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Canada arrived at the men’s Basketball World Cup with a clear mission: qualify for next year’s Olympics in Paris. Heading into the second round, it’s fair to wonder whether the team should set its sights even higher.
Led by the marvelous Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and new coach Jordi Fernandez, Canada rolled through its first-round group in Jakarta, Indonesia with three blowout wins. A stunning 95-65 rout of 2021 Olympic silver medallist France led to a 128-72 laugher against Lebanon before the Canadians overcame a slow start to surge past Latvia 101-75 to claim first place in Group H.
For the 16-team second round, tipping off Friday, Canada joins a new group with Spain (3-0), Brazil (2-1) and Latvia (2-1). Those records carry over, and each team plays the two group members that it didn’t face in the opening round. Canada will meet Brazil on Friday at 9:30 a.m. ET and Spain on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET. The top two teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals in the Philippines.
The competition will get tougher now that the field has been cut in half. But the Canadians appear equipped to meet the moment. Their point differential of plus-111 topped all 32 teams in the opening round, including the tournament-favourite United States (plus-103).
Canada’s NBA-seasoned roster features a truly elite player in Gilgeous-Alexander, the 25-year-old guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder who placed fifth in NBA MVP voting last season. SGA scored 27 points and dished out six assists against both France and Latvia while averaging 9.5 rebounds in those games. He’s the second-leading scorer among players still in contention for the title — trailing only Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic (30.0 points), who played significantly more minutes than SGA in leading Slovenia to a 3-0 record.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s supporting cast — a concern heading into the tournament after fellow NBA stars Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins dropped out — has been solid too. Veteran big man Kelly Olynyk is averaging 15 points, while streaky youngster RJ Barrett bounced back from a 1-for-10 shooting night against France to average nearly 20 points in the next two games. Nickeil Alexander-Walker (SGA’s cousin) is averaging close to 13 points, and mercurial forward Dillon Brooks has brought toughness and physicality despite his limited offensive production.
Those guys are among the seven Canadian players who are currently on an NBA roster, along with big man Dwight Powell (seven points per game) and guard Lu Dort, an energetic defensive ace who sat out the last two games due to unspecified soreness but is expected to return. Canada also has the reigning NCAA player of the year in Zach Edey. The 7-foot-4 centre has played just 19 minutes so far, but he’s scored 14 points on 7-for-7 shooting and could become a bigger factor as the tournament progresses.
Add it all up and Canada looks like a good bet to claim its first Olympic men’s basketball berth since 2000, when a young Steve Nash carried his team to the quarterfinals in Sydney.
Not to write off Brazil, but leading scorer Yago (yes, Brazilian basketball players do the one-name thing too) doesn’t play in the NBA. Neither does No. 2 scorer Bruno Caboclo, the Raptors draft bust infamously described as being “two years away from being two years away” before eventually washing out of the NBA. In fact, Brazil doesn’t have any NBA players on its roster, and neither does Puerto Rico. The Dominicans essentially have one: Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a three-time NBA all-star forward who’s nonetheless viewed as an underachiever after being picked first overall in the 2015 draft. Two if you count Lester Quinones, who played four games for Golden State as an undrafted rookie last season but spent most of the year in the G League.
Strange things can happen in international basketball, where talent doesn’t seem to win out as reliably as it does in the NBA. But right now, Canada has to be considered the favourite to join the U.S. in clinching those two Olympic spots earmarked for the Americas. Oddsmakers seem to agree: while the Americans remain the distant betting favourites to win the World Cup, Canada is now the clear No. 2 — ahead of Olympic bronze medallist Australia, Spain, Serbia, Germany and Doncic’s Slovenia.
The Aussies are loaded with NBA players, but none you’d consider a star. Spain’s Gasol-fuelled golden age, which produced three straight Olympic medals from 2008-16, is in the rearview. Serbia is without Nikola Jokic, who’s still celebrating his Finals MVP.
Germany’s top scorer is journeyman Dennis Schroder, signed by the Raptors this summer. Olympic silver medallist France was eliminated in the first round, and nine of the 16 teams left in the tournament have never won a medal at the World Cup (including Canada). Even the U.S. is no Dream Team, with guys like Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson, Paolo Banchero and Austin Reaves sharing the scoring load in the absence of Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and other more accomplished NBA stars.
In other words, the time is right for Canada to not just grab that long-awaited Olympic berth, but maybe even make a run at the World Cup title too.