Nurse, Team Canada are the perfect pairing at the right time
Mark Blinch / National Basketball Association / Getty

Excellence.

That was the word used by Rowan Barrett, general manager of the Canadian men's national basketball team, to explain why a coaching search led the program to hire Nick Nurse to lead it through the next phase.

Canada Basketball, ready to fulfill the promise of this golden era of hoops in the country, looked beyond its borders for its next leader. In choosing the Toronto Raptors bench boss, who hails from the United States, it passed on selecting any one of the Canadians who recently coached the national team: Jay Triano, Roy Rana, and Gord Herbert.

Barrett made sure to thank those coaches for paving the way, but he also made it clear that the bar has been raised. No country outside the U.S. is producing more basketball talent right now. Thirteen Canadians were on NBA rosters to start the 2018-19 season, and six more were selected during last week's NBA draft, including Barrett's son, RJ, at No. 3 overall. That was a record for any country other than the U.S.

"As we went through this process, the amount of people that reached out around the globe, whether it was NBA coaches, coaches coaching in EuroLeague, they were coming from everywhere and wanted in on this opportunity," Rowan Barrett told reporters at Monday's news conference where Nurse was unveiled as head coach.

"You're always looking for excellence, no matter where that comes from. We needed the best person in place to help lead our team where we want to go."

Nurse will oversee Canada through this summer's FIBA World Cup in China, and if all goes according to plan, during next summer's Olympics in Tokyo.

"We believe we're more ready than ever to succeed," Barrett added. "Our goal for the World Cup is nothing less than to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games."

There are certainly parallels between the Canadian national team and the Toronto Raptors side that won its first NBA championship this month.

While the Canadian coaches who preceded Nurse didn't encounter the same type of demoralizing playoff defeats that the Raptors had before promoting him last summer, there's a clear urgency for the program to reach the next level.

Toronto reached unprecedented heights under Dwane Casey, much like Team Canada did under Triano, Rana, and Herbert (who will join Nurse's staff as an associate coach). But Barrett, like Raptors president Masai Ujiri last summer, believed a bold move was needed to tap into Canada's potential.

"Just as Masai saw, he wanted a coach who had experience winning championships," Barrett said in a one-on-one interview. "I think it's very clear that (Nurse) is a leader. (The players) follow. He's a little bit unorthodox in some of the things he does, and I think it's great. It adds to his mystique. It draws players in. He's got his guitar, you know what I mean? I think all of those kinds of things impact players. He's experimental."

Jack Arent / National Basketball Association / Getty

Nurse's tactical creativity, unflappable nature, and FIBA experience, which includes a stint as a Great Britain assistant at the 2012 Olympics, surely factored into his emergence as Canada's prime target. It didn't hurt that he's become an honorary Canadian due to the Raptors' triumph.

As Canada seeks legitimacy at the senior level, its new goals will require additional funding from corporate sponsors. Landing a coach only a week removed from a championship parade should help. And Nurse, despite adding an NBA title to his globetrotting resume of success (which includes multiple championships in both the G-League and Britain), remains a basketball junkie with an insatiable appetite for coaching knowledge. His personal goals reflect a mindset that Canada's program can learn from.

"I see a tremendous opportunity for growth for myself, and that's always really, really important to me," Nurse said of taking on another time-consuming gig rather than basking in the offseason glow of an NBA title.

"Every time you get a group of guys together and you start trying to figure out chemistry, roles, and the personality that team can make up, you're improving your coaching abilities, because that's always the big challenge. The Xs and Os part is super important, but it's about 15 percent of it. Getting the right guys to play the right way and play their butts off is really what it comes down to, and any time you get a chance to work at that skill, I think it improves everybody."

Even with the influx of Canadian talent, qualifying for Tokyo will be no small feat. The program hasn't participated in an Olympics since 2000 and hasn't advanced past the opening round of a World Cup since 1994.

Only two teams from the Americas will gain entry into the 12-team Olympic field, with four wild-card spots open to all confederations in a qualifying tournament next July. Canada faces an uphill battle just to emerge from its World Cup group after drawing Lithuania, Australia, and Senegal in the opening round.

The men's team, despite being on the upswing, fell short of landing a spot in the 2016 Olympics. But RJ Barrett guided Canada to its first gold medal in a FIBA tournament at the 2017 Under-19 World Cup, and the senior squad went 10-2 in World Cup qualifying over the last two years. Now, the program will enter this summer's event with tangible expectations for the first time in two decades.

For Nurse, a newly minted NBA champion who's succeeded at the highest levels on multiple continents, winning with Canada on the international stage - or at least pushing the Americans and medaling - would be among his most impressive accomplishments.

Canada Basketball has the Raptors' example as a guidepost. Nurse has been to the peak, and the program believes he can show the nation the way there.

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Nurse, Team Canada are the perfect pairing at the right time
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