By far the most important addition to Canada’s 2016 roster will be 6’11” center Tristan Thompson, who missed last summer’s campaign due to his contract status but remained a loyal follower and supporter of the program. There is absolutely no reason why Thompson won’t be a key, 30+ minute per game contributor to this summer’s group, providing rim protection, rebounding and athleticism as a pure “5” that arguably was not present last summer. Thompson continues his excellent work at the things he does best, currently coming off the bench for Cleveland, averaging 9.3 rebounds per game in about 23 minutes. Both rebounding totals and minutes are steadily rising as Thompson rounds into top form after missing training camp while working through his contract. A loyal Canadian who will make a huge difference for our team in the paint this summer.
Having recently moved into the starting lineup for the rapidly-improving Boston Celtics, 7’0″ Kelly Olynyk, Canada’s best overall player last summer, appears to be taking that next step toward becoming an upper-echelon player on a winning, championship-contending team in the League. Olynyk is a perfect complement to Thompson as a stretch “4” who can handle the ball on the perimeter, stretch defenses by consistently knocking-down “pick-and-pop” 3’s and learning to compete harder on the glass – witness his recent breath-taking follow slam against Charlotte. No greater was the evidence of how important Olynyk is to our fortunes than his tremendous effort against Venezuela in last summer’s semi-final when arguably he was one-slip-on-the-floor-ad away from single-handidly carrying Canada to Rio.
Rapidly emerging as one of the top reserve point guards in the NBA, 6’2″ Cory Joseph has seen his significant, “when-it-counts” minutes rise, augmented Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozen in the Raptors back court. Always responsible defensively on and off the ball, Joseph starts the offense consistently well and has made multiple big shots to win games including a buzzer-beater at Washington earlier in the year. His ability to stay out of foul trouble given the nuances of the international game will be key for Canada next summer.
Last summer was another in a string of learning experiences for former #1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins, who continues to grow his overall game at both ends as a wing in Minnesota. Wiggins had an uneven FIBA Americas tournament, starring in many stretches but, when it counted vs. Venezuela, allowing an opponent to rip a defensive rebound out of his hands in the waning moments when protecting a lead and finishing the semi-final game with a 9 point, 2 rebound, 4 turnover stat line. Clearly a generational athletic talent, Wiggins will move toward the uber super-star level when he learns to compete on the glass, at the defensive end and off-the-ball in general. Watching Wiggins play while isolating strictly on him on-and-off the ball during the FIBA Americas tournament (and numerous times in the NBA), it becomes very apparent that his energy and activity off the ball remains low and his lack of effort battling on the glass is reflected in his 3.6 rebounds per game line this season. It also helps explain his overall won-loss record as a professional of 27-84 (.243) through Christmas. Wiggins will become a program-changer when he learns to compete in every aspect of his game, not simply in transition and offensively. I expect he will “will” his way to being a positive contributor for Canada this coming summer and beyond.
Arguably Canada’s most pleasant surprise as last summer’s campaign continued was the improved play of 6’10” Andrew Nicholson. Buried deep on Canada’s bench early in the tournament primarily due to indifference guarding ball screens and rebounding, Nicholson completely turned his production around as the tournament progressed, competing on the glass and showing maximum effort on the defensive end. With his offensive game as a stretch 4 still strong, he also improved as a passer and running the floor. After a slow start minutes-wise in Orlando, Nicholson has averaged over 20 mpg in December and in the 18 games since he has re-entered the upper-end of Head Coach Scott Skiles rotation, the Magic are 12-6. Skiles demands accountability at the defensive end and Nicholson’s increased minutes are a testament Andrew’s new-found dedication to that part of his game – Canada’s coaching staff should be given credit for helping him improve. Looking ahead, Nicholson’s status for this summer remains uncertain as he is entering the final year of his contract and would need to be signed by early July to be able to commit.
