Twenty years after the Dream Team, the 2012 edition brought the story of NBA players in the Olympics full circle with a dominating performance in London. Team USA had been embarrassed in international competitions from 2002-2006, but those losses were as much a story of American arrogance and indifference as they were the rest of the world catching up. Once Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski modernized USA Basketball, the US went right back to its accustomed perch atop the world of basketball, going undefeated from 2008-2012.
While there were NBA players on nearly every team in London, the critical mass of talent the Americans had on hand was overwhelming. No other country could afford to cut players with significant NBA experience; Team USA had their pick of All-Stars. Spain, the silver medal team in Beijing and London, might have been able to upset the US in a one-and-done scenario, but no one would have given them a chance in a best-of-seven series. Twenty years after Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought basketball to the international stage, the Americans still don’t have a legitimate rival.
That doesn’t appear likely to change in the short-term. With Argentina's “Golden Generation” on their last legs and the Gasol brothers creeping into their 30’s, no other country has a core of elite players in place to challenge Team USA by 2016. The renewed American dominance has prompted calls to tweak the Olympics to make them more competitive, from removing NBA players entirely to imposing an age limit, but that may prove unnecessary in the long-term. Canada, the only other country with an NBA franchise, has steadily developed a basketball culture over the last generation, the fruits of which are taking shape in college basketball this season.
James Naismith is Canadian, but it took a long time for his native country to embrace the sport. The NBA didn’t expand into Canada until 1995 and no Canadian colleges play in the NCAA Tournament, so there was never a hometown team young athletes north of the US border could grow up rooting for. As a result, Steve Nash, the first great Canadian basketball player, never had a chance in international competitions, not with so little talent around him. The country has put others in the NBA -- Bill Wennington, Todd MacCulloch, Samuel Dalembert -- but the first noticeable wave of talent has emerged only in the last few years.
In 2011, 16 years after the Toronto Raptors played their first game, two Canadian players were taken in the first round. Both Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph benefitted from the sport’s broadened horizons, making a name for themselves in AAU competitions before eventually playing at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas and spending one year of college at Texas. Three more Canadians -- Andrew Nicholson, Robert Sacre and Kris Joseph -- were selected in 2012, although Nicholson, a promising young power forward for the Orlando Magic, is the only one certain to have a long NBA career.
In 2013, the wave of Canadian talent became a flood. There’s quantity, with 90 Canadian players on a D1 scholarship, and quality in the form of three first-round prospects -- Anthony Bennett (UNLV), Kelly Olynk (Gonzaga) and Myck Kabongo (Texas). Behind them, Nick Stauskas (Michigan), Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State), Khem Birch (UNLV), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga) and Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky) are all on the radar of NBA scouts as well. Sim Bhullar (New Mexico State) is a 7’5 355 human being who can run up and down a court, so there might be a place for him at the next level down the road.
Bennett is the unquestioned prize of this year’s crop. At 6’8 240 with long arms, a quick first step and great leaping ability, he’s the prototype small-ball power forward in the modern NBA. And while combo forwards who rely mainly on their athleticism have struggled to make the transition from college (Derrick Williams), Bennett is a surprisingly skilled player with a smooth jumper, deceptive ball-handling ability and great touch around the rim. He’s averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds game on 54/37/71 shooting as a freshman in the Mountain West, the second best conference in the country this season. He’ll need to improve his passing and defensive ability to be a legitimate franchise player on the next level, but he should be a borderline All-Star for the next decade regardless.
Olynyk has been one of the most surprising players in the country this season. After redshirting last year behind a glut of NBA prospects at Gonzaga, he’s emerged as an All-American candidate as a junior. He’s always had a great outside shot for a 7’0 240 big man, but he’s developed the capability to put the ball on the floor, finish through contact and post up smaller players this season. Olynyk is the go-to-player on the No. 1 team in the country, averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds a game on 66/38/79 shooting this season. It’s unclear whether he’ll have the defensive chops to be a starter at the next level, but his ability to space the floor at his size will ensure that he has a long career in the NBA.
Kabongo, thanks to an uneven freshman season and a capricious 23-game NCAA suspension to start his sophomore year, is still somewhat of an enigma after returning to action only two weeks ago. A 6’1 180 point guard with breathtaking speed and great floor vision, he’s been a highly touted prospect since his days at Findlay Prep. However, he still needs to answer questions about his perimeter jumper and decision-making ability before an NBA team will be willing to give him the keys to the offense. After what he went through this season, it would be hard to blame him if he declared for the draft, but he’s likely to spend the first few years of his pro career like Joseph -- riding the end of the bench and shuttling back and forth to the D-League -- if he is taken at the back of the first round in 2013.
Looming over all of them is Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 player in the class of 2013. There’s never been an international prospect like Wiggins, an athletic 6’7 205 wing who can beat American players at their own game. His ongoing recruitment has been one of the biggest stories of the college basketball season, while NBA teams are already dreaming about taking him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. It’s still way too early to know whether whether he can live up to the hype surrounding him, but if he can, he will be surrounded by a lot of talent on the Canadian national team.
By 2020, Canada could have a team with Olynyk, Thompson and Nicholson upfront, Wiggins and Bennett on the wings and Kabongo running point. Even if some of them don’t pan out, with so much interest in basketball in Canada, the country’s pipeline of talent won’t run out as abruptly as it did in Argentina. There’s already one Canadian, a 6’8 210 forward named Trey Lyles, among the top players in the class of 2014. For all of them, the biggest game of their careers may end up being a match-up with Team USA in the 2020 gold medal game. The future of basketball, both in Canada and around the world, is bright indeed.