No1 Draft Pick Olympic Preview – Men’s Basketball

Every four years, it’s always the same.

The media talks up the chances of both our men’s and women’s national basketball teams to win an Olympic medal.

Forget the fact we are a small country with a population that’s dwarfed by pretty much every nation we go up against. That the depth of talent around the world has grown exponentially over the past decade. Or that our men are yet to reach the podium since beginning Olympic competition all the way back in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics – when a certain legend by the name of Bill Russell led the United States to the gold medal.

The reason for the hype is simple. We are a nation of sporting fanatics. A nation that expects greatness from its athletes. And so it is not surprising that expectations are ramped up – sometimes to an unrealistic degree – during the Olympic cycle.

But as the Boomers and Opals prepare to take to the court next week in Rio de Janeiro to begin their quest for Olympic immortality, there is a sense that this time, those media expectations for both our teams may not be as unrealistic as those in the past.

Start with the men’s team. On paper, this group is at least the equal in talent to the great Australian team that finished with an historic fourth place finish in 1988 at the Seoul Olympics or the Andrew Gaze-led Boomers that went close to a medal in Sydney in 2000.

No less than seven NBA players – three of those with an NBA Championship to their name – plus the reigning NBL Most Valuable Player will suit up for the Boomers in Rio. Never before has the team boasted such strength and experience at international level.

Then you go to the women’s team, who boast a World Championship gold medal and several Olympic medals since grabbing their first – a bronze – at Atlanta in 1996. Despite the loss of one of the greatest female basketball players in history in one Lauren Jackson, the Opals are blessed with arguably the most dominant big in the world, a brilliant small forward and heady play in the backcourt.

No one is silly enough to claim that this will be an easy task. Even if you put aside the might of the United States, who are justifiably the raging hot favourites in both the men and women, there are several nations who will pose an immense threat to Australia at the Olympics, teams boasting their own NBA and WNBA stars, not to mention remarkable depth forged in the powerful European competitions.

But as the old cliché goes – anything can happen on a given day. And importantly, both Australian teams can head to Rio with a level of confidence they haven’t enjoyed since perhaps those games in 2000 when Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal, Luc Longley, Chris Anstey and Andrew Vlahov led the charge for the Boomers and the great Lauren Jackson was coming into her own as a superstar for the Opals.

Let’s take a look at each team in the men’s draw and their prospects in what promises to be the most intriguing Olympic competition in many years.

MEN

Group A

Teams: Australia, China, France, Serbia, United States of America and Venezuela

Australia

Key players: Andrew Bogut; Matthew Dellavedova; Joe Ingles; Patrick Mills

FIBA Ranking: 11

Best Olympic Finish: Fourth (1988, 2000)

Their indifferent results in recent warm-up games notwithstanding, there is a justifiable sense of optimism in the Boomers camp that they can at least make it to the medal rounds – some have even dared to utter the words “gold medal.”

While gold may be out of the question considering the overwhelming might of the US team, a medal is more attainable for this group than at any other time in the past three Olympiads.

Of course a great deal hinges on the health of Andrew Bogut, who is expected to play but may have his minutes limited. Although he may be at a stage of his career in the NBA where he is more of a role player than anything else, Bogut’s enormous international experience, not to mention his brilliance in pick and roll situations and his great passing ability are what make him such a key.

His presence will allow the Boomers to spread the floor offensively with the likes of Patty Mills, Kevin Lisch, Ryan Broekhoff and Chris Goulding all deadly from the perimeter, and as one of the NBA’s top rim protectors he provides some insurance defensively should opposition guards get to the next level.

Australia has been given a very tough group, with games against the US, Serbia and France – all countries ranked above them and all boasting as much or more talent. Getting to the medal rounds will be a tough ask. But if they can get good minutes out of Bogut, and Mills dominates as he did in 2012 when he led the London Olympics in scoring, this is a squad that could go a very long way.

