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Olympics: Six basketball players to watch at Tokyo 2020

The less obvious stars to look out for during both the men's and women's basketball events at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics

Marc Gasol takes it to the basket under pressure from Jayson Tatum as Keldon Johnson looks on
Image: Spain's Marc Gasol takes it to the basket under pressure from Team USA's Jayson Tatum as Keldon Johnson looks on

Since professionals were invited to play basketball at the Olympics in 1992, the USA has rarely faltered at the biggest sporting competition in the world.

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The men’s team has won six Olympic golds, while the women’s side has been even more dominant: they are essentially unbeaten (aside from a few friendly exhibitions) and have won every gold medal the Olympics has offered since 1996. This year, legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are attempting to become the first basketball players ever to win a fifth gold medal.

But competition for the USA has improved a lot since 1992 and the game has changed immeasurably, meaning a number of countries now boast potential medal-winning talent of their own.

Patty Mills, Australia

Patty Mills

The long-time San Antonio Spurs guard earned the nickname ‘FIBA Patty’ because of the way he elevates his game when wearing Australian gold. Patty Mills’ legacy began at London 2012 when he scored a buzzer-beating three to secure a win over Russia, and he has embraced the international game.

Australia have already beaten Team USA in recent weeks during a pre-Olympic warm-up, and Mills made the most of mismatches to help his team to a comfortable eight-point win over the gold medal favourites.

He's not alone, with help coming from team-mates such as Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz, Matisse Thybulle of the Philadelphia 76ers and former NBA champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers Matthew Dellavedova. The national side will hope to get more from Aron Baynes too, who didn’t play much in the exhibition versus the USA.

It's a solid team that has threatened to win a medal at previous international competitions while falling frustratingly short of a podium at the 2019 FIBA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. This year, expectations are high and after putting 22 points on the USA, Mills is ready for the bigger games yet to come in Tokyo.

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Allisha Gray, USA (3x3)

Allisha Gray

Introduced to the Olympics for the first time this year, 3x3 Basketball is a fast-rising discipline with amateur and professional leagues throughout the world gaining popularity.

The great thing about the sport is that with fewer players on the court - teams are allowed four in total to account for one substitute - it reduces the gap between the USA, which is traditionally the best basketball nation, and the rest of the world. One player, however, will be showing up for Team USA: Allisha Gray.

She is a quiet person, but her on-court activity speaks volumes as Gray led a team of Kelsey Plum, Katie-Lou Samuelson and Stef Dolson during the qualifying tournament. Positions become a bit redundant in 3x3, but her shooting guard build and shot-taking mentality means she is the go-to scorer for this squad.

Samuelson is sadly a late scratch due to Covid-19 protocols so expect Gray to pick up the slack.

The 3x3 game is fast and exciting, lasting only 10 minutes or shorter if a team reaches 21 points. The moment the ball comes through the basket, it is live. Make sure you tune in to see who will win the first gold medal at 3x3, but if Gray has anything to do with it, the USA will be right there on the podium.

Gabe Vincent, Nigeria

Gabe Vincent

Some die-hard NBA nerds might be vaguely aware of Gabe Vincent’s contributions to the Miami Heat in the 2020-21 regular season, as he averaged 13 minutes and four points per game. But a casual basketball fan won’t have expected this late rotation role player to have outscored Kevin Durant and the rest of Team USA’s All-Star selections in a pre-Olympic warm-up exhibition last week.

Vincent might have carried the scoring, but there is a good group of Nigerians who have bought into the dream of turning the African country into a basketball powerhouse in recent years. Names like Ekpe Udoh, Precious Achiuwa, Josh Okogie and Chimezie Metu have been solid contributors to good NBA teams for years. The same can be said for the women’s game, which has attracted interest from a number of WNBA All-Stars.

But the men’s team already has the talent on its roster to take down the USA, and Vincent is a big reason why. He is a strong guard who embraces contact, can shoot, run an offense and finish layups with both hands.

Nigeria will be tough for any team to beat and if they can get a couple of good games from Vincent, the nation could well come away from Tokyo with a medal.

Ezi Magbegor, Australia

Ezi Magbegor

The rise of Australia as a basketball nation has been impressive, thanks to a balanced focus between the men’s and women’s games. The nation boasts arguably the most dominant center in the world right now in the London-born Liz Cambage, but she is a late scratch from the team.

However, one of the fast-rising stars in the same position is Ezi Magbegor. When Cambage was ejected during the Commonwealth Games in Australia - at which the country won gold - it opened the door for the then 17-year-old big. She offers something different to the group as a more versatile defender than Cambage and is quicker to get down the other end of the court on a fast break.

Magbegor currently plays alongside the best player in the world - Breanna Stewart - for the Seattle Storm in the WNBA, while also playing for the Melbourne Boomers in Australia’s professional league, where she finished on the All-WNBL Second Team in 2020.

Australia has a veteran squad that will aim for gold and after beating the USA in an pre-Olympic exhibition game, the trip to Tokyo could be an international coming-out party for Magbegor.

Emma Meesseman, Belgium

Emma Meesseman
Image: Belgian Cats' stars Emma Meesseman and Antonia Tonia Delaere celebrate with their bronze medals after defeating Belarus in the Third Place Game during the FIBA Women's European Basketball championships in 2021

While Ann Wauters might be the reason Belgium has become a country with a keen interest in basketball thanks to winning a championship with the LA Sparks, her protégée Emma Meesseman is the reason the team has become an international powerhouse.

Meesseman plays for the Washington Mystics in the WNBA and was awarded Finals MVP in 2019 when they won the championship, but she has also suited up for the club that dominates European basketball competition: UMMC Ekaterinburg.

She is a power forward but plays a lot at center, can pass the ball like a point guard and anchors one of the best defenses in international basketball.

Recent years have been promising and Belgium have come painfully close to breaking through into the top tier of FIBA tournaments, demonstrated by a fourth-place finish at the last World Cup.

This Olympics will likely be the final appearance for Wauters in the Belgian Cats uniform and her hopes to break through onto the podium will rest with Meesseman.

Marc Gasol, Spain

Marc Gasol

Pau Gasol is aiming to appear for Spain one more time after leaving the NBA behind in 2019. His hopes will rest on younger brother Marc Gasol still having the legs to make an impact on the international stage, despite he too being in the twilight years of a prestigious career.

If this is the last time they both pull on the red and yellow jerseys, it would be a beautiful end to a fantastic career with the Spanish national team. They have won World Cups and EuroBaskets, as well as multiple competitions with their hometown club Barcelona before they both joined the NBA and picked up championships there with the Los Angeles Lakers (Pau) and Toronto Raptors (Marc).

The one thing that eludes them is Olympic gold after winning silver twice.

The odds are stacked against them but after Marc led Spain to a World Cup win in 2019, they are, on paper at least, the team to beat.

This might be the nation’s best chance to beat the USA, as the traditional powerhouse doesn’t look as strong as previous incarnations. Gasol is still one of the best players on the team, while Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio was MVP of the World Cup win two years ago. There are also a few younger players in the group who are showing great promise to be future leaders, but the truth is they probably won’t dominate games. It will be more about using familiarity and chemistry, fluid teamwork and great passing to pull out all the stops.

Maybe, just maybe, the old guys still have enough for one more run at the top of the podium.

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