Off to a fresh start: Behind Isaiah Canaan's best week with Olympiacos

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-12-13 08:00

The season didn't start well for Isaiah Canaan at Olympiacos. However, the past week saw the American guard level up his game and become an important contributor to his team's wins.

Credit: Olympiacos BC
Credit Olympiacos BC

Only thirty seconds into the second quarter of Olympiacos Piraeus' game against Virtus Segafredo Bologna, Isaiah Canaan hit a 3-point shot, making it 34-15 for the hosts, who eventually cruised to a blowout win of historic proportions.

Upon making the shot, the six-year NBA veteran turned to the fans and went wild.

Canaan wasn't just celebrating. He seemed to be rejoicing the mere fact that he was actually on the court, something that -based on coach Giorgos Bartzokas' usual rotation- had slim chances of happening.

Canaan had started the game putting together an exceptional first quarter with 6 points and 3 assists, but Bartzokas usually prefers to change the entire lineup after the first ten minutes.

Canaan was conveying a message there - not only with his game but his actual words. The American guard uttered, "Just play me," indicating how much he wanted to be a part of the team. His outburst came at the right time, both literally and figuratively. 

Not long ago, on November 23, Canaan was ejected in Tel Aviv for making two unsportsmanlike fouls over four minutes in the third quarter. He managed to stay on the court for 13 minutes, producing 4 points on 2/6 FG and two rebounds. 

In the game against Anadolu Efes in Istanbul, he went scoreless. Olympiacos lost both games, while Bartzokas got nothing from his bench players.

Canaan wasn't supposed to be a second-rotation player in the first place, nor was he supposed to play second-fiddle to Giannoulis Larentzakis, who usually closes games for the Reds. 

When Olympiacos entered the summer transfer market, their goals were set. In the event of losing Tyler Dorsey (as they did) and/or Sasha Vezenkov (as they didn't), the Piraeus-based club wanted to sign players capable of replacing or complementing them.

That's why Isaiah Canaan and Alec Peters were brought in. Of course, Canaan's playing style is different than his predecessor's. It's something that the Olympiacos' newcomer has stressed several times.

He doesn't want to be like Dorsey, nor does he intend to replace the Greek-American guard in the way the current Texas Legends shooting guard was acting. 

He's not a role player, and he's not expected to cover any of his teammates on a day off; he was intended to be Olympiacos' starting shooting guard. Instead, the Reds got a player who struggled to get shots and adjust to playing off-ball in high-intensity games.

Several reports in Greece mentioned that a replacement scenario had already started to take shape in Bartzokas' mind and that Olympiacos were ready to hit the market in case Canaan's slump continued.

The main question was how much longer the Greek side was willing to wait on him. As long as the team wasn't getting score, substance, and productivity from its main shooting guard, Canaan's days in Piraeus seemed to be counted if he didn't find a way to increase his impact.

From the beginning of the season, the organization of Olympiacos was doing everything to protect Canaan. First, by repeating that he can't be compared to Dorsey. Then, by publicly praising his work ethic and being hopeful that his time will come.

Credit Olympiacos BC

After Olympiacos beat Zalgiris Kaunas two months ago, Bartzokas addressed the issue in detail.

"It wasn't his night," the Greek coach said. "He didn't find the right plays, maybe because of how much he played. We needed more rebounds and bigger bodies on the court," Bartzokas explained and continued.

"But let me tell you something, I'm saying it right now, and I won't say it again: At Olympiacos, you are not judged by a single game.

We can't be concerned about Canaan. We're interested in how he adjusts. He has played many games in the NBA and is a very good shooter, but he just needs to find his role in the team and feel less pressure.

That's always the case with newcomers. For instance, Walkup is better now than last year. Let me be more patient with him."

Credit Vangelis Stolis

Patience is the keyword Canaan himself would use. 

"In my opinion, I got to be patient. I have no choice, but my time will come," the former UNICS Kazan and Galatasaray guard told BasketNews after an encouraging performance in the Greek derby vs. Panathinaikos that included 8 points, all in the first quarter. 

For Canaan, the only way forward is to "continue to come in every day and work. I got to be a professional at the end of the day. I got to do my job, and whenever my name's called, I go out there and perform. When it's not, I cheer my teams on," he said.

