Olympic Preview: Part 2

Olympic Preview: Part 2
Aug 13, 2004, 01:00 am
The Olympics will soon begin, but too often we are told that people cannot become suitably excited because they simply do not know half the players playing. is here to correct this by providing you with thorough breakdowns of the teams participating in this year's games. We will provide you with the nation's brief basketball history, a breakdown of the players playing this year, and what is expected of them. In part 2 of this series we look at Argentina, Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania, and Puerto Rico.


By Luis Fernandez

Argentina was one of the founding members of the FIBA organization in 1932 and the winner (playing the final against USA) of the first ever World Championships in 1950 in their capital, Buenos Aires. The leader of that team and the best scorer of the tournament was Oscar Pillin Furlong (6-4, born in 1927), probably the first Argentinian basketball legend, truly an all-around player who recieved NBA offers from the Lakers, Bullets and Warriors, but prefered to remain as an amateur. He led a very good generation of Argentinean players to their best Olympic result so far, fourth in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and to the silver medal at the Pan American Games of 1951 and 1955. In 1957, the players of the world champion team, Furlong included, were declared proffesional because they had recieved a car as a reward for their triumph. That was a big hit for basketball in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires. Indeed, the game has usually since been more important outside of the Argentinian capital, with Bahía Blanca or Córdoba as some of the basketball sanctuaries. Argentina never recovered their top level international status until recent years.

During the Eighties, some very good Argentinean players emerged, like SG Hctor Pichi Campana (6-1, born in 1964), a player with an amazing winning character; the very talented PF Hernán Montenegro (6-9, born in 1966) who was the first Argentinian player ever drafted (57th of the third round by the Sixers in 1988), but who spoiled his career because of his bad head; or the very complete PG Marcelo Milanesio (6-2, born in 1965), who lead Argentina to the gold medal at the 1995 Pan American Games and to their last Olympic appearance in 1996, finishing in ninth place. Enmanuel Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto, Luis Scola, Andrs Nocioni and Juan Pepe Sánchez are the best examples of the great level of this fantastic current generation, many of them having completed their development in the various European leagues. This generation of International stars has brought Argentina to the forefront of the basketball world. The silver medal at the 2002 World Championships, including the first ever win over a NBA US Team, has been the main accomplishment so far. The way the NBA got caught sleeping with the scouting and drafting of this generation of outstanding players has now caused Argentina to become a frequent stop on the routes of International scouts.

(thanks to Iganacio Ferrer for his help in this first chapter)

Argentina's team has enjoyed tremendous stability from its members during the past few years. The core of this team has barely changed. You will even find 6 members of the national team that attended the 1998 World Championships on the current roster. The leader of the team is flashy Emmanuel Ginobili (SG, 6-6, 27, San Antonio Spurs), a great scorer, defender, passer and almost anything else you want from him. The main presence around the basket is Fabricio Oberto (PF/C, 6-10, 29, Pamesa Valencia), another great passer with a very good post-up game. The director on the floor is Juan Pepe Sánchez (PG, 6-4, 27, Unicaja Málaga), a classic pass-first point guard. Andres Nocioni (SF, 6-8, 24, Chicago Bulls) gives intensity, scoring and rebounding for the team. The starting five is usually completed with Ruben Wolkowyski (PF/C, 6-10, 30, Olympiakos), a big man with three point range. Barring injury, Sánchez, Ginobili and Oberto have a starting spot for sure. The other two could be changed depending on the matchup and how they perform.

From the bench, the key pieces right now are Luis Scola (PF, 6-9, 24, TAU Vitoria), a great offensive minded player thanks to his low-post game, mid-range jumpers and who performance-wise, should be a starter. Alejandro Montecchia (PG, 5-11, 32, Pamesa Valencia), is the three-point specialist of the team. Among other players that could be very important down the road is Hugo Sconochini (SG, 6-4, 32, Lottomatica Roma) who brings veteran leadership. Carlos Delfino (SG, 6-6, 21, Detroit Pistons), is a newcomer on this squad and one of the most talented Argentineans, who is still in the fitting process. Walter Herrmann (SF, 6-8, 25, Unicaja Málaga) is the other rookie on this team; he enjoys great scoring and rebounding potential.

