While the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament isn't the first time he's suited up for the Senior Team, it's certainly the biggest role he has played with the club.
With players like Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sidelined due to injury, that meant Canada needed Barrett to step up as a scoring option to take some weight off of Wiggins' shoulders.
He got out to a slow start with just four points in the first half against Greece, but his aggressive approach in the second half played a huge role in Canada's comeback. He was attacking the rim with a vengeance, finishing through contact on multiple occasions. Barrett finished with 22 points - 18 of which came after halftime - making his role on this team known.
Look for Barrett to keep his locked-in mentality going during the Semi-Finals stage as Canada is just two wins away from a spot in the Olympics.
Nick Nurse seems to have found his starting unit
Consistency is typically a great thing.
It's early, but there is something to be made of the fact that Team Canada rolled with the same starting unit in both games of the Group Phase. In addition to the aforementioned Barrett and Wiggins, Nurse inserted Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles and Dwight Powell into the starting lineup.
Coming into the tournament, it was unclear what direction Nurse would go with a talented roster that featured eight current NBA players and two more with NBA experience. Looking at the direction that he's gone in so far, it makes plenty of sense.
While Barrett and Wiggins are looked upon to be the top two options on the perimeter, Joseph is the veteran leader that can ensure everything is in order. In the frontcourt, Canada has a floor-spacing big in Lyles and a more traditional big in Powell, though he's not afraid to put the ball on the floor in space.
Not only does this starting unit check all of the archetypal boxes, it also makes for an electric second unit that sees Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Andrew Nicholson come in as offensive sparkplugs, while Luguentz Dort can be a sparkplug on both ends of the floor.
Moving forward, this team can adjust accordingly based on mismatch, but it feels like Nurse has found his sweet spot already.
- Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21)
They're still learning one another
Talented as Team Canada is, it still has not had the benefit of playing any exhibition games with one another, simply relying on training camp and practice time prior to the tournament.
Sometimes it shows.
While talent can sometimes mask when a team isn't on the same page, there were some lapses and disconnects that will only subside with time. The team should be encouraged that these issues didn't come back to bite them, save for a few runs from opposing teams.
Now, as the margin for error becomes much slimmer, these two Group Phase wins were great building blocks, but they were simply tune-ups for what's to come.
The amount of ball movement and double-figure scorers in the victory over China should be looked upon as extremely encouraging, as it's a sign that these players are learning how to put each other in the best positions for success.
With room for more practice time ahead of the Semifinals, things should only continue to get better moving forward.
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