The summer Olympics are more than nine months away, but the Canadian men’s basketball team has already taken a major step towards Japan.
Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray has confirmed his intention to play for Canada next summer – first at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria, B.C. in late June, and then in Tokyo should the men’s team earn one of the six remaining spots in the 12-team Olympic tournament.
“I really wanted to play last summer but I was injured,” Murray told Sportsnet in a comment relayed by his agent, Mike George, on Tuesday. “But I’m excited and looking forward to playing now.”
An early and public commitment from Murray is significant on a number of levels as the men’s program tries to return to the Olympics for the first time since 2000 and just the second time since 1988.
One is that the Nuggets guard is the most accomplished NBA player in an increasingly deep pool of Canadian talent.
The other is that having Murray out front and onboard at this stage should be a boost to the national team’s on-going recruiting efforts with regard to other top line NBA talent.
“I wanted to get the word out early because I feel like I have a leadership role and want to let the other guys know I’m all in, I’m ready to play,” said Murray. “I feel healthy and I’m ready to go ahead and try to help us qualify for the Olympics.”
It’s music to the ears of Canadian head coach (and Toronto Raptors head coach) Nick Nurse who helped Canada to a 2-3 record at the FIBA World Cup in China while only having two NBA players on the roster earlier this year.
Murray didn’t play last summer after suffering an ankle injury in training, although he was in attendance for all of the team’s camp in Toronto – often shooting baskets off one leg after practice – and their exhibition game against Nigeria.
There is no doubt Canada could have used his scoring and play-making punch. Murray is averaging 18.9 points, 5.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds – all career highs for the soon-to-be 23-year-old on the 12-3 Nuggets.
“Having a guy like him is really critical,” says Nurse. “Even last [summer] we’re duking it out pretty good with these teams and the fourth quarter gets a little tough so when you get a guy who can go out and get his own bucket and keep that scoreboard ticking over for you, it’s huge. It’s huge in the NBA, but it’s maybe even bigger for the national team.”
Murray’s decision was family driven. He’s exceptionally close with his father, Roger, who helped guide his son from Kitchener, Ont., off the beaten path when it comes to the Toronto area’s NBA pipeline, with a deliberate approach to skill development.
Part of the discussion for example, includes finding ways to make sure Murray – who uses the hashtag #BeMore27 as his motto – is still able to run basketball camps in Jamaica among other charitable works.
“I thought that was important for my son to play for the country,” said Roger. “I’m excited about it, he’s excited about it. It’s something we’ve been dreaming about – playing in the Olympics – and now he’s ready to try to make it a reality.”
Murray starred for Canada in various age-group competitions and exploded onto the senior men’s team at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto when he came off the bench for 22 points in a semifinal, overtime win over Team USA as an 18-year-old out of high school.
Getting Murray on board is part of what has been an encouraging few weeks for men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett, who has endured some heavy weather since taking over the role formally in early March.
On Wednesday morning Canada will learn who their five opponents will be when they host the six-team winner-take-all qualifying tournament in Victoria on June 23-28 – the most significant international basketball event held in Canada in 25 years.
A long coaching search ended successfully with Nurse being hired in late June, but a combination of factors made getting a heavy NBA turnout for the World Cup a challenge.
Barrett has spent much of the early NBA season on the road making personal visits to key players in order to secure their commitments.
“We’re working with the player we want to share the plan, what the potential is, what we can do and dealing with the people that are influential in the life of the athlete and for Jamal, obviously, it’s his father, Roger,” said Barrett. “We’ve had a good strong meeting of the minds.”
Story by Michael Grange - Sportsnet