Canada Basketball Looks as Strong as Ever After Summer of Disappointment
Nik Stauskas and Jamal Murray are lighting it up from deep, Andrew Wiggins is playing like a borderline All-Star, and Chris Boucher is doing things at the NCAA level. Canada Basketball is in a good place.
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
As the defense collapsed around Robert Covingtonn's attack, Nik Stauskas calmly finished his route to the right wing, catching a pass on a smooth one-two and letting fly with one of the most aesthetically pleasing jump shots in the NBA. There was no hesitation, no overthinking, no delay. Gather, catch, and fire. Even if he missed his first two 3-point attempts in front of dozens of friends and family making the short trip to the Air Canada Centre, Stauskas' confidence has grown beyond second-guessing himself.
A year ago, that wasn't the case. The Mississauga, Ontario, export struggled through his first two seasons in the NBA, with the Kings pulling the plug a year after making him the No. 8 pick and the 76ers reaping few rewards from giving him the green light all of last year. Struggling early on is normal for young players, but Stauskas was even failing at his supposed specialty, shooting 32.5 percent on more than three 3-point attempts per game through two seasons.
Monday's game against the Raptors was more emblematic of Stauskas in his third year, no less selective from long range but far more effective. He hit three triples versus Toronto, pushing his 3-point percentage to 45.1 percent through 18 games, a mark more in line with his pre-draft reputation and his delightful Sauce Castillo nickname. The key for Stauskas hasn't been mechanical—the stroke was always pretty—but mental.
"Probably confidence. Just having fun out there again, enjoying myself. I kinda figured that when I'm having fun, that's when I play my best basketball," he said before Monday's tip-off. "Just been trying to tune out any negativity or self-doubt."
This time last year, Stauskas may have shied from his quick trigger after clanking his first few attempts. But success can be a virtuous cycle, each make providing positive feedback to fuel the self-confidence, and it's in that sense that the Sixers' extended leash has made the difference. He was never told to stop shooting, and after working tirelessly through a pivotal offseason, he was able to see early returns that should only snowball from here.
"I think with any shooter, as soon as they see the ball drop a few times, confidence grows, and you just begin to get more comfortable," he said. "And I think that's what's happened over the last couple of weeks with me."
Stauskas' resurgence is reflective of a bounce-back start to the 2016-17 season for all of Canada Basketball. While Stauskas didn't play with the national team this summer—he opted to focus on his game within the 76ers organization at Las Vegas Summer League—his breakout is an affirmation of at least one other player succeeding in the pipeline that Canada may be able to pencil in as a contributor for the next Olympic cycle.
And Stauskas isn't alone. It's been one heck of an opening month for Canadian ballers. Canada's failure to qualify in 2016 was a minor setback, but it shouldn't confuse the fact that the talent pool is ever-expanding and improving.
If Stauskas' cold start-turned-hot-streak is impressive, consider Murray, the No. 7 pick of the Denver Nuggets who managed to compress that entire three-year cycle into one month. The Kitchener, Ontario, native started his NBA career with four consecutive scoreless outings, shooting 0-of-16, six of those threes. In the 13 games since, the arrow-shooting Wildcat marksman has found something well beyond a groove, hitting 46.2 percent of his threes while taking five per game.
Small sample caveats certainly apply in a 71-shot sample, but he's suddenly the 40-plus-percent (42.3, to be exact) shooter the Nuggets dreamed on back in June.
Murray still has steps to take, of course, as all rookies do. His finishing needs to improve, his man defense is a problem, and he's still figuring out the right balance between scorer and secondary playmaker (only about 10 percent of his minutes are coming as the lone point guard), but still just 19, the future looks incredibly bright. That Murray's a likely bet for a shooting-starved national team when the schedule allows—draft picks rarely, if ever, participate the summer they're selected—is enticing.
While Stauskas was dropping a smooth 11, Wiggins was having a "quiet" night with 13 points and four assists a tad further north in Minnesota. The crown jewel of the new wave of Canadian basketball talent, Wiggins has decidedly taken the leap from very good prospect to borderline All-Star here in his third year. It's not just the numbers, either, though they're eye-popping—22.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 39.4 percent on threes. Wiggins is consistently applying an aggression and assertiveness his detractors have found him to be short on in the past, and new head coach Tom Thibodeau should be able to tap into Wiggins' immense defensive potential in a way that hasn't materialized in the numbers just yet.
Wiggins is delivering on the promise that made him the No. 1 pick and the primary trade bait for Kevin Love. Prospects don't bloom overnight, nor is development linear, so it's impossible to tell what his ceiling may be and when he may reach it. Given how good he's already become, the more pressing question for Canada Basketball is whether he'll actually suit up the next time he's called upon.
Cory Joseph/Tristan Thompson
No conversation about the near-term future of Canada Basketball can gloss over the two most ardent and unrelenting supporters and participants in the program, two players who played this summer despite trips to the conference final or beyond. Joseph and Thompson are more or less established in their roles on very good teams at this point, and despite their ages (both are 25), any steps forward at this point would show up only observationally and not statistically.
Make no mistake about their importance, though—not only are they likely to suit up for any event that doesn't conflict with the NBA calendar, they've also become loud voices in attempting to drum up commitment from others.
"[It should] challenge the guys who didn't play to next time when the country calls," Thompson challenged his peers in an interview with ESPN in October. "Step up and play."
Joseph has chosen his words more carefully but more or less subtweeted his countrymates after Canada was eliminated in the Philippines.
"I keep Canada close to my heart. So whenever I get a chance, I take it as I'm being honoured to play for them," he said in July. "There's no better competition that you'll get in the world in the summertime than playing."
As you're seeing as Canadians impress around the NBA early in the season, Canada's issue remains commitment and not talent.
Trey Lyles is taking more qualitative than quantitative steps, but his vision and versatility make him an intriguing option in a variety of fun lineups—and possibly a reason to feel comfortable dealing a big—for a Jazz team that's looking like a threat at 10-8. ... Dwight Powell is playing career-high minutes and setting franchise records in steals for a big man with the Mavericks. ... Tyler Ennis and Kyle Wiltjer aren't playing big minutes in Houston, but CanCon teammates is always fun. ... Kelly Olynyk is still shaking some rust off after missing time with a shoulder injury this summer, but he's long established himself as a quality rotation big for a playoff team. ... Fresh off a new deal, Andrew Nicholson is still looking to find himself in Washington. ... Anthony Bennett, uh, lit it up in the D-League this weekend, and those Long Island Nets jerseys are great.
Even considering the vast expansion in Wiggins' game, the hot shooting of Murray, and the resurrection of Stauskas, there is perhaps no Canadian who's done more for his reputation or NBA potential—or galvanized fans of Canada Basketball—as much as Chris Boucher. Not only has the 23-year-old's story drawn attention north and south of the border, the Montreal native's play has improved leaps and bounds.
In his second season at Oregon, Boucher's jumped out to a hot start, putting up 15 points, 6.8 rebounds, and three blocks per game while shooting 56.9 percent overall and a torrid 10-of-23 on threes. Once an afterthought for the 2017 draft, Boucher's played his way into Draft Express' top 60. At 6-foot-10 and with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he seems a safe bet to have a team take a flier on him in June, even at his advanced age for a prospect.
For Canada, it's yet another exciting piece to what's becoming a deep national frontcourt depth chart.