The last time France played the United States on the international stage, Utah Jazz fans got a moment to remember.
The 2019 FIBA World Cup was in its knockout stages, and both France and the U.S. had progressed to the quarterfinal. The U.S. struggled somewhat in group play, but thanks to their talent, is always considered the favorite until they’re knocked out.
But in the final minute of the U.S. and France matchup, France held a tenuous 4-point lead. Donovan Mitchell got the switch he wanted, against Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert. He drove the lane — and Gobert got the critical block, sealing France’s upset win. It was the culmination of a 21-point, 16-rebound, 3-block performance for the Jazz’s big man.
Another France/U.S. matchup is the headliner of the Tokyo Olympic Games’ opening day of basketball play, taking place on July 25 — at 6 a.m. MT. This time, though, there won’t be a Jazz-on-Jazz collision at the rim, as Mitchell is skipping the Olympics in the wake of his ankle injury that cost him movement during the Jazz’s playoff run.
Gobert, though, will play, and he’s changing the roster makeup of other teams, as they try to deal with his threat. U.S. coach Gregg Popovich told The Athletic that Gobert’s presence in the competition explained Kevin Love’s surprise appearance on the roster.
“We thought he was a perfect person to play against people like Gobert to get them out of the lane,” Popovich told reporters Tuesday. “Spreading the court is very important, and depending on what happens, he could be very valuable.” Popovich also pointed out that there’s no defensive 3-second rule in the international game, giving an additional boost to Gobert’s effectiveness.
Gobert will be the headliner of the three Jazz players participating in the 12-team field, which are separated into three groups during early play. France and the U.S. figure to progress out of Group A (the Czech Republic and Iran are the group’s other two teams), but the two other Jazzmen are in Group B.
Joe Ingles has played for Australia for nearly his entire basketball career — his first Olympics was in Beijing, in 2008, albeit in a relatively small role. Since then, he’s expanded his game year after year, leading to his jump to the NBA in 2013 and then an NBA starting role a couple of seasons later.
Ingles figures to play a key playmaking role for the “Boomers,” especially with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons electing not to play in the Olympics as he focuses on improving his game individually this summer. Australia has still yet to win a medal in international competition, and their longtime core of NBAers Ingles, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Aron Baynes are aging — though Dante Exum, Matisse Thybulle, and Josh Green enter the Australian fray for their first Olympics.
Ingles will play against Nigeria on July 25 as well (at 2:20 a.m. MT) and could be matched up against one of his Jazz teammates. Forward Miye Oni is part of a well-balanced Nigeria squad with significant rotational NBA talent, and coached by former Lakers and Cavs head coach Mike Brown. Oni has been named to Nigeria’s 15-man roster, which will be trimmed to 12 ahead of the Olympics. Former Jazzman Ekpe Udoh also is an important part of Nigeria’s roster. Nigerian Jazz rookie center Udoka Azubuike wasn’t named to the squad.
But Italy and Germany both figure to be relatively quality foes for the Australians and Nigerians in Group B, with multiple NBA players around the roster.
Group C is talented as well, with Argentina, Spain, and Slovenia all having solid chances to advance alongside relatively uncompetitive Japan. Ricky Rubio will once again play point guard for Spain, dishing the ball to the Gasol brothers down low; Luka Doncic is Group C’s best player for Slovenia.
One surprise to not make the Olympics was Croatia — and Jazzman Bojan Bogdanovic. The Croatians relied too heavily on Bogdanovic during the Olympic qualifying tournament, as usual starting big men Ivica Zubac and Dario Saric stayed home with their NBA teams, the Clippers and Suns, in the Western Conference Finals. Bogdanovic scored 38 points in 19 field goal attempts in their qualifying tournament semifinal loss to Germany, but the team couldn’t defend the paint without their star big men.
Eight of the 12 teams will qualify through to the quarterfinals on August 3, with the semifinals on August 5 and the final on August 7.