With the heyday of Argentina and Spain in the recent past, international basketball has shifted back to Eastern Europe and new potential powerhouse Australia.
In the waning moments of a near-breathtaking comeback, Serbian national point guard and arguably the best current player in the world to not once suit up for the NBA, Miloš Teodosić, blast through a Kevin Durant screen under the rim, only to bewilder oncoming help defenders Draymond Green and Carmelo Anthony with a no-look pass. The kick-out to the three-point line was a failed attempt in the 94–91 defeat to Team USA, which had its first official scare of the 2016 Rio Olympics earlier that week in a 10-point victory over Australia.
Prior to the confusing barely-there wins by the heavy favorites, presumptive runner-up Spain had been at the end of two less-than-miraculous last-second losses at the hands of Croatia and host nation Brazil. While the latter can be considered an amazing anomaly, Croatia’s rise as one of the best basketball-producing states in Europe is hardly a shock.
For all its star-bravado, Olympic Basketball’s barely memorable flare is more subjected to moments in laughable blowouts brought on by Team USA. The rare, truly rare times when it becomes meaningful, like it did in the 2004, mark two important turning events: 1.) Team USA is human. and 2.) The paradigm had shifted.
By the mid-2000s, the U.S. basketball empire took more damage than anyone would have practically envisioned. The 2002 team landed laughably in sixth place (SIXTH) in the FIBA World Championship held in Indianapolis with former Yugoslavia winning gold. Two years later the first US Men’s team featuring NBA players didn’t win gold, falling behind Argentina and Italy in Athens. It was a placement the team couldn’t avoid, again, falling to third at the 2006 FIBA World Championships. This era was propped up by newfound international basketball superpowers Spain and the aforementioned Argentina, led by its Golden Generation of talent.
That generation is still bearing the flag in Rio, riding out likely one last time as the best basketball country in the southern hemisphere with veterans Manu Ginóbili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, and Andrés Nocioni. Its only loss so far came at the hands of yet another Eastern European rising nation Lithuania, behind a small handful of young current NBA players and, noticeably, without potentially its biggest future star Kristaps Porzingis.
Twenty years ago, the international landscape in the NBA sounded very similar. The standard-bearers of the world game — Dražen Petrović, Arvydas Sabonis, Peja Stojaković, Toni Kukoč, and Vlade Divac — generally came from Eastern Europe. But by the early 2000s the outreach became slimmer, with more pouring out of Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and France. And while those countries are still producing viable talent, the truer star-potential has returned to former Yugoslavia and other Baltic countries. As well, no southern hemisphere country has created a more stable line of current NBA talent better than Australia.
Missing from the current Australian men’s roster, noticeably, is recent 2016 number one pick Ben Simmons. The prodigious Magic-esque phenom will suit up for his first proper NBA game in October, but meanwhile he’s been fervently rooting for a team lead by fellow countryman and former number one pick Andrew Bogut. The Boomers also boast one of the heaviest-NBA talent lineups outside of the U.S. with five additional current players, not to mention a recovering Dante Exum and walking mystery machine Thon Maker.
They’ll be met by Croatia in the near future, which boats a prodigious youthful talent pool featuring Mario Hezonja, Dario Šarić, Ante Žižić, and (hopefully for their sake) Dragan Bender, as well as the aforementioned Lithuania and flashy Serbia, which carries potentially the biggest new star on the continent— Nikola Jokić.
Those watching the near ascension of Serbia over the U.S. on Saturday will attest to the wondering mystique of Jokić, slinging passes at the top of the key and shading box-outs to a tune of 25 points on 11–15 shooting. In a game that boasted a litany of All-NBA talent for Team USA, it wasn’t difficult to say that Jokić was handily the best player on the floor in the close loss. But the few who managed to stick with Denver throughout the 2015–16 regular season likely weren’t as shocked. The 41st pick in the 2014 draft not only stands to become a beacon of undervalued international talent evaluation, but arguably the best future player in the Eastern hemisphere alongside Porzingis, due to his criminally underrated multi-dimensional abilities at both ends of the court.
With the impending swan songs of future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and current Spurs trio Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker, and Pau Gasol, the likes of Simmons, Porzingis, Jokić, and the exciting Croatian youngsters are presumptively being given the mantle to the international game. Stacking their cases against Petrović, Sabonis, Stojaković, Toni Kukoč, and Vlade Divac and the other soon-to-be former players is as unviable a standard as one can set, but the choice is hardly theirs. The shift has already begun.