Australia, France making presence (and future) felt

— If Argentina — and, Spain, the other international program that has challenged U.S. hegemony in basketball the last decade — is transitioning to a new generation, there are other nations looking to make major inroads in basketball for the first time.

Australia has been on the periphery of international competition for a generation, but has yet to win an Olympic medal. The Boomers are determined to end that drought during these games, having clinched second place in Group A with a 4-1 record after defeating Venezuela on Sunday. Their only loss was a hard-fought 10-point loss to the U.S. men last week. Australia led at the half, the first time the U.S men had trailed in an Olympic game at halftime since 2004.

Australia’s had NBA players like Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova to build around the last few cycles, but it’s the future that’s most exciting. Young vets like Joe Ingles (Utah), Cameron Bairstow and Aron Baynes (both with Detroit) are already steeped in the national culture and playing for the Boomers.

Nicolas Batum, Tony Parker

Nicolas Batum and France finished 3-2 in preliminary round play.

The pipeline is rapidly filling. Australia’s Under-17 team won the silver medal at both the 2012 and 2014 FIBA Under-17 championships, the latter coming in a close seven-point loss to the U.S. team in Dubai. U.S. college coaches flocked to the country’s national development program, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), for Australia’s first national prospects camp, featuring up-and-coming talent like Tom Fullarton and Lachlan Dent.

And like Canada, another program that’s on the rise (but which, cruelly, can’t seem to get over the hump consistently and qualify for the Olympics), Australia is benefitting from an immigrant influx.

Forward Thon Maker, who was taken 10th overall in June’s NBA Draft by Milwaukee one year after he left high school, arrived in Perth with family members from Sudan when he was five years old. He learned the game in Australia before going to the States and Canada to play as a teenager.

Many years before Maker arrived, a guard named David Simmons came to Australia from Oklahoma City University. He played 12 seasons in the country for five different teams before becoming coach of the Hunter Pirates in 2003. His son, Ben, grew up in Melbourne and grew to a coordinated 6-foot-9. In June, Ben Simmons went number one overall in the NBA Draft, to the Philadelphia 76ers.

I think it’s been rising for a while. We’re certainly trying to make it so. We do have good juniors development at home. And certainly, our gene pool, to be crude about it, has really gotten interesting

– Australian assistant coach Luc Longley

Maker and Simmons didn’t really go through AIS, located in Canberra. The program, in existence since 1981, serves as the national umbrella entity that oversees boys’ and girls’ teams throughout the country, specifically with Olympic medal potential in mind. AIS is in the midst of a decade-long program called “Winning Edge” that seeks to develop multiple Olympic, Paralympic and world champions across the board by 2022.

Simmons was briefly in AIS before coming to the States as well for high school and a year at LSU. Point guard Dante Exum, the fifth pick overall by the Utah Jazz in the 2014 NBA Draft and another major hope for Australian basketball in the near future, was an AIS player.

Maker, Simmons and Exum are all in the national team pipeline, however. The hope for Australia is that the current team will still have enough tread on its collective tires by the time those three are ready. (Exum is rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered playing for Australia last summer, an injury that cost him the entire 2015-16 season.)

“I think it’s been rising for a while,” said Luc Longley, the former Chicago Bulls center during the second Chicago three-peat (1996-98), who is now an assistant coach for his country’s national team.

“We’re certainly trying to make it so,” Longley said. “We do have good juniors development at home. And certainly, our gene pool, to be crude about it, has really gotten interesting. We’ve got a lot of Sudanese kids. And the sons and daughters of the imports of the 80s are (some of) the first ones coming out. Cal Bruton (the New York native who starred as a player in the Australian Basketball League in the ’80s and then coached in the ABL for many years) came out in the early ’80s, and his son has come through and finished.”

Simmons and Maker have both committed to playing on future national teams. Simmons begged off playing in the Olympics this time around as he got his feet wet with the Sixers in Summer League play in July. It was a juggle for the Australian team with Bogut as well. The veteran center hadn’t played since spraining his left knee during Game 5 of The Finals against Cleveland in June while he still with the Golden State Warriors.