The word ‘team' reaches its full significance when talking about this squad. These guys can play together with their eyes closed. Their ball movement probably won't be matched in Athens. They have some great passers, especially Sánchez, Manu Ginobili and Oberto (who is particularly important for generating multiple options for his team from the paint) and they excel playing without the ball. This is a team that can easily score inside, with Scola and Oberto, or from the perimeter, using the most reliable shooter Montecchia, but with practically anyone (big men Scola and Oberto aside) capable of hitting treys. Delfino, Nocioni and especially Ginobili, among others, are capable of breaking defenses with penetrations to create open shots for the rest or just to slash the basket. This team can play half-court or transition ball equally well. The offensive options are plenty, so to stop them is quite difficult. Argentina is the most physical team besides the US squad, also enjoying great athleticism. They are very intense, and that's reflected on their very good defense. This is a mature team, with very experienced players at the peak of their careers. It's the right moment for them.

The inside game is rather thin, with just Oberto and Scola as reliable pieces, and Wolkowyski struggling in the exhibition games. This issue gets worse considering that both Oberto and Scola are foul prone. That's probably the main danger for this team; therefore it wouldn't be strange to see Nocioni or any other small forward play some minutes at the four spot. Besides, they're not particulary tall and may suffer when trying to stop players like Duncan, Ming or Gasol, although their intensity usually makes up for the lack of inches. Also, despite the chemistry that most of these guys have together, the fluidity of their game suffers a lot when Ginobili, Oberto and Sánchez are not on the floor. Another small detail will be Sanchez's shooting. He's a player who barely tries to score. If he doesn't hit some jumpers, it could make the rival's defensive assignment much easier.

After the success at the World Championship in Indianapolis two years ago, great things are expected out of this team. Argentina lost the final there with some questionable calls made by the referees and it really led to a sense of disappointment after such a great tournament. I think the goal of winning the Olympics to overcome that dissappointment is in the mind of every Argentinian, although getting a medal would be enough for a country without much of a precedent at this competition.

I personally think Argentina will get a medal and the options to win it all are realistic. I would put only USA ahead of them when speaking of favorites. It would be good news for many basketball fans around the globe as this team is a pleasure to watch.


Sebia and Montenegro

By Davor Nincic

Serbia and Montenegro is a country with a huge basketball tradition and a history of success at international competitions. To be fair, though, a lot of this success came during the time of former Yugoslavia, which consisted of the now independent countries of Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. That Yugoslavia started its domination in 1970 by winning the World Championship held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and didn't let up until the country's breakup in the early 1990's. During that period it won 3 World Championships (1970, 1978, 1990), 5 European Championships (1973, 1975, 1977, 1989, 1991), as well as an Olympic gold in 1980, hence becoming the only nation other than the USA and the USSR to win that championship.

Since the national senior team started competing in 1947 it won numerous silver and bronze medals, which would be too long of a list to name, but let me just give you the numbers won until the nation's breakup:

-European Championship: 5 silver, 3 bronze medals
-World Championships: 3 silver, 2 bronze medals
-Olympic Games: 3 silver, 1 bronze medals

However, this team will not include the countries listed above, and will compete as Serbia and Montenegro. S&M in its current state started competing again after the UN sanctions were lifted in 1995. In its first competition back, S&M won the European Championship, and defended that gold in 1997. We won the bronze in 1999, only to reclaim the gold 2 years later. 2003 was a rest year for many of the standard national team players such as Bodiroga, Tomasevic, etc. so Serbia went to the European Championships that year with its C team, finishing 6th, but with no consequences for the 2005 competition, because it is going to be held in Belgrade and it qualified automatically as the host.

Serbia and Montenegro also won its first World Championship after the sanctions, winning it all in 1998 and then successfully defending that gold in 2002, which included an elimination of NBA players that led Team USA in the quarterfinals, as well as a memorable finals win versus Argentina.

