Two teams stood out as the biggest threats to Team USA at the FIBA World Cup, and sure enough, they wound up facing off on the very first day of the tournament. In one corner stood France, the reliable contender that pushed Team USA to the brink at the Olympics and wound up coming six points short of the gold medal. In the other? A surprise threat in Canada, which has never medaled in the World Cup and hasn’t reached the Olympics since 2000.
What Canada lacks in experience, it more than makes up for in talent. Led by All-Star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Canadians brought seven NBA players to the tournament: Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Lu Dort, Dwight Powell, RJ Barrett, Kelly Olynyk and Dillon Brooks. That talent won out on Friday against a French team many expect to medal at this tournament.
France led for most of the first half, and Canada had only a three-point edge at 43-40 when the two sides returned to the locker rooms for halftime. But the second half was another story. Canada decimated France 52-22 in the final two frames to secure a 95-65 statement victory. As you’d expect, Gilgeous-Alexander led the way with 27 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.
The move immediately puts France on the back foot. In the opening round of the tournament, teams are placed into groups of four with the top two teams advancing. Not only has Canada taken a critical victory over France, but the blowout nature of the win could matter from a tiebreaker perspective. Canada and France should both be favored over Latvia and Lebanon, the two remaining teams in Group H, but Latvia’s 39-point victory over Lebanon could also come into play from a tiebreaker perspective.
Though France is far from out and Canada has a long way to go, the victory represents a changing of the guard to some extent. France’s three NBA players (Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum) are all in their 30s, whereas Canada’s best players are all relatively young. France obviously has a young star in Victor Wembanyama waiting in the wings, but the face of international basketball is changing. The dominant French and Spanish teams of the past decade are starting to age out, and new contenders are beginning to emerge.
Canada is not at full strength in this tournament, either. Jamal Murray initially planned to play in the World Cup, but recovery from his championship run ultimately knocked him out. Brandon Clarke’s season-ending injury cost him a chance to represent Canada as well, and the status of Andrew Wiggins remains a persistent question for the Canadian team. This is a group loaded with young NBA talent, and if wins like Friday’s are any indication, it will be a major threat on the international stage for years to come.