RJ Barrett had about 1,000 people in attendance to watch him play his second game with the New York Knicks at Scotiabank Arena on Friday night, everyone from family and friends to his entire church congregation.
The arena might be home to the Toronto Raptors, but Barrett knows the building well. He attended games as a kid with his dad Rowan, an Olympian and general manager of Canada’s men’s program. The two would stroll the back hallways and chat with players in the locker-rooms.
“I definitely look forward to [playing in Toronto],” Barrett said after the Knicks’ 90-87 loss to Toronto. “I remember coming here as a kid … [meeting] some of my favourite players, I always remember it being loud in here and fun as a kid, I kind of know the arena so it’s a little different, but a lot of fun.”
Barrett, who’s bouncing back from a non-COVID-19 illness earlier this month that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said took a toll on the Canadian, had 19 points to lead the Knicks.
Scotiabank Arena seems to bring out the best in visiting Canadian NBA players. A few — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Dillon Brooks — left with victories recently, and maybe a bit of extra pride.
It’s a product of the country’s basketball’s success, said Raptors and Canadian team coach Nick Nurse.
“It’s certainly more special here and more rare,” Nurse said. “I think it’s kind of cool. I root for them like crazy but I’m still trying to beat them.
“I think basketball in Canada, this being the [only NBA] team, the team being really good and winning a title and these guys, they love coming back here … there’s a bunch of things that go into it. They sure are playing well against us, a lot of them.”
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Nurse coached Barrett for the first time this past summer for Canada’s last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria, where the Canadians were eliminated in the semifinal.
Nurse said working with the 21-year-old Barrett, who helped Canada win the U19 FIBA World Cup in 2017, was a joy.
“The best thing or the most interesting thing for me was — having never really been around him very much, just seen from afar and coached against him, et cetera — I was super pleasantly surprised with just his overall team demeanour,” Nurse said. “He’s way more energetic, bouncy, and fun, teammates like him, he likes to practise, he brings a really good, positive energy to the team.
“He kind of plays stone-faced so it caught me off-guard a bit.”
Canada’s men’s team hasn’t played in the Olympics since 2000. The team’s best chance to qualify for Tokyo was the 2019 World Cup in China, but Cory Joseph and Khem Birch were the only NBA players on the roster, and Canada fell well short of the target.
Nurse, who signed a contract extension with Canada Basketball through the 2024 Paris Olympics, has asked Canada’s NBA stars to commit to the national team program, not only in the Olympic year, but in any qualifying windows that don’t conflict with the NBA season.
“Listen, I’m not trying to put up this huge gauntlet for these guys, they hired me to do the best job that I can and there’s no way we’re going to succeed if we’re not more committed, and have more continuity and play together more, because that’s what the competition, the teams that do well do,” Nurse said.
“I just kind of said I’m not really interested in continuing to do it unless we decide we’re all going to commit and that’s where we’re going to try to take some steps forward.”
Canada opened the Americas region qualifying for the FIBA World Cup late last month with a pair of easy wins over the Bahamas. Canada is in Group C of the qualifiers with the Dominican Republic, U.S. Virgin Islands and Bahamas.
The Canadians will next play in the second window of qualifiers in February.
Eighty national teams are playing across six qualifying windows to secure their place among the 30 teams that will join hosts Japan and the Philippines in the 32-team 2023 FIBA men’s World Cup. The 2023 World Cup is a direct qualifier for the 2024 Paris Olympics.