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Fluctuating form and opportunities: Predicting the Tokyo Olympic Boomers
With the 2019/20 NBL season done and dusted, it's now time to turn our attention towards the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the games might be held later than we think.
In a March 23 statement, the Australian Olympic Committee said that "Australian athletes should prepare for a Tokyo Olympic Games in the northern summer of 2021." Regardless of when it will take place however, it's never too early to start predicting the potential Australian basketball squad, and here is a twelve-man roster if the games were to proceed in 2020.
On paper, this could potentially be the strongest Boomers squad ever, if the likes of Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle make themselves available. Add in Brett Brown, a returning coach with NBA experience, and the medal expectations are real. For the purposes of this piece, the assumption is made that all Australian players will put their hand up to wear the green and gold in Tokyo.
Ben Simmons hasn't worn the green and gold since his senior debut at the FIBA Oceania Championships, all the way back in 2013. He had just turned 17 at the time, meaning his allegiance was irrevocably tied to Australia.
Simmons' absence from the national setup is a disappointing tale for a dominant junior who played a major role in Australia's silver medal run at the 2012 FIBA Under-17 World Championships. Playing alongside childhood friend Dante Exum, Simmons made a name for himself on the world stage.
Just one year later, Simmons skipped the 2013 FIBA Under-19 World Championships to "work on his game for the next season". Little did we know that this would lay the groundwork for his future absences. With Exum leading the way, the Emus would go on to finish fourth without Simmons.
After making his senior Boomers debut in 2013, Simmons was in the mix for selection at the 2014 FIBA World Championships. Ultimately coach Andrej Lemanis opted for more experienced players ahead of the then-teenager, but Simmons wasn't happy. In a now-deleted tweet, he wrote: "Really disappointed didn't make the Worlds Team, Good luck to all the guys who did #grindtime". It's unlikely that the 6'10 point guard is harboring any resentment from his 2014 World Championship omission, but Lemanis' decision certainly hasn't helped his commitment to the national program.
Simmons disappointed many fans down under when he reneged on a commitment to represent Australia at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. The Boomers were left wondering what could have been, as they narrowly missed out on a medal yet again.
Now a two-time NBA All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons will be one of the first names on the team sheet if he elects to play. He is also enjoying arguably the best season of his young career, drawing plaudits for outstanding defensive play. Lemanis is now gone, and Brett Brown might just be the man to bring him back into the national fold. The one caveat, apart from coronavirus, is that Simmons is currently undergoing physical therapy for a back injury. There is no timeline for his return. Hopefully Simmons' health concerns won't impact on his Olympic commitment, and his Boomers' return will be worth the wait.
Patty Mills is a national treasure. He has been the Boomers' best player over the past decade, and should be the first name on the team sheet. In his fourth Olympics, the 31 year old would also be a worthy opening ceremony flag bearer for Australia - read more about this in Tony Cocking's piece.
Aside from his talent on the basketball court, which needs no explanation, Mills is a role model off it. He tirelessly dedicated his social media platforms towards bush fire awareness in December and January, and even visited country New South Wales during the all-star break. It would be fitting see Mills following in the footsteps of Andrew Gaze and Lauren Jackson as flag bearer in Tokyo.
When Mills puts on the green and gold, he goes to another level. The fleet-footed point guard has averaged over 20 points per game at each of his last three major tournaments - the 2019 World Cup, the 2016 Olympics and the 2012 Olympics. He could be the perfect complement to Ben Simmons in Tokyo, as an off-ball sharpshooter.
Mills also happened to be enjoying his best individual season in the NBA, despite the Spurs' struggles as a team. The 31 year old was averaging a career high 11.7 points per game while shooting 38% from beyond the arc. We may be yet to see the best of Patty Mills on the international stage, as the 6'0 point guard continues to improve.
Joe Ingles appeared in every major international tournament of the past decade and has been a pillar of consistency in a Boomers side that has evolved into a genuine medal contender. As he approaches his third Olympics, Ingles has shown mixed form with the NBA's Utah Jazz. The acquisition of Mike Conley has made life difficult for him, after starting all 82 games the previous year.
Ingles has unsurprisingly seen his numbers fall after adjusting to a bench role in the 2019-20 NBA season. Nonetheless, he displayed his class when Conley had a long injury layoff early in the season. The 6'7 swingman averaged 14.4 points and 5.8 assists per game for the month of December, while shooting an astonishing 53% on three-point attempts. That was arguably the best month of his career, but the good times wouldn't last forever.
Conley made his inevitable return, and Ingles had to get used to his 6th man role yet again. On a positive note however, Jinglin' Joe's December form proved that he was still the same player. Perhaps the Olympics will rejuvenate the 32 year old, as he takes on a larger role with the Australian national team. If the Boomers are to medal, Ingles will undoubtedly be a key contributor.
