For your casual basketball viewer, the season ends in mid-June and doesn't start up again until October. I'll kindly disagree with that mentality. You have the NBA Draft, then July is all about Summer League. August is really truly the only typically 'quiet' time (and Dwight has crushed that theory the past two offseasons), and even then international friendlies take over whether it's in preparation for the Olympics, the FIBA World Championships (now referred to as the 'World Cup'...ugh), EuroBasket, and the FIBA Americas Championship. August 30th we're back on the 2-year cycle of the FIBA Americas tournament hosted in Venezuela this campaign, and on the 2-year cycle of EuroBasket hosted in Slovenia beginning September 4th. The end goal of participating in EuroBasket and the FIBA Americas is to qualify into the Olympics and FIBA World Cup. However, there's tremendous prestige in winning these 'qualifying' tournaments. Don't tell that to USA basketball who very rarely participates in the FIBA Americas Championship simply because they typically dominate and win gold at the Olympics and FIBA World Cup and have the options to elect not to send a team to the FIBA Americas tourney.
The top 6 finishers of the now expanded 24-team EuroBasket four-group format punch a ticket for Spain in next year's FIBA World Cup. If Spain finishes in the top 6 (Spoiler Alert: They will), then the team that finishes 7th also gets an automatic invitation without having to endure a crummy qualifying campaign to get into the tourney. The top 4 finishers in the 10-squad FIBA Americas two-group competition earn automatic berths for next year. Remember, the U.S. already has their invite by virtue of winning the London Olympics. Expanding from 16 to twenty-four teams for the first time ever at EuroBasket may water down the quality in the first round, but it's still known as a more entertaining tournament than the Olympics or the FIBA World's. The FIBA Americas tourney is shorter and less grueling on its competitors. But the atmosphere and passion lacks in comparison to the other tournaments discussed. Still, it's fun when your country competes or your player(s) is out there.
So for this Magic men international preview let's check in on our favorite Canadian baller, Andrew Nicholson.
Side note: I can now claim to have driven through Mississauga, Ontario. A lot of wineries. Actually, a ridiculous amount.
I think more than anything, we want to see Andrew Nicholson's defensive paint presence grow. How? Well Uncle 'Drew can start by improving his rebounding...vastly.
So how has Nicholson done starting along side of Cavs big man Tristan Thompson in the Canadian frontcourt? Quite well actually. Better than his mic work. A head nod to Evan Dunlap over at Orlando Pinstripe Post for breaking down Andrew's performance in the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup - final warm-up competition held in San Juan, Puerto Rico where Canada lost all 4 games - before the real deal tips off this Friday. His team played like crap, but Andrew posted some impressive offensive numbers. You can scour YouTube for footage of some of the exhibitions, but I'll spare you the trouble.
Nicholson in a bit over 23 minutes per contests averaged 15.0 ppg and 2.5 rpg (Yuck) on 54.8 FG% and a pleasant 6-of-7 from 3-point range. Remember, the FIBA 3-point line is almost 2 feet closer to the rim than the NBA version. Still - especially against Argentina where he made all 3 long-ball attempts including one with a man in his face that beat the halftime buzzer - Nicholson has added legitimate 3-point shooting to his blossoming offensive arsenal. Maybe he was inspired by Kelly Olynyk abusing him in Summer League from inside and outside. Also, it's 40-minute matches in international play and not forty-eight. That plays a role in lower statistics. The fifteen-point average placed Nicholson in 4th, just ahead of Tristan Thompson and just behind Luis Scola, J.J. Barea, and Carlos Arroyo. Not bad company. As far as rebounds, teammate Thompson finished in a tie with Argentina's Luis Scola for the Cup rebounding lead averaging 7.5 boards per game. And yet, Nicholson got out-muscled on the glass and proved ineffective at swatting or stealing the ball. His footwork has improved since July slightly, though he looks quicker against slower opposition than on the NBA level.
