SPORTS

Canada's men's basketball team cruises to 1st win

07/21/2015 08:30 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 05:59 EDT
There's a feeling these days that the Canadian men's basketball team is starting something, and it began its quest for a Pan Am Games gold medal with a 105-88 rout of the Dominican Republic on Tuesday night in Toronto.

Guard Brady Heslip led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including 5-for-10 from beyond the arc, as Canada overwhelmed the porous Dominicans in front of an enthusiastic, if non-sellout, crowd at Ryerson Athletic Centre.

"It was a lot of fun playing in Toronto," Heslip said. "We're just glad we could get the nerves out and still get a W."

As for his searing performance over 23 minutes off the bench: "My role is to come in and score, and I'm going to do that."

Four other Canadians scored in double figures: Anthony Bennett paired 15 points with a game-high 10 rebounds, fellow NBA player Andrew Nicholson had 14, while Melvin Ejim and incoming University of Kentucky freshman (and NBA lottery hopeful) Jamal Murray added a dozen each.

The balanced scoring bodes well for Canada, which will have to play five games in five nights to win a medal.

"We're going to need all 12 players," said head coach Jay Triano, who wants his team to improve defensively. "We're going to have to get better. The competition is going to get a lot better."

Angel Suero's 17 points led the Dominicans, who are actually ranked five spots ahead of No. 25 Canada by FIBA, basketball's international governing body (though if you asked your bookie to lay points on the Dominicans before this game, you'd know how much those rankings really mean).

Golden boys

Much has been made of Canada's entering a "golden age" in basketball as a talented cohort of Toronto-area players who grew up with the Raptors after their 1995 addition to the NBA comes of age.

The best of that crop -- reigning NBA rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins -- isn't playing in the Pan Am Games. Ditto for LeBron sidekick and offensive rebounder Tristan Thompson, new Raptor Cory Joseph, Boston Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk, Philadelphia 76ers marksman Nik Stauskas and Utah Jazz first-round pick Trey Lyles.

Basketball Canada hopes to have them for September's FIBA Americas Olympic qualifier in Mexico City – easily the more important tournament of the summer.

Canada's rising stars impress

But some of the rising stars are here, and Bennett, Orlando Magic big man Nicholson and titanic centre Sim Bhullar, who had a cup of coffee with the Sacramento Kings last season, all showed flashes of brilliance against a Dominican team with no NBA players.

The 7-foot-5, 360-pound Bhullar's offensive game is a work in progress (he made only one bucket, on – you guessed it – a dunk) but at that size you don't have to score to affect the game. Upon coming off the bench, Bhullar induced one Dominican shooter to chuck his attempt out of bounds, then swatted away another try.

Nicholson and Bennett were forces in the paint, and the latter punctuated more than one two-handed jam by screaming toward the crowd. Another encouraging sign from a guy who has struggled at times with conditioning: Bennett led all Canadian players in minutes with 28.

"Anthony's been great," the coach said of the 6-foot-8 Minnesota Timberwolves forward who is still trying to get his NBA career off the ground after two disappointing seasons. "His effort and energy was really good throughout the whole game."

Heslip draws flattering comparison

Canada may also have discovered a valuable sharpshooter in Heslip, a 6-2 guard who made 46.5 per cent of his threes in his senior season at Baylor and lit up the NBA Development League to the tune of 24.5 points per game during a 20-game stint with Reno last season.

On Tuesday night, wearing the Canadian jersey, shooting that efficiently, with that parted hairdo and, yes, that skin tone, Heslip called to mind a certain two-time NBA MVP who's now the general manager of Team Canada.

It's an unfair comparison, but one Steve Nash didn't dismiss out of hand when it was raised to him after the game (though he did crack a smile).

"He's a special player," said Nash, a hands-on boss who rebounded for his players during warmups before taking in the game from an inconspicuous vantage point beyond the baseline. "Every time the level is raised, he raises his game."

MORE:cbcSports