With doubts surrounding the invincibility of USA basketball at Tokyo 2020, attentions now turn to those who might step up and create a storyline of their own.
The United States basketball teams have long been an indomitable force in the Olympic arena.
Ever since NBA players were invited into the fold back in 1992, the USA men's team have been relentless.
In the same vein of supremacy, the U.S. women’s basketball side boast a winning streak stretching as far as the 1996 Atlanta Games. They are undefeated in 49 Olympic encounters.
With both teams hunting a seventh Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 in 2021, disrupting the world order, and beating Team USA is the dream of the rest of the world.
US basketball: signs of decline?
But there is a growing sense that the USA is no longer the dominant force it once was. A shadow of doubt lingers around the U.S. basketball camps.
In exhibition games held in Las Vegas ahead of Tokyo, the men suffered shock defeats at the hands of Nigeria and Australia before then bouncing back with wins over Argentina and Spain.
The women’s team fared no better. Eyebrows shot up in surprise when the U.S. Olympic team lost against the WNBA All-Stars and Australia. They rebounded to defeat Nigeria (93-62) in their last warm-up fixture, but questions remain.
Add into the mix the absence of big basketball names such as NBA All-Star Stephen Curry and two-time Olympic champion LeBron James, who both opted out of the men’s Olympic team, and then those that are injured (Kevin Love and Anthony Davis), could it all mean that the country's grip on the Olympic basketball gold medal might now be loosening?
If the U.S. are unable to hold their position at the centre of the podiums, there are those all too gladly waiting in the wings ready to steal the spotlight for their own.
Here are seven names that will be looking to rise to the challenge of Tokyo 2020 in 2021 and pounce on any opportunity to make their own Olympic basketball history.
1 - Marc Gasol - Spain
Marc Gasol is a man on a mission. After being twice denied an Olympic gold medal at the final hurdle in 2008 and 2012, and then missing Rio 2016 due to a broken foot injury, the Spaniard is ready to capitalise after years of waiting.
The 2.11m tall centre, who currently plies his trade in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers, knows what it takes to perform on big stages. In 2019, he became the second player ever to win the basketball World Cup and an NBA title in the same year. After winning the NBA championships with the Toronto Raptors, Gasol went on to help his nation lift the world cup in People’s Republic of China.
2 - Gabe Vincent - Nigeria
Nigeria’s Gabe Vincent caught the world’s attention when he led his country to a shock win over Team USA (90-87) in a pre-Olympic warm-up exhibition game in Las Vegas.
In what was the first ever win by an African nation over the U.S. men, the 25-year-old led all scorers with 21 points, ahead of two-time NBA champion Kevin Durant on 17 and Jayson Tatum on 15. Perhaps more impressively, Vincent sunk six three-pointers to help his team to an historic victory.
The Miami Heat guard is one of a handful of Nigerians that have transformed the hopes of the nation heading into the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, under coach Mike Brown.
3 - Emma Meesseman - Belgium
Emma Meesseman will lead Belgium's women in their first ever basketball appearance at the Olympic Games after victory against Sweden in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament guaranteed them a place in Japan’s capital.
From unranked in 2016 to Olympic contenders in 2021, it’s been a remarkable journey for the Belgian Cats and pulling the strings all the way has been Meesseman.
The 28-year-old is not only a WNBA champion with the Washington Mystics but in 2019, she was also awarded Finals MVP. And when the Belgian is not competing in the WNBA, she continues to play in Europe, with tremendous success. The 1.93m power forward has won the EuroLeage four times (2016, 2018, 2019, and 2021).
4 - Patty Mills - Australia
Patty Mills is sure to be a name to look out for on the floor in Tokyo. The Australian, who will be his country’s first Indigenous Olympic flag-bearer at the Olympic Games Opening ceremony, poses an enormous scoring threat. In Australia’s second ever victory against Team USA, Mills was the top scorer with 22 points in the 91-83 upset in Vegas.
With his contract at the San Antonio Spurs now up, Mills will have to leave his NBA fate to one side when he begins his bid for a gold medal. Another distraction Mills will have to lay to rest is the “Boomers’” recent run of missing out on medals in international competition. At Rio 2016, Australia's men finished in fourth, and then again fourth at the 2019 Basketball World Cup three years later.
5 - Ezi Magbegor - Australia
The Games without Liz Cambage won’t be easy for the Australian Opals, but with rising basketball star Ezi Magbegor in the roster, the women's team from Down Under still present the U.S. with an enormous headache.
The 1.93m 21-year-old, who competes in the States for the Seattle Storm, already has the experience of an WBNA championship under her belt. When the Opals took on Team USA in Vegas Magbegor did not hesitate to rise to the challenge. The centre led the all scorers list with 17 points, five rebounds, and three steals.
Although Cambage may have left big shoes to fill when she departed Vegas mid-way through the exhibition games, there can be no doubt that Magbegor is primed and prepped to show all those watching the Olympic Games what she is capable of.
6 - Luka Doncic - Slovenia
When Luka Doncic announced that a gold medal with Slovenia would mean more to him than an NBA championship his Olympic intentions were noted.
Then when the Dallas Mavericks star put in a triple-double performance to assist his country to its first ever Olympic berth in the final of the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament, the world realised that 22-year-old Doncic and his teammates were a serious threat.
Getting Slovenia to Tokyo is just the first step in the 2018 NBA Rookie of the Year's plan for Tokyo 2020. The next is pushing for a medal in what will be his Games debut.
7 - A'ja Wilson - USA
While their scalps might be worth their weight in gold, the U.S. women's have their own hungry young talent itching to make a name for themselves. The women's team will be counting on six Olympic debutantes to help them fend off the challengers that lie in wait.
A'ja Wilson is one of the fresh faces hoping to help play her role in defending the USA's gold medal alongside veterans Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.
The 24-year-old, who stands at 1.93m tall, has been working on developing her game with WNBA side the Las Vegas Aces. The power forward has averaged 19.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in her last four seasons, and with her country expecting only the very best, the 2020 WNBA MVP is well poised to deliver.