But he’s definitely brought some mass, some attitude, some bearing to our group. MJ did it with the Bulls in my experience, and even with MJ on the bench we all carried that, because he was around. Andrew does that with us. He’s so respected and he’s such a good basketballer.

– Australian assistant coach Luc Longley, on Andrew Bogut

“Simmons, I think, I don’t know what the details were, but I know he’s got a big job to do, and he’s probably taking that as his first priority,” Longley said. “I think he could have made the team, but he would have had to come to camp. We respect that decision. I was in some of those decisions myself with the Bulls, where I had to choose (between) the Olympics and what the Bulls needed me to do. I think we’d all be a bit naïve to see that we’d all make a decision in favor of the country. We support Ben in that.”

In the meantime, the current team is in the Olympic quarterfinals, one win from having a chance to get that elusive medal.

Bogut’s presence changes the entire team dynamic. He hadn’t played with the national team in seven years, having missed the 2012 London Games with injury. He warned his teammates before the game against the U.S. team not to be sappy and intimidated, like opponents of the Dream Team in 1992 were.

“The dynamics of the group are complicated, but it’s really clear what he’s brought — a degree of, confidence is not a good enough word, and arrogance is too strong,” Longley said. “It’s somewhere in there. There’s a few four-letter words we could use. You can use them. But he’s definitely brought some mass, some attitude, some bearing to our group. MJ did it with the Bulls in my experience, and even with MJ on the bench we all carried that, because he was around. Andrew does that with us. He’s so respected and he’s such a good basketballer. When he’s not playing and he’s sitting on the bench, it’s like having a fourth assistant coach … I’d never worked with him before and so I didn’t know what to expect, and I’ve been very impressed.”

Mills, an Aborigine, arranged for the team to visit Uluru, in Australia’s Northern Territory, in early July, just before the start of training camp for the Games, for several days of bonding and fellowship. The team also dedicated a basketball court for members of the Mutitjulu community, an indigenous Aboriginal people who live at the eastern end of Uluru, near a national park.

Nicolas Batum, Patty Mills

Patty Mills finishes strong against France in qualifying-round play.

Mills wanted his teammates to think about, as he put it, what it means to wear “the green and gold,” the Boomers’ colors. It is not guaranteed, but it is quite possible that the Aussies will play the Americans again here before the end of the tournament — in the gold medal game.

“Hopefully, it’s inspiring, the way we play, the style we play,” Mills said Saturday. “And the way we represent ourselves. It’s inspiring for other young Australians to want to be greater than we are now. That’s what it’s all about. I’ve said it before — I think this is the greatest team that Australia’s put together for an Olympic Games. And that’s what we should strive for each time — try to be better.”

While Australia tries to climb, France hopes to continue enjoying the view it has carved out for itself in the last half-dozen years.

France is enjoying its best run in international play in more than 50 years, coming off a bronze medal at the 2014 World Cup, which included a stunning upset and elimination of the host nation, Spain.

That followed France’s first FIBA EuroBasket championship, in 2013.

The team is in lockstep with the national development program, INSEP, and has been led for the last decade on the court by Spurs guard Tony Parker and his best friend and now-former teammate, Boris Diaw, traded to the Jazz last month.

France won the silver at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, though that tournament is more widely known in the States for what Vince Carter did to French center Frederic Weis during group play. Parker and Diaw have helped create new memories.

Both INSEP graduates, they have re-programmed the national team culture, taking the lessons learned from San Antonio and melding them with their own ball movement-centric skills. Along with former NBAer Mickeal Pietrus, they’ve formed the spine of the national team since 2005. Injuries helped limit Parker’s participation through a couple of cycles, but by 2011, he was healthy and helped lead France to a silver at FIBA EuroBasket in 2011. The 2013 EuroLeague title cemented their legacy.

