R.J. Barrett was not trying to flex. Canada had just blown out the Dominican Republic in Toronto on Friday, avenging their only loss so far in FIBA qualifiers, and the 18-year-old phenom featured prominently as the team's starting shooting guard. All through training camp leading up to this game, Barrett had been the story, a teenager playing with the senior men's team and the new face of Canadian basketball.
Asked about the importance of getting a win in what was, before the new qualifying procedure, a rare home game, Barrett's response came with not a boast or a threat or a promise, but something closer to a verifiable fact.
"It's important. We had lost a couple months ago and came back," he said. "Canada Basketball is on the rise."
Canada Basketball is on the rise. It's a statement that's echoed through gyms in and outside of the GTA for years now, the post-Vince Carter boom in interest and participation in the sport not-so-slowly building to a crescendo the country is now eagerly holding its breath for. The proof of the rise is indisputable on several levels: A record 14 Canadians suited up in the NBA last season, eight Canadians have been selected in the NBA Draft lottery in the last eight years, and Barrett enters the 2018 season as college basketball's No. 1 recruit and the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
To this point, one element of Canada's ascent in the basketball scene has eluded them, and it's an important one: There has been very little success at the international level for the senior men's team.
Everywhere else, there are positive indicators. The women's side is well ahead of the men's side at the FIBA level, to where they will be a legitimate medal threat at the World Cup in September (they rank fifth in the world by FIBA rankings and have similar positive momentum to the men's side). Last summer, Barrett led the U-19 squad to Canada's first FIBA gold medal, and Canada's youth program is now ranked by FIBA as second to only the United States. A line can't quite be drawn from youth success now and senior success later, but those things would sure seem likely to correlate. That same ascension—in actual competition rather than on well-earned reputation—has been fleeting at the senior level.
This is somewhat understandable, if frustrating. Success in international competition requires some confluence of factors to align, and with a four-year competition cycle, one misstep can delay the fruition of all the work that's been put in. The gut-wrenching loss to Venezuela at the 2015 FIBA AmeriCup and subsequent inability to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in a last-chance tournament are perfectly emblematic of the stasis in momentum. The bronze Canada received at that AmeriCup tournament was their only medal in the event since 2001, their lone appearance in the World Cup since 2002 saw them place 22nd after going winless, and they have not been to the Olympics since Steve Nash led them to a seventh-place finish in 2000.
This is why Canada’s dominance in the early parts of the 2019 World Cup qualification are more important than they may seem on the surface. Yes, it's true that Canada—especially in an out-of-season qualifying quadrant where five NBA players suited up—should be expected to beat most of the teams in the Americas zone. At the same time, they haven't done that with great regularity, even as the program has grown. Canada's senior men rank 23rd in the world by FIBA, just eighth in the Americas zone.
In the first round of qualification, Canada went 5-1, tied for the best record among any team in any of the four pools. They scored 77 points more than anyone else across six games and owned a point differential (+153) that was 25 points better than the field. They did drop one game in the Dominican Republic, but it should be noted that perhaps no country other than France is hurt as much by the introduction of in-season qualifiers as Canada is, in terms of the availability of top talent (the US is hurt as well, it just doesn't matter much given their stature). Canada leaned on a collection of G League players and non-EuroLeague international players to go 3-1 across the first four games, then shellacked the Dominican and US Virgin Islands this past week when a larger share of the player pool was available.
Again, this is what Canada is supposed to be doing. It is encouraging, and it is exciting. Looking ahead, Canada has two more qualifying games in September where NBA players could be available, then four more in-season. They would seem a safe bet, at this juncture, to qualify for the World Cup, barring a major let down in this next round (they'll play Brazil, Venezuela, and Chile twice each; records from round one carry over to the next pool). Canada has now shown that even those in-season qualifying quadrants should see them be competitive, as the growth of the program extends far beyond NBA-level talent. Melvin Ejim, Brady Heslip, Anthony Bennett, and the Scrubb brothers have become stalwarts, Raptors 905 can lend a pair of players in Aaron Best and Kaza Keane, and the G League figures to once again offer a handful of Canadians at the fringe of the NBA who can participate.
It's the idea of what Canada could look like when everyone is available, though, that's most tantalizing. Canada just ran over two teams (and a pool, really) with only a chunk of their best talent. As noted, 14 Canadians played in the NBA last year. Two more were drafted in June, a number of players will be on Summer League rosters trying to get in, and Ejim and Kevin Pangos are two talents who could likely make the NBA if they wanted to forego some guaranteed money. There's also the matter of Barrett, Andrew Nembhard, and Simi Shittu, all top-30 recruits for 2018, and a number of other prospects already in the NCAA or on the way.
It is early to get so far ahead, but with Canada looking like a safe bet to qualify for the World Cup, the question will soon become what their best 12-man roster is for that event. For the first time, really, it could be contentious. It won't be as simple as taking whatever NBA players will participate and filling a roster in around them. The pool of legitimate options will extend beyond 20 names, perhaps even to 30 depending on how some players develop between now and then. Commitment has been an issue in the past and shouldn't be for an event as major as the World Cup, especially since a berth to the 2020 Olympics will be on the line there.
Canada's problems are finally moving from those of a nascent program still trying to develop talent to the far better kind, where talent is not a question and selection, fit, and execution are. Canada Basketball has been growing up for years now, and with the national program lagging behind in terms of result, it could be poised to take a major jump from non-factor to very real threat, very soon.
"One-hundred percent. We've got to turn that what if to making it happen," said Cory Joseph. "There have been a lot of what ifs for a lot of years now."
Of course, there are two games against Venezuela still to come in this second round of qualifying, and so it would be completely understandable if Canadian basketball fans wanted to holster their own flex just a few games longer. You know, just in case.