MANILA, Philippines — It’s been 87 years since Canada claimed a medal at the highest levels of international hoops, taking home silver at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. You read that correctly. It’s a drought that stretches 13 years shy of a century. USA Basketball took gold in that Berlin tournament and has since taken first place at the Olympics on 15 more occasions.
There’s no need to form any further argument: Sunday’s bronze-medal game in the 2023 FIBA World Cup holds far grander implications for the program whose logo features a red basketball flowing into a maple leaf than the Team USA outfit that’s fallen short of lofty expectations — but surely has All-NBA reinforcements on the way for next summer’s 2024 Games in Paris.
“Ten minutes ago, I was really, really mad. But now I’m excited,” head coach Jordi Fernandez said following Canada’s 95-86 semifinals loss to Serbia on Friday. And he said it with conviction. “We’re gonna bounce back.”
A position on the podium would mark the first time in history the Canadians have even placed at the World Cup. They have viewed this summer as one of progress as much as production, growing and growing with each week and each win.
Building such a contender, as the Oklahoma City Thunder equally aspire to do, becomes far easier with an all-world talent such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the controls. One of two players to earn First-Team All-NBA honors — along with Luka Dončić — and then participate in this tournament, Gilgeous-Alexander has further illustrated how OKC’s burgeoning ball-handler is rounding into one of the most formidable players on the planet.
He stands sixth in World Cup scoring at 23.6 points per game, ranking as FIBA’s most efficient player throughout the competition. He sent one of the tournament’s breakout stars, Latvian floor general Artūrs Žagars, toppling to the wood in the second round, all those hesitations and stops and starts just kneecapping the scrappy guard. To move beyond that stage, and clinch a berth in the quarterfinals, SGA danced through the defense of reigning champion Spain for a ridiculous late layup. Then Gilgeous-Alexander sent his defender screeching backward for a step-back jumper that would put Canada on top for good.
“I think it’s just his pace is amazing,” said Team USA point guard Tyrese Haliburton, a fellow first-time All-Star selection in February. “You could say he’s slow, but like, Luka does it too, in the sense that it’s not something you’re used to. Usually guys play with more pace. But the greats are able to switch it up all the time.”
“It’s the change of pace, yeah,” Canadian wing and Thunder teammate Luguentz Dort said. “Also, it’s the way he explodes, the way he can get off the defender to rise for his shot. The way that he handles the ball, the way that he creates for himself. There’s so much more.”
Dort has seen Gilgeous-Alexander’s evolution expedite since the late summer of 2020, after Oklahoma City returned from the Disney Bubble. Dort spent the majority of his two-way salary as an undrafted rookie purchasing a house for his family back north of the border. And while Dort’s contract was converted into a standard deal for that following season, Gilgeous-Alexander invited his fellow countryman to live at the lottery pick’s home for the 2021-22 season, along with his private chef from Toronto.
Then in training sessions, Dort realized his gracious host was also his greatest ally in his own development. Guarding Gilgeous-Alexander has sharpened his instincts like a lockdown cornerback battling an All-Pro receiver each day in practice. And even Dort still struggles to slow Canada’s prodding point guard.
“Honestly, as one of the best defenders, I see it every day … it’s actually hard to figure out what he does,” Dort told Yahoo Sports. “That’s just how good he is. That’s just how he works at his game to be at this level. There’s a lot to it. It’s not just the change of pace.”
Gilgeous-Alexander received the brunt of opposing gameplans throughout this past season in Oklahoma City. Yet in the shorter, 40-minute FIBA game, where the stakes of each contest loom larger than your average regular season outing, Canada’s combo guard and a returning Timberwolves talent, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, has seen his cousin handle the focus of rival scouts with even greater success throughout this World Cup. Not to mention the added stress on SGA whenever Dillon Brooks, Canada’s third-leading scorer, has been saddled with foul trouble.
“In pressure situations and being the main guy a lot of times, defenses are gonna focus on you and how to stop you. He’s done a great job handling each situation as they come correctly, and he’s learning from the game,” Alexander-Walker said. “He’s been able to apply himself and what he’s learning after each game, going back to the drawing board, watching film. And staying hungry, staying aggressive, being himself. Letting the game come to him. All the small things that you see in the early stages of a young, great player.”
The two cousins rolled the tape of Canada’s loss to Serbia in addition to team activities. There’s an insatiable appetite from this Thunder linchpin to continue tweaking and improving. “You always get a bag of mixed emotions afterwards because you feel like it’s one thing in the game,” Alexander-Walker said. “And then you take a step back, then you’re looking at it from a fan’s perspective, and also knowing your thought process in that moment.”
Now Gilgeous-Alexander has Canada on the precipice of something Steve Nash was never capable of completing. He will have to overcome a lineup loaded with angry Americans, but this Canadian national team, with its unorthodox quarterback, has the makings of a victorious underdog.
“To go back home with a medal, I think is a great accomplishment,” Fernandez said. “None of these guys have ever been in this position. And I think that to win it would mean that we fought for something, but we know that we can still be better. We want to leave this tournament being hungry and being thirsty and building this program all the way to the top.”