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The new NBA season tips off tonight, and a lot has changed since Nikola Jokic, Canada’s Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets won the championship last June.
Super-prospect Victor Wembanyama got drafted No. 1 overall by San Antonio. Damian Lillard joined forces with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. Phoenix acquired Bradley Beal and sent Chris Paul to Golden State. Boston swapped Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porziņgis and grabbed Jrue Holiday in the Lillard trade fallout. Toronto lost star guard Fred VanVleet to Houston and brought in German journeyman Dennis Schröder, who went on to win MVP of the Basketball World Cup.
With the Raptors seemingly caught in purgatory after not doing much to shake up the remaining roster from last spring’s play-in loss to Chicago, Canadian basketball fans might take more pleasure in following the players who will be part of the country’s first Olympic men’s appearance in a quarter century. So here’s a look at some of those who could help the rising Canadian team reach the podium next summer in Paris:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder): With the exception of Finals MVP Nikola Jokic, no player did more to boost his profile over the past year than Gilgeous-Alexander. Before turning 25 in July, he placed fifth in regular-season MVP voting after averaging a career-high 31.4 points per game (the fourth-highest mark in the league) to help OKC reach the play-in round. Then he led the Canadian men’s national team to its first Olympic berth since 2000 and its first major medal since 1936 with a bronze at the World Cup, where most basketball experts agreed the Canadian guard was the best all-around player in the tournament. Now SGA’s Thunder are a trendy pick to climb the NBA standings as former Gonzaga star Chet Holmgren, the second-overall pick in the 2022 draft, rejoins the team after missing all of last season with a foot injury.
Dillon Brooks (Houston Rockets): A lot of people rolled their eyes when Houston handed the gritty (but at times undisciplined) free agent a four-year, $86-million US contract after Memphis made it clear he’d worn out his welcome. But Brooks answered his critics at the World Cup, where he was Canada’s second-best player and scored a men’s national-team record 39 points in the bronze-medal upset of the United States. Brooks averaged a solid 15 points per game for the tournament while supplying his usual physical defence, toughness and intensity. We’ll see if he brings his best self to Houston — and to Paris next summer.
Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets): To the chagrin of many Canadian fans, the 26-year-old guard decided to skip the World Cup after helping Denver to the NBA title two months earlier. In fairness to Murray, he was coming off his first season since a devastating knee injury in early 2021 threatened his career. And the Nuggets’ long playoff run was taxing on Jokic’s top sidekick, who averaged a stellar 26 points and seven assists in 20 post-season games. But it’s also fair to hope his load management doesn’t extend into next summer’s Olympics, where a backcourt of Murray and Gilgeous-Alexander would probably make Canada a favourite to win a medal.
Andrew Wiggins (Golden State Warriors): The former No. 1 overall draft pick’s interest in the national team has been fleeting at best. He was Canada’s go-to scorer for its ill-fated Olympic qualifier in Victoria in 2021 before refusing to commit for the current cycle and sitting out the World Cup. But, if Wiggins were to have a change of heart now that the team has qualified, Canada would probably welcome back the talented Warriors wing with open arms. Wiggins was arguably the second-most important player on Golden State’s 2022 championship team, and he averaged 17 points last season before missing the final two months for personal reasons.
Other Canadians to watch:
The NBA says a record 26 players from Canada are on opening-night rosters, marking the 10th straight season that Canada is the league’s most represented country other than the United States. The NBA’s official list of Canadians doesn’t include Raptors forward Chris Boucher, who grew up in Montreal but was born in St. Lucia.
Along with the four players we talked about above, the top Canadians in the NBA this season include RJ Barrett, a former third-overall draft pick who averaged close to 20 points last season for the New York Knicks; Lu Dort, a fierce perimeter defender with some scoring pop for Gilgeous-Alexander’s Oklahoma City Thunder; and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk of the Utah Jazz. All three played important roles for Canada at the World Cup.
Younger Canadians looking to make their mark include Indiana Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin, who was not on the World Cup squad after averaging 16.7 points as a rookie last season; and second-year Portland Trail Blazers guard Shaedon Sharpe, who averaged about 10 points after being picked seventh overall last year — one spot behind Mathurin. Canada’s lone first-round pick this year was forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper, taken 24th overall by Sacramento before being traded to Dallas. Read more about Canada’s NBA players here.
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