China

Key players: Guo Ailun; Zhao Jiwei; Yi Jianlian; Zhou Qi

FIBA Ranking: 14

Best Olympic Finish: Eighth (1996, 2004, 2008)

When Yao Ming strode the boards a decade ago, the Chinese men’s team was one to be respected, if not feared.

Yao’s enormous size at 7’5” and outsized talent gave China something very few countries had outside the US – a highly skilled, dominant centre. But since his retirement, the Chinese have fallen on hard times and are sending possibly their weakest team to the Olympics in many years.

Their best big man is former NBA first round pick Yi Jianlian, who gained notoriety for playing against a chair in an infamous scouting video but never made much of an impact on the league. 7’2” Zhou Qi was recently drafted by the Houston Rockets and has talent although he is frighteningly skinny for his height, and guards Guo Ailun and Zhao Jiwei are their best players but nothing more than an annoyance to quality opposition backcourts.

The end result is that this Chinese team won’t make it out of the preliminary rounds and will in fact be lucky to win a game.

France

Key players: Nicolas Batum; Boris Diaw; Rudy Gobert; Tony Parker

FIBA Ranking: 5

Best Olympic Finish: Second (1948, 2000)

Blessed with an abundance of NBA talent including arguably one of the best floor leaders in NBA history in Tony Parker, France presents a significant challenge to the Boomers and are a genuine medal threat.

Even at age 34, Parker is still an outstanding point guard at international level, relying on his considerable smarts to get the job done in his declining years. No matter the situation, he always seems to make the right decision.

And while the French are missing a couple of NBA-level players, they still have great talent to call upon like athletic small forward Nicolas Batum, explosive point guard Nando De Colo, experienced big man Boris Diaw and centre Rudy Gobert, who had an excellent 2015-16 season in the NBA with the Utah Jazz.

They went 8-1 in the recent European championships and came through the Olympic Qualifying tournament, so they are battle-tested and hungry. If Australia is to win a medal, this is one team they will have to go through.

Serbia

Key players: Bogdan Bogdanovic; Nikola Jokic; Miroslav Raduljica; Milos Teodosic

FIBA Ranking: 6

Best Olympic Finish: N/A (First Olympics)

Interestingly, these Olympics mark the first time Serbia has made the men’s basketball tournament as a fully-fledged independent nation – the last time they were at an Olympiad was as Serbia-Montenegro.

And while no-one will confuse this team as the powerhouse they were previously a part of – Yugoslavia – they are nonetheless a formidable prospect in that great Eastern European tradition.

Globalisation has provided a clear pathway to the NBA and there are a couple of players in this group who have made the leap to the Association and done extremely well, especially 6’10” Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, a second-round draft steal in 2014 who made the NBA All-Rookie First Team in 2016 after averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game in his debut season.

Then there’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, one of Europe’s top guards and also an NBA draftee, while Milos Teodosic has been a dominant force for CSKA Moscow and Olympiakos in Euroleague for many years. Blessed with tremendous size, skill and very well-drilled, Serbia is a no doubt medal chance in Rio.

United States of America

Key players: Carmelo Anthony; Kevin Durant; Kyrie Irving; DeAndre Jordan

FIBA Ranking: 1

Best Olympic Finish: First (1936, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012)

So now we come to the behemoth, the monster, the team by which all others are measured. The United States men’s basketball team.

Yes, they are missing the two best players in the world in LeBron James and Stephen Curry, not to mention another top-tenner in Russell Westbrook. But as has been the case since the greatest of them all, the original Dream Team in 1992, it is simply redundant to mention this squad is loaded.

In Kevin Durant they have a guy who is a matchup nightmare in the NBA, let alone international competition, with his size and unlimited range from the perimeter. ‘Aussie’ Kyrie Irving was spectacular in the NBA Finals in helping Cleveland win their first title and were it not for a certain King James would have been Finals MVP. Klay Thompson is at the very least the second best shooter in the world behind his Golden State Warriors teammate Curry.

