Sunday marked the beginning of the men’s basketball tournament at London. Twelve teams will battle in one of the more competitive Olympic games ever. Forty-three out of 144 basketball players are from the NBA, including seven from France, five from Argentina and Spain, four from Brazil, three from Russia, two from Great Britain and Lithuania, and one from China, Nigeria and Australia. That’s 11 out of 12 countries with NBA representatives. Tunisia is the only team with no NBA players, although 26 years old Salah Mejri played for the Jazz at this year Summer League.
NBA players represent 29% of the players in the tournament. At Barcelona 1992 that percentage was 9.7.
Lithuania has two players in the NBA; both are on the Raptors. Linas Kleiza and Jonas Valanciunas along with Spaniard Jose Manuel Calderon represent the Raptors in London but there are a few more familiar faces as well. Leandro Barbosa, shipped to the Pacers at last year trade deadline plays for Brazil. Former Raptor Carlos Delfino starts for Argentina, Pops Mensah-Bonsu is one of the best players for the home team and David Andersen is the starting PF for Australia.
The first two games for the Lithuanian National Team were totally different from each other but from a Valanciunas standpoint, they were very similar. Lithuania was destroyed in the opener against a solid Argentinean team but two days later they beat Nigeria in a blowout in a rematch from the surprising loss at Caracas Olympic Qualifying Tournament. However, in both games, Valanciunas had a similar impact.
After losing starting big man Robertas Javtokas with a stress fracture in Caracas, Valanciunas’ minutes and touches were expected to increase. He started against Argentina but early foul trouble limited his playing time in the first half. In the second half, coach Kemzura went with Jankunas and Songaila in the paint as Valanciunas watched from the bench. In 14 minutes, he finished with 6 points (3/4 FG), 5 rebounds and 3 fouls, and his team lost by 23 in a disappointing performance.
He caught and dunked an alley-oop early in the game and battled every offensive rebound despite being the only true big on the court. Defensively, Lithuania couldn’t find an answer to Luis Scola, who scored 32 on 19 shots. They tried every big available on him but the former Rocket proved to be a beast at the FIBA level. In the same game, Linas Kleiza was the best player from the Europeans. Playing small forward, he finished with a team-high 20 points on 11 shots to go along with 7 rebounds. As expected, Kleiza is the main guy on offense and the team’s best scorer with most of his scores coming from corner threes and post-up situations.
In the second game of the tournament, Lithuania played Nigeria, the surprising team that beat them in Caracas and made the Olympics for the first time in Nation’s history. Kleiza scored 13 on 4 threes and Lithuania won the game in a blowout. Jonas didn’t see much playing time. He spent 12 minutes on the court, shot 2/4 from the floor, grabbed 3 rebounds, blocked a shot and fouled three times. Former Wizard Darius Songaila was the best big on the court and made the most of the big chunk of playing time.
In two games, Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 5 points, 3 rebounds 0.5 blocks and 3 fouls in 13 minutes of action.
As for the unbeaten Spain, Jose Calderon remains the most solid option at PG. After Ricky Rubio went down with a knee injury in the regular season, it was known that Calderon would have to take that responsibility. He’s backed up by former Trail Blazers, Sergio Rodriguez and by Victor Sada, the latter an athletic defensive minded PG from Barcelona. Spain won both games as expected and Jose averaged 8 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists in 20.5 minutes per game. He scored 12 in the blowout against China and 4 in the second game against Australia. In this deep and talented team, Calderon has the exclusive roll of feeding Rudy Fernandez, Serge Ibaka and the Gasol brothers, the team’s primary offensive options. Juan Carlos Navarro, Spain’s best weapon on the perimeter, is out indefinitely with a plantar fasciitis, an injury that threatens Spain’s ambitions.
Brazil, Russia and the USA are the other undefeated teams while Tunisia, China, Great Britain and Australia remains without a win. Besides USA, Russia is the most solid team so far. They have a deep and extremely versatile roster with a bunch of guys that can play three or four different positions. They are coached by David Blatt, one of the most respected coaches in Europe.
Kirilenko is playing at a very high level, synchronizing plays with future NBA teammate Alexey Shved. AK47 scored 35 in the debut and Shved dished out 13 assists, which is very hard to accomplish with FIBA rules. The NBA is less rigorous than FIBA in that aspect; as an example, the Euroleague assist-leader averaged 5.6 per game while Rajon Rondo dished 11.7 last season.
Thursday’s action includes Lithuania against France, a very interesting game for Valanciunas as he will face Ronnie Turiaf and Boris Diaw among other bigs. The other games are: Australia-China, Argentina-Tunisia, Brazil-Russia, Spain-Great Britain and USA-Nigeria.
Taking a look at the newcomers
As the tournament progresses, Raptors Republic will be analyzing young prospects in the tournament and NBA newcomers for next season. The first one is Alexey Shved, recently signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Shved is an athletic 6’6″ combo guard from Russia. The 23-year old played last season for Euroleague runner up CSKA Moscow and was a teammate of Andrei Kirilenko and former NBA-player Nenad Krstic, among others. Shved is a true combo guard, not the typical undersized SG with good handles. He can run the point with great court vision, can pass well, and excels in the open floor. On Sunday against Great Britain he threw numerous alley-oops and back doors to Kirilenko while showing terrific timing. Besides the obvious high basketball IQ, Shved is one of the best players in Europe in creating his own shot because of his explosiveness and creativity. He is great at attacking the basket and taking advantage in one-on-one situations; he can finish strong in Europe, but his body strength needs to improve to make it in the NBA. His mid-range game is good but his three point shooting needs work. Defensively, he needs to get stronger; him and Ricky Rubio will make one of the thinnest backcourt in the NBA. Right now he can’t guard and NBA twos despite his lateral quickness. So far in the tournament Shved is averaging 15 points, 3.5 rebounds and tournament-high 9.5 assists per game in 29.5 minutes of action.
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NBA Player List at London