Olympic Basketball Primer Part 1
How to Watch Each Team as an NBA Fan
This primer is intended to introduce you to key players and storylines for each team at the tournament. It is very NBA weighted, as this year’s Olympics gives many casual NBA fans a great chance to meet an exciting crop of Internationals coming to the league next year. Believe it or not, there is much more to Olympic basketball than will the USA win again and debating whether or not Harrison Barnes should be playing. Here are the teams, in an order that made the colors look cool (I think):
United States of America
“The Dream Team” are heavy tourney favorites. Like so heavy that it would be astonishing if they were knocked off, sword-in-the-stone heavy. And I don’t see any future King Arthurs. But Team USA has come to mean much more than just a collection of players joined together to conquer the basketball universe. Under Coach K it has taken on an “iron sharpens iron” feel. The “Team USA Bump” as it has been called has shown many players taking leaps after representing the stars and stripes. Which is why my two players to watch are Harrison Barnes and DeMar DeRozan. Yes, the two guys at the end of the bench.
Neither of these guys will get that much time but it will be interesting to see how they fare in the NBA next year. Barnes will suit up for the Mavs and have a much larger role. This paired with going up against the best all summer may catapult him for a career year. And my once ridiculous prediction that he would make an All-Star Game could come true (fingers crossed). It would be hilarious if one of Draymond or Klay missed out on being an All-Star and Barnes snuck in. As for DeRozan, having to play a more limited role may help him refine many of the inefficiencies that plague his game currently. If DeRozan took a more Harden-esque approach to offense of layups and threes his contract may not look as bad as expected in a few years. DeRozan should also have some crazy dunks (see below). Remember these guys are only 24 and 26 respectively and still, most likely, have their prime years ahead of them.
Fun Storyline: Whatever happens to Draymond Green next. Seriously the guy has been his own tabloid and could be the highest risk Dream Teamer since Barkley. If he keeps Snapchatting there is like a 100% chance that something else absurd happens. Rio watch out! We are all just one-click away…
If the U.S. Team has had a traditional rival over the last ten years (roughly the Coach K era) it has been the Spain team. But — and this will be a common theme with a lot of the teams— many of their best players have aged past their prime and their youngsters don’t quite seem ready, a missing generation if you will. My two guys to watch however are two of those young guys who will be suiting up for NBA teams next year, Alex Abrines (for the Thunder) and Willy Hernangomez (for the Knicks).
Abrines is a sweet shooting wing who I’ve written about previously.
It will be interesting to see how Spain’s rotation shakes out. If coach Sergio Scariolo goes with the old heads like Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, and Jose Calderon or gives the young guns a chance with the likes of Mirotic, Rubio and the two aforementioned guys (Abrines and Hernangomez). NBA fans can only hope to see the new guys get some good minutes.
Hernangomez will join his former Malaga teammate Porzingis and fellow Euro-stash Kuzminskas on the “super team Knicks” next year. And the Knicks would be a super team if they were playing Scrabble and not Basketball, that’s three Z’s right there. Hernangomez likely took the injured Marc Gasol’s spot on this roster, and those are huge shoes to fill (I hate myself). He doesn’t have that level of skill or quite the size but he is an active player with a high motor that could play a role against smaller teams.
Fun Storyline: The one guy who is trying to bridge the gap between the generations is former teenage sensation (and heartthrob) Ricky Rubio. There are few players more fun to watch play basketball that Rubio and these Olympics he has a unique task to get Opera-loving Pau Gasol on the same page as WorldStarHipHop-obsessed Willy Hernangomez (I am assuming this because he is friends with Prozingis). Best of luck to you Ricky! I’ll definitely be watching.
This is low-key my favorite team in the tournament. Few things are as amazing as Lithuania in International Basketball Competitions (spoiler alert that is what the Olympics are). The tiny country of less than 3 million has as rich of a basketball culture as anyone. It is truly the only country that prioritizes basketball over all other sports. And once again a Sabonis is suiting up to play. My two to watch are Domantas Sabonis (Thunder Rookie) and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (Knicks Rookie).
Sabonis is the crown prince of Lithuanian Basketball. The son of legendary Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis will have his versatility tested these games. After being played mainly at Center for Gonzaga (largely because Polish-giant Przemek Karnowski was injured) he will now have to space the floor more with Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas in the paint and stretch-big Donatas Motiejūnas out with injury. This will be a great test to see how the Thunder can use him with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter.
