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FIBA World Cup: Veteran experience key as Team Canada camp intensifies

TORONTO — What Team Canada lacks in talent it will look to make up for with experience and know-how.

A day after the burgeoning talents of the nation’s basketball scene opted out of playing in China at the end of the month, it was all business at the OVO Athletic Centre on Tuesday. Players were getting their work in with weight training, putting shots up on one basket and working on individual moves on the other.

With the core of Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk, Melvin Ejim and Brady Heslip in place, and still plenty more who have experienced the style of play required, there is plenty of reason to believe this team can make up for the absence of bigger names.

“I think those guys are all good players. They all have a piece to their game that we need,” head coach Nick Nurse said after practice rocking a fresh Raptors championship snapback hat and a Team Canada jacket. “Phil Scrubb can space the floor and shoot. He looks good out there next to Pangos. He looks good out there next to Cory. He looks good as a guy you have to guard. And if you don’t, he’s going to make you pay. I love his feet and his hands and his shot-making ability.

“Melvin, he’s hard work and energy, in, out. You never really know what you’re going to get. He’s kind of an X-factor type of guy. I like him. I’ve liked him for a long time. He went to Iowa State. That always helps, too. I favour him a little bit [laughs].”

On Monday, Nurse talked about the importance of figuring out combinations because of the urgency of having just seven games before the ball goes up for real. Five cuts have to be made before then, as it’ll be a 12-man roster that will play the tournament.

What’s become increasingly clear in understanding which players can fit into multiple rotations best is that the institutional knowledge of having been part of the Canada Basketball program for years on end is going to be a major factor.

“It's huge,” Ejim said. “A lot of basketball is just about continuity, and when you can get that off to a good start, when you have guys who you're familiar with, that you know how to play, just tactically knowing where guys are going to be, spacing, and then just about the whole culture is great because you can rely on guys who have been here all the time, who've been a part of it, who know what they're doing, so I think it's been really great. I think we've hit the ground running.”

That they’ve done so while accommodating Nurse’s preference to be flexible is a testament to the basketball IQ and experience on the roster. From FIBA tournaments to the NBA to the G League to Europe, players across the training camp roster have either gone to battle together or against each other and have a good understanding of each other’s tendencies. Unsurprisingly, the standout pairing through the opening couple of days of camp has been Joseph and Olynyk, who have grown up together playing at the grassroots level in Toronto and have risen through the ranks together.

“Me and Kelly, it's easy,” Joseph said after practice. “Kelly has a very high IQ and I would like to think I do, as well. So, it's very easy to play with guys like this. You don't have to waste no more energy out there than we have to, because he gets it. We've been playing together forever now, and our games fit each other and suit each other.”

Cory Joseph dribbles at the OVO Athletic Centre in Toronto. August 5, 2019. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Nurse called them the backbone for their commitment to leadership but Joseph made sure to make special mention of Ejim and Heslip as well — guys who have been in the trenches with him for Canada basketball virtually every step of the way. He even suggested that they should be getting more air time for all they’ve contributed along the way, but praised the younger guys who have helped Canada get in this position in the first place.

“They're coming along, they're playing hard, they're learning, and that's all you can ask,” Joseph said. “Once we get in between the lines, they're very talented. I think people forgot, those guys, they got us to this point, you know what I mean?

“I mean yeah, me, Tristan [Thompson], a couple guys played a couple games but those guys had a lot of games where we were in the season. So those young guys are very talented guys. They're coming out here, playing hard, and we're all in.”

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Take the core of Joseph, Olynyk, Ejim, Heslip, Pangos and Scrubb, the healthy praise Nurse had for Oshae Brissett and Andrew Nembhard, and the importance of Khem Birch and Chris Boucher as bigs who offer different dimensions of the position and that’s 10 players out of the 12 who figure to be in line for the final roster.

Beginning with Wednesday’s exhibition against Nigeria, Nurse and the rest of the staff will have to figure out who best helps round out the squad. What he won’t have to worry about is painting the edges with experience over talent or versatility.

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