Olympic Basketball 2012: Young NBA Players Making Themselves Known in London

Tim KeeneyContributor IAugust 8, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Nicolas Batum #88 of the Portland Trail Blazers dribbles past Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the game at Staples Center on February 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Stages don't get much bigger than this.

For young NBA players looking to take that next step into the elite tier of players, they won't get a better chance than competing for their country in London.

Think about it. The entire world, not just the fans who watch the NBA, will be watching. If a player goes off for a huge performance, especially against Team USA—a squad with household names like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant—or another elite country, everyone is going to see.

For the next several years, you might be known as the "hey-that's-the-player-who-dominated-Team-USA-at-the-Olympics" guy, but if that's not a superstar label, I don't know what is.

There's no better way to propel yourself from unknown to, well, known. 

Let's take a look at guys making that step. 


Nicolas Batum, France

In the last few weeks, this guy has gotten the most criticism for doing nothing since LeBron James. Batum, of course, was given a huge contract, and predictably the critics didn't agree with the money.

But I don't think people realize how talented Batum really is. 

He's absolutely deadly from the outside, his athleticism is off the charts, he is improving at getting into the lane and his length makes him a pesky defender. The 23-year-old Batum has gotten better in all four of his NBA seasons, and I expect him to take the next step very soon.

France, led by Tony Parker and Batum, has a solid shot at bringing home a medal. If they are going to pull a major upset of Spain, and make it to the gold medal game, the young Trail Blazer is going to have to be huge.

Don't be surprised if he turns some heads with his play today, especially with the closer international three-point line.


Serge Ibaka, Spain

Ibaka established himself as one of the best up-and-coming big men last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The next step is dominating in the Olympic medal rounds.

Spain has a couple of other solid big men in the Gasol brothers, but Ibaka will very much be the X-factor coming off the bench against France and beyond should they advance. 

He's easily one of the best shot blockers in the tournament, but he can also be an offensive force when he is knocking down the mid-range jumper.

If Spain manages to upset Team USA, in a meeting many expect to happen, Ibaka will be a big reason why. That should only provide more momentum for him to continue to evolve into one of the NBA's best big men.


Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania

If Valanciunas proves he can effectively play against top-level competition, he is going to create a ridiculous amount of buzz.

The Lituanian center was drafted fifth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 2011 draft, but he stayed overseas for another year. After being named to the All-Eurocup First Team and winning the LKL Regular Season MVP, Valanciunas signed a contract with the Raptors.

He will play his first NBA game this year, and everyone is getting an appetizer of what he can do at the London Games.

Fortunately for the Raptors, he is impressing and will compete with Anthony Davis for Rookie of the Year honors in 2012.

If Valanciunas can lead Lithuania past Russia, and have a good game against the U.S. team, he might just enter stardom before he even touches ground in the United States (er, Canada).