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Canada's going for Olympic gold, feelings be damned

Nathaniel S. Butler / NBA / Getty Images

It's a new day for Canada's men's basketball team, with the nation finally in position to bring its absolute best to a major tournament - in this case, the Canadian men's first Olympic tournament in 24 years.

Even the squad that won bronze at last year's FIBA World Cup was missing Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins. That's where Canada now stands as a talent factory: with enough quality to go into a tournament without a key piece from the reigning NBA champions (at the time) and a recent All-Star and still compete for a medal.

Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard, one of the breakout stars of the 2024 playoffs, was also absent last summer in Asia.

This summer, Murray, Wiggins, and Nembhard will all take part in Canada's pre-Olympic training camp. Twelve players will be selected from a star-studded group of 20 that includes 2023 returnees Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Kelly Olynyk, Lu Dort, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Dwight Powell.

It's a group that includes the NBA's MVP runner-up and a two-time All-NBA first-team selection, multiple All-Stars, multiple 20-point scorers, a former All-Defensive team selection (Brooks), and another (Dort) who narrowly missed an All-Defensive second-team nod this season. As general manager and former Olympian Rowan Barrett said at a news conference announcing the camp roster this week, Canada has two defensive-minded players who want to maul opponents every time they take the floor.

Oh, and don't forget two-time NCAA Player of the Year Zach Edey. The giant Purdue product was included on Canada's training camp roster, although the NBA team that drafts him next week will have some say in Edey's availability this summer.

It's an embarrassment of riches for Canada and head coach Jordi Fernandez, who was also named head coach of the Brooklyn Nets two months ago.

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Not long ago, Canada had to beg what scarce NBA talent it had to show up for such events. One player who always answered the call was Cory Joseph, and much was made this week of the decision not to invite the 13-year NBA veteran to camp.

"There were times when I put FIBA basketball and playing for my country over my NBA situation at the time, whether I was in a contract year and I had no contract at the time and I went to go play for my country, whether I had little bumps and tweaks, I was there," Joseph told Sportsnet's Michael Grange. "For me it's a little disheartening to be like, 'Wow, I wasn't even given an opportunity to compete for whatever position?'"

But with the power of a full arsenal at Rowan Barrett's disposal comes great responsibility. The team's GM understands the weight of the expectations that will be placed on the Olympic squad. "We are going to this competition in Paris to win. That's our plan," Barrett told reporters about a team that's been given the second-best odds to claim gold, behind only the USA.

Embracing those expectations means Canada must move past the point of lifetime achievement awards. Tough, seemingly ruthless decisions will be made, with Barrett stressing the need to put feelings and relationships aside.

"We love those guys," Barrett said of Joseph and Valencia guard Kevin Pangos, another national team mainstay who was left off the camp list. "At the same time, we are putting together the strongest possible roster that we can in the areas that we believe we need in order to compete and be successful at the Olympics in Paris."

Lance McMillan / Toronto Star / Getty Images

Joseph should be commended for his service to the national team over the years, especially when fellow Canadian NBAers weren't making the same sacrifices. But he's well past his prime, Canada is flush with guard depth, and the country's best players are all committed.

Joseph had no shot to make the final cut, and as Barrett stated, Canada Basketball wants this training camp to be an intensely competitive launching pad toward the Olympics. The only players invited outside of the core 20 are youngsters Bennedict Mathurin (who's recovering from injury) and Shaedon Sharpe, who Barrett and Co. view as part of the program's future.

Being able to leave NBA players at home – to tell respected vets like Joseph, 'Thanks, but no thanks' - is a blessing, no matter how uncomfortable the conversations might get. It's a good problem to have, and one that used to be reserved for the Americans.

Near the end of Wednesday's news conference, Barrett shared a story about a legendary coach who told him he never believed in the idea that players should check their egos at the door. Rather, the coach wanted his players to bring their egos with them and leave managing their outsized personalities up to him.

Barrett now wants Canada's stars to bring their egos and self-belief to Paris. Canadians just want the country to finally bring its 12 best basketball players to the Olympics.

At long last, they have the chance to do that. There's no time to cry over the bruised egos that won't be there.

Joseph Casciaro is theScore's senior content producer.

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