USA Basketball has challengers — they just aren’t ready yet

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images /

As predicted, basketball at the 2016 Olympics is being dominated by the Americans. Through two games and a slew of exhibitions, Team USA has rolled, winning their first two games against China and Venezuela by a combined 101 points. Looking ahead, there doesn’t seem to be a team capable of taking down the Americans or even give them much of a challenge. If it happens, if figures to be the usual suspects: Pau Gasol’s Spain squad, or a team like France littered with NBA vets. 

To some, the recent dominance of USA Basketball indicates that the international talent pool is shrinking, that the gap at the top is widening again after teams like Spain, Dirk Nowitzki’s Germany and others gave the United States a challenge in the past decade. As those stars age out of their primes it appears that they are again ceding control of international basketball to the Americans.

That idea is overblown. There may not be a top-level player like Dirk leading a country, a Manu Ginobli-type leading a country’s golden generation or a 2008-2012 era Spain team loaded with enough size to actually make the U.S. sweat a bit atop the medal stand at the current Olympics. But the next generation of challengers are in Rio, learning now and getting better for the future. Others aren’t even in Brazil, but should be in the mix for the next several world championships and Olympics. If the U.S. doesn’t get challenged now by these teams, they will in time. 

Take Croatia, who recently knocked off Spain in group play. As it stands, they don’t have good enough point guard play to really hang with the Americans. But they have three young to young-ish NBA players Dario Saric, Mario Hezonja and Bojan Bogdanovic two of whom are just at the beginnings of their career. Saric is already making a name for himself in these Olympics and Hezonja is at least seeing some time after not seeing the floor much as a rookie with the Orlando Magic. Add Phoenix Suns rookie Dragan Bender to the mix for future iterations of the Croatian team and there’s a potential core filled with NBA players with only Bogdanovic in his prime. Plus, there are only three players above 30 on this Olympic roster; there’s no reason to think that this collective group isn’t going to get better year after year as they grow up.

Serbia is another team loaded with interesting young talent. Their roster is headlined by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, a crafty, skilled center who just wrapped up a very good rookie season that was overshadowed because of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. The Serbians also have Euroleague veterans like Milos Teodosic and Miroslav Radujica that are really, really good but aren’t known because they don’t play in the NBA. If Jokic and the likes of Bogdan Bogdanovic develop at a fast pace, this team could be a dark horse medal threat in four years when no major part of the core will be 33 and they’ll have a lot of size to counter the United States’. Plus, this team also should have giant human being Boban Marjanovic moving forward, as he only sat out this summer due to his restricted free agency.

Another team to look at is Australia, who also just happens to be doing pretty well at the Olympics. Yes, they might get thin up front as Andrew Bogut continues to age. But they have a lot of good/should be good guards Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Dante Exum — and also have the rights to recent No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons. Their window may not be open as long as a Croatia or Serbia, but Simmons has the chance to be their Dirk, to the be type of player who elevates the rest of the team into medal contention. Maybe at the next world championships or Olympics, Bogut can make one more run with Simmons on the team at a high finish.

Even a team like France — who will one day lose Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and others — has another generation on the rise. Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and a few others are just starting their pro careers and (clap twice if you’ve read this before) should only get better. Losing Parker and the rest isn’t ideal and they’ll probably struggle to replace them. But it’s doable and even if there’s a dip in quality, there’s probably an inevitable rise back up the rankings as the generation just now making the national team roster hits its prime.

And then there’s Canada, who almost qualified for the Olympics, but just missed out. Their roster this summer had NBA talent Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Tyler Ennis most notably and there’s more that didn’t play. Andrew Wiggins gives the Canadians a potential star to define their generation and Nuggets rookie Jamal Murray can add some scoring punch. Throw in guys like Kelly Olynyk and Andrew Nicholson not to mention Florida commit Shai Alexander, who was on their main international roster this summer and there’s a lot of NBA-level players in Canada’s talent pool. If Wiggins breaks out in the way many have hoped he will, there is a team with the potential to maybe medal at a future Olympics; no longer should basketball notoriety in Canada begin and end with Steve Nash.

There is no guarantee that all or even one of these teams ever beat the United States in the Olympics. Unless something dramatically changes, the best talent is probably going to always come from the U.S. and the Americans will likely be the favorites in almost every tournament. Even if the U.S. doesn’t have a Kevin Durant or LeBron James or Stephen Curry in 2020, guys like Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving will be there to replace them.

But that doesn’t mean that international talent is lacking or that the U.S. will be able to coast to gold year after year. The challengers are there, they just aren’t ready yet.