Patty Mills has only missed one major tournament for the Boomers since 2008. Want to guess who was the best Australian player in his absence? None other than Aron Baynes.
The 'Big Banger' was the standout Aussie at the 2014 World Cup, and has only improved since then. He was a revelation just last year at the 2019 World Cup, revealing a new and improved shooting stroke that extended all the way to beyond the arc.
Baynes attempted a total of seven three-pointers throughout the first five years of his NBA career. Then, all of a sudden, he shot 21 treys in the 2017-18 season for Boston. Only three of them went in, but the progress was key. The 6'10 centre then attempted 61 three-pointers in the 2018-19 season, making 21 of them (34.4%).
Baynes then took this new-found three ball to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, where he absolutely torched France in the second round. The big man did his best Stephen Curry impersonation, nailing five of six three-point attempts as the Aussies narrowly won by a score of 100-98. He would go on to finish the tournament with a 52.4% clip from downtown, with 21 attempts in just eight games.
Baynes' interior presence has never been questioned. He is an imposing figure in the paint, and doesn't shirk the physicality of a rebound battle or a post up play. However, it's his three-point shot that has taken his game to another level. With Deandre Ayton suspended at the start of the 2019-20 NBA season, Baynes became one of the league's breakout players. He averaged 15.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists each night for the month of November. The big man also shot 56.1% from the field, while making 44.7% of his shots form beyond the arc.
The Celtics' decision to trade Baynes to Phoenix was a blessing in disguise. Ayton's misfortune became the Queenslander's gain, as he was thrust into the spotlight. However, Ayton eventually came back, and Baynes struggled with injuries. The 33 year old played limited minutes off the bench throughout January and February. Nevertheless, he received another opportunity when Ayton was sidelined in early March, and took it with both hands.
On the 7th of March, Baynes broke the scoring record for Australians in the NBA. He torched the Phoenix Suns for 37 points, while adding 16 rebounds to boot. The Big Banger poured in nine three-pointers en route to those figures, a feat Stephen Curry would be proud of. Baynes' talent is undeniable - the only thing holding him back in the NBA is a lack of opportunity and minutes. With the Australian national team he is virtually a certain starter at the Olympics, and hopefully that brings out the absolute best in Aron Baynes.
Jock Landale has emerged from almost nowhere to become one of Australia's premier big men in the past four years. After an inauspicious start to his collegiate career at St. Mary's, Landale exploded in his junior year, becoming a double-double machine. The Victorian capped off an outstanding senior year before taking his talents to Europe.
Landale's form with Serbian powerhouse KK Partizan in the 2018-19 season earned him a Boomers jersey at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. He didn't disappoint, averaging 6.3 points and 3.4 rebounds off the bench. Similar to Baynes, Landale has worked tirelessly to develop a three-point shot. The big man attempted a touch under two threes each game at the World Cup, making 46.7% of them. Landale's form has carried over to the 2019-20 season, where he has tasted EuroLeague action with Lithuanian heavyweights Žalgiris Kaunas .
In the EuroLeague, the 6'11 centre was averaging 11.0 points and 4.4 rebounds in just 20 minutes per game for Žalgiris. He is an important piece of the Boomers' future, given that Andrew Bogut turns 36 this year. Landale may even be in line for a starting berth at the next Olympics - the 5th spot in largely up for grabs assuming Simmons, Mills, Ingles and Baynes are all available. It'll be interesting to see whether Landale and Baynes can play together. As both players have developed their jump shots to the point where they offer genuine spacing, it could be an intriguing combination.
The Pick and Roll confirmed in January that Matisse Thybulle is an Australian citizen -see Kein's article here for more on this. Thybulle moved to Sydney at age two and lived there for seven years, before returning to the States. He is now one of the standout rookies in the NBA, playing important minutes on a team that was destined for the playoffs.
Thybulle's strengths lie in his work off the ball. He is already one of the league's premier perimeter defenders - players guarded by him shoot just 28.4% from beyond the arc, as per NBA player tracking. The 23 year old projects as a 'three and D' player, although his jump shot is still a work in progress. Thybulle connected on 35.2% of his three-point attempts this season; a reasonable figure for a rookie.
Given his tenacity on the defensive end, Thybulle has the ability to contribute immediately to the Boomers. This is what truly sets him apart from other shooting guards. He may be the perfect off-ball player on a team with playmakers such as Ben Simmons, Joe Ingles and Patty Mills.
Matthew Dellavedova has been a staple of the Boomers lineup since the London Olympics. He delivered his finest performances at the Rio Olympics in 2016, averaging nine points and seven assists per game. The 6'3 point guard then played a key role in Australia's semi-final run at the 2019 World Cup, logging over 30 minutes each night on average.
Unfortunately, Dellavedova has struggled throughout the 2019-20 NBA season. He developed a new jump shot motion over the 2019 off-season, but it hasn't paid dividends as of yet, the Cavalier making just 23.1% of his three-point attempts. Given his experience, playmaking ability and defensive hustle, Delly will be one of the first players picked for the Australian Olympic side. However, his starting spot may be in jeopardy.