Probably the player I most cheer for is 6’10” Dwight Powell who struggled with injuries during last summer’s campaign and then had to deal with the sudden loss of his 53 year old mother a couple of months later. Powell has the potential to be a wonderful complementary player for Canada off the bench given his activity on the glass and ability to finish around the rim. Powell can also defend and rebound and averages about 8 points and 6 rebounds in about 18 minutes per game off Rick Carlise’s bench in Dallas. Powell’s status for this summer is also uncertain pending his contract status in early summer.
Much continues to be made of how effective 6’3″ Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray would have been for Canada after his wonderful contribution to the Pan-Am Games silver medal effort. And his start to his Wildcats career has certainly not disappointed, highlighted by the 7 for 9 effort from downtown in a recent loss against Ohio State. Whether Murray is ready to play major minutes for the Senior team this summer is debatable; what is not debatable is his skill set and basketball IQ and, further, the positive effect on his career of multiple summers learning the game playing internationally for Canada. Murray, at the NCAA level, is a tremendous passer – with both hands – has a superior level of court vision and feel for when to make passes and can score in numerous ways including knocking shots down well beyond the 3. With Murray entering what is very likely to be his draft year, where he goes and when he signs may have more impact on whether or not he will play for Canada this summer than his abilities, which are clearly there or very close to being there.
Unfortunately, it has not been a great start to the NBA season for either 6’8″ Anthony Bennett or 6’3″ Nik Stauskas. Bennett has rarely seen the floor in meaningful portions of games with the Raptors and simply has not taken that next step as rebounder, scorer or passer. Stauskas, after starting for much of the early season with the hapless Sixers, has seen his minutes dwindle after making just 4 of his last 24 3’s with an overall 28% rate from downtown. Clearly not a point guard at the NBA level, his ability to consistently knock down shots and not turn it over will determine his next career progression. The news is also tough on the Robert Sacre front as the Lakers struggle with just 5 wins and the affable 7’0″ center averages just 4 points and 3 rebounds per game after a summer where he was clearly Canada’s twelfth man. With Thompson likely back in the fold, unless others like Powell and Nicholson are not available, we may have seen the last of Sacre playing for Canada.
Of the 4 others on Canada’s 2015 roster who are not in the N.B.A., three are toiling in Europe, led by 6’2″ Brady Heslip, who averages 16.3 ppg and shoots 41% from 3 in 31 mpg for Acqua Vitasnella Cantu on Lega Basket A, Italy’s top league. His club, based in Cantu (near Milan), sits in 10th place in the 20 team league with a 5-8 record. Heslip should always have a spot on Canada given his unique ability to knock shots down and carry the team at times. 6’7″ Aaron Doornekamp continues to contribute at a high-level in the German Bundesliga – the top league in Germany. Playing for Canadian Gord Herbert with Frankfort-based Fraport Skyliners, Doornekamp averages 30 minutes per game for a team that sports a 9-5 record good for 7th place in an 18 team league. Doornekamp is a long-time, loyal contributor to Canada who could have a spot this summer depending upon who can or cannot go. After a breakthrough summer during which he showed the numerous intangibles required of all winning programs, 6’7″ Melvin Ejim had a contract in Europe signed and sealed but instead opted to attend Orlando’s main camp. When he did not make the roster, he joined D-league’s Erie Bayhawks, where he has averaged 33.4 mpg, scoring 13.7 ppg and 8.3 rpg. Ejim is a strong bottom-of-the-rotation reserve who provides great depth minutes in game-every-day-type tournament. Finally, the news is not good for 6’3″ Phil Scrubb who unfortunately has had limited minutes with AEK Athens of the Greek league.
Others to consider for the summer include 6’1″ Tyler Ennis, who local fans will get a better gauge on later today when the Raptors meet the Bucks, 6’9″ Trey Lyles who recently started some games for Utah but has been generally ineffective as a rookie in the league and Dillon Brooks at Oregon among others.
While there is plenty of time between now and the summer to re-assess who our top 12 for the OQT are likely to be, assuming health and, in the best case resolution of contract situations, expect much of the same roster – with the notable addition of Tristan Thompson – to guide Canada’s success next summer.