And that’s just for starters. How about the ultimate do-it-all player in Draymond Green? A phenomenal rim protector in DeAndre Jordan? The experience and offensive ability of Carmelo Anthony? The list goes on and on.

Brilliantly coached by one of the all-time greats in Mike Krzyzewski and boasting ridiculous athleticism and skill at every position, something would have to go very wrong for this team to not find itself in the gold medal game.

Venezuela

Key players: John Cox; Heissler Guillent; Gregory Vargas; Jose Vargas

FIBA Ranking: 22

Best Olympic Finish: Eleventh (1992)

Like China, Venezuela are the minnows of Group A. But it would be folly to underestimate this team, who make their first appearance at an Olympic Games since finishing 11th in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, which to date was their only other appearance at an Olympiad.

They qualified thanks to a stunning performance in winning the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament, knocking over a host of more fancied nations including Canada in the semis and regional power Argentina in the final, both monumental upsets.

Although they won’t have their best player, NBA guard Grevis Vazquez, there is still some talent on the roster in Heissler Guillent, a point guard who was brilliant in the qualifying tournament, and brothers Jose and Gregory Vargas, a pair of veterans who can both score the ball effectively.

That all said, it’s tough to see Venezuela coming out of this group, given the strength of their competition.

Group B

Teams: Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Lithuania, Nigeria and Spain

Argentina

Key players: Carlos Delfino; Manu Ginobili; Andres Nocioni; Luis Scola

FIBA Ranking: 4

Best Olympic Finish: First (2004)

Despite their lofty FIBA ranking, there is a sense that Argentina is on the decline as an international basketball power.

The Boomers defeated them in a warm-up game earlier this month and their primary stars are aging and not quite as dominant as they were more than a decade ago when they stunned the world to win Olympic gold in Athens.

Of course, those stars still have to be respected tremendously. Manu Ginobili is the face of Argentinian basketball, a superstar talent who has always played well for his country. Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni are skilled big men who also bring a level of toughness to the contest and Carlos Delfino is a proven winner at international level.

There remains a question mark over their depth, and they are undoubtedly in a transition phase, but there’s nothing to suggest they won’t at least move past the preliminary rounds.

Brazil

Key players: Leandro Barbosa; Nene Hilario; Marcelinho Huertas; Raulzinho Neto

FIBA Ranking: 9

Best Olympic Finish: Third (1948, 1960, 1964)

There is always pressure on the home team at the Olympics, but more so in basketball-mad Brazil, where there is a very real belief that this team will win a long-awaited fourth Olympic medal.

The legendary Oscar Schmidt is the greatest Brazilian ballplayer ever, but even he couldn’t get his country over the hump during his amazing Olympic career. However this time, given home court and no less than four NBA players on the roster, it is a perfect opportunity for a long run in the tournament.

Losing Anderson Varejao is an enormous blow, no question. But they have a monster up front in Nene; Leandro Barbosa is an ageless wonder who has made a habit of hitting big shots in the NBA over the years and point guard Raul Neto is a rising star with the Denver Nuggets.

Any game featuring this team will be a sight to see – Carnivale brought indoors, if you like. The atmosphere in those games will be unmatched. And if the squad can deal with the enormous pressure and expectation, they have the ability to go to the medal rounds.

Croatia

Key players: Bojan Bogdanovic; Mario Hezonja; Dario Saric; Krunoslav Simon

FIBA Ranking: 12

Best Olympic Finish: Second (1992)

It’s a long way from the heights of Barcelona in 1992, when the late great Drazen Petrovic led his newly independent nation against the might of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the rest of the US Dream Team in the Olympic final. Of course they lost that day to the greatest team ever assembled, but it was a joyous occasion for the country and a coming out party for Petrovic, one of the best shooters and scorers the game has ever known.

But since his untimely death in 1995, Croatia has struggled in Olympic competition. They lost a quarter final to Australia in Atlanta courtesy of a Tony Ronaldson four point play and haven’t really threatened since, failing to make the Olympics in 2012.

