Way-too-early Olympic predictions: Who will qualify and who will impress in Tokyo?
MIES (Switzerland) - There is plenty to look forward to in 2021, but the Tokyo Olympics and FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments will certainly be the centerpiece of the international basketball calendar.
We have invited FIBA writers Julio Chitunda, Igor Curkovic, Sajjatam Kulsomboon and Jeff Taylor to share their thoughts and predictions for the busy summer ahead.
Before you put your expert hats on, what is one BOLD prediction you would make for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments set to take place in Belgrade, Kaunas, Split and Victoria?
Igor Curkovic: Coach Aco Petrovic and Brazil will do the damage against Aco's homeland Croatia in Croatia. It would be the most Croatian thing ever, to go and disappoint in a tournament they are hosting, and it would also be the most Aco thing ever to get his guys to stick together more than ever and win as outsiders or underdogs in the tournament.
Jeff Taylor: The gloves are coming off! Canada will come out of the Olympic wilderness. Why is this bold, you ask? Because Canada's men are really the great underachievers in international basketball the past two decades. They have all things "under" when it's come to the big moments. They have underwhelmed, underperformed, underachieved while often times being understaffed (i.e, some players haven't shown up for duty). So yes, this is a bold prediction. They'll finally get it right in 2021, with coach Nick Nurse, and beat Greece in the Final to reach Tokyo.
Julio Chitunda: Who wouldn’t love to watch a Slovenia vs Lithuania clash battling it out in any competition? If you love basketball, then save a few hours of your personal plans to follow this must-watch matchup. And as much I admire the Lithuanians' basketball passion (let’s not forget that basketball is the number one sport in the country), I predict Slovenia to steal the show in Kaunas and grab that one ticket for Tokyo.
Hosts of these four Olympic Qualifying Tournaments will face tough challenges, and I truly believe that there will be a few more upsets along the way. Not just in Kaunas, but also in Split, where I see Aco Petrovic's Brazil beating his native Croatia and finish as winners of the group.
Sajjatam Kulsomboon: I'd personally love to see China make it out of Victoria as victors, but that might be a bit too much to hope for considering their group. My bold prediction, however, is that they will do much better than what everyone expects out of them against the likes of Canada and Greece. Everyone has already brushed them aside since the OQT draw, but I think they have potential to be more than just "that other team".
When push comes to shove, which four national teams do you see qualifying for the Men's Olympic Basketball Tournament?
Igor Curkovic: Hoping for Croatia, obviously, but I'm going to say Brazil; Canada; Slovenia; Serbia.
Jeff Taylor: Other than stepping out on a limb and picking Canada, I like Lithuania, Serbia and because of the Aco Petrovic factor, Brazil. Petrovic pulled all the right strings in 2016 at the helm of Croatia and I'm guessing that he is relishing the prospect of trying to prove he'll be the best coach at the OQT in Split.
Julio Chitunda: As much as I would love to see African teams (Angola, Senegal and Tunisia) qualify, I have to be realistic and pick Slovenia, Brazil, Canada and Serbia.
Sajjatam Kulsomboon: Everyone seems to agree that Serbia and Brazil are favorites in their respective tournaments as well as Canada, who I'm selecting at the expense of denying China their 10th straight Olympic berth. For the OQT in Kaunas... I'm taking the home team Lithuania with a heavy heart as that would mean we won't get to see Slovenia (and Luka Doncic) in Tokyo. If this ends up being the wrong pick and Slovenia emerges out of that OQT, I'm counting myself as a winner anyways.
Yes, we know the field is yet to be completed… But which player would you be most excited to see play in Tokyo?
Igor Curkovic: Damian Lillard. Not even close. Even better, Dame and Steph Curry together. If that happens, I don't even care about the games, I'm streaming their practices and putting them in a game of HORSE. Loser can only shoot from right behind the three-point line in the games, no logo shots.
Jeff Taylor: Any player that wears a Nigeria shirt. Seriously, the high-flying Josh Okogie.
Julio Chitunda: If I may pick three players rather than just one, I would say, Australia's Patty Mills, Facundo Campazzo of Argentina and Jayson Tatum of USA. And between the three I am more inclined to Campazzo, who I believe will rule the Tokyo Olympics. And, by the way, Campazzo's recent signing with and NBA team was long overdue.
Sajjatam Kulsomboon: Watching Facundo Campazzo throughout the entire FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 was a joy and I'm more than happy to go through that experience again at the Olympics. But you know what? I can't resist a good storyline which means I am pumped to see what Rui Hachimura will be able to do. He's the cornerstone of Japan basketball's future and will be playing in his first Olympics ever in front of his hometown crowd. Sign me up for every single second of this, please.
Pau Gasol in 2008, Patty Mills in 2012, Bojan Bogdanovic in 2016. Who will top the scoring charts in 2020?
Igor Curkovic: Bogdan Bogdanovic or Evan Fournier. Bogdan, if Serbia make it to the Olympics. Evan, if Serbia fail to reach the event in Tokyo, so that there's still hope for me once the actual tournament starts, because France are already in.
Jeff Taylor: Australia are already in, and they have arguably the greatest scorer in international basketball the past decade in Patty Mills. So he's my pick.
Julio Chitunda: Patty Mills again. He is in his prime, he knows international basketball well, and Tokyo 2021 will just be the confirmation of how much it means for him to play for Australia. If Australia don't take gold, at least, Mills takes the top-scorer 'award'.
Sajjatam Kulsomboon: Rui Hachimura will have two years of experience playing in the NBA by then. The whole country will be lining up to fill up the seats and watch him in action. The talent is there, the motivation is there, and the additional edge of playing at home with the support of the crowds right behind him in the stands is there. I'm in the driver's seat of this bandwagon and ready to put the pedal to the metal by predicting Rui Hachimura as the leading scorer in Tokyo.
It's time for the big question! Who will win gold in Tokyo and who will round out the podium?
Igor Curkovic: USA will win gold. Australia will make the podium. And one more important lesson I learned in my years of following international basketball: always predict Spain to reach the podium. Always. So, USA, Australia and Spain on the podium.
Jeff Taylor: This Olympics will be the most wide open since 2004. The basketball gods would not be so cruel as to deny Pat Mills and Joe Ingles a spot on the podium of a major event, would they? Yes, I think they might. I envision a repeat of 2016, with the USA, Serbia and Spain finishing first, second and third.
Julio Chitunda: One thing is the US with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and LeBron James on board, and another completely different is the US without them three as we could see at the World Cup last year in China. If KD, Steph, and LeBron are available for Tokyo 2021, it will be USA for gold, Australia to take silver and Argentina take home bronze. Otherwise, it will be Australia, Argentina and France.
Sajjatam Kulsomboon: This depends a lot on which stars Team USA will be bringing to the party, but it just feels like they aren't about to follow up a mediocre seventh-placed finish at the World Cup in 2019 with anything less than a gold at the Olympics. To round out the podium picks, I'm sticking with Spain for silver and Argentina for bronze because I haven't found a reason to doubt the two World Cup finalists just yet. Sorry, Australia.