Canada is inching closer to snapping a pair of dubious international basketball streaks.
The Maple Leaf has not been represented by a men's team at the Olympic Games since 2000 and the Canadians have been absent from the World Cup since 2010.
Commanding victories to wrap Round 1 of FIBA Americas World Cup qualification action — 99-69 over the Virgin Islands in Ottawa on July 2 and 97-61 over the Dominican Republic in Toronto on June 29 — meant Canada finished atop its group and advanced to the final qualification round.
Canada (5-1) is in Group F for Round 2, along with Venezuela (5-1), Brazil (5-1), Dominican Republic (4-2), Virgin Islands (2-4) and Chile (1-5), and will qualify for the World Cup with a top-three finish.
Argentina (5-1), the U.S. (5-1), Puerto Rico (4-2), Uruguay (4-2), Panama (3-3) and Mexico (3-3) comprise Group E, with its top-three finishers also advancing to the World Cup.
The top fourth-place finisher of the two groups will earn the seventh automatic qualification spot for the 2019 World Cup, which will run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 in China.
If Canada reaches the World Cup, a top-seven finish will land them a spot at the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo. Finishing outside the top seven would force the Canadians into more qualification tournaments.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to get to the ultimate goal of medalling in the Olympics,” Team Canada forward Dwight Powell, 27, told KTW. "We’ve got to go step by step. We’ve got to keep going. It’d be huge.”
Conversations about the national team are not complete without talk of who is not participating.
NBA stars Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray and Tristan Thompson did not participate in the most recent round and Canada’s roster has been makeshift throughout the qualification process, which began in November.
Kelly Olynyk of the Miami Heat and Powell of the Dallas Mavericks joined Canada in time for its final two Round 1 FIBA Americas World Cup qualification games.
They were in Kamloops last week for the Heat star’s annual basketball camp, the Olynyk Klynyk, and were asked about notable players who opted not to play for Canada in Round 1.
“The national team is a different thing,” said 27-year-old Olynyk, now playing on a four-year, $50-million contract with Miami. “You’re asking someone to do extra work in their field and not get paid. You’re trying to get ready for a big time … whether it’s a contract year or you don’t have a deal, or whatever it is. Guys are in different situations and I respect everyone’s decisions.
“Obviously, you want them all here because they’re great players, but you’ve got to deal with the cards you’re dealt. Hopefully, they come around when the big stage comes on.”
Olynyk planned to play for Canada in a World Cup qualification tournament in the summer of 2016, despite heading into a contract year with the Boston Celtics, but was forced to sit out due to shoulder surgery.
He donned the Maple Leaf for Canada in a crushing 79-78 loss to Venezuela in Mexico City shortly before the NBA season began in September of 2015, when a win would have meant a berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The 7-foot forward is among those who makes playing for his country a priority, along with the likes of Indiana Pacers’ guard Cory Joseph, but the Kamloops product refuses to criticize big-name players who have sat on the sidelines thus far in the 2020 qualification process.
“Guys have different priorities,” Olynyk said. “Different guys are in different situations. Everyone has their own reasons and they’re valid. You can’t really speak to that.
“You’re always talking to those guys, but it’s tough. You’re playing all year round. Guys have different things they need to do, especially with their bodies and getting healthy. It’s not easy to spend a couple weeks or a month or two, whatever it is, to keep playing. It makes for a long long season. “
Head coach Jay Triano will be working with a new group for pivotal Round 2 FIBA Americas World Cup qualification matchups next month, the first against Brazil in Laval, Que., on Sept. 13. Chile will play host to Canada on Sept. 16.
“As soon as we found out we weren’t going to Rio, the goal was Japan the whole time,” Olynyk said. “Japan is where we are going and that is where we want to be.
“We’re not planning to just get there. We want to compete on that stage. It was heartbreaking not to get to Rio. We had it in our hands and kind of let it slip through.”
The emergence of teenage sensations RJ Barrett and Andrew Nembhard is among the reasons Powell isn’t too worried about missing Wiggins, Murray and Thompson.
“For all of those guys, when they’ve been part of the national team, they’ve given everything they could, played as hard as they could, bought into the system, put egos aside and represented the country the right way,” said Powell, who is from Toronto. “I try not to jump to judgement too soon.
“We’re in a really good place, with some veteran guys who know the international game and also some exceptional young talent.”
Canada will play Venezuela on Nov. 30, Brazil on Dec. 3, Chile on Feb. 21 and Venezuela on Feb. 24 to round out the World Cup qualification schedule.
“We’re not going to have the same group we necessarily had this last window, just because of scheduling, but we have such a deep pool of talent in the country that we have a lot of confidence in the guys who will play throughout the rest of the qualification process,” Powell said.
“We just try to show up with whoever we have and just bring it.”