At the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, Serbia won the silver medal, only losing to what was still Dream Team USA, led by Shaquille O'Neal, Olajuwon, Malone, Stockton, Barkley, etc. but keeping the score close for the first 30 minutes of that game. The Sydney Games in 2000 are probably the only blemish of the national team since its return from sanctions because of a 6th place finish.


Miloš Vujanic – he has been called one of the best PG's in Europe, leading the Euroleague in scoring in 2003 and leading his team to the Euroleague final in 2004. He's a shoot first, pass second PG whose NBA rights are held by the Phoenix Suns (originally drafted by New York in the 2nd round of the 2002 NBA Draft).

Vule Avdalovic – Vule Avdalovic is a career backup PG, playing behind Vujanic while he was still in Partizan, and last season behind Gerald Brown, whom NCAA fans might know from his days at Pepperdine. He's a defensive minded PG with senior national team experience, playing the European Championship last summer.


Vlado Šcepanovic – after a rather brilliant half season with Partizan in the Serbian domestic league, the Federation had to ask for a special exemption to make room on the roster for him because he wasn't on the original 40 man roster sent to the IOC back in the spring of this year. Why wasn't he on that roster? He had a serious back injury that forced him out of his contract in Italy and required surgery; hence no one expected he'd be national team ready by summer. He proved them all wrong with a wonderful playoff performance, which included a buzzer beater for the title and a playoff MVP trophy. He's a sweet shooting, offensive minded guard who should get minutes backing up Bodiroga.

Aleksandar Pavlovic – the fact that Jim Paxson and Paul Silas traded away a future 1st round pick to have him play alongside Lebron next season should speaks volumes about his potential in the NBA. He probably surprised many by making the team and perhaps won't have as big a role as he'd expect on it, but he'll still be a valuable asset for Obradovic to consider from his bench.

Igor Rakocevic – Igor revitalized his career with Red Star Belgrade after a season lost on the Minnesota Timberwolves' bench. He played a brilliant season domestically and in the Adriatic League, showing quickness and maturity people didn't think he had before. Igor signed a new contract with Spanish perennial contender Pamesa, where he'll team up with teammate Tomasevic. He's likely to share PT at both PG and SG spots, and will likely guard opposing team's quickest player. He was Serbia's best player on the floor in the recent exhibition game played versus Team USA in Belgrade.


Dejan Bodiroga – long called Europe's best player, Dejan Bodiroga provides winning mentality that can't really be replaced. Best evidence of this is the World Championship final versus Argentina, when he brought the team back from 10 down with just 4+ minutes to go. He has won virtually everything there is to be won in Europe, and has been an NBA draftee for 9 years now, taken in the 2nd round of the 1995 draft by the Sacramento Kings. Rudy Tomjanovich tried several times to woo him to Houston, but instead Bodiroga chose to be the star in Europe, rather than a role player in the NBA. It is this writer's biggest regret in all of basketball that he never gave it a go in the league. He is neither quick, nor athletic but possesses a basketball IQ that more than compensates for his faults. He is the captain and the leader of this team and it'll be his play that will in large determine how well the team does in the Olympics.

Vladimir Radmanovic – now an established player in the NBA, Radmanovic is one many (especially in Seattle) expect to break out soon. He was a 2001 lottery pick, and possesses a 3pt shot which will be very valuable to the team. He hasn't been very effective on defense, but will now get the chance to play the position he has always wanted to play—swing man.


Predrag Drobnjak – Peja Drobnjak is a sweet shooting big man with a knack for rebounds in international basketball. He came up through Partizan and went on to have a solid career in Turkey before coming to Seattle in 2001. After a solid sophomore season there, the Los Angeles Clippers signed him to a 3 year contract, but he didn't have a big role in coach Dunleavy's system. He will probably remain known as the first player the expansion Charlotte Bobcats ever acquired. Coach and GM Bickerstaff felt that he never received the chance he should've, and he was going to give it to him in Charlotte.

