Canada Shows Basketball World It's Ready for Primetime

Powered by a dominant R.J. Barrett, Canada won its first-ever FIBA basketball gold by taking the U19 World Cup. It was a defining moment for the sport in Canada.

by Blake Murphy
Jul 10 2017, 5:29pm

Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press 

In retrospect, what was perhaps the greatest tournament in Canadian basketball history came down to about three minutes of play.

Initially 20-point underdogs in Saturday's FIBA Under-19 World Cup semifinal, Canada held a 10-point lead over the juggernaut USA Basketball program at that point. It was as good a place as any team up against the US could have hoped to be—the Americans had not lost a single game in a major FIBA or Olympic tournament since 2011, and here was Canada, a handful of possessions from pulling off an enormous upset.

To that point, Canada had been led by wunderkind R.J. Barrett, the burgeoning mega-prospect who just turned 17 and won't be on the NBA Draft radar until 2020 unless he reclassifies at some point. Playing against much older competition, Barrett was masterful, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing five assists to go along with his 38 points, the most scored in this tournament since 2009.

Barrett, the tournament's best player, had just fouled out, though, and Canada was already short point guard Lindell Wigginton (concussion). This was the tournament, essentially: Hold on for a few minutes against some late adversity, and there was little chance the momentum from such a victory wouldn't carry over to a championship game. Head coach Roy Rana's squad looked the better coached and better prepared team all game, and they held their composure down the stretch, securing the country's first appearance in a gold-medal game since 1936.

Sunday, then, was a coronation of sorts. Entering as an 11-point favorite against an Italian side that had upset Spain in the other semifinal, Canada asserted itself as the more athletic and physical team from the outset. Given a boost by the returning Wigginton, Canada opened up an early 18-4 lead and never looked back, ultimately cruising to a 79-60 victory and its first gold medal in a FIBA or Olympic basketball event.

To be clear, Sunday's game was not a formality. Italy is a talented side, but as NBA scout Jonathan Givony tweeted, it felt like the gold-medal game had been played a day earlier. Nobody could treat it that way, but Canada's emotion following the defeat of the US was palpable, an exuberant locker-room screaming session and a heartfelt moment from Rana confirming as much.

The history of basketball in Canada is still very much being written, and while there are remarkable moments in the past—Canada's entire performance at the 2000 Olympics and the 1983 gold-medal victory over the US at the World University Games chief among them—Saturday's win and Sunday's encore feels like a defining moment for the sport in this country. Over the last two decades, the influence of the Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies, Vince Carter, and Steve Nash has been unmistakable, growing the sport in terms of attention, participation, and most notably, NBA talent. Success hadn't yet followed at the international level, a bit of a concern for the program's immense momentum.

"There's no doubt that the current roster of Toronto Raptors and our Canadian players in the NBA and WNBA will inspire the next generation," Canada Basketball president and CEO Michele O'Keefe told VICE Sports in June, pointing to podium finishes as one of the program's three primary goals right now. "Many people say this is the golden age of Canadian Basketball. This is not true. We are just starting to write our story."

This is one hell of a chapter. Barrett is among the most impressive basketball prospects in recent memory, regardless of passport. He earned tournament MVP honors, averaging the most points (21.6) of anyone here since Jonas Valanciunas, and he hauled in 8.3 rebounds with 4.6 assists. He was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Abu Kigab, who averaged a monstrous 14.7-and-10.6 double-double and was one of the tournament's most efficient scorers on a per-possession basis. Danilo Djuricic was as efficient as it comes in a supporting role, Nate Darling came through in a big way in the final two games, and Wigginton was his usual solid self at the point.

It's been pointed out that the US did not bring its best roster, which is true, and fair. At the same time, Canada was also shorthanded, missing important pieces like Simi Shittu, Emmanuel Akot, Shai Alexander, O'Shae Brissett, Luguentz Dort, Ignas Brazdeikis, and Nickeil Walker, several of whom are considered top-100 recruits. If anything, this tournament then speaks to Canada's incredible depth in the age group. Not that caveats would matter— the teams that went were the teams that went, and Canada was the best among them.

"Incredible moment for our country, for these kids," Rana said Sunday. "Unbelievable to be able to say we're the best team on the planet at the 19 years level."

Where Canada goes from here is no longer something for the imagination restrained by the burns of the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament or a nearly two-decade absence from the Olympics. Barrett will eventually garner more excitement than Andrew Wiggins before him, nationally and in the US, and he's not coming alone. The NBA and NCAA ranks are flush with more Canadian talent than at any point in history. Canada's arrival as an international player is overdue, and its first ever FIBA gold medal is a great next step ahead of August's senior men's FIBA AmeriCup tournament.