The 2023 Fiba World Cup was a tournament of firsts. The first time Germany won a global basketball competition. The first time five African teams won a game in the group stage. And the first time Team Canada won a medal: they defeated Team USA after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dillon Brooks combined to score 70 points in the bronze medal game on Sunday, winning an overtime thriller, 127-118.
This isn’t how things are supposed to play out in international men’s hoops, especially between Canada and the USA. After all, the US are the No 2 ranked nation in the world and the reigning Olympic champions, while Canada are No 15 and haven’t been to the Olympics since 2000. The Americans were 21-1 against Canada all-time in international competition heading into Sunday’s game, with a roster containing 12 NBA players including Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Mikal Bridges. It certainly wasn’t America’s A team, but the talent is nothing to scoff at either.
However, international basketball is a fluid, constantly evolving entity, and it is changing rapidly. Gone are the days of Team USA winning every competition they enter, regardless of which players they send. Throwing together a new team every summer and expecting them to compete against the best in the world is no longer good enough. The competition has simply become too good.
“These games are difficult. This is not 1992 any more,” head coach Steve Kerr said after losing to Germany in the semi-final. “And so, players are better all over the world. Teams are better. It’s not easy to win a World Cup or an Olympic Games.”
Thanks in large part to American NBA stars and the 1992 Dream Team inspiring a new generation of hoopers, the game has gone global. And no nation – outside perhaps Germany – is better proof of that than Canada, who have gone from struggling to develop world-class talent to having the most NBA players of any country outside the United States for nine consecutive seasons. They also have a legitimate superstar in 25-year-old point guard Gilgeous-Alexander, who became the first Canadian to be named to a World Cup All-Tournament team after averaging 24.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.6 steals and just 1.4 turnovers a game.
Gilgeous-Alexander is fresh off winning the NBA’s most improved player award and finishing top-five in MVP voting. He is also the type of player that Canadians have been waiting for since two-time MVP Steve Nash officially hung up his laces in 2014. The unorthodox Gilgeous-Alexander, who has a penchant for making big plays in key moments, led one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in the World Cup to bronze after Canada beat a gauntlet of top-ranked opponents including France (world No 5s), Spain (No 1), Slovenia (No 6), and USA.
“It feels good to be a part of history,” Gilgeous-Alexander said on Sunday. “It’s an honor to be part of this group.”
Canada entered the tournament not knowing who was going to ride shotgun with Gilgeous-Alexander, but Brooks used the tournament as an springboard to rewrite his own career narrative. He improved his heavily scrutinized shot-selection and was one of the most efficient players at the tournament, averaging 15.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 59/59/79 shooting splits, good for a 76.1 true shooting percentage. He was also named the Defensive Player of the Tournament after efficiently guarding the likes of Luka Doncic and Edwards, averaging 1.3 steals a game.
Canada didn’t have the guard depth or the big man talent that even a diminished version of Team USA did at the World Cup, and they probably never will. But the truth is they had something much more important in international hoops: chemistry.
The Canadians know how to play together because most of them grew up together in the Greater Toronto Area and played with or against each other in high school and the AAU. Plus, many of them have a history of representing Canada at youth level, learning the intricacies of international basketball from a very young age.
After demanding a three-year commitment from their NBA players before the 2024 Paris Olympics and achieving their goals of qualifying for the Games and winning a medal at the World Cup, Canada Basketball showed that a mixture of NBA talent and continuity can be a powerful thing. Of course, Canada are by no means more talented than the Americans – a full-strength USA roster with the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and LeBron James would almost certainly stroll to a World Cup title. But they are proof that the game is growing rapidly and, as it continues to go global, teams are going to continue sprouting up like wildflowers, challenging the United States for basketball supremacy. After failing to medal in two consecutive World Cups, USA Basketball may have to adjust their strategy if they don’t want to risk falling behind.
After all, Canada have perhaps ignited an actual rivalry after taking down Team USA. And Canadian basketball is on the rise, with stars like Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins potentially joining the team as soon as next summer. Young players like Andrew Nembhard, Bennedict Mathurin, Shaedon Sharpe, and Olivier-Maxence Prosper are also waiting in the wings.
“If we keep doing what we’re doing, I think we will be really good,” Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez said about the program. “I’m excited for our future. I’m excited for these guys and the young guys coming in, having these guys as a role model and seeing how you work.”
“That room for improvement is there. And we should be up there as a program for many, many years if we keep doing this.”