MEXICO CITY — Canada is in position to secure a berth to its first Olympic basketball tournament since Sydney 2000, with Andrew Wiggins leading a young team that has been too much to handle in the qualifiers and is aiming to be a surprise in Rio 2016.
Wiggins, the NBA rookie of the year last season for Minnesota, is averaging 15.5 points in the FIBA Americas Tournament. He’ll lead a Canadian team that finished first and will play Venezuela in the semifinals with an Olympic spot at stake. In the other semifinal Friday night, Argentina will face Mexico. Canada beat Venezuela by 20 points in the first round and is the heavy
After losing 94-87 to Argentina in its first game of the tournament, Canada has won seven straight — by an average of 27.7 points.
“This Canadian team is something that this tournament has no seen for quite some time,” Venezuela coach Nestor Garcia said. “Their talent level is unbelievable.”
Along with Wiggins and Minnesota teammate Anthony Bennett, Canada features another seven NBA players.
The oldest is the Los Angeles Lakers’ Robert Sacre, a 26 year-old
But none of those NBA players is as talented as Wiggins, a 20-year-old forward who averaged 16.9 points in his first NBA season.
“He’s a great player, and he’s adapted and fit into anything that we’ve asked him to do with our team here,” Canada coach Jay Triano said. “He has become one of our leaders, a guy we can run plays for or put him in situations where he can make plays for others.”
Wiggins is the fifth-best scorer in the tournament, but he’s averaging only 24.4 minutes. Luis Scola, from Argentina, is the leader at 22.4 points, but he’s playing 31.2 minutes per game.
Triano is using the team’s depth to rotate players and that has allowed fans in Mexico City to see an improved version of Wiggins.
“I feel better playing shorter minutes because I can make every minute count,” said Wiggins, who averaged 36.2 minutes in his first NBA season. “The intensity is higher because I know I don*t have to win it all by myself and that the team will not miss me when I go to the bench.”
Wiggins’s attitude is helping the team on the court because Cory Joseph (10.4 points), Nik Stauskas (13.6) and Brady Heslip (10.6) are averaging double digits in scoring.
Off the field, the team has come together as well.
“They are making sacrifices and doing everything to win a game, they are putting their agendas to one side, they believe in each other and are like a family. That helps on the court because they know they have each other*s back,” added Triano, an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The team was assembled by Steve Nash, the former NBA MVP who took over the role of general manager in 2012.
“I feel like this is what I envisioned,” Nash said. “There were moments where maybe I wasn’t sure it was going to come along this crisply, but I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it, for sure.”
Nash was the starting point guard for Canada in Sydney 2000, where the team finished seventh.
That team had only two NBA players — Nash and Todd MacCulloch.
With the current talented team, Canada will try to more noise in the Olympics where they only have one medal, a silver won in Berlin 1936.
“I think sky is the limit,” Nash said. “Obviously, we have a tremendous amount of talent, great depth and balance but again, it’s always in the details”.
Carlos Rodriguez, The Associated Press