Kelly Olynyk remembers very clearly sitting on the floor at his aunt’s house, early in the morning when he was just 9 years old, watching the Canadian men’s national team compete at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“So I was kind of like watching them, learning some of the tendencies that they have to be able to use that against them.” — Utah Jazz’s Walker Kessler
“I love basketball and the whole nation was behind it and they were playing unbelievable basketball,” Olynyk said Monday at Utah Jazz media day. “Watching Steve Nash and Canada play in the Sydney Olympics, I remember where I was and what I was doing and that’s been a goal of mine for a long, long time — to be an Olympian.”
Olynyk will have that chance next year. Canada beat Team USA for the bronze medal at the World Cup this summer and in doing so, qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics. It’s the first time that Canada has qualified for the Olympics since that Steve Nash-led team in 2000.
“Having put in so much time, so much effort, so much work to get on the world stage ... the accumulation of what we accomplished this summer is massive,” Olynyk said. “It’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears for a lot of years to get to that point.”
For years, the Canadian national team has toiled and tried to find the right balance of youth and experience while also showcasing enough talent to win against some of the heavy hitters in international basketball. Now, the team seems to have found some footing with veterans like Olynyk and up-and-coming NBA stars like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
An NBA team’s path to the ultimate goal is not much different. The Jazz are a team that is all too familiar with having exceptional talent but falling just short and continuing to try to find the right balance of youth and experience.
Olynyk’s history with the Canadian national team gives him great insight into what it takes for a team to progress and reach the next tier of competition, and he’s not the only one that is taking lessons from the World Cup into the upcoming 2023-24 NBA season.
On the losing side of Canada’s bronze medal was Team USA reserve center, Walker Kessler. After a standout rookie season with the Jazz, an invite to be part of the national team was an honor that expanded Kessler’s outlook and understanding of the world of basketball.
Not only did it afford Kessler to travel outside of North America for the first time but he was playing for some of the best coaches in the NBA and alongside some of the best players in the league. Though Kessler didn’t get a lot of playing time with Team USA, he said practices were tough and competitive and that he learned a lot.
Also, Kessler doesn’t want that to be the end of his story with Team USA; he wants another invite, he wants to compete for the national team, which motivates him coming into his second NBA season.
Kessler certainly comes away from his summer with Team USA having learned some big-picture lessons, but there is a sneaky side of Kessler that also saw the opportunity for covert reconnaissance on some of his toughest NBA opponents.
“At the end of the day, they’re great guys, and you’re their teammates in the World Cup, but in the league they’re not your teammates,” Kessler said. “So I was kind of like watching them, learning some of the tendencies that they have to be able to use that against them.”
Olynyk and Kessler’s recent success in the World Cup seem to fit right into a growing trend for the Jazz. Finding motivation within and building on experiences from international competition is starting to become part of the team’s DNA.
Jazz head coach Will Hardy saw Lauri Markkanen competing in FIBA games in the summer of 2022 and wanted to build off the expanded role Markkanen had with the Finnish national team but within an NBA system. That, of course, led to Markkanen’s first All-Star season and a breakout year.
Jordan Clarkson’s last two years with the Philippine national team have helped him grow as a leader and playmaker, and he has credited his recent success as a passer in part to the role he plays for the Philippines.
Simone Fontecchio’s opportunity with the Jazz was created in large part because of his play with the Italian national team.
And there are lessons to be learned even from those who were not on the FIBA teams this summer. Kris Dunn, who is on a nonguaranteed deal but is expected to remain on the Jazz roster this season, said that in watching the World Cup, he saw that the best teams reminded him of the Jazz in their selflessness and lack of ego.
“If you look at the FIBA games, the teams that play together, they win games,” Dunn said. “So I think if we play together and play hard, anything’s possible. We just got to have that mentality.”