2012 Olympic Basketball: 7 International Players NBA Fans Should Get to Know
It has been 20 years since the Dream Team took the world by storm at the Barcelona games, setting off shock waves that would change the landscape of basketball around the globe.
Nations from every continent are now producing elite basketball talent. Countries like Spain, France, and Argentina are stacked with NBA all-star caliber players like the Gasol brothers, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Serge Ibaka.
The Summer Olympics have also become a stage for countries to showcase their young and unheralded stars to fans and scouts of the NBA and the rest of the world.
In 2004, the Argentinian Gold Medal team provided NBA fans with there first glimpse of Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, and Carlos Delfino, all of whom went on to have successful careers in the NBA. Four years ago, Spain's flashy point guard Ricky Rubio was the talk of the Beijing Games.
Several international players are poised to make a name for themselves in the London Games this summer, many of whom have already been drafted by an NBA team or will be joining the league shortly.
Here are seven international players NBA fans should get to know in the 2012 games.
7. Sergio Llull—Spain
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Llull is a 6'3'' combo guard known for his quickness and attacking style. The 24-year-old is expected to come off the bench for the talented Spanish National Team.
Llull was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 34th pick in the 2009 draft and his rights were promptly sold to the Houston Rockets. The Spaniard has been playing for Real Madrid of the highly competitive ACB league in Spain since 2007 and it's unlikely he'll come to the U.S. before his contract expires in 2014.
The Rockets believe he is well worth the wait. Houston's Vice President of Basketball Operations Sam Hinkie raved about Llull during an interview with NBA.com in 2010:
“He has great speed, NBA speed, which makes him interesting and unique for an international point guard. He defies a lot of the stereotypes you might want to put on guards coming from overseas. He’s a gifted, active, committed and high energy defender who can defend multiple positions."
6. Victor Claver—Spain
Ross William Hamilton, The Oregonian
The Portland Trail Blazers brought in two international players this summer, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland, in addition to matching Minnesota's offer for restricted free agent, Frenchman Nicolas Batum.
Claver averaged just 8.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game for Valencia of Spain's ACB League last season and his stock has dropped since the Trail Blazers selected him with the 22nd pick in the 2009 draft.
Still, with his size (6'9'') and ability to knock down the three ball—he connected on 36 percent of his attempts last season—the Spaniard should be able to carve a niche for himself in the NBA.
Minutes will be tough to come by for Claver in London on the stacked Spanish front court that includes Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. He may run into the same problem in Portland behind Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, too.
5. Alexey Shved—Russia
Shved has been playing professionally in Russia since 2006 and the 6'6'' combo guard is expected to be the starting two guard for the Russian National Team in London.
According to ThePaintedArea.com, the Russian is "a handful in the pick-and-roll" and has the ball handling and passing skills to play the point, as well as the athleticism and three-point range necessary to excel as a shooting guard in the NBA.
The Minnesota Timberwolves just signed the 23-year-old to a three-year, $10 million contract, where he'll be joined by his teammate of last season on CSKW Moscow, Andre Kirilenko, who is also finalizing a deal with the T-Wolves.
Minnesota's General Manager David Kahn said that Minnesota intends to bring Shved along slowly, “this year in particular I think it’s important to not put too much pressure on him,” Kahn said (via the Washington Post).
4. Joel Freeland—Great Britain
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Freeland has been on the NBA radar since the Portland Trail Blazers selected him with the 30th pick in the 2006 draft. The 25-year-old reached an agreement to finally join the Trail Blazers this coming season after representing the host country in the London Games.
Freeland spent the past few years playing in Spain, and averaged 12.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game last season for the Unicaja Malaga club.
The 6'10'' power forward is a tenacious rebounder, with good mobility for a man his size. Along with Meyers Leonard, one of the Blazers' two first-round picks in June's draft, Freeland will add much-needed depth to Portland's front line.
3. Pablo Prigioni—Argentina
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According to ESPN.com, Prigioni's agent George Bass said that the Argentinian point guard had been on Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald's radar for about five years. Well, Grunwald finally got his man on Tuesday when the Knicks reached an agreement with the veteran point guard.
Prigioni has played professionally in Spain for the past several seasons and was a member of the Argentinian National Team that won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The 35-year-old scored eight points and dished out five assists in Argentina's 86-80 exhibition loss to the United States' on Sunday. He appeared to lack the quickness to beat NBA guards off the dribble, but was able to protect the basketball and run the offense effectively against an overwhelming U.S. defense.
Prigioni will enter training camp as the Knicks' third string point guard behind Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, but it's unreasonable to expect the 39-year-old Kidd to play 82 games. Expect the Argentinian to log significant minutes for the playoff-bound Knicks at some point this season.
2. Nando De Colo—France
FIBA Europe/ Etienne Zambard
De Colo, a 6'5'' combo guard, averaged 13.1 points, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals for the Spanish team Valencia last season after leading the club to the Eurocup Title in 2010.
This summer he will represent his native France in the London Games, serving as a sixth man behind Nicolas Batum and Tony Parker. The 25-year-old led the French National Team in scoring with 17 points in an exhibition loss to Australia on Tuesday.
The Spurs selected de Colo in the second round of the 2009 draft and this fall he will be joining his French National Team teammates Tony Parker and Boris Diaw in San Antonio.
His excellent court vision and movement without the ball will fit well with Coach Popovich's offense, though he'll have to fight for minutes in a crowded Spurs backcourt. His ability to play both guard positions will certainly help his cause.
1. Jonas Valanciunas—Lithuania
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Talented big men are always in high demand and NBA teams are willing to scour the globe to find them. Valanciunas was selected by the Raptors with the 5th pick in the 2011 draft and may have gone higher had he planned on coming to the NBA last season.
The 6'11'' center played for the club Lietuvos Rytas in his native Lithuania last year and averaged 10.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just 23 minutes per game in 16 Eurocup games.
NBA scouts love the Lituanian big man's size, agility and active motor. His post moves are considered raw, though at 20-years-old he has plenty of room for improvement.
In a survey conducted by NBA.com in January, 36 percent of participating NBA general managers named Valanciunas as the best international player not playing in the NBA. That will change when he joins the Raptors this fall.
NBA fans can get their first look at Valanciunas this summer when he suits up for the Lithuanian National Team in London.