Andrew Bogut was absent from the Boomers setup for seven years, largely due to a string of unfortunate injuries. He returned in 2015 and has been a mainstay ever since, making up for lost time. The 7-footer was one of Australia's best at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where the Boomers narrowly missed out on a Bronze medal. Bogut averaged 9.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 76% from the field.
The 2019 NBL MVP is still a nightly double-double threat, as he has demonstrated with the Sydney Kings. The 35-year-old will be playing in his fourth (and probably final) Olympics if he can get his body across the line. He is still the only Aussie to make an All-NBA team, a feat accomplished in 2010, and a medal at a final Olympics campaign would be a great way to end a career.
Ryan Broekhoff missed the World Cup last year due to the birth of his child, and will be looking to re-enter the Boomers fold ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. He was an integral bench presence at he 2016 Olympics and 2014 World Cup, playing close to 20 minutes per game at both tournaments. Unfortunately he was waived by the Dallas Mavericks in February, but the 29-year-old proved that he belonged in the NBA.
Broekhoff shot over 40% from three-point range throughout his 59-game NBA career, meaning he could be a valuable off-ball sharpshooter for the Boomers. On a team with several playmakers - Ben Simmons, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Ingles to name a few - Broekhoff could be the missing piece to the puzzle. If he impresses on the Olympic stage, the 6'7 swingman may yet earn an NBA recall.
Nick Kay was one of the few NBL players to receive significant game time at last year's FIBA World Cup. He didn't look out of place either - the 6'9 power forward was immense in Australia's semi-final defeat, logging 16 points and 11 rebounds against Spain. The Perth Wildcat is now coming off an impressive NBL season, where he was an integral player for the 2019-20 champions.
Like Baynes and Landale, Kay has made his three-point shot a priority. He shot 49.5% form beyond the arc this season, while making a career-high 2.9 three-point attempts per game. The three ball adds an extra string to Nick Kay's bow, as he is already an adept rebounder and interior scorer. Having made a strong case to retain his Boomers jersey throughout the 2019-20 NBL season, Kay is odds on to make the Olympic roster.
After trying his luck in the G League, Mitch Creek was rewarded with two ten-day NBA contracts in 2019. He later earned a Boomers call-up for the FIBA World Cup, playing limited minutes off the bench as Australia finished fourth. Creek returned home for the 2019-20 NBL season, representing the newly-created South East Melbourne Phoenix.
The former 36ers stalwart thrived as a marquee signing for his new team. He averaged a career 20.2 points, in addition to 7.3 rebounds. Creek also made an effort to develop his outside shot, tripling his three-point attempt rate from his previous NBL season. Although he only made 35% of his shots from downtown, Creek's intent is encouraging. He has only solidified his standing within the Boomers, and deserves to return for the next Olympics.
The twelfth man on the Boomers roster is unlikely to see any significant game time. For instance, David Barlow, Cam Gliddon and Nathan Sobey virtually didn't play at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, despite being named in the twelve-man roster. Josh Green is projected to be a first round pick in this year's NBA draft, and the Olympics may be the perfect introduction to the Boomers for him.
Even if he is called upon to play, Green has plenty to offer. He is an NBA-level defender, and could hence be a key off-ball player like Broekhoff or Thybulle. Green's three-point shot is a work in progress, but nevertheless this is a player who will hopefully be a part of the Boomers for many years to come. The sooner Green is welcomed into the setup, the better.
Australia's G League brigade - The likes of Isaac Humphries, Deng Adel and Jonah Bolden will be a part of the national setup for a long time. However, they have not shown enough growth or form in this particular season to warrant a Boomers call up. Also, in Bolden's case, he may have burned some bridges by walking out on the Boomers prior to the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Dante Exum and Thon Maker - Exum and Maker are perhaps unlucky to miss out, given that they are NBA players. However, both players logged limited minutes this season, and neither player has demanded a call-up with their form. Maker is largely surplus to requirements, given that Australia's frontcourt depth includes Baynes, Bogut and Landale. In Exum's case, he could err on the side of caution anyway, considering his injury history.
Aussies in Europe - Mangok Mathiang and Brock Motum have been plying their trades in Europe, and Mathiang in particular has been a star in Turkey. Both could make a valid case for inclusion, with Mathiang a possible replacement for Bogut should he not pull through, while Motum's ability to stretch defenses with his shooting should not be underestimated.
NBL representatives - Cam Gliddon, Nathan Sobey, David Barlow were part of the twelve-man Boomers squad at the World Cup last year. However, they would probably be the first players to make way if the Boomers are at full strength. Chris Goulding has significant international experience, but Josh Green's youth and NBA prospects give him the nod, especially given that the twelfth man is unlikely to see much game time.