Dejan Tomaševic – Dejan Tomasevic has been considered among Europe's best PF's for a while now. He had a long and extensive career in the domestic Serbian league, winning titles with 3 different teams and constantly defending himself from the pressure of proving his game in other, more rich parts of Europe. He finally left to Tau Ceramica in Spain and then moved onto Pamesa, where Igor Rakocevic will join him next season. He recently became just the 3rd player in Spanish ACB league history to record a triple double, which should tell you a little bit about his ability to pass from the post. He has a wide body and a solid frame, but quickness will be an issue when he's defending the more agile big men.


Ã?uro Ostojic – Djuro Ostojic once again surprised everyone by making the team, even though I suspect he'll have a big role on it. I say once again because he unexpectedly made the European Championship team last summer amid all the cancellations, which had been his first experience with the national team. Djuro was the starting PF on the Partizan team which is a 3 time national defending champion. He was also the team's emotional leader, and its fiercest paint player in the absence of the hurt Nenad Krstic (see below). On talent alone, he probably doesn't make the team, but coaches love his will and hustle on the court.

Nenad Krstic – Nenad Krstic only played half a season this past year, but he proved his worth during the time he spent on the court, winning many games in the domestic league with his late game heroics. Nenad was draft in late 1st round of the 2002 NBA Draft by the New Jersey Nets, and he recently signed a 3 year contract with them. Nenad broke his foot at the end of the 2003 season, which forced him to miss the European Championships last year. After healing it, he broke his hand on a play late in the game, and hence was forced to miss the playoffs, but Partizan had a future 1st rounder waiting to replace him—Kosta Perovic.

Petar Popovic – Petar Popovic broke out this season, especially in the playoffs. He's an incredibly offensively gifted C, but one has to wonder if he's big enough to defend elite big men on the opposing side. He has incredible footwork and a sweet touch from almost anywhere in the paint. Petar was the starting C on the Hemofarm team which reached the finals of the Serbian playoffs this season, and is best known as the guy that replaced Darko Milicic on it.

Who is this team missing?

The most obvious question once a person looks over this roster is: where is Vlade and where is Peja?

Starting off with Vlade Divac, he retired from international competition following the World Championships in Indianapolis in 2002. Nonetheless, he's still claiming the last game he ever plays will be for the team that launched him in the NBA—Partizan Belgrade. Whether or not this will be an exhibition or an official game remains to be seen. It should be noted that Vlade already is an owner of 2 Olympic silvers: one from Seoul in 1988 and one in Atlanta in 1996.

Peja Stojakovic got onto what appears to be coach Obradovic's bad side. He claimed he couldn't make it to the start of camp, which happened in late June, due to prior commitments, which included a Vlade and Peja ran basketball camp in Sacramento, as well as military service duties in Greece, whose dual citizenship he owns from his days in PAOK. The earliest he could join the national team was in early August, or right around the Diamond Ball tournament and the game versus Team USA, but was willing to work with a personal trainer in the meantime. This was unacceptable to coach Obradovic, who claimed a player couldn't possibly miss 40 days of camp and be ready for a competition such as the Olympics. Whether or not a less than ready Peja would be more valuable to the team than no Peja at all remains to be seen.

Marko Jaric sustained a foot injury at the end of the last NBA season, which forced him to end it on the IL. Following the advice of the LA Clippers' doctors, who told him he'd be more ready for the NBA season if he didn't play, he chose to skip the Olympics.

European great PG Aleksandar Djordjevic (who served a stint with the Trailblazers in 1996) played a terrific comeback season in Italy after a voluntary year off from basketball. The only reason he did return to basketball, however, was so he could retire from it during the European Championships in from the home crowd in Belgrade in 2005, so that, rather than these Olympics, remains his ultimate goal. He was still willing to play, however, had he not had an operation on an injury which nagged him throughout the season.

Now Clippers' C Zeljko Rebraca miscommunicated with team officials. Formerly coach Obradovic's favorite from their days in Benetton and Panathinaikos, where they won numerous titles, he claimed that he'd be ready from his back injury at some point during the camp. Team officials claim he told them he wouldn't be ready at all, so that means someone misspoke in that communiqu. Either way, Rebraca, even though he could be valuable, will not participate.

