TORONTO — Over the course of the 2018-19 NBA regular season, the Toronto Raptors had players in and out of the roster via injuries, trade and load management to leave head coach Nick Nurse constantly searching for a new answer.
Through 82 games, his demeanour and message remained the same: next man up and roll with who we’ve got. Whether it was Kawhi Leonard’s load management, Kyle Lowry’s back, Fred VanVleet’s thumb or even the deadline day trades that overhauled the rotation, his Raptors learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Coming over to Team Canada, it appears that the head coach will have to bring over that mantra in a hurry.
The senior men’s national team announced its 19-strong training camp attendee list on Monday, a list that’s even shorter when considering neither Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray or New York Knicks rookie R.J. Barrett will participate in the FIBA World Cup beginning Aug. 31, though both will be in attendance.
Factor in the withdrawals of Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Dwight Powell, Dillon Brooks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Trey Lyles, Brandon Clarke and Nik Stauskas, and Canada’s hopes of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics through the World Cup have received a significant dent.
“My thoughts are I’m super proud of the guys that are here and super excited to coach them,” Nurse said when asked about those who withdrew from consideration. “You can’t force anybody to play, it’s a unique situation, everybody understands the uniqueness of it. I’m exhilarated to have this opportunity and coach these guys and judging by the first practice, it’s a helluva group of guys so I’m excited.”
With his first opportunity to work with those who are in attendance, Nurse opted for as much scrimmage time as possible to try and develop some familiarity while also figuring out which combinations work best. It’s clear he won’t have much to work with in the way of isolation scoring, even pointing out that Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos may be amongst those he turns to in need of a late basket, but is encouraged by what he sees.
“They were super unselfish, they moved the ball, I thought they executed some things really well,” Nurse said. “We drew up a few plays, put in a few OBs, etcetera, and those things were all done at a high IQ level. For me, it was a helluva first morning.”
Nurse is incorporating some of his Raptors plays, so look out for that, and while the priority is actually developing an understanding and feel for who he’s working with, he mentioned that the rule changes that come with playing a FIBA tournament are something that’s been talked about as well. Like playoff basketball, though, he feels it’s something that won’t truly be understood until the players actually experience it and the coaching staff has some video to work with as well.
Fortunately, he does have some experience to work with, a notable contingent of veterans spearheaded by Joseph and Olynyk. For the new backup point guard of the Sacramento Kings, the opportunity to help his country qualify for the Olympics with some of the people he’s known all his life is too good to resist.
“I think just the guys, the guys that I grew up with who are from the same places I'm from, who can relate to how I grew up,” Joseph said when asked why he keeps coming back. “I think those memories and stories that we build on the road makes it fun playing basketball with all of them.”
Joseph now figures to start in the backcourt and alluded to the fact that the young talent Canada has on tap going forward could make it one of his last chances to do so at a major tournament. Olynyk also looks set to start at either the power forward or centre position depending on what Nurse decides is best for Khem Birch, or even Chris Boucher, and he’s excited to represent the country again.
“It's just something that I've always done, always loved to do,” Olynyk said. “You know, to be able to compete for your country and help your country out, put your country on the map, you know, it's something special. And to be able to put on a jersey with Canada on the front, it's a prideful thing, it's a special thing. It's an opportunity that'll pass you by quicker than you think, so to be able to come out here and do that, it's always something to look back on, tell your kids, your family, friends.
“It's something in the history books, so it's something to do and something not to take for granted.”
The messages of both Joseph and Olynyk are powerful ones, and hopefully resonate with those who have opted out of what could still be a special moment in Canadian basketball history. They’ve made the task at hand all the more difficult considering the team is pooled in a group with Australia and Lithuania, and it’ll be down to elbow grease and camaraderie to get it over the hump.
There are vital absences across the tournament with Team USA serving as a prime example and Ben Simmons also missing from Australia’s preliminary roster, so no one’s going to feel sorry for Canada not having its premier talents available in China.
To the credit of Nurse and the rest of those assembled at OVO Athletic Centre on Monday, no one’s complaining.
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