Before you check out Part 2, make sure to go back and look through part one!
Today’s preview covers the bottom half of Group B: Lithuania, Croatia, and Nigeria. Let’s get into it.
Lithuania – The third FIBA ranked team is coming off of five straight victories in their preparation for the Olympics, two of which came against world number two Spain. Lithuania is led by three NBA players: Jonas Valančiūnas, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, and Domantas Sabonis. Valančiūnas, the starting center for the Toronto Raptors made his debut for the Lithuanian junior team in 2008, averaging a double-double (14.3 points per game, and 11.1 rebounds per game), and was named the MVP of the tournament. Jonas is one of the top international players in the NBA and one of the best big men in the league; he is without a doubt the top player on the Lithuanian National Team. Mindaugas Kuzminskas just signed his first NBA contract on July 9, 2016 with the New York Knicks. Kuzminskas, at 6’9″, has great size for a small forward and has been receiving NBA interest since 2011. He shows a solid three point stroke, averaging nearly 38% from three over his EuroLeague career. Mindaugas Kuzminskas won’t see a lot of playing team in his first season for the Knicks, but has the talent to carve out a nice NBA career. Power forward/center Domantas Sabonis, at just 17 years old, was the youngest player to ever play in the ACB, the Spanish basketball league, and the second best basketball league in the world. Sabonis never signed a contract for his team, Unicaja Malaga, in order to keep himself eligible for the NCAA. Domantas played two seasons for West Coast Conference powerhouse Gonzaga, and was drafted into the NBA 11th overall by the Orlando Magic, before being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sabonis has the potential to be a fantastic big man in the NBA. A team with some quality talent and good team chemistry; Lithuania has a great chance to medal in this Olympics.
Croatia – Despite a relatively bleak basketball history, Croatia is just now starting to see a light at the end of the international basketball tunnel. After not qualifying for the 2012 Olympics, 12th FIBA ranked Croatia fought hard in order to ensure themselves a spot in Rio. This young roster is highlighted by three young, talented NBA players: small forward Bojan Bogdanović, big man Dario Šarić, and wing Mario Hezonja. Bogan Bogdanović has had a largely successful first two NBA seasons. Bogan signed a three year contract with the Brooklyn Nets in July of 2014, and since then has averaged 10.1 points per game and 25.3 minutes per game. Bogdanović is also hitting 37% of his shots from three. He has played for Croatia since joining the Under-16 team in 2005. Šarić was drafted 12th overall in the 2014 NBA draft and has spent the last two seasons playing overseas. He will make his debut for the 76ers this upcoming season. Dario was named the unanimous MVP of the 2010 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship, even becoming the second player to ever register a triple-double in that tournament, after Ricky Rubio in 2006. Šarić was named the MVP of the qualifying tournament that Croatia took part in to qualify for Rio. The final young star for the Croatian national team is former 5th overall pick, Mario Hezonja. After playing in his native Croatia, Hezonja signed a contract to play for top ACB team Barcelona at age 17. In 2012, he was nominated for the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year Award, which was eventually won by Jonas Valančiūnas. Mario was drafted by the Orlando Magic in 2015. For his country, Hezonja was named MVP of the FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship; he also represented his senior team at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Croatia is going to have a tough time in their group, but they still might be able to finish in the top three of Group B and be able to move on to the knockout stage.
Nigeria – FIBA Africa Champions Nigeria have come a long way since joining FIBA in 1964 and will be represented by some quality NBA talent in Rio. That being said, the 25 ranked nation still has a long way to go. Headlined by guard Ben Uzoh, forward Al-Farouq-Aminu and guard Michael Gbinije, Nigeria will still be an interesting team to watch when August rolls around. Former NBA guard Ben Uzoh hasn’t played in the NBA since 2012, but has since resurfaced for the Laos Islanders of the African Basketball League. Uzoh is a big 6’3″ guard who might just be the strongest, meaning literal strength, guard in Rio outside of anybody for the United States. Ben Uzoh was on the Nigerian squads that took part in the 2013 and 2015 Afrobasket tournaments. Al-Farouq-Aminu is, without a doubt, the most accomplished player on Nigeria’s roster. While he hasn’t lived up to his potential, the eighth overall pick has still had quite a decent six year NBA career. Aminu represented Nigeria at the 2012 Summer Olympics as well as at the 2015 Afrobasket, where he was named to the All-Star Five. Finally, Nigeria will be relying heavily on the talented Michael Gbinije in Rio. Despite having an injury scare recently, it appears as though Gbinije will be representing Nigeria in the Olympics. Michael Gbinije is a newcomer to both the NBA and the international basketball scenes. He played all four years at ACC powerhouse Syracuse, leading them to an unlikely Final Four birth in 2016; he was drafted 49th overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 2016 draft. Gbinije played for Nigeria for the first time in 2015 at the Afrobasket Championship. Nigeria is going to have an extremely tough time making it out of their group in Rio.