Olympic basketball begins today … sort of.
And all those New York Knicks fans who are wondering about their new draft pick, Kostas Papanikolau, will likely get a chance to see him later this summer against Team USA.
Greece is one of the favorites in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament that begins today in Venezuela, and there are more familiar faces for NBA fans than one might imagine.
Andrei Kirilenko and Timofey Mozgov are representing Russia. J.J. Barea, Carlos Arroyo and Renaldo Balkman are representing Puerto Rico.
Al Horford is playing for the Dominican Republic, which will be coached by John Calipari (who cut Charlie Villanueva from the team). Al-Farouq Aminu and Ike Diogu are playing for Nigeria.
Sarunas Jasikevicius and Jonas Valanciunas are competing for Lithuania.
Bo McCallebb, the pride of both New Orleans and Skopje, will be playing for Macedonia
The top three teams from the 12-team field will earn berths in the London Olympics, and the top two finishers will be in Team USA’s preliminary round group, which already includes France and Argentina.
My picks to win the three Olympic berths are Russia, Greece and Lithuania.
Here is a preview of the tournament and a rundown of the participants. The tournament runs through July 8, and we will be bringing you daily updates on SheridanHoops.com.
The teams are split into four groups of three who will compete in a round-robin format. The top two teams in each group will make it to the quarterfinals, which will be a one-and-done tournament, in which the winners of the semifinal games qualify for the London Olympics and losers battle in a death match of a bronze medal game.
Greece – The Greeks have long been known as a tough challenger in international competitions, especially after their smackdown of Team USA in the 2006 World Championships. The Greek team doesn’t feature any current NBA players, but has several players who have been NBA draft picks and several of the best players Europe has to offer. Led by All-Euroleague first teamer, Vassilis Spanoulis, Greece has a very balanced attack behind European vets Ioannis Bourousis, Nikolas Zisis, Antonis Fotsis and Kostas Kaimakoglou, as well as three NBA rights owned players, Nick Calathes (Florida/Dallas Mavericks) and the Knicks’ pair, Kostas Papanikolaou and Georgis Printezis.
It will be a bit of an adjustment for Greece to move forward without three of Europe’s best players and former national team stalwarts Theo Papaloukas, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Dimitris Diamantidis, but the opportunity will be there for their talented youngsters to make a jump. Look for the Knicks duo of Papanikolaou and Printezis to make a big impact with their overall toughness and clutch play. Papanikolaou can really get to the rack and is a streaky 3-point shooter who can occasionally carry his team by making consecutive momentum 3-point shots. Papanikolaou knows that until he proves himself in the NBA, Knicks fans will be questioning him, and he undoubtedly is the type of personality who will look to get the fans excited with spectacular play. Look for him to be the breakout player in international competition this summer.
Puerto Rico – Puerto Rico has been a staple in the World Championships and beat the United States by 19 in the first game of the 2004 Athens Olympics. Led by Carlos Arroyo, who just led Besiktas (Deron Williams’ old team) to a championship in the Turkish League and the Euro Challenge, and 2011 NBA Champion, J.J. Barea, the Puerto Rican team will need another guy to step up big for them if they are to have a chance to qualify. While Renaldo Balkman may provide some defense, look for D-League rookie of the year, Edwin Ubiles, to have an outstanding tournament if Puerto Rico is to be in the mix to advance.
Jordan – Featuring no players with any experience in any major leagues in America, Europe or Asia, Jordan will have a tough time competing with two experienced teams. Don’t expect them to come within 30 in the two games they will play.
Lithuania – Despite finishing fifth on their home soil last summer’s Eurobasket, Lithuania has typically been a very strong international team, winning a bronze medal at the last World Championship, and coming in fourth place in the last Olympic tournament. Linas Kleiza appears set to become a leader on this squad, with his athleticism and energy level very difficult to match in this tournament. He is more of a role player and energy guy in the NBA, but on the national team, he will be expected to be one of the pieces that makes Lithuania go.
The Raptors’ 2011 first-round draft pick, Jonas Valanciunas, (a favorite of Miami rapper O’Grime) looks to emerge from being up-and-coming contributor to a leader on the national team. His production on both sides of the ball and his tremendous length will prove as a major weapon that this veteran squad will need if it wants to not only qualify for the Olympics, but also make some noise.
