LONDON (Olympics) - As another summer of international basketball draws to a close, we thought we would discuss some of the players having taken the five continental championships by storm and who, bar injury, will carry the hopes and dreams of their countries at next year's Olympics.
One way of taking a look at the top players from this summer’s men’s continentals is to come up with an All-Star Five team, uniting the best players from all five tournaments. With MVPs having been named for four of the tournaments, the first four players on our list are Juan Carlos Navarro (Spain) for Europe, Luis Scola (Argentina) for the Americas, Yi Jianlian (China) for Asia and Saleh Mejri (Tunisia) for Africa. For the FIBA Oceania Championship, which did not elect an overall MVP, our vote goes to Patty Mills (Australia).
Thirty-one-year-old Juan Carlos 'la Bomba' Navarro made pretty much all of Spain's opponents' lives a misery scoring just under 19 points per game, much of which came his inch-perfect three-point shooting, which was arguably the best of any player in the world this summer. Navarro peaked whenever his team needed him to, peaking as the tournament reached crunch time. Especially memorable were his displays in the Quarter and Semi Final against Slovenia and FYR of Macedonia in which he scored 17 and 19 third quarter points respectively.
Another veteran having been red hot this summer is Luis Scola. In a record-breaking 2010 FIBA World Championship, Scola was unanimously elected to the All-Star team in spite of Argentina only finishing fifth. In a 2011 team that saw the addition of Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni, Scola remained Argentina's go-to guy as he finished the tournament’s top scorer, averaging 21.4 points per game. In the final, Scola poured in 32 points against Brazil to help Argentina reclaim the continental title that has eluded them for a decade, in front of a jubilant home crowd.
Asia's answer to Scola is Yi Jianlian, who was also the main man in his team reclaiming the continental crown in front of a massive home support following a painful period of drought for Chinese basketball. Yi secured five double doubles - averaging more than ten in both points and rebounds - as the Chinese went all nine games undefeated. The Chinese reclaimed the title off Iran, who had triumphed on the two previous occasions. Like Scola, Yi kept his best for last as he clocked up 25 points and 16 rebounds to overcome Jordan for gold.
Another big man having had a huge summer is 2.17m Salah Mejri, who was instrumental in Tunisia winning their first ever Afrobasket title. The little known 25-year-old, who plays his club basketball for the Antwerp Giants in the Belgian league, was dominant throughout the tournament. His 12 defensive rebounds in the final (from a total of 15 on the night) restricted the Angolan scoring machine to their lowest points total in the tournament, helping carry his team to victory. The win ended Angola’s 12 year total dominance of African basketball and qualified Tunisia for a first ever Olympic Games.
While not having picked up an official MVP award, Australia’s Patty Mills proved yet again that he ranks among the best point guards in international basketball as he helped mastermind Australia’s whitewash of New Zealand. Mills arrived on the big stage at the Olympics in Beijing as he scored 22 and 20 points against Argentina and eventual winners USA. It is difficult to believe that Mills is still only 23 years old. He was voted best player of this summer’s series opener with New Zealand during which he scored 20 points and seems to be embracing his status as team leader. Still improving as a player but already an established leader of the Boomers, Mills showed he will be Australia’s key player when they travel to London next summer.
The prospect of seeing these five players take to the courts in London next summer is mouth-watering. But let’s not forget that the USA with the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant did not compete this summer, that thanks to their teams’ qualification players such as Tony Parker and Leadro Barbosa will almost certainly also make it to the Olympics. And then of course there are players such as Andrey Kirilenko, Linas Kleiza and JJ Barea who, if their teams qualify, could all also be setting London’s two Olympic basketball venues alight.