RIO DE JANEIRO — Andrew Bogut has seen some international teams treat games against the United States as the best opportunity to meet NBA players, get a pair of autographed shoes and pose for photographs to document that they actually shared the floor. Bogut has never been on a team like that with Australia, a feisty, fearless group of competitors, but he has had past teammates who would’ve looked at what they accomplished on Wednesday – losing by just 10 points against vaunted Team USA – as cause for celebration.
“Everybody gets birthday cake like it’s the best day ever,” Bogut joked about the previous mindset after Australia lost 98-88 at Carioca Arena 1. “We’re disappointed. We lost. We’re not going to take small, moral victories.”
Australia is in pursuit of its first Olympic medal but has an established basketball culture now, one that was on display during the first legitimate scare that the Americans have encountered in Brazil. The Boomers weren’t going to cower to the U.S., because even with the talent disparity the two sides were on equal footing in one important category – each team had a combined four NBA championship rings on its roster. The big game pressure wasn’t going to cause Bogut, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes or Matthew Dellavedova to shriek when they’ve already been asked to perform under a more intense glare.
“The first-ranked team, or the 50th-ranked team, we’re going to play them the same way,” said Joe Ingles, a Utah Jazz forward. “We’re not intimidated, we’re not scared of anyone and we hope we get another crack at them. We’re a really good group of guys. We’ve played together. We’ve got a helluva roster and we can match up with any team here. We’re going to play the same way, no matter what, we’re going to do what we do.”
With six NBA players on its roster, Australia had six more NBA players than Team USA had faced in cakewalk wins over China and Venezuela. Bogut’s presence, the maturity of other core members of the team and a relatively inexperienced American Olympic roster was enough to close a significant gap from the 33-point defeat Australia sustained in the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Olympics.
But even if Australia doesn’t get another chance to defeat the U.S., or fails to complete its goal for a medal in Rio, the Boomers are primed to be one of the better international teams for 2020 and beyond. Ben Simmons and Thon Maker, the first and 10th pick, respectively, in last June’s draft, and Dante Exum, the fifth pick in 2014, didn’t represent the national team this summer but provide some hope for Australia’s basketball future.
“The future looks very bright,” Australian national team coach Andrej Lemanis told The Vertical. “The Australian development system, it’s been coordinated and organized. That work is all starting to show itself in the quality of player that is coming through. It’s exciting. And, the other thing with Australia’s cultural mix as well, the athlete that is starting to come through as well, is changing the landscape a little bit.”
Bogut was the first Australian player to go No. 1 and he has had a respectable career, serving as the defensive anchor for a Golden State Warriors team that won the 2015 NBA championship and a record 73 games last regular season. But Simmons is a small forward who is both skilled and smooth, with the potential to become a star in the league. Simmons and Exum are both the sons of Americans who played professionally in Australia and stayed to raise families there. Maker was born in Sudan but fled the war-torn country when he was 5.
“I think what we proved today, it’s not necessarily about the talent,” said Luc Longley, the Australian assistant coach and former NBA champion. “We have more talent coming up, but the group we have right now, we thought we had a shot. I’m not going to say other players would’ve helped – that would’ve been unfortunate for our group – but Australian basketball has been producing good talent and you saw it on display” in the loss to the U.S.
But as Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving – who happened to be born in Melbourne – showed down the stretch, star power is generally what propels teams to a gold medal in these international competitions, where just having NBA players on a roster is not enough to medal. The abundance of talent has given the Americans the edge since 2008. Argentina is the only team to win an Olympic gold medal since NBA players were allowed to participate in international competitions in 1992 – and that 2004 squad featured a future Hall of Famer in Manu Ginobili.
At the past All-Star game in Toronto, only two non-American players saw the floor – Pau Gasol and Al Horford – and both were injury replacements. Karl-Anthony Towns was born and raised in America but plays internationally for the Dominican Republic, so there is a dearth of young, international star power in the league.
The NBA thrived off successful international players, who have helped the game grow globally, but many of them have begun to age, leaving open a window for a new non-American power to emerge. Canada has been flooding the league with talent in recent years, including 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, and could be poised for a run in four years. But Argentina is perhaps having the last run of its golden generation, Spain’s stars are getting older and started this tournament poorly and France hasn’t medalled since 2000, despite sending several players into the league. Serbia, Lithuania and Croatia have some young talent, but Australia also has a chance to be in that mix.
Bogut and the team that nearly upset the United States Wednesday aren’t concerned about the future, since they are still focused on leaving here with a gold medal. You read that correctly.
“No disrespect to the U.S., but we don’t want to go into an Olympics aiming for second, or fourth,” Bogut said. “We should go in with the mindset that we’re going to be first and they beat you, they beat you. But we’re not disrespecting anybody by saying that. We have a goal of being first. We have a goal of trying to be there in the end. What’s the point of playing otherwise? We have that mindset from the start, guys were saying let’s get a medal and we said as a group, ‘No, let’s get a gold and we’ll live with what we get after that, if we don’t get it.’ ”
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