Young C prospect Kosta Perovic was actually put on the 18 man roster which was scheduled to come to camp and fight for a final spot. It was decided, however, he would be more valuable to the under-21 team which played the Global Games in Dallas and the European Championship this summer (that team, coincidentally, played horrific at both competitions).

Former 2nd overall pick, Darko Milicic broke his thumb in the final minutes of Game 5 of the NBA Finals in a play involving Brian Cook. His hand was still in a cast once the camp started, so he couldn't participate as a result of it. Darko, however, still showed up for the start of camp as a show of willingness to play for the national team, therefore winning some points back in the eye of the public after choosing to miss last year's European Championships so he could "prepare better for the lifestyle in the US."

Other people who were on that 18 man roster, but didn't make the final cut include Phoenix F Zarko Cabarkapa, who apparently lost a spot to a big man (probably Ostojic). Apparently, Obradovic had decided the swing positions were taken care of.

PG Goran Jeretin played alongside Igor Rakocevic in Red Star Belgrade's backcourt this past season, but apparently lost out to Vule Avdalovic's experience from last year's European Championships.

G Milan Gurovic, one of the heroes of Serbia's win versus Team USA in the quarterfinals of the World Championships in 2002, had sustained a head injury during his season in Serbia. He had been fine until the Diamond Ball tournament, when head migraines returned and he was deemed unfit to go to the Olympics.

Former Piston C Ratko Varda, and Serbian Barkley F Dejan Milojevic were the first cuts despite what coach Obradovic called an excellent effort.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Obradovic is known to play to his team's strengths, rather than forcing a system of his own on just whatever players. He is known as a hard nosed coach with a great drive to succeed and 5 Euroleague titles with 4 different teams in a 10 year span are proof enough of his willingness to adapt. This particular team will be guard oriented, with Bodiroga, Vujanic, Radmanovic and Rakocevic taking the bulk of the shots. Dejan Tomasevic will consistently get his and I suspect Nenad Krstic (who's expected in the starting lineup, alongside Vujanic, Bodiroga, Radmanovic, and Tomasevic) will get his share of attempts with his back to the basket. This will be a very good rebounding team, with Tomasevic, Krstic, and Drobnjak all having good hands inside. This team also has a wealth of excellent outside shooters, which could make playing zone against them very risky business.

However, the biggest question mark of this team remains its defense. Coach Obradovic, in perhaps what was a purposeful tactical move, refused to show zone to his counterpart Larry Brown in the friendly game on August 6th, but he has great knowledge of it nonetheless and will go to it at the first sign of man to man trouble. With Rebraca (who at one point during his career had the nickname of Bananaman, which referred to a slang term for a blocked shot—banana) gone, there isn't a pure shot blocker on the team, and should opposing guards get by the perimeter defense, they might have an easier time scoring under the basket.

Another concern regards the ability of PG Milos Vujanic to control the tempo of the game and make sure that everyone gets involved in the flow of the offense. Vujanic isn't known for his outstanding playmaking ability and also has shown serious problems staying in front of opposing players on defense. If he has a bad shooting game on top of that, S&M will be in trouble.

Gold is something that our basketball national teams have spoiled us with, and I suspect many are secretly hoping for such a development this time around as well, which would preclude a celebration of 200,000 people or more in front of Belgrade's city hall. I would suspect however, that any medal would satisfy people's tastes, especially if a solid effort was shown, considering the players the team is missing. Anything other than a medal is likely to be considered a failure in the public eye.

Coach Zeljko Obradovic, in his last press conference before Athens, said that considering Serbia as gold favorites would be laughable at this point. We have many problems in our game, but will try to hide that with tactics and the players' effort. It's up to them to show the biggest will and seriousness on the court.


By Marius Nevedomskas

Basketball was brought to Lithuania in the 1920s by ethnic Lithuanians, re-immigrating from the United States. Since then, it has firmly grown roots and has been the national sport of the country ever since.

