Canada had just won with relative ease in the first game of the Pacific Rim Challenge against China. The final score – a 97-62 drubbing for the home side in their first exhibition ahead of the next set of FIBA Qualifiers later this week – mostly did the game justice, with one of the deepest Canada Basketball rosters ever over-matching a partial China squad. Even within that 35-point victory, though, head coach Jay Triano had a cause for umbrage: Wu Qian had gone off for 27 points in 27 minutes, drilling seven threes in the loss.
Qian is a fine player. He has deep range on his jumper, has FIBA Asia Cup experience, and is emerging as one of the Chinese Basketball Association’s most prolific scorers. Still, with a high-leverage game coming up against Dominican Republic, Triano wanted to make sure a defensive tone was set in the second meeting between the sides.
Enter Triano’s pair of Raptors 905 guards in Kaza Keane and Aaron Best, both of whom earned the start in the rematch two days later. The result? A definitive tone set on the defensive end, with China scoring just four points on 2-of-12 shooting with six turnovers in the first quarter. Qian would ultimately score 21 points in Canada’s 108-72 victory, but the message was sent early that Canada would be surrendering nothing easy on the perimeter or in transition if Keane and Best had anything to say about it.
“They held a Chinese team that we obviously prepared for to four points in the first quarter,” Triano said after practice at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto on Tuesday. “They’re just dogs defensively, and they got up there and they created havoc. They had a guy that shot the ball real well in the first game, and we wanted to make sure he didn’t get going. I thought the first quarter of the second game kind of set the tone for what the second game against the same team was going to be like.”
That Keane and Best are even in camp with the senior team during the offseason would have been surprising not all that long ago. Canada’s talent runs deep at this point – a record 14 Canadians played NBA minutes last year – and despite the new in-season FIBA qualification process, NBA players are far more available at this time of year. That new process, though, saw Keane appear in four games for Canada over two sets of in-season qualifying games this year, and Best in two.
It’s a more complicated procedure now, sure, but it’s also helped highlight that Canada’s growth has come beyond just the NBA level. Keane and Best are joined by Anthony Bennett (formerly Raptors 905, most recently with the Maine Red Claws) and Olivier Hanlan (Austin Spurs) as full-time G League players in camp with Canada, and a number of others – including Cory Joseph, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Golden State Warriors’ two-way player Chris Boucher, and former 905 point guard Brady Heslip – have ample G League experience. The 905’s guard duo thriving at the G League level this season helped make their case for inclusion in the national program, and there inclusion lends further legitimacy to the talent in the G League.
“It’s been good with the two of us coming from Raptors 905, trying to take the stuff that they implemented in us there, definitely defensive oriented – top team in defense in the whole league – and just try to take that and add it to here where we can,” Keane says.
The 905’s presence isn’t just felt on the court, either. Along with four players in camp with 905 experience, Canada is also leaning on 905 assistant Nathaniel Mitchell as an assistant coach. Mitchell has juggled Canada Basketball and the 905 for a few seasons now, earning a strong reputation as a player development coach and potential head coach in waiting. On Wednesday, he’ll lead a senior program development team in a scrimmage against the main roster, then against China in a pair of exhibitions.
“Man, I’m just grateful for the opportunity that Jay Triano and Rowan Barrett have given me,” says Mitchell. “One, for me, for growth. I wanna be seen as a head coach, obviously, but anything that needs to do with player development, assistant coaching, I just think it’s an honor, and I’m happy for the opportunity.”
There’s also the matter of Keane and Best being products of the USports/CIS system rather than the NCAA system, another relative rarity. Along with Phil and Tommy Scrubb, four of the 17 players in Canada’s training camp come from USports (the same league that also produced new Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela at University of British Columbia). That’s perhaps a little more common in the history of Canada’s senior national team, but the combination of the presence of USports products around the NBA – Phil Scrubb will be at Las Vegas Summer League with the Washington Wizards – and at the senior international level is making clear that Canadian-produced players don’t necessarily have to head to the United States to carve out successful professional careers.
“Canadian University Sports hasn’t always been looked at in that way but when you have four guys that could go forth and try and represent their country, it’s always an honor, and hopefully there’s more to come,” says Keane.
“It’s good for guys that are playing at home to see guys that have stayed home that are on the national team at the highest level,” says Best.
Keane and Best know they have been examples with the 905 this year and knew coming in there would be eyes on how a pair of USports players performed. The results are hard to argue with, as both played big roles on a 905 team that went to the G League Finals and owned the best defense in the league. Considering both players are known for their defense first, it’s hard to ignore their impact. It makes sense, then, that Triano turned to them to set the tone on that end.
“We’re both defensive guys, it’s kinda what we do,” Best says. “We take pride on that end of the floor, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re able to be among this elite group of guys. Like I said before, it’s just an honor. We just want to help out any way we can. You look around the gym and you see so much talent and so much skill, just to be in the presence of these guys and train and compete and play with these guys is just a great experience.”
What might be most surprising about Keane and Best stepping in together, though, is that not long ago they were still softening the edges of a Carleton-Ryerson rivalry.
“We had some things we had to work out first, but once we got over that, it was good,” says Best. “That’s my guy. It’s all fun and it’s nice now that we get to be on the same team.”
“That’s my guy, man,” Keane agrees. “We spent a lot of time together during the year. He was my roommate for a little bit, and whenever we travelled, we were always together. The season would have been a lot harder if it wasn’t for a guy like him, so I’m glad he was there.”
That they figured their relationship out has been obvious on the court for both the 905 and Canada over the last year. It’s unclear if either or both will make the final roster of 12 that will play Friday in Toronto and Monday in Ottawa, as there are 17 very worthy names and five will be on the outside looking in. What is clear, though, is the Raptors 905 fingerprint on the Canadian national program, a fingerprint that should only continue to be apparent as Canada enters the next round of in-season qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup later this year.
“I think it’s good. It just keeps building,” says Mitchell. “Besides them just being Canadian, I think they’re good. They’re playing at a high level. These are guys who have gotten better, Kaza and Aaron. It’s showing that we’re producing pretty good players.”