Wherever a superstar’s talent lies, success on the basketball court usually follows. And no one brings out superstars like USA Basketball.
Still, it takes more than big names to win. The US men’s national team learned the hard way at the FIBA World Cup this summer after a disappointing fourth place finish with a team that had no international experience on the roster.
The powers that be appear to be wasting little time addressing that issue ahead of the 2024 Olympics. LeBron James, like The Athletic reported, he has a strong interest in committing to the US team for next summer and he is already recruiting other stars, such as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Anthony Davis and Draymond Green to join him. With players like Devin Booker, Kyrie Irving, De’Aaron Fox and Damian Lillard also showing interest in committing, next year’s US team could be one of the most star-studded basketball teams ever graced the Olympic stage.
However, there is one more name the Americans must secure to ensure this group is ready for the 2024 Olympics: Bam Adebayo.
With all the star power the United States can muster, adding players who can complement those stars and bring out the best in them should be a top priority. Adebayo, who was the starting center on the team that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, exemplifies that mentality with his selfless style of play and versatile skills at the center position. He may look small on paper at 6-9 and 255 pounds, but his strength and intelligence make him a tough matchup for any big hoping to attack him 1-on-1. Most importantly, he brings two attributes that the US FIBA World Cup team lacked this summer: interior defense and rebounding.
While the Americans should be able to overwhelm their opponents on the perimeter, they lack options in the frontcourt to a surprising degree considering their talent base. In reality, the great men of other nations have been the ones who have flourished. in recent years. Each of the last five NBA MVPs (Joel Embiid once, Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo twice) have been awarded to big men who were not born in the United States. Depending on which countries qualify, the 2024 Olympics will be a chance for the rest of the world to show how far they have come beyond the United States in developing elite big men.
Knowing the challenge lies ahead, Adebayo is the ideal piece to ensure that other countries do not pressure the United States as easily as they did during the FIBA World Cup.
In its first loss of the tournament, the United States was outrebounded 43-27 by a Lithuanian team that didn’t even have Sacramento Kings All-Star Domantas Sabonis in the lineup. Two games later, Germany scored 113 points in their semifinal victory against the United States, shooting a spectacular 57.7 percent from the field. Even with reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. roaming the paint, teams had no trouble getting what they wanted against the United States. The Americans gave up at least 110 points in each of their three losses.
Those two teams could be back on the US road next summer, along with several others. Germany has already qualified for the Olympics by winning the FIBA World Cup 2023. Serbia, which earned a spot in the Olympic field as FIBA World Cup runners-up, is on track to win back Jokić next summer. If the Lithuanians qualify for the Olympics, the combination of Sabonis and Jonas Valančiūnas could give them one of the most potent attacking duos the United States could face next summer. Americans may also see Karl-Anthony Towns (Dominican Republic), Antetokuonmpo (Greece) and/or Kristaps Porziņģis (Latvia) if those teams win one of the four remaining bids in the field.
That’s without even mentioning the most important threat to the United States and the biggest complicating factor for Adebayo himself: France.
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As things stand, the French team will play at home with an attacking zone that could feature Victor Wembanyama and Rudy Gobert, which is quite formidable on its own. But another big question mark could dramatically change the dynamic.
Embiid, the reigning NBA MVP, has dual citizenship in the United States and France. He could play for either nation, but he has yet to choose which one, if any. There will undoubtedly be countless people on both sides trying to convince Embiid to play for them.
Their decision could ultimately determine Adebayo’s fate with Team USA. If the U.S. can get Embiid and Davis on the roster together, they may decide there is enough size and talent in the frontcourt to deal with with any team in the world. However, if Embiid decides to join France, possibly with Wembanyama and Gobert, he would form one of the greatest forward trios in Olympic history. Adebayo’s presence would be necessary just for the United States to stay in the paint against a team of such size. But his skill set is useful even if Embiid commits.
The gradient from Adebayo is steep. Jackson is next in line, but he struggled at the FIBA World Cup. While Myles Turner, Jarrett Allen and Nicolas Claxton all bring specific traits that could help Team USA, none of them possess Adebayo’s complete package of skills, toughness and experience.
Adebayo can defend any center in the world 1 on 1 and put up a decent fight. He’s also agile enough to get out to the perimeter and defend smaller players on switches, a necessary trait in coach Steve Kerr’s switch-based defensive scheme. While Jackson may hold the crown for the NBA’s best shot blocker, Adebayo’s defensive intelligence and physical presence undoubtedly make him one of the toughest defenders at the position. Jackson has more physical talent, but Adebayo has a better understanding of how to play in the center position, particularly in international play. Taking on this type of role would be an easy transition for Adebayo considering he did so in 2021, when he won his first gold medal with Team USA.
Adebayo has also done well in lineups with another center, who the United States may have to turn to during certain stretches in Paris after not going that route frequently at the FIBA World Cup 2023. Although Miami often uses Adebayo as its only big man, he has also thrived sharing the frontcourt with players like Meyers Leonard, PJ Tucker and Kelly Olynyk in recent years.
Unlike other center options, Adebayo could team with Davis in hypothetical Olympic lineups to give the United States an additional defensive presence without holding others back. Both are able to run in transition and climb the perimeter in a way that very few people at their position can. If both go to Paris, Kerr won’t have to worry about potential dual lineups sacrificing the speed or athleticism that has become a core part of Team USA’s identity.
With the amount of collective experience that many other nations bring to these international tournaments, it is critical for the United States to have players who can adapt on the fly and defend at a high level within various schemes. That kind of versatility on both ends of the floor is central to Adebayo’s identity and his way of life with the Miami Heat.
But above all, their physical and mental strength is what this team needs heading into a tournament in which several opponents will feel emboldened by the FIBA World Cup to put pressure on the United States in a way they have never been able to do in previous years. Even if Embiid decides to play for Team USA, the Americans will need someone like Adebayo to bring the physical toughness and mental maturity needed to thrive in a difficult environment.
Adebayo isn’t just a good option for Team USA to follow. He’s a necessity if the Americans want to withstand some of the strange looks they’ll face. The perimeter skill and otherworldly athleticism they will likely have in 2024 should be enough to overwhelm most opponents. bBut beating the best in the world in Paris will require a certain level of focus and physicality that most NBA players only know if they have competed at the highest levels of international competition.
Adebayo has been there and done that on the Olympic and NBA Finals stages. He has shown that he can be the star of a winning team and the complementary piece that helps a star become great.
The 2024 Olympics are the ideal opportunity for him to demonstrate the extent to which his greatness is based on his willingness to do all the little things necessary to win at the highest level.
(Photo: Stephen Gosling/Getty Images)
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