‘You just don’t see that in the NBA’: Canada’s historic 2023 FIBA World Cup

USA vs Canada for the FIBA World Cup Championship, where Canada won the 3rd place. (Submitted: FIBA Basketball)

The Canadian men’s national basketball team achieved its best-ever finish in international competition earlier this September, winning a bronze medal at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Indonesia and the Philippines.

While many had hopes for the Canadians to bring home a gold medal – especially after they finished the group stages 4-1 and defeated Slovenia in the quarterfinals – third place in the world’s premier basketball tournament is nothing to scoff at.

“To understand how big the World Cup is to other countries and around the world compared to the United States and even North America, it’s just different,” said University of New Brunswick REDS men’s basketball head coach Joe Salerno. 

“This is the main stage.”

Salerno, originally from Vermont, has been the head coach at UNB since 2021. He also has experience at the FIBA level, coaching the Syrian men’s national basketball team from 2020 to 2021.

“It’s an extremely high level of basketball,” said Salerno of the FIBA game. “It was the best coaching experience of my life.”

Canada was led by do-it-all guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored more points than anyone besides Luka Dončić, and earned a spot on the tournament All-Star 5 team. Gilgeous-Alexander was one of seven NBA players on his team, the most Canada has ever sent to an international competition.

“Shai is as talented as anybody in the NBA,” said Salerno. “You kind of expect him to have that kind of performance in the World Cup.”

Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t the only standout Canadian, though. Dillon Brooks, fresh off signing a four-year, $80 million contract with the Houston Rockets, shined on both sides of the court. Not only did he win the Best Defensive Player award, but he scored a Canadian record 39 points to secure the bronze against the United States, including 7-8 shooting from beyond the three-point line.

“In the NBA [Dillon Brooks] is known as this hard-nosed defender, instigator, villain-type guy. But yet he also showed other parts of his game.”

Getting top-level NBA talent to represent Canada has been difficult in the past. At the last World Cup, only two players with NBA experience donned the maple leaf. For various unfortunate reasons, Canada – who has produced more NBA players than any country other than the U.S. – has failed to put together a successful men’s basketball team for the past two decades.

For Gilgeous-Alexander and Brooks, alongside fellow NBAers RJ Barrett, Kelly Olynyk, Dwight Powell, Lu Dort and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to represent Canada, is a welcomed change.

“This was the best Canadian roster they’ve ever put together,” said Salerno. “Now, that’s going to set the bar for Canada Basketball moving forward. That is the expectation now.”

By finishing the World Cup as the best team out of the Americas, Canada punched its ticket to the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. Twenty years on from its last men’s basketball appearance at the Olympics, fans from Port Hawkesbury to Port Coquitlam and North York to Nunavut will be watching from the other side of the Atlantic with anticipation and high expectations. And this time, bronze might not be good enough.