RIO DE JANEIRO — The Rio Olympics begin Friday, but men’s basketball feels different this year. The thrill of watching Team USA has been replaced by a collective shrug. It makes sense. We’ve seen American teams dominate for eight years now, and this year’s version doesn’t even have the best players in the world (LeBron, Steph, Russ, etc). Of course it’s anti-climatic.
There’s a solution, though. If you’re looking to get excited about basketball in the Olympics, the key is to forget about teams. Focus on the individuals.
Watching NBA players in international games is like stepping into an alternate universe. All the NBA baggage acquired over the years suddenly disappears. Players can get more creative, they have more fun, they take over games in ways you never expected. At its best, international basketball can make you love players you’d forgotten, and respect players you’d never thought about. With that in mind, as we wait for the opening game—USA vs. China, 6 p.m. ET on Saturday—here are seven players that I can’t wait to watch in Rio for the next two weeks.
Spain has older stars (Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon) and younger players to watch (Nikola Mirotic, Willy Hernangomez, Alex Abrines), but all I want to watch is Rubio. At his best, he’s more entertaining than anyone in the field. He also enters these Olympics at something of a crossroads.
In a perfect world, Rubio could be 17 years old forever. He’d be tearing through the Beijing Olympics, going toe to toe with Chris Paul, and frozen in time as the Spanish heir to Pistol Pete. In the real world, his NBA existence has been plagued by injuries, shooting woes, and rampant Minnesota dysfunction. Now the Wolves looks like they could turn a corner, and he may not make it to February without getting traded.
I just want two things for Ricky Rubio. First, I hope he gets a full season in Minnesota to play with Towns, Wiggins, and Thibs. We’ve come too far to give up now. Give him a chance with a real coach and a real roster. We all—everyone who’s been invested since he was a 16 year-old urban legend in Spain—deserve to see if he can make this work.
Second, I want him to go NUTS in Rio.
It’s time to remember how much fun he can be, how stupid he can make defenses look. It’s time to flood the streets with Vines. Rubio’s game isn’t perfect, but it’s too much fun to spend 10 years nitpicking. Hopefully these Olympics will be our reminder.
One of the greatest Team U.S.A. highlights of all time:
I don’t want to overreact to Team USA in international play. Just because Cousins can play on an All-Star team for two months without self-destructing doesn’t mean all his flaws were imaginary. I know all this. Boogie thrives, but so would most anyone. DeAndre Jordan is going to look like Kareem for the next few weeks.
And yet, watching Boogie on Team USA makes you wonder. He fits so well with other teammates who know how to play basketball. He runs the floor, he listens to Coach K, he puts up excellent Instagram videos, he’s in a good mood the entire time. He’s also one of the two or three most talented players on the roster, and it’s obvious no team has an answer for him. On Team USA, Boogie is something like the safety valve. Whenever the offense stalls, just throw it to him and he’ll overpower someone and score.
If this is an idealized version of how his NBA career should look, it’s also probably closer to the truth than Sacramento. In any case, it’s great to watch, and it’s fun to wonder. What if he’s both part of the problem and the greatest victim of Sacramento’s dysfunction? Aren’t we all we all just products of our surroundings? Is Boogie going to decapitate that Lithuanian? All good Olympic basketball questions.
I want to know how good Rudy Gobert can be. The Jazz are already the buzziest pick to break out in the NBA next year, and they should safely make a jump into the playoffs with or without a dominant year from Gobert. But France’s gigantic center—7' 2", 7' 9" wingspan, 9' 7" standing reach—is one of the few wild cards that could raise their ceiling beyond something like “Western Conference Hawks.”
Can he score? Can he run? Can he make the entire lane disappear? Will there be games when he’s the best player on the floor? The more those questions are answered “yes,” the more Utah turns into a terrifying Quin Snyder science project designed to counter the Warriors. Of course, Gobert only played 61 games last year and he was limited by injuries. After surprising the entire league in his second season, he didn’t take a step back, but there wasn’t quite the leap forward that some were expecting.
Now we’re in Rio. France is one of the oldest teams in the field, and while Tony Parker, Nic Batum, Boris Diaw will headline, there will be plenty of room for Gobert to flex his muscle. How terrifying is the Jazz’s future? Let’s find out together.
Carmelo’s fascinating both as a player and evolving public figure. He’s the leader of Team USA, and he’s one of the best Olympic players of all time. He’s also spent the past few months finding his voice to raise awareness of gun violence and injustice in America. If he plans to continue speaking out, the Olympics will be his biggest platform yet.
Even fans who long ago checked out on Team USA will pay attention if he speaks. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about him from Rio. For now, I’ll just say that watching Carmelo set free from the Knicks in the Olympics has been one of the true joys in recent Team USA history:
Also, watching him turn into 2016’s lovable grumpy veteran makes me feel 1,000 years old. And watching him this summer has been a reminder that regardless of what’s happened with the Knicks, there may be several more chapters to Carmelo’s story before this is over.
Mario Hezonja and Dario Saric
During Vegas Summer League, I was talking to an American college basketball player who’s spent the past few years playing in Europe. Somehow, Dario Saric’s name came up. “Saric?” He asked. “He can play.” I nodded politely. “No, he can play.” Saric was the MVP of the qualifying tournament that brought Croatia to Brazil, and after spending a few years as a lottery pick urban legend/Process Icon, he’s finally heading to the NBA next year for the Sixers.
Meanwhile, before he disappeared on Scott Skiles’s bench in Orlando, Mario Hezonja was another icon—if not to the world, then at least to NBA twitter users, me, and himself.
Now ... What I need from these Olympics is everything we didn’t get in Orlando last year. The forecast in Rio calls for 30 footers, dunks and disdainful Croatian trash talk. And when Hezonja’s done, Saric will get going. We’ll get a chance to see the all-around game that Sixers fans have been telling us about for three years. Then it will be Bojan Bogdanovic’s turn. Then maybe future Celtic Ante Zizic will get in the mix. And then it will be back to Hezonja. Before you know it, we’ll all be singing the Croatian national anthem. This is what the Olympics are all about.
As for the Americans, this is our new national anthem:
Will the new Warriors team affect Klay Thompson’s shots? Will he still be a superstar? How will he pick his spots? In some ways Team USA will be a preview of this new reality, but on a more basic level, Team USA will showcase what’s always made Klay Thompson great. All those questions matter, yes. But nobody will care less about the answers than Klay. As far as I can tell, he’s got two settings. Either he’s blissfully detached and oblivious to your narrative concerns, or he’s on the court destroying people. Both will be on display for the whole world over the next few weeks. Enjoy it.