The Tuto Cup is a large upgrade in performance from his poor showing in two contests against Jamaica earlier in August. Although in one of those Jamaican encounters, Andrew almost got into a scuffle with Samardo Samuels. Nicholson is beginning to show more of a mean streak as he won't tolerate being pushed around by any league veterans without a fight. If only he exhumed that attitude while defending or banging in the paint.
For Nicholson's sake, I hope Triano plays more man defense instead of requiring Andrew to constantly switch and risk coming too early or late on the help defense. That leads to extra mistakes and an increase in unnecessary fouls for a somewhat inexperienced side that is already in a challenging situation. For Canada to finish in the top 4, Nicholson must lead his nation in scoring. Andrew can do it. His expanded 3-point game kept Luis Scola on his toes on August 23rd and Andrew has good chemistry with Thompson on defensive switches. It's all about putting it all together on the grand stage.
CANADA'S CHANCES AT AN AUTOMATIC 2014 FIBA WORLD CUP INVITE:
Thanks to some weakened opposition, definitely not hopeless. Although, Josh Cohen on OrlandoMagic.com thinks Canada has a 50% chance at nabbing a top 4 spot for Spain next year. That sounds fair to me though I believe Nicholson and company will have to overachieve a bit. Having to play every Group A match either in the morning or in the early afternoon won't help initially. They had to cut veteran leader Carl English due to injury, and don't have the services of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Kelly Olynyk, and Robert Sacre. Bummer. Canada has to rely on Nicholson, Thompson, Miami's Joel Anthony, the Spurs' Cory Joseph, and Baylor's Brady Heslip to find success.
The top four from the group will advance. That means only one team gets eliminated after the first round robin. So who of the 5 teams above are getting knocked out? I know the 2011 silver medalists and Marcelinho Huertas-led Brazil (no Barbosa, Varejao, Splitter, or Nene) and the Puerto Ricans (captained by Carlos 'Chuck' Arroyo) are safe. My money is on Uruguay. If not them, then Jamaica who won't have Roy Hibbert. Godspeed, Samardo Samuels. I've got Canada finishing 3rd in the group with a 2-2 record. That prediction turns to 1-2 once Jamaica or Uruguay gets knocked out and we get into the second round.
If Canada advances from Round 1 - fire Jay Triano if they don't - they take on the 4 teams that progressed out of much stronger Group B in a second round robin: Mexico (with the dominating Gustavo Ayon), the 2011 bronze medalists and Franciso Garcia-led Dominican Republic (no Al Horford), hosts Venezuela (a lot of pressure the naturalized Donta Smith with Greivis Vasquez out due to his ankle injury), Paraguay, and defending FIBA Americas champs and the Luis Scola-led Argentinians (no Ginobili, Delfino, Prigioni, or Nocioni). I think Paraguay will be the squad knocked out of Group B.
So that leaves 8 teams, all play 4 games in 4 consecutive days in a third round robin stage between September 5th-8th. My predictions on who those 4 teams will be in order of most points: Puerto Rico (they have an assistant coach names Bob Saget, they'll finally live up to expectations), Argentina, Brazil...and Canada. I believe the Dominican Republic and Mexico will just miss out on the knockout stage.
Those who survive to reach the Semifinals on September 10th can already rest easy (well not really, they're competing still for hardware), they'll have earned that FIBA World Cup spot. It's all about medals and the trophy from there. I think Canada will lose in the semifinal to Puerto Rico and then Puerto Rico will knock off Brazil in the title game. The fun thing about prognosticating? Being wrong leads to plenty of surprises. I won't be shocked if I'm wrong because Carlos Arroyo and J.J. Barea are bound to fail to lead their nation to the trophy...again. However, Puerto Rico did lift the Tuto Marchand Cup (mind you on their own court) and that's immense progress. The Final is Wednesday September 11th.
So again, I have Canada finishing 4th - good enough for that FIBA World Cup ticket but just short of the podium. Not half bad for a nation becoming respectable again in basketball. On the brighter side, Nicholson plays well in a #7 jersey. It seems like some of ex-Magic man J.J. Redick's 3-point shooting has rubbed off on Andrew and we all wish him a confidence-boosting showing in Caracas.