The small country managed to become European champions twice prior to World War 2 (in 1937 and 1939), before being incorporated into the Soviet Union. The absolute leader of the Lithuanian NT at those times was Frank Lubin (Lithuanian: Pranas Lubinas), a Lithuanian American and member of the golden USA Olympic team of 1936, who came to the country of his origins to represent it on the basketball court.

During the Soviet period, Lithuania produced a considerable amount of talent for the USSR NT. The Lithuanian influence was most notable in 1980s, when 3 or 4 members of the Soviet starting five would often be Lithuanians.

The country got its chance to take the stage as an independent nation in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Since then, the most notable achievement by Lithuania has been bronze medals in all the Olympic Games (Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000).

The country's participation in the European championships has been a mixed affair. Right after the bronze medals of Barcelona-1992, Lithuania failed to qualify for the 1993 European basketball championship in Germany, which meant that it automatically missed the World Championship in Canada in 1994.

Next year, however, Lithuania made a strong run at the Eurobasket-1995 in Greece, being defeated in the final by the resurgent Yugoslavian team and taking the silver medal.

The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta was the last event where the legendary generation of Sabonis took part (as said before, bronze medal was won then). The leaders of the NT since 1992 -- Arvydas Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sarunas Marciulionis -- retired and let the younger generation take over.

There followed a transitional period when Lithuania looked more or less an average-strong European basketball country, never going for medals at Eurobasket-1997 and World Championship-1998 (but beat non-NBA USA team in group stage). In Eurobasket-1999, the young guns were joined by A. Sabonis for one very last try, and the team looked like one of the favorites, but was undone by a shock defeat to Spain in the quarterfinals.

Hence, 1997-1999 could be considered a period of consolidation of a new team. This finally brought results in the Sydney Olympics of 2000, where Lithuania started from the position of an underdog and went on to take bronze medals again, giving a scare to the USA NT in the now famous semifinal game.

Lithuania sent virtually the same team to Eurobasket-2001 in Turkey, and the expectations were very high. This turned out to be a most disappointing tournament for Lithuania. Generally, the poor showing is attributed to inadequate preparation and fatigue of the team, although the matter is always open for discussion. Lithuania played sluggish throughout the tournament and was duly eliminated by the minnow neighbors Latvia in the quarterfinal.

This meant that yet another World Championship -- Indianapolis 2002 -- had to be missed.

The latest international tournament -- Eurobasket-2003 in Sweden -- has probably brought the biggest glory to Lithuanian basketball, as the team went through all the competition in style, defeating their opponents with a flashy, attacking and quick style of basketball, taking its tally of European gold medals to three.

This is the roster of Lithuania for Athens-2004:

# 4 -- Vidas Ginevicius, PG, 6-4, Zalgiris Kaunas
# 5 -- Mindaugas Zukauskas, SF, 6-8, Montepaschi Siena (Italy)
# 6 -- Arvydas Macijauskas, SG, 6-4, Tau Ceramica (Spain)
# 7 -- Saulius Stombergas, SF, 6-8, Ulker (Turkey)
# 8 -- Ramunas Siskauskas, SF, 6-6, Benetton Treviso (Italy)
# 9 -- Darius Songaila, PF, 6-9, Sacramento Kings
# 10 -- Donatas Slanina, SG, 6-4, Caja San Fernando (Spain)
# 11 -- Eurelijus Zukauskas, C, 7-2, Ulker (Turkey)
# 12 -- Ksistof Lavrinovic, PF, 6-10, Ural Great (Russia)
# 13 -- Sarunas Jasikevicius, PG, 6-4, Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel)
# 14 --Dainius Salenga, SF, 6-6, Zalgiris Kaunas
# 15 -- Robertas Javtokas, C, 6-10, Lietuvos Rytas

The starting PG will be Sarunas Jasikevicius, one of the best guards in Europe. This guy is the livewire of the Lithuanian team. He is an absolute wizard in attack and he has a superb knack for crazy assists. He also has a good shooting touch and can sink some bombs from three. The guy is also the most charismatic member of the team, lighting it up with his fiery character. The downside of S. Jasikevicius is mostly his defense. He is not the most athletic and active defender you will find, and defending opposing PGs can create some problems for him.

