For many NBA fans, Olympic basketball is essentially a forum for eye-popping highlight reel plays featuring the best American players. But a wider lens captures some fun surprises, as when Team Russia used Timofey Mozgov, who is best known for being dunked on by Blake Griffin, to batter the Brazilian big men for 18 points on Thursday.
The Olympics allow NBA fans to get to know some lesser-known foreign talents and an opportunity to view international NBA players from another perspective. While many would be bit-players in the NBA, in the Olympics they get to be the stars of their native teams.
In his Olympic diary for ESPN New York , Tyson Chandler gives his theory on why players like Mozgov look so much better on the international stage:
We're playing against a lot of fellow NBA players, but when they're playing for their country, they're not the same players. Even though they're great players in our league, they become even better players for their own country because they have the confidence in their team and they're featured much more in the offense. They're also playing by the rules that they're accustomed to.
On their international teams, some players get every chance to succeed, and do. They may not be household names to casual NBA fans, but in London they are swimming in royal jelly.
Here are four players taking advantage of their opportunities in London.
Alexey Shved (Russia)
The 6-6 guard has been the most exciting non-American player in the tournament, dazzling with deft ball handling and creative passes. He leads the Olympics in assists and his mastery of the pick-and-roll is outstanding for a 23-year-old player. Not only does he have all the skills to be effective -- a pull-up jumpshot, slick handle, great vision -- he really knows how to use a screen. He’s patient and will gladly smash his defender into a screen a couple times before he gets the angle he wants. The downside is that he’s almost equally bad at defending pick-and-rolls. Shved will play next season in Minnesota, where he is sure to become a fan favorite even as his turnover totals mount.
Luol Deng (Great Britain)
The All-Star forward primarily occupies a supporting role with the Chicago Bulls, but on Great Britain he is the go-to scorer. Deng is, along with Pau Gasol, one of two players in the Olympics leading his team in points, rebounds and assists. It’s interesting to see Deng running off of double screens along the baseline and attack from called isolations in the middle of the floor. Deng has largely delivered, although at times awkwardly, and the experience of being successful in this role may serve him well as the Bulls begin next season without their preferred offensive focal point, Derrick Rose.
Andrei Kirilenko (Russia)
After leaving the NBA to return to Russia, Kirilenko is turning in an all-time "Remember me?" performance -- making his two-year, $20 million contract with Minnesota look reasonable. At times before he left Utah, Kirilenko looked sluggish and disinterested. But with his countrymen beside him, he’s been the rangy, slashing, two-way force that made him an NBA All-Star. The Russian national team’s Princeton-informed offense involves plenty of passing and cutting, and Kirilenko has looked great catching on the go then performing a quick move to reach the basket. That’s great news in Minnesota, where coach Rick Adelman runs similar sets.
Marcelo Huertas (Brazil)
Huertas is a fantastic passer and pick-and-roll expert. Though Brazil has not been sharp thus far in the tournament and Huertas' own shooting has been off, he is still averaging seven assists to just two turnovers per game. In the NBA, Huertas would be an excellent backup point guard. He organizes the game well and handles pressure expertly. When Brazil allows him to explore the court with his dribble, good things happen.
Also worth noting: Argentina. It’s impossible to choose between Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola (who are second and third, respectively, in Olympics scoring thus far), Carlos Delfino and Andres Nocioni because what makes watching each one so fun is his teammates. After close to twenty years together they know how to pass and move together. Though the athleticism isn’t there anymore, Argentina still plays a beautiful game and individually, Ginobili is still a wizard. As a bonus, Argentina offers an advanced look at Pablo Prigioni, who will be suiting up for the Knicks next season.