They will be more bullish about their prospects this time, given that they have a solid NBA wing in Bojan Bogdanovic, who has spent the last two seasons with the Brooklyn Nets and has averaged ten points per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range in his first two NBA seasons. Dario Saric will be playing alongside Ben Simmons as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers next season, Mario Hezonja is a promising talent with the Orlando Magic and guard Krunoslav Simon scored 21 points in the final of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Italy.

In an even Group B, Croatia definitely has the chance to make some noise and go deep in the tournament.

Lithuania

Key players: Mantas Kalnietis; Mindaugas Kuzminskas; Domantas Sabonis; Jonas Valanciunas

FIBA Ranking: 3

Best Olympic Finish: Third (1992, 1996, 2000)

Another Sabonis returns to continue to torment Australia – that is, if the two teams meet in the crossover round of the tournament.

Domantas Sabonis, recently drafted 11th by the Orlando Magic in the 2016 NBA Draft before being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the son of the mighty Arvydas Sabonis, who almost singlehandedly denied Australia a bronze medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney. He’s coming off a brilliant college career at Gonzaga and is an enormous talent.

Speaking of talent, there’s a lot of it on this roster. The star is Jonas Valanciunas, who was outstanding for the Toronto Raptors during their playoff run last NBA season before getting hurt, setting a franchise playoff record with 19 rebounds in Game One of the first round series against the Indiana Pacers. He’s a monster down low and tough to move off the block.

Robertas Javtokas and Renaldas Seibutis are a couple of smart vets; Mantas Kalnietis is deadly from the outside and 6’9” Mindaugas Kuzminskas recently signed with the New York Knicks and can knock it down from the perimeter.

It’s a relatively young team in terms of overall international experience – six players are making their Olympic debut – but there’s no question this Lithuanian team has the capability to go a very long way in Rio.

Nigeria

Key players: Ike Diogu; Ebi Ere; Michael Gbinije; Ekene Ibekwe

FIBA Ranking: 25

Best Olympic Finish: Tenth (2012)

In an even Group B, Nigeria is clearly the minnow, especially given they head to Rio without two of their best players, NBA veterans Festus Ezeli and Al-Farouq Aminu, who both will miss the tournament due to issues with their insurance.

It’s left to Ike Diogu, who last played in the NBA in 2012, to lead the way, while 6’7” guard Michael Gbinije is an exciting prospect who was selected 49th overall in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons out of Syracuse University.

There’s some Australian interest with the Nigerian team given two ex-NBL stars in Ebi Ere and Ekene Ibekwe, but after that the roster is really thin outside guard Chamberlain Oguchi, who was the 2015 AfroBasket MVP and will be expected to carry a great deal of the scoring load.

About the best Nigeria can hope for is an upset win and it’s impossible to see them progressing past the group stage.

Spain

Key players: Jose Calderon; Rudy Fernandez; Pau Gasol; Ricky Rubio

FIBA Ranking: 2

Best Olympic Finish: Second (1984, 2008, 2012)

The Group B superpower does come into these Olympics with a number of question marks, not least of which is the loss of Marc Gasol to injury and their reliance on an aging core group that includes 35 year old Pau Gasol.

However, the Eurobasket champions – who almost missed Rio due to an earlier dispute with FIBA – still remains the team to beat in this group and the most likely to deal the United States a defeat in this tournament.

The talent and experience is undeniable. Gasol is one of the most intelligent big men in the world; there is tremendous guard depth with the steady Jose Calderon, the mercurial Ricky Rubio and the veteran Juan Carlos Navarro; Rudy Fernandez is a quality small forward and NBA bigs Nikola Mirotic and Willie Hernangomez provide great depth up front.

In the London Olympics in 2012, the Spanish went toe to toe with the Americans for the first three quarters of the Olympic final before LeBron James and company overran them in the end. It might be a tougher road to get to the final this time, but it would be no surprise to see Spain play off for the gold medal once again.

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