At the SG and SF positions, Lithuania basically can alternate between three players in its starting five. There is Arvydas Macijauskas, who plays as a pure SG, Ramunas Siskauskas, who can take SG or SF duties, and Saulius Stombergas, a taller and stronger SF.

Arvydas Macijauskas was long known in Lithuania for his deadly shooting touch, but only became famous in Europe after his superb performance in Eurobasket-2003. He is a real prototype of a pure shooter and got his nickname "Kalashnikov" for that. Although he has worked on his other qualities, Macijauskas lacks athleticism somewhat -- for instance, it is hard for him to penetrate and create his own shot against more athletic defenders. Hence, the typical use of this player would be the team working him off multiple screens in order to get a clean look and to release a shot in a millisecond. Macijauskas is also renowned for his propensity to flopping -- expect some opponents to get infuriated by referees' calls for fouls against Kalashnikov.

Ramunas Siskauskas is also a superb shooter, but quite another type of player. He is lanky, fast and athletic, with an ability to shoot from anywhere, penetrate, go on a fast break and make a spectacular dunk.

Saulius Stombergas is the captain, and he has been with the team the longest -- from 1995, when the young guy played with Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis. He is typically a SF, with some ability to take over PF duties for short spells. Again, this guy is a superb shooter from long distance, with a not-so-bad ability to penetrate and some vital experience in international basketball.

At the PF position, Lithuania has two options: Darius Songaila or Ksistof Lavrinovic.

Darius Songaila, the only NBA player on the roster (Sacramento Kings), has been an automatic choice for several years, but the tremendous progress of Ksistof Lavrinovic now puts his starting position in jeopardy. Darius is a typical athletic power forward (as Lithuanians would say -- "American style"). He is maybe the most active hustler in the team, doing lots of work both on the offensive and defensive ends. Darius can also hit a jumpshot, even a three -- but the latter is rather streaky.

Ksistof Lavrinovic can play PF or C. He has been a break-through player this year in the Russian league, having a fantastic season for himself. Ksistof was, more or less, a role player in Eurobasket-2003, but in Athens, one would expect him to be one of the main leaders of the team. This lad is fast and mobile for his size, and has an incredible shooting touch -- he is as good a sniper from the three-point arc as any of the guards.

The starting center of Lithuania is Eurelijus Zukauskas. He is one of the veterans of the team, along with Stombergas. He is not a superb scorer, his main duties are helping his teammates on defense, getting rebounds and the like. He has an extremely lanky figure with long hands, and can jump high -- expect several spectacular shot blocks by Eurelijus.

Vidas Ginevicius is the back-up PG. He is very new to this level of competition, and most likely will not see much action in Athens. Back-up to Sarunas Jasikevicius has been a problem for Lithuania for several years now. In Eurobasket-2003, when Sarunas needed a rest, Lithuania basically conducted its play without any "pure PG" -- someone would just dribble the ball over the halfcourt line, and everyone would start passing, organizing the attack without a PG.

Donatas Slanina, SG. Could be called a copy of Arvydas Macijauskas for his size and shooting abilities -- only Donatas is not at the same level of quality. Slanina is also known as a deadly shooter, but he has had quite an average season at the club level in Spain, and his shooting touch seemed lost during all the exhibition games of Team Lithuania.

Dainius Salenga, SF. Dainius is an important bench player on our NT -- an athletic forward with long hands, he is one of the better defenders on the team (if you need to put someone on the opponents' best shooter or want to slow down their PG, it shall be D. Salenga or Siskauskas). He can also hit some long range shots, but is very streaky at that, having "hot" and "cold" days. Due to his athletic abilities and speed, Dainius is very useful in counterattacks, often ending them with spectacular dunks.

