There aren’t many national teams that could lose three NBA guards from game to game in international basketball and not miss a beat.
But that’s the luxury the Canadian men’s team is indulging in as they inch closer to qualifying for the FIBA World Cup 2023 in preparation for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
If Canada wants to make a splash at the World Cup or the Olympics, it’s likely to need every member of its NBA-laden ‘summer core’ – but even now the team has shown the kind of program depth that most countries can only dream of.
Case in point: Just four days after a decisive victory over seventh-ranked Argentina in Victoria, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with notable contributions from Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Cory Joseph, Canada traveled to Panama City, Panama and Simply overwhelmed the host nation with a 106-50 win on Monday. Canada is now 8-0 through the first four qualifying windows, the only undefeated team among the 12 remaining nations in the Americas vying for seven World Cup spots.
With Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker and Joseph all missing from the squad for excused absences, coach Nick Nurse handed the team over to Kevin Pangos with ultimate confidence.
Pangos has played at the highest level in Europe, fulfilled his dream of being part of the NBA roster last season – even though it didn’t work out very well for him with the Cleveland Cavaliers – and was a welcome contributor to the senior men’s team of the past when contracts and injuries allowed.
Nurse was eager to see him sign to be part of the 14-member summer core committed to play this summer, next summer and – assuming Canada qualifies for the Paris Olympics – the summer after. .
“He certainly knows the FIBA game,” Nurse of Pangos said as his team prepared in Victoria last week. “…And he’s a very good player in that style. What does that mean? Well, he understands the tempo. He understands the pressure of the whole pitch. He understands the physical. He’s great at making reads and he’s a true point guard who will lead the team, make the right plays, and then score just enough to keep you honest.
All of those attributes were on full display Monday night as Pangos led Canada from the first tip, starting the scoring with a runner down the lane, starting a quick first three and then quickly finding Melvin Ejim for an open three. In the blink of an eye, Canada was growing by double digits.
Nothing has changed from that time. In addition to the early and straightforward attack, Canada continued its habit of extreme defensive disruption. Pangos was also a feature there as he won the ball back early, forced his man to apply pressure which helped spark a series of turnovers and defensive saves that took Canada to a 33- 7 after 10 minutes.
It was a real team effort, especially defensively. Canada led 64-25 at halftime as they held Panama to 27% shooting in the first half while forcing eight turnovers and committing just nine personal fouls.
But Pangos helped set the tone. He scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half and had four of his five assists. When he was on the ground, the attack sank and the ball burst.
It was the kind of performance Nurse was undoubtedly looking for and Pangos was eager to deliver. He played for Canada and nurse at the 2019 World Cup but was plagued with plantar fasciitis which in turn ruined most of his professional season the following year. Then came the pandemic, then came his 21-22 season with Cleveland where he was buried in a deep guard rotation and never earned the trust of head coach BJ Bickerstaff. He was waived and signed to play in Russia the week before the invasion of Ukraine. Pangos stayed in North America and began a long battle to get released from his contract before finally signing to play in Italy next season.
Between injuries and uncertain contract situations, Pangos hasn’t played in the national team since 2019. No wonder he can’t wait to get on the pitch and have the opportunity to play important minutes. The absences of Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker and Joseph allowed Pangos to take the ball and run with it.
“It’s been a long time,” I said during practice in Victoria last week. “Every chance I get to play for Canada, I cherish it.”
Pangos is one of the few Canadian men to medal at a major international competition as he led Canada to a bronze medal at the 2011 U17 World Championships in a team that featured a pair of picks in the NBA Draft to Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. Pangos made his senior debut before graduating from high school and later played at Gonzaga University where he played alongside fellow national team member Kelly Olynyk. He never made the NBA right out of college, but with so many others signed up for the best league in the world, it seemed only a matter of time before Canada made a splash in basketball. international.
Like almost everyone who has followed basketball in Canada over the past decade, he thought it would have happened by now.
“I think we expected to be at the Olympics at some point,” Pangos said. “The time hasn’t come yet, but I think we’re all ready for it. I think everybody’s mindset is that we’re ready to make some noise on the world stage and, and we’re ready to break through the hurdle and do something special and I think everyone everyone has the mentality here, and that’s what it takes. …we have yet to accomplish this feat. And I think overcoming the hurdle, being able to do something special just to show that Canada has basketball players and can come together. International basketball is a different game, it’s going to take a whole team, not just one guy to do that.
That’s the beauty of where Canada is right now: they’ve got a lot of guys. In addition to Pangos’ big night, all 12 players who touched down scored, with five different players in double digits and only Olynyk leading Pangos production with 18 points, while seven-foot-four soon to be college Junior Zach Edey showed he had the chance to be a real weapon for Canada by scoring 15 points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench.
But it was the defensive intensity and cohesion that traveled with Canada to Panama from Victoria — although charter flying probably helped in that regard.
Pressure from Canada didn’t let Panama breathe as they limited the home team to 26% shooting and forced 20 turnovers.
Conversely, with a player of the quality of Pangos to chase the point instead of so many absences, Canada could breathe much easier.