The Olympic qualifiers in the FIBA Americas and Eurobasket tournaments seemed pre-ordained. Even the squads left to scrap for London bids sometime next summer appeared pre-determined. A few surprises have altered the field, but the favorites remain the likeliest nations to advance.
The contests conclude this weekend in Argentina and Lithuania, and U.S. hoops fanatics may starve when those arenas go dark. The nail-biters have been stirring and captivating enough to put clippers on every corner of the globe to shame. The routs have been comatose and hideous enough to rival Victor Frankenstein’s monster after a Nyquil overdose.
As with most extended sporting events, a middle ground has emerged. The same rating system applies to players. Some have been extraordinary, many have been disappointing or caustic and some are mired in mediocrity. This column will highlight 10 competitors who have distinguished themselves in these FIBA tourneys. This piece features the athletes performing at their breathtaking best.
Readers will note the high concentration of current NBA players, but a few others cracked the list. I considered several items when constructing this: field-goal percentage, shot attempt averages, personal growth, fourth quarter and overall impact. I selected five contributors from the Argentina field and five from the Lithuania field.
A few Eurobasket aficionados may lambaste me for not including players from Lithuania, Serbia, Macedonia, unbeaten Russia or Turkey. Many more will decry my decision to pick just one Gasol brother. Sue me. There are plenty of numbers to call if you wish to do so.
I decided to add some honorable mentions (players I considered): Milos Teodosic, Marcelo Huertas, Andrei Kirilenko, Gary Forbes and Bo McCalebb.
Country: Dominican Republic
Tournament Averages: Unavailable (Thanks www.mardelplata2011.com)
The undersized forward-center has been good for 20 points and a peach basket full of rebounds in each of his home nation’s games. He dropped 19 and 10 in an early victory over Venezuela and has remained the semifinalist’s motor since the tournament’s apex.
In the second round, he torched overmatched Uruguay for 23 points and 14 rebounds. Few will expect the Dominicans to follow a 26-point smashing at the hands of Argentina by upsetting event favorites Brazil this weekend, but John Calipari’s squad should qualify for a London berth next summer in that final pre-Olympic competition.
The criticisms that hang over the 25-year-old, 6’10” Horford in the NBA still shadow him abroad, but his best qualities as a hustle hound and face-up/post player shine.
Tournament Averages: Unavailable
Forgive the Maryland product for comparing himself to a Hall of Fame-bound Argentine listed below. In this tournament, the Memphis Grizzlies guard has at times lived up to that Manu Ginobili mystique. Vasquez even finished within a rebound of a triple-double against the Argentines in a Tuesday barnburner.
His country has earned the unexpected chance to secure an Olympic berth next summer. Best of all, his play in Mar Del Plata suggests his playoff scoring outbursts were not mirages. If there was any lingering doubt about Vasquez’ ability to carve out an extended NBA tenure, he has obliterated it in the previous two weeks.
He may remain a backup guard, but his explosiveness and ability to knife through defenses and create open looks will serve blossoming Memphis as it tries to build on a mega successful campaign and postseason run.
Celebrate his production, not his unfortunate fight with Renaldo Balkman.
Tournament Averages: 13.9 PTS, 5.9 RBS, 58.8 percent from the field
Two-win Israel has disappointed in Siauliai, but this Houston Rockets draft selection merits a mention for his solid performances. The talented roster was supposed to rank as the dangerous one bound to topple a giant. Instead, Israel flopped in its opener versus Germany, losing 91-64, suffered a French shellacking and almost blew a 21-point lead against Italy.
The forward, though, has delivered reliable numbers for a team that could have used Omri Casspi’s frenetic spark. Eliyahu may never suit up in the U.S., but he has furthered his stock as a valuable contributor. His standout performance: a 31-minute, 18-point, 13-rebound game against Finland.
Tournament Averages: Unavailable
I expect some backlash for copping out with two picks from a squad with dashed Olympic dreams. Panama’s Thursday victory eliminated Canada from London contention, and Olynyk and Joseph started on an outfit that struggled to manufacture quality looks or get any stops. An insufficient showing in Argentina prompted head coach Leo Rautins to resign.
Did I not just torpedo my case?
I chose to spotlight these youngsters for several reasons. Olynyk, 20, poured in 19 points and 12 rebounds versus then undefeated Argentina. He has the look of a player around which CEO Wayne Parrish can build a respectable, competitive program. A talent-starved roster needed more ammunition to hang with its far superior brethren in the Americas. Yet, Olynyk was a bright spot and demonstrated both aplomb and amelioration.
Joseph at times resembled an NBA-caliber point guard, despite abrupt and sparse on-the-job training. He was more of a combo scorer at Texas, but Gregg Popovich will ask him to spell Tony Parker as a San Antonio Spurs rookie reserve. Joseph’s averages would not impress Jackie Moon, but no one should evaluate him on box scores alone.
