Just a little over a month ago, Tunisian basketball center Salah Mejri was working out for NBA teams, trying to prove he could compete at the NBA level against the sport's elite. If Tuesday's performance against Team USA was any indication of Mejri's ability to stand up to the NBA's big men, Mejri will likely find himself continuing to play in the European League for the foreseeable future.
Mejri has been an intriguing prospect for NBA coaches during the early days of the 2012 offseason. The 7'1" center possesses a rare combination of physical gifts, and he was a defensive standout in the 2011 FIBA Africa Championship and has excelled while playing in Belgium. He tried out for the New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets, and Dallas Mavericks during summer workouts, but none of them tendered him an offer. He briefly joined the Utah Jazz's summer league team, but HoopsHype reported on July 12th that he was no longer with the team.
Despite the final score of 110-63, Tunisia actually played surprisingly well against the United States in the first half. Tunisia trailed by only six at the end of the first quarter, and managed to keep it close until the final minutes of the first half, when Team USA began to pull away. By the end of the third quarter, Team USA was ahead 85-47, and Tunisia was never in the game again.
Salah Mejri played 32 minutes in the game, which was more than anyone on Team USA and trailed only two of his teammates. While he pulled down seven rebounds—third most in the game behind only teammate Makrem Ben Romdhane (11) and U.S. forward Kevin Durant (10)—blocked two shots and made a steal, he was atrocious on the offensive end of the court. Mejri was two-for-nine from the field, including zero-for-two from the three-point line, and failed to draw a single foul. He did manage to commit three fouls of his own, however, and also turned the ball over twice.
In comparison, Team USA's centers Tyson Chandler and Anthony Davis went a combined eight-for-eight from the field, pulled down nine combined rebounds, blocked two shots and made zero turnovers.
While perhaps no one expected Tunisia to have a chance for a medal in London, Mejri hoped to use the Olympics to display his abilities on the biggest stage he has ever played on. Mejri told FIBA.com, “If I don’t make it now, because I am 26, I don’t think I will make it later."
If anyone looked like a future NBA player, it was Ben Romdhane. The 23-year-old, 6'8" forward was nine-for-eighteen from the field, scoring 22 points with 11 rebounds and four assists. His only weakness was free throw shooting, where he was three for nine from the charity stripe.
Salah Mejri's NBA hopes are not dead; his size and defensive skills will put him near the top of any list of international players due to be considered by NBA teams. Still, Mejri was overwhelmed by the big men of Team USA in Tunisia's blowout loss, and his perceived value to NBA executives has taken a tumble.