Kuzminskas (29 points on Scrabble if you were wondering) is a swing-forward at 6'10 who is athletic by European standards but we’ll have to wait and see what he looks like against NBA players. This Olympics seems like the perfect place for that. He plays with a real aggression, tries to dunk everything, but is only an average — right around 33% — three shooter. Him, “the Lativian [sic] Gangbanger” and Willy should make for a fun trio if they ever see the court together, if not then at least a killer “Euros Take New York” reality show.
Fun Storyline: These guys always play the US tough and if there is anyone I’d like to see knock off the “Dream Team” it would be the always-greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts Lithuania Team. This will probably be the team I follow the closest throughout the tournament. And I really want some Lietuva gear. Nike hook me up!
No team is more emblematic of a lost generation than this Argentina team. Once the biggest rivals to the U.S. — they won gold in 2004 Athens and knocked the U.S. out in the 2002 Indianapolis Basketball World Cup — they haven’t been able to replace any of their (literally) golden generation. That phenomenal group consisted of Ginobili (39 years old), Scola (36), and Nocioni (36) all of which are still the stars of the National Team Set-up. The two promising youngsters they have are my two to watch, Nicolas Brussino (undrafted in 2015 and now signed by the Mavs) and Gabriel Deck (the youngest guy on the roster and leading scorer at the 2012 U-17 World Championship.
The two of them are both 6'7 swingmen and it will be interesting to see if they get any time to shine. Argentina, though ranked 4th in the world at the moment, seems like a bit of an outside shot to make it to the medal games. But Brazil has been lucky for them before. There isn’t too much info out there on either one of these guys, but from what I’ve watched both attack the rim hard. Deck attacks harder from the clips I saw but Brussino has the better-looking shot. When I watch Argentina games, those two will be the ones I’m evaluating.
Fun Storyline: This is Manu’s last ride. After seeing Duncan retire it is odd to watch the end of a Spurs era. Manu has been one of the best-international players of all-time. I hope his last showing is a good one.
The host nation shouldn’t have too much pressure on themselves, though I’m sure placing higher than fellow South American teams Argentina and Venezuela is a priority. If Brazil were to get a medal, I’m sure that would be a success. My two to watch from this team are two young NBA guys going into their second years in the league, Raul “Raulzinho” Neto (of the Jazz) and Cristiano Felicio (of the Bulls).
Neto is now stuck behind the newly-acquired-but-not-yet-extended George Hill, the sadly-not-participating Dante Exum and probably Shelvin Mack at the point guard role in Utah. An exciting Olympic showing could go a long way into carving him an NBA role. Felicio has some newly acquired competition at his position too in Robin Lopez. The basketball Cristiano was a revelation towards the end of last season and through the Bulls championship Summer League campaign. He shows real skills and if he steps up to the stage could vault himself into a bigger role in Chicago.
Fun Storyline: Who is going to be the funnier old guy out of Marcelinho Huertas and Leandro Barbosa? Both have had their great moments from whatever you want to call that shot shown below to any of Barbosa’s “We gonna be championship” predictions. I expect this Brazil team to be entertaining.
You have to give China credit for playing the U.S. twice in tune up matches. It can’t be fun to be waxed at that level (or any level for that matter). But it is great experience for this surprisingly young China squad. They only have one player over 30 (“Chairman” Yi who may be 35 now…) and three over 23. I am not totally sure on all of these guys NBA prospects but it will be fun to try to fall in love with one of them. My two to watch are the two big guys taken in the second round this year, Zhou Qi (by the Rockets) and Wang Zhelin (by the Grizzlies).
Zhou Qi is a really good shooter with a decent looking stroke. It is unclear whether he can ever add enough strength to be a legit NBA player but his super-freaky length matched with his legit skill is a great gamble to take. He was one of the second-rounders I was really a fan of. Wang Zhelin was taken later but it looks like there is a high chance he comes to American shores sooner than Qi, as his body is much more NBA ready. Both are long-term developmental projects but it should be fun to see what they can do.
Fun Storyline: I have given up on Yi Jianlian. About time right? (High school me playing 2k is crying inside right now) But as stated above this young crop of Chinese ballers might hold some hidden gems. I am excited to see them in some competitive games and see who stands out.
If you click that heart button Ricky Rubio hugs a puppy! No, but it does help out. Also would love to hear from anyone on who they are excited about.