The Canadian national team failed to qualify to the Olympics after a tough loss in the semifinals of the FIBA Americas tournament against Venezuela on Friday. It was a hard blow for a young team that was considered the favorite to win the competition. Now they’ll have a final chance to qualify on a play-in tournament to be held next July.
Despite the obvious disappointment, however, not everything about the participation was negative. The play of Andrew Wiggins in his first offseason since becoming a pro gave plenty or reasons for optimism for both Canadian fans and the Timberwolves faithful.
The 2014 No. 1 overall pick earned a spot on the All-Tournament team after averaging 15 points on 49 percent from the floor along with four rebounds per game. The 20-year-old went against battle-tested opponents in his first appearance with the senior team and looked as effortlessly talented as he did in his rookie season. He produced plenty of highlights as well:
Of course, Wiggins proved his offensive ability and athleticism with the Timberwolves last season. He was also more assertive than he was in college, something that translated to FIBA play in every game but the semis. On a balanced Canadian team with players with more experience, Wiggins couldn’t assert himself as much as he will in the future and wasn’t given a long leash by coach Jay Triano. When asked about it, Wiggins clearly wasn’t happy…
Wiggins bit his tongue when asked why he sat so much last night. Also said it was the worst loss of his career.
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) September 13, 2015
…but decided to not make excuses, calling it the worst game of his career:
Wiggins calls the Venezuela loss the worst of his career.
— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) September 13, 2015
It’s impossible to ask a player fresh off a defeat to have perspective but, in a sense, the loss to Venezuela is the best thing that could’ve happened to Wiggins. It’ll encourage introspection and hopefully an aversion to defeat. The Timberwolves did plenty of losing last season, but that was different. They were supposed to be bad. Wiggins wasn’t expected to deliver wins; just hope for the future.
Canada, on the other hand, had more NBA players than the rest of the teams in the competition combined. While some of his teammates were older and more seasoned, Wiggins was the biggest star. He played like it for most of the tournament but fell short at the worst possible time. If he can find motivation there, he should continue to develop the tough mindset that he seems to lack at times. Only hardship creates resilience.
Not all the positives are as abstract. The most encouraging sign of on-court progress on display in Mexico was a killer three-point shot that simply wasn’t there in Wiggins’s rookie season, in which he shot an uninspiring 31 percent from beyond the arc. With Canada, he connected on over 50 percent of his three-point shots while taking almost three attempts per game. He nailed some off the dribble, on handoffs and as a spot-up shooter. Granted, the FIBA three-point line is two feet closer, but Wiggins’s shot looked smooth and he took some attempts from NBA range:
If that newfound confidence on his outside stroke translates to the league, the Timberwolves’ offense will be greatly improved. The Timberwolves have the athletes to run but are lacking shooters, as only Kevin Martin can be considered a reliable threat. Wiggins becoming one or at least improving enough to command the attention of the defense when he’s off the ball would be huge. He could both provide spacing for the non-shooters on the team to operate while at the same unlocking his driving game by forcing defenders to close out on him more closely on the perimeter, becoming susceptible to his explosive first step. The work he put in this offseason could make Wiggins an even better prospect.
Wiggins seems committed to the Canadian national team, calling the loss “motivation” for the future. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him represent his country in the qualifying tournament next offseason. While some will say that he’d be better served using his summers to focus on specific aspects of his game on his own, his improvement as a shooter suggests he can continue to develop organically while playing organized ball against high-level competition.
That’s fantastic news, because while getting 5,000 shots up with a shot doctor is obviously helpful, practicing in a competitive environment is better for a young player like Wiggins. He not only looked like an improved shooter, but he also got to taste the thrill of playing for a contender as well as the heartbreak of losing when you’re not supposed to. Wiggins is getting the best of both worlds, with the Timberwolves affording him the time and touches to develop without pressure while team Canada teaches him the weight that comes with expectations.
Canada didn’t reach its goal, at least for now, and it’s hard to spin that as a positive for the national team as a whole. For some of its young players, particularly Wiggins, this summer was a chance to grow and the ultimate disappointment just another lesson.
Wiggins will start the 2015-16 season with more confidence in his outside shot and more maturity as a player. A big leap in his sophomore year seems likely. When it happens, many will wonder what prompted it, asides from his obvious talent. They need to look no further than the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament for an answer.