The Canadian senior men’s basketball team has won its group for the first time in FIBA World Cup history, running through Group H with a perfect 3-0 record and plus-111 point differential, the best in the tournament.
While there were already signs that this team was different from its Canadian predecessors — including the fact it went 11-1 in qualifying as the best team in the Americas after getting a three-year commitment from a number of high-caliber NBA players — the ways in which it is succeeding are atypical for a traditional FIBA team.
It’s also different from last summer, as new head coach Jordi Fernandez is taking advantage of his personnel in a way former head coach Nick Nurse never did — by running. A lot. And if you don’t believe me, just watch the usually reserved Fernandez on the sideline after every defensive rebound when he's begging his team to push the ball up the court.
"I think playing fast, guarding, really being a defensive team and laying our hat on that," Nickeil Alexander-Walker said ahead of the tournament of the team’s identity. "So, just doing that, and then the star power, and all these guys kind of blend in a pot and see what we can cook up."
"Yeah, we're going to play fast," his cousin and the aforementioned star in question, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, added. "Play hard. Play very tough defensively, and play together offensively."
A big part of Team Canada’s success has in fact been Gilgeious-Alexander’s star power, as the 25-year-old point guard leads the team in points (22), rebounds (8) and assists (5.7) per game, outscoring both France and Latvia by himself in the crucial third quarter of each contest. He has been the best player in the tournament not named Luka Doncic.
But aside from Gilgeous-Alexander, Canada has found most of its offensive success in transition or semi-transition, consistently pushing the ball up the floor and using its speed, athleticism, shooting and chemistry to absolutely dominate in transition against defenses that aren’t yet fully set.
— Canada Basketball (@CanBball) August 27, 2023
After all, it's hard to score in the half court, especially in FIBA when defenses have certain advantages they don’t have in the NBA such as increased physicality and no three-in-the-key rule. And while the data we have to work with is limited in FIBA, consider this: In the 12 games of Americas qualifiers last year when Nurse was the coach, Canada took an average of 68.1 field-goal attempts, third most among teams in the region. In the three games their NBA personnel played, when they started a lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker, Melvin Ejim, Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell, they took 69.3 field-goal attempts per game.
Through three contests of this FIBA World Cup, where Canada has played significantly stronger competition, which should (in theory at least) limit the team’s ability to dictate style of play, Fernandez’s team has taken a whopping 72.3 field-goal attempts per game, the second most in the tournament behind only Australia. Perhaps as a result, Canada is scoring a tournament-best 108 points per game, while shooting 54.8 percent from the field (No. 1) and 42.9 percent from three (No. 2).
Of course, you have to play exceptional defense to get stops and be a strong rebounding team to finish possessions before running, and that is something Canada has done exceptionally well with its ball-pressure, ball-denial, and clean but simple defensive schemes, averaging a tournament-high 10.7 steals per game. But even then, it’s difficult to run after every possession because it requires a complete buy-in from the players, an elite level of fitness, and enough chemistry to know where your teammates are going to be while sprinting at 100-percent speed.
In fact, it’s something a coach has to instill in their players time and time again until it becomes a habit.
"We have to build an identity as a group and that doesn’t happen overnight," Fernandez said at training camp — but it wasn’t exactly clear what that identity would be coming into the tournament.
Players talked about playing hard on defense, getting stops and running. But almost every team says stuff along those lines. Actually doing it possession after possession is another thing altogether, something that Fernandez has clearly emphasized as he has gotten to know his personnel better throughout the last month.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finds RJ Barrett on the break for the JAM 💥pic.twitter.com/qv0KGRVWoK
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) August 29, 2023
It helps that one of Team Canada’s underrated strengths is the fact the players have built-in on-court chemistry as the majority of the rotation already knew each other and, to an extent, how to play with each other long before training camp even started. In fact, Gilgeous-Alexander, Alexander-Walker, Olynyk, Dillon Brooks and RJ Barrett all used the word "family" to describe the atmosphere of the team during training camp in Toronto, which makes sense given that this is a group made up of primarily Greater Toronto Area-born hoopers born between 1996 and 2000 that have played with or against each other since childhood.
"Everyone that’s in the building you came across when you were younger, grew up with or played against or with when you played up [an age group]," Brooks said. "It’s a family environment and everybody is here to win, get better and do something special for the country."
"I think everyone's just being themselves, which is good, and everyone knows what they do," Alexander-Walker said of Canada’s style of play. "All of us play against each other [in the NBA]. We know each other’s strengths, weaknesses [needed] to play with each other at times. So, it's just a matter of just playing off each other and playing to other guys' strengths and using that to our advantage is going to help."
While playing fast is a good way to take advantage of Canada’s personnel given that the team is primarily made up of young, high-level athletes who know each other’s games and can in many cases rebound, dribble, pass and shoot, it’s not how FIBA teams traditionally play. In fact, international basketball tends to be much slower than the NBA game, with teams often walking the ball up the floor and using a number of creative sets to produce good looks in the half court.
We saw more of that with Nurse coaching the team. But ever since Fernandez took over in late June, it's been: go, go, go. That’s somewhat surprising given that Fernandez’s upbringing is in FIBA with the Spanish national team, while Nurse coached the Toronto Raptors — one of the most transition-reliant teams in the last decade of NBA basketball. You would think that Nurse would want his teams to play fast and that Fernandez would want to play slow. Instead, the opposite has been true.
It’s difficult for a head coach to put their stamp on a team when they get the job just one month before training camp and two months before one of the most important World Cups in program history, but Fernandez has quickly done just that. He is getting the most out of the Canadians on offense by getting them to push the tempo and beat opposing defenses down the floor.
It’s not how you would think he would want to play given his extensive background in FIBA, but Fernandez clearly looked at the combination of NBA talent, speed, athleticism and chemistry that the Canadians have and decided their best chance to win is by playing really, really fast.
Canada will face Brazil on Friday, September 1st (9:30 a.m. E.T.) before playing No. 1-ranked Spain on Sunday, September 3rd (9:30 a.m. E.T.) Win even one of those games and the team should move on to the knockout stage in Manilla, Philippines for a chance to play for a medal.
If they do find themselves on the podium for the first time in World Cup history when all is said and done, you can be confident they will have sprinted their way there.