Spurs GM R.C. Buford and Popovich plan to groom Gary Neal as a backup point man, giving 19-year-old Joseph time to ease into the role. San Antonio may yet pursue a veteran to replace George Hill whenever the lockout ends. Just watching Joseph bring the ball up the floor with the intrepidity a floor general must possess was a pleasure.
Country: Puerto Rico
Tournament Averages: Unavailable
If only he could duplicate that production in the NBA.
How many times have you read or heard that tired refrain? The frustrating dichotomy applies to Arroyo as much as any international baller. Here, he is a streaky shooter with zapped creativity unable to guard a grandmother or her refrigerator. As Puerto Rico’s leading scorer, he is dynamic, enthralling and volcanic.
As his role and competition change, so do his demeanor and spunk. I will explain this incongruity as best as possible in a column after the tournaments conclude. Just know that he has sizzled in Argentina. The attention defenses have paid to Jose Juan Barea has opened up driving lanes and jumpshots for Arroyo.
How’s this for a line: 26 points, three rebounds, four assists and a steal? He did that against underwhelming Canada, but it was still impressive.
Tournament Averages: 20.2 PTS, 6.2 RBS, 47 percent from the field, 93 percent from the free-throw line
I could not ignore the reigning Finals MVP, even if his team faced elimination after a 0-3 start to the second round. Inferior guard play and inadequate help behind the Nowitzki-Chris Kaman frontline doomed Germany. Yet, Nowitzki still managed to become the second all-time leading scorer in Eurobasket history. He will not catch Greece’s Nikos Galis for that distinction in this event, but the 33-year-old can say he knocked on the door.
Keep in mind that he has played alongside Steve Nash, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd in Dallas. Germany does not feature any distributors on the level of those guards, making his scoring haul more splendid.
Country: Great Britain
Tournament Averages: 24.6 PTS, 9.4 RBS, 3.6 AST, 1.6 STL, 85 percent from the free throw line
Deng was Great Britain’s rare, trustworthy gem in a disastrous tournament. The country’s first-round ouster does not matter since the host nation gains an automatic Olympics bid. The Brits might achieve better results with Ben Gordon and Pops Mensah-Bonsu aboard in 2012, but Deng will remain the squad’s centerpiece.
To put Deng’s numbers in perspective: He accumulated 123 points through five games. Forward Joel Freeland, the team’s next highest scorer, totaled 56. He also led the roll call in minutes (183) and rebounds (47). He led all Eurobasket competitors in field goal attempts and made baskets per game. He ranked second in minutes per game, rebounds per game, free throw attempts, free throw makes per game and double-doubles.
Yes, Deng was a bad man in Lithuania.
Tournament Averages: Unavailable
In a world full of surprises and unknowns, El Contusion’s high placement ranks up there with gasoline as a flammable substance and a metal pole as an electricity conductor. Well, duh.
Andres “Chapu” Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni and Luis Scola deserve recognition, but Ginobili snag’s Argentina’s MVP award. The 34-year-old All-Star remains a sturdy foundation, a freight train and a sans-pareil leader. Did the ash that covered parts of Argentina last week emanate from a volcano or from Ginobili, announcing to his foes that no one dare consider upstaging the host country?
Brazil accomplished that unthinkable feat Wednesday with a 73-71 triumph, but the Argentines can still book London reservations with a Saturday victory versus Puerto Rico. Ginobili’s merciless dissection of Venezuela earlier this week was mesmerizing. He dropped 26 points and crushed spirits with every scintillating drive and each three-point bomb.
He was pedestrian in Argentina’s lone defeat, but he will bring his best on Saturday. Count on it.
Tournament Averages: 15.4 PTS, 7.9 RBS, 52.4 percent from the field, 89.1 percent from the free-throw line
His brother scores more, nets more touches and does a superior job of filling up the box score. Marc, though, still beats out Pau on my ranking. He no longer exudes anxiety or timidity when suiting up alongside his more decorated sibling. The frontline with the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka has delivered nearly 60 percent of the Spaniards’ scores.
Other than Juan Carlos Navarro, the supposed deep Spanish backcourt has been abysmal. Will the real Ricky Rubio please stand? Rudy Fernandez should locate the word “inconsistent” in a dictionary and tape a picture of himself next to the entry.
Marc Gasol has improved in each of his professional campaigns. Now, he’s doing it in international events. I love understatements, so here goes a mammoth one: When NBA free agency opens, this man will not need to worry about putting food on his table.
Tournament Averages: 22.7 PTS, 5.3 AST, 3.2 RBS, 1.3 STL
Parker has been the best player in either tournament by a mile. He leads unbeaten France in points, assists, clutch plays and crossovers. Forget hurting opponents’ feelings; Parker has damaged egos. You think this guy wants to taste the Olympics?
Forever a punching bag to some irrational, disgruntled Spurs fans (who might also happen to reside in Argentina—just sayin’), Parker has left his critics and countless guards in the dust. He even drained a pair of contested triples in his 32-point masterpiece against Germany.
To rephrase Sacramento Kings play-by-play man Grant Napear’s go-to line, if you don’t like watching Parker drive and demolish in Lithuania, you don’t like basketball.