However, his playing time has grown into a taboo issue for Olympiacos. Whether it's the media or the player himself who brings up the subject, it makes perfect sense that a guard needs more time on the court compared to a big man who doesn't play so much with the ball in his hands. 

"Honestly, watching my highlights from the NBA and UNICS, the biggest difference is that I was on the floor. I can't do anything when I'm not on the court, and when I'm there, I can't do anything in 5 minutes," Canaan told Greek outlet Sportal after Monday's derby.

"If you give me time on the floor, I'll be productive. I am a team player and always do what is asked of me. But if anyone wants to know what's happening, this is it," he said.

Canaan also admitted that the process could be "frustrating" at times but added that he doesn't want to create a problem and talk to Bartzokas about his time.

"No, I don't want to cause any trouble," he replied. "Whatever coach thinks is good for the team. We have a lot of work to do, and I hope things will change."

Things seem to have changed, as a matter of fact. In the game against Virtus last Friday, Canaan played a lot on-ball and hence, had a better feel of the game. 

"I just got to be who I am. I feed off the ball movement, and if I see an open shot, I make it. If I have the ball, I try to create for others. If not, I'm trying to play defense," he describes. 

Credit Olympiacos BC

One of Bartzokas' decisions in that game was playing Canaan for 12 consecutive minutes before benching him. All coaches have a certain rotation in mind, and Bartzokas is no exception. However, in that case, it's clear that Canaan was rewarded for his excellent first quarter.

Asked about the player, Bartzokas stressed that the point is for players to do the necessary things for the team.

"If they get enough playing time, they'll definitely record good numbers," he pointed out.

At the same time, despite their unbeaten track in the Greek league and a positive 8-4 balance in EuroLeague, what the Reds have been missing is some more scoring punch from the perimeter.

A player who will have the ability to perform in spot-up situations taking advantage of Kostas Sloukas and Thomas Walkup, and who will be able to create his shot whenever the offensive flow becomes static. 

Although we're still at the beginning, and more patience will be required, until quite recently, Olympiacos had been unable to get anything out of the Biloxi-born guard, either in victories or defeats.

No one's ever questioned the player's quality or skill. It looked like Canaan couldn't gel with the rest of the squad.

"It felt good to be on the court," the former NBA veteran told BasketNews last week.

"I always believe in my ability to do certain things while out there. I just want to be on the court in general. I'm capable of a lot of positive things.

I'm sure many people, including myself, would like to see more of that. Everybody's patient with me, as much as I got to be patient with everything else. As time and the season go on, hopefully, things will get better."

And better things did come Canaan's way, as he poured 17 points on 7/12 from the field in Olympiacos' comfortable win (88-68) over PAOK on Sunday afternoon.

A much-needed offensive outburst can be the perfect remedy at a time when the gray clouds were multiplying. For them to vanish soon, Canaan will have to take more steps forward and prove that he can deliver when games are on the line. 

For Canaan, as for most shooters, it's vital not to second-guess themselves and their shooting skills.

Whether the first shots fall -as it happened last week in all three games (PAO, Virtus, PAOK)- or not- self-confidence is more important than a couple of misfires when little -or nothing- is really at stake.

"Everybody wants to make their first shot," Canaan commented.

"It gives them a lot of confidence. But you can't make every shot. You just got to stay with it, continue to believe in your abilities, and everything else will take care of itself."

Olympiacos, as a club, and Bartzokas as a coach, are working with a philosophy that leaves little room for mid-season changes unless the situation reaches its breaking point.

Bartzokas has built the team with a plan he's willing to support all the way, not out of selfishness but because he believes in it.

"It's been a busy week," Canaan reflects.

"It was an emotional week for the fans and the clubs, with the Panathinaikos-Olympiacos rivalry. We got back on track with the EuroLeague win against Virtus. We're taking the right steps," he notes.

As only two weeks remain to bid farewell to 2022, Olympiacos have four more EuroLeague games to take care of. However, there's one in particular that stands out, and Canaan is aware of the implications.

"Of course, I'm looking forward to playing at OAKA on December 30. They're always going to bring a fight. I love these games, and I'm looking forward to it."

Time and tide wait for no man, but Canaan seems to have brought both under control.


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