For 30 years, the Australian men’s basketball team has been on the verge of becoming a truly elite powerhouse globally. In 1988, our men’s squad – known as the Boomers – placed fourth overall at the Seoul Olympics and followed that up by making the semi-finals in two of the next three iterations of the Summer Games. Spearheaded by Aussie legends like Andrew Gaze, Luc Longley and Phil Smyth, Australia fought into medal contention numerous times but were never able to secure a spot on the podium.
An influx of Aussie talent into the NBA – starting with the selection of Andrew Bogut with the first overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft – had many predicting Australia to finally break into the upper echelon of men’s basketball internationally. Bogut, in addition to fellow Aussie NBA players like Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Ingles, came brutally close to playing for a Bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics before a questionable call ended their tournament.
Fast forward to today, and Australia’s obsession with earning a men’s international basketball medal has never been stronger, nor have their chances ever been higher – with their next shot at a major title coming at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.
“A top three finish is expected and should be. I’ve spoken in the last 18 months with [Patty] Mills and [Joe] Ingles and [Dante] Exum and they’re all committed to playing. As is (Aron) Baynes. The team that got so close in Rio, it’s almost certain they’re going to play.”
In addition to the returning veteran players, Mallis predicts some of Australia’s young talent like Thon Maker, Jonah Bolden, and Exum will make up a large part of the team. The key though, Mallis says, will be the commitment of phenom Ben Simmons, who has yet to signal his intentions around the tournament.
“If Ben Simmons doesn’t play it’s going to be a really good team regardless,” Mallis explains.
“If Ben plays in China, though, I think it’s realistic for Australia to win that tournament. There is an argument to be made that Simmons could be the best player at that tournament with another 18 months of experience under his belt.”
Simmons, heralded as a generational talent, is currently producing a historic rookie season with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Aussie is putting up numbers matched only by the likes of Hall-of-Famers Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson while the Sixers currently look like making their first playoff appearance since 2012.
While the injection of young talent into a Boomers squad already featuring a plethora of accomplished players is certainly a good recipe for success, it’s not the only aspect Australia have going for them heading into the tournament.
Recently, Basketball Australia announced that the United States would be taking on the Boomers in two warm up games to be played in Melbourne prior to the World Cup. This move is just the latest in a slew of groundbreaking announcements made by Basketball Australia and NBL owner Larry Kestelman that included the crossover games between NBL and NBA clubs last year. These moves have both raised the profile of basketball in this country and provided the nation’s top players with more opportunities to develop.
“Imagine this happening even five years ago,” Mallis says when speaking to the work Kestelman and Basketball Australia have done to bring the USA team down under.
“The biggest thing that Larry has done is that he’s brought a commercial view and a commercial element to the sport. I know that that’s not something a lot of people want to talk about when talking sports. People want to talk about Ben Simmons dunking, or Joe Ingles shooting a three. Larry and Basketball Australia have taken the sport from where it was and accomplished significant growth. Now that they’ve done that, they can start reaching out and really shooting for the stars.”
The duo of Basketball Australia and Larry Kestelman have certainly been shooting for the stars, quite literally. Team USA will bring with them the most talented basketball squad to ever play on Australian soil outside of the 2000 American Olympic squad. However, the chances of the worlds greatest players like LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant featuring on the squad isn’t high.
“The odds of LeBron, Durant and Curry coming down here, in my opinion are slim to none,” Mallis says.
“We think these games are a big deal, and they are to Australia, but for someone like Steph and LeBron, it’s not on their radar.
“There’s all the talk about whether these superstars are going to come out and I think that conversation is missing the point a little bit. It doesn’t really matter who comes out for Team USA. It’s still most likely going to be a team of NBA players, and notwithstanding the 2000 Olympics, it will be the best basketball side that’s ever come to Australia. The exposure of those two teams playing each other is going to be huge.”
For three decades, the Australian Men’s basketball team have had several tremendously talented squads. Yet, no iteration of the team has ever joined our Women’s national team on an Olympic or World Cup podium. The United States, Spain, Argentina and numerous European powerhouses that have emerged over the last 30 years have always pipped Australia at the post.
That should change now, though. No more talk about Australia being the “next” big powerhouse. With the on-court talent deeper than it’s ever been — in combination with the excellent work Basketball Australia and Kestelman have done over the last five years – Australia is expected to be a basketball powerhouse now.
Proving it starts when the United States come to Melbourne next year.