Why you should care
Because a superstar this year could earn a spot in the NBA.
A behind-the-back pass lands smoothly in in Larry Bird’s hands, and he glides to the hoop for an easy dunk. No one is near Michael Jordan when he makes it to the net, because he has launched himself from the three-point like a missile. Charles Barkley arcs in yet another graceful three, looking for all the world as though he were born doing it. The highlight reel from the 1992 Dream Team, the U.S.’ gold medal–winning basketball team, is practically endless — and timeless too.
Almost a quarter century later, the Dream Team’s domination reverberates. No doubt it stoked the rising popularity of basketball around the world, but the result is a curious one: much like in 1992, nobody is giving international teams a chance against Team USA in Rio. Though heavily favored, this modern version of the Dream Team is far from invulnerable. Not having Steph Curry and LeBron James won’t help the U.S., either.
These three teams have the best shot at upsetting Team USA and restoring some parity to international play. Plus, a few players deserve extra attention, just in case they break out and prove they deserve a spot in the NBA.
Serbia has won exactly one gold medal (taekwondo) since the country began representing itself independently in 2008. Now, its hopes of winning gold start and end with center Nikola Jokić, an advanced analytics darling in his rookie season with the Denver Nuggets. He was also named MVP of the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade. Joining Jokić will be future Sacramento Kings player, the repetitively named sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanović, whose accuracy from deep will open up the floor for his teammates.
The X factor here will be a little-known player, captain Miloš Teodosić. He is a 6-foot-5 point guard who has dominated the Euroleague since his MVP season in 2010. He plays fast and aggressive, a mind-set that permeates his entire team. Their run-and-gun style is reminiscent of Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns. If there is any squad capable of keeping pace with Team USA in a scoring contest, it’s Serbia.
Since 1896, France has seen much success in cycling and fencing, but has medaled just three times in basketball. This year, its team will be staffed by five NBA players. Rudy Gobert is arguably the premier rim-protector in the NBA, and may be the world’s best matchup against USA bigs DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Tony Parker bring playmaking, scoring and leadership to this highly skilled and deep French team. The wild card may be Nando de Colo, this season’s Euroleague MVP. The prolific shooting guard played briefly for San Antonio before deciding to move back to Europe in 2014. This team will be influenced by the Spurs’ offensive philosophy, so expect strong fundamentals and limited turnovers, in addition to kinetic player and ball movement.
Spain has had much of its Olympic achievement in sailing, but its men’s basketball team is coming off back-to-back silver medal finishes in 2008 and 2012. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka’s absence in Rio de Janeiro may not be a death sentence for Spain. According to Tajh Jenkins of NetScouts Basketball— the largest basketball scouting service in the world — Pau Gasol will have strong frontcourt complements in Ilimane Diop and Willy Hernangómez.
Per Jenkins, Diop has “great size and athleticism, an NBA body and length that should allow him to match up with Team USA’s bigs and consistently affect their shots at the rim.” At 21, the center could turn heads and early his way onto a bigger stage. Jenkins describes Hernangómez as “a skillful, low-post big man who can create scoring opportunities for himself from inside or the high post. … He likes to play up-tempo and run the court.” He was recently signed by the New York Knicks.