The regulars, such as Sarunas Jasicevicius (known to Israelis as Sharas), Robertas Javtokas, Paulius Jankunas, Ramantas Kaukenas and Darius Songaila, give Lithuania a deep squad with a veteran presence. Add former Duke guard, Martynas Pocius, who emerged last summer as the team’s starting point guard, and Lithuania appears to have a very likely chance of locking up one of the Olympic spots.
Nigeria – While Nigeria is by no means a favorite to make it out of this tournament, they will surprise some people over the next few days. Aside from former lottery picks Al-Farouq Aminu and Ike Diogu, Nigeria has several players who are strong contributors in Europe.
Their main x-factor for this tournament is former George Mason point guard, Tony Skinn, who was the major push behind George Mason’s miraculous 2006 Final Four run. Skinn spent this past season playing for Ironi Ashkelon in Israel, where he made a habit of hitting momentum baskets. Skinn plays with a lot of moxie, and his 3-point shooting percentage has been a major factor in his team’s win/loss percentage throughout his career.
Venezuela – Coached by Eric Musselman, Venezuela has a chance to compete with Nigeria for the quarterfinal slot, and they will be relying heavily on New Orleans Hornets guard Greivis Vasquez. Vasquez can lead a team, as he showed last summer and during his time at the University of Maryland, but to get this team an Olympic berth, Vasquez may need to average a triple-double for the tournament.
Russia – Led by Andrei Kirilenko, this team should have little trouble making it back to the Olympics, where they won the bronze medal in 2008.
Kirilenko is coming off of a Euroleague MVP season for CSKA Moscow, and he has a perfect game for European competition as he is an incredible defender and finds a way to make a strong contribution offensively through the flow of the game.
Look for former CSKA guard, Alexy Shved, to have a monster tournament as he tries to play himself onto an NBA roster for next year. Shved has an amazing first step, can get to the rack at an excellent rate, and should prove to be a solid backup as a scoring point guard in the NBA.
Rounding out coach David Blatt’s roster will be former NBA first-round picks, Victor Khryapa and Sergey Monya, as well as big men Timofey Mozgov (Nuggets) and former Kansas Jayhawk, Sasha Kaun.
The Russians have a lot of experience and are coming in with a very serious attitude, and it is hard to imagine any scenario in which they are not competing in London.
(From our archives: Kirilenko played like a “wild horse” in Eurobasket ’11).
Dominican Republic – Coach Calipari may be able to recruit the best talent to bring championships in college, but it appears he will not have such luck with the Dominican Republic national team. While they will be led by NBA All-Star Al Horford, he is coming off an injury and may not be his dominant self.
Charlie Villanueva was cut by Calipari for reporting to camp out of shape. Without the depth of some of the top teams, Horford will need former Louisville guards, Francisco Garcia (Kings) and Edgar Sosa, to step up big time. Garcia has excellent leadership ability and will need to play very well in crunch time for this team to pick up some W’s. This squad may have very little depth, but with Horford and Calipari, they have an outside shot at sneaking into London.
South Korea – Korea is in a little bit over its head in this tournament, but this experience will be very important for this emerging basketball market. Former Cal big man Rod Benson spent last season playing (more like dominating) in Korea, and spoke very highly about the competition level and the up-and-coming play of the domestic players. They will probably get whacked in both of their games, but this experience could be a stepping stone for the future for this squad.
FYR Macedonia – The big surprise in last summer’s Eurobasket, Macedonia will need a miracle run from Bo McCalebb to have the slightest chance to play in London. McCalebb is an unbelievable scorer who seems content passing up a chance to be a strong third guard in the NBA in favor of being arguably Europe’s best scorer.
McCalebb will need help from rebounding forward, Pero Antic (Olympiacos), and point guard, Vlado Ilievski. They should make it out of Group D, since they are in unquestionably the weakest group, but they will struggle to get wins after the group stage. (From our archives: Chris Sheridan’s profile of McCalebb from his coverage of Eurobasket ’11).
Angola – They won’t wow you with any recognizable names, but they are a squad that plays with energy and effort. No matter who their opponent is, they play hard on both ends for 40 minutes, and their combination of effort and athleticism should be too much for New Zealand to overcome in the group stage.
New Zealand – New Zealand is only here because FIBA lets in the second-place finisher from the weak Oceania region. They have had their moments in international competitions, and were the toast of the town in Indianapolis at the 2002 World Championship, regularly quenching their thirsts at one of America’s great music bars, the Slippery Noodle. Their best player, Kirk Penney, is not on the roster, nor is former national team stalwart Pero Cameron.