The road ahead for the Canadian men’s national team isn’t going to be easy. For the next week, they’ll be finishing up their training camp in Tampa, Florida at the Toronto Raptors training facility before travelling to Victoria, B.C. for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament where they’ll face a handful of teams who have been able to play friendlies for the last few weeks.
While they’re bringing some heavy hitters to the roster with Andrew Wiggins, R.J. Barrett and Luguentz Dort, they’ll have to pull their Olympic team together in just under a month from a team whose average age is just over 25-years-old and who have largely no experience playing with each other.
“Honestly, it’s been a lot of fun,” said New Orleans Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. “I think there’s a lot of great personalities within the group of guys…we’re talking a lot, which helps, we’re building a chemistry with each other and finding common ground within how we play and coming together.”
Alexander-Walker is part of a group of guards that head coach Nick Nurse has had nothing but praise for in their first week of practice and was singled out alongside Golden State Warrior guard Mychal Mulder as players that stood out to him so far. Alexander-Walker is also bringing a familiarity to the roster, as someone who knows a lot of the players on the team personally and has stepped up as a leader early in the process.
“Self-confidence and being vocal, you just have to break the ice, that’s pretty much it,” said Alexander-Walker of finding a way to connect with his team. “Being willing to be the first guy to say something in a group of people you’re not really too familiar within the sense of hanging around every day.
“Everyone’s personalities are great as well, so that does help. It makes trying to lead easier, it makes trying to talk and be vocal easier because guys will talk back.”
22-year-old Alexander-Walker says that confidence comes from knowing his teammates are thinking the same thing he is, but they may be hesitant to speak up as they navigate the first few days with a new team and it’s something the entire team has been doing throughout the last week.
“If you’re just playing off guessing, or what you’re used to, and it’s two different things, you might have something where some guy goes to back cut and you throw the pass and it goes out of bounds,” said Alexander-Walker. “I think any time things like happen we communicate it, we tell each other what we like to do…just for that next time, if it does occur, we’re ahead of it.”
Aiding in the chemistry-building process is the flexibility of this roster being filled with players who can seamlessly move between positions, almost too many to name according to Nurse but the point guard is one position that’s emerging as a potential area for Nurse to tinker with in the upcoming tournament.
“Obviously, Nickeil is a one-two, he’s been playing mostly at the one here in practice,” said Nurse. “Everyone’s seen Nembhard play with Gonzaga this year as well…(he’s) really good in the pick and roll, I mean really good and that’s a lot of what the point guards need to do…and Trae Bell-Haynes is also coming off a great year from Germany. Has a really good feel as far as running the team and leadership…Again, also got some good pick and roll ability, he’s got some good quick jets on him.
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
Bringing players up to speed on the differences in play from the NBA to FIBA rules will be the other big challenge for Nurse, as only half of them play with FIBA rules during the year and it’s been something they’ve consistently been drilling during practices according to the coach.
While the Canadian’s don’t have the advantage of being able to play friendlies to familiarize themselves with the rules, Nurse says they have been studying the tape of teams in the tournament and have been able to get into more in-depth schemes and preparation for the upcoming games as a result of it.
“All of the teams in our group are playing, and obviously we’ve watched the majority of those already,” said Nurse. “Greece has played three times, so we have at least that film to go off of and we’ll go from there.”
Greece, who will be without perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo as he and the Milwaukee Bucks take on the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, will be the first test for the Canadians when they meet on June 29 at 7:05 p.m. EST.