“I think it would be raising Team France to the level that it is today,” Diaw said Sunday. “And it took a few years. It was not an overnight thing. It took a few years for teams to respect us and the way that we play. And so, the legacy is that, and the championships and the medals that we’ve won … I think the winning culture is there now. And that’s what we tried to pass along. That’s what we tried to bring. And I think that’s what we’re going to leave.”

But Parker and Diaw are now both 34, and former stalwarts like Joakim Noah and Ian Mahinmi are likely cycling out of national play. The search for new leaders has gone on for years.

“Today, it’s so obvious, when you have guys like Tony and Boris,” French Coach Vincent Collet said Sunday. “They are the captains of the team. For sure, it will be the main difficulty for French basketball, to build. But I think we have protection, a chance to do it. This will be most important if we are to be successful in the next couple of years.”

Every year, we try to win something, try to get a medal. This year, we’re trying win the gold. Every year is a great experience.

– French center Rudy Gobert

Said French forward and Charlotte Hornets swingman Nicolas Batum:

“Those guys have been huge for us for a while. We have so much respect for them. They’ve been our big brothers on the national team, and they’ve been winning with the Spurs for years now. I have such respect for those guys. We’re going to miss (their) leadership. I learned a lot every summer I played with those guys, about winning and stuff like that.”

There is serious talent on the current roster: a core group that includes Batum, Utah center Rudy Gobert, Nuggets forward Joffrey Lauvergne and former Spurs draft pick Nando DeColo. New Orleans forward Alexis Ajinca has taken part in international competition. (Collet, somewhat surprisingly, left Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier off the Olympic team, telling the website EuroHoops that he felt he owed it to the players who’d played for France in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Manila in July. Fournier, who’d played for France at the World Cup in 2014, did not play for France in that tournament, but neither did Gobert; the French didn’t need either as they defeated Canada in the championship game.)

“Every year, we try to win something, try to get a medal. This year, we’re trying win the gold,” Gobert said Sunday. “Every year is a great experience. There’s always some new guys. There’s always some guys who leave. So, right now we’re focused on this year, but next year, we’re going to have a few guys who retire (from national team play) and some more guys coming up. Every year is exciting.”

Playing without Parker (kept out in advance of the medal round after injuring a toe Friday), France still managed to drop 97 points on the U.S. team Sunday, falling by three. The Americans’ lack of defensive buzz has been the story of the last few preliminary round games, but France should get credit for what it did offensively, too.

Guard Thomas Heurtel, who played in the Turkish League for annual power Anadolu Efes, started for Parker and more than held his own against Kyrie Irving, with 18 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. DeColo also scored 18 for France, which finished 3-2 in pool play.

I think they have room to do great things. They are, the young guys, hungry and very talented. Hopefully they’re going to be able to carry on and to win big championships and get some medals. For sure, I think France is going to get some medals in the next few years.

– France’s Boris Diaw

“You saw DeColo and Heurtel tonight,” Batum said. “I think people in the U.S. don’t really know them. Those guys can really play. I mean, DeColo was the MVP of the EuroLeague, and Heurtel was the best prospect in EuroLeague, too. And we’ve got Rudy coming, and Lauvergne, and Fournier is pretty good, too. So, we have a lot of guys that have been drafted the last two years or so on good teams in the NBA. It’s going to be a different era, of course, but it’s still going to be good.”

As he is in Utah, Gobert is a major key to France’s hopes going forward. Big man play is different in international basketball than it often is in the NBA, but it is no less crucial. Gobert will never be a “stretch five.” His livelihood comes from his amazing defensive prowess in the paint and what he can put together in screen and rolls with his guards. If he continues his development, the French will continue theirs, even without their two stalwarts in future cycles.

“I think they have room to do great things,” Diaw said. “They are, the young guys, hungry and very talented. Hopefully they’re going to be able to carry on and to win big championships and get some medals. For sure, I think France is going to get some medals in the next few years.”

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Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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