Mindaugas Zukauskas, SF. A utility player, who never scores much either at the National team or club level. He has a decent jumper and might even hit an occasional three-pointer when free, but those are not his duties on the court. His main duties are defense, setting picks for team-mates, fighting for rebounds and loose balls, etc.

Robertas Javtokas, C. A young center whose main asset is his athletic ability, mainly his speed and vertical leap. Two years ago, Robertas suffered a terrible motorcycle accident and barely survived. His body was patched all over, left calf bones being collected from pieces. Now he has finally come back to basketball, but the absence of basketball practice and probably some lingering effects from the injury are telling on his game. He is mostly dangerous in situations where he can employ his athletic ability -- for instance, ending fastbreaks with tremendous dunks. (Such a dunk over Arvydas Sabonis in the Lithuanian league was one of the highlights of the 2003-2004 season.) However, he is not a good shooter (notoriously bad from the free throw line), and his post-up game is a liability. At times, Javtokas also commits unforced turnovers, as he lacks experience at a higher level.

Shooting. Man, can this team shoot! The roster is simply loaded with superb snipers. It was one of the main factors at Eurobasket-2003, where the Lithuanian guys ripped their opponents with a rain of three pointers. Of the starting five, four players are superb shooters (S. Jasikevicius, A. Macijauskas, R. Siskauskas /S. Stombergas (whoever starts) and K. Lavrinovic), there is some help off the bench (D. Slanina), and you would not want to give open looks to several other guys (D. Salenga, M. Zukauskas, D. Songaila).

Speed. Lithuania likes free-flowing, up-tempo basketball, based on scoring rather than gruelling defending. Not only smaller players, but also the tall guys are fast, mobile, keen to take part in counterattacks (D. Songaila, K. Lavrinovic, R. Javtokas).

Athleticism. Lithuanian team cannot be said to be really "soft," but in general they do not like the more aggressive and athletic game style, where all the points have to be gained by difficult penetration through gruelling defense, where the main factor is strength and explosiveness, rather than crisp passing and shooting. They surely would not like it against a team like the Detroit Pistons! In Eurobasket-2003, the most difficult game for Lithuania was against France, which reminds to some extent of Team USA -- a roster overloaded with superb athletic guys in SF-PF positions, with a lack of shooting skills and physical defense.

Post presence. Lithuania experiences the same problem as many other teams in this Olympics: the C position is not as dominant as the coaches would want it. As said, neither E. Zukauskas nor R. Javtokas are a very consistent threat in the post-up game. K. Lavrinovic is in superb form, but he tends to drift away and use his shooting skills instead. The fight down low is one thing which should worry Lithuanian basketball fans.

Team Lithuania raised its plank very high after its successful run in the latest European Championship. The team is universally considered one of the top contenders for the highest places. The general expectation in Lithuania is to continue the Olympic tradition and to bring back a medal of some color -- maybe, the bronze again? While objectively speaking, taking into account the level of competitiveness of these Olympics, a 4th-5th place could be considered "normal," the general feeling is different -- anything less than a medal will be deemed as a major disappointment.

Look out for Lithuania's first game, which is against Angola. Lithuania has the unhappy tradition of starting tournaments in a very sluggish and nervous fashion: losing to the Czech Republic in Eurobasket-1999, losing to Italy in Sydney-2000, troubles with Latvia in Eurobasket-2003 (victory by 1 point in OT). This time, the opponent in the first encounter is probably the most favorable for a warm-up match, but look out anyway...

There is also a special focus on Team USA in Lithuania. The national team nearly beat the Americans in the Sydney-2000 semifinals (last-gasp three-point shot of S. Jasikevicius, and losing by 2 points 83:85)... Hence, there is some sense of "historical mission" in the media, although this is de-emphasised by the team itself. The problems of Team USA have reinforced this feeling, and Lithuanian public in general is very keen on joining the club of countries who have beaten the NBA pros.


Puerto Rico

By Juan Cartagena

The Puerto Rican Basketball National Team began to play in international competition in 1935 when they finished in third place in the Central American Games played in El Salvador. In the history of the Central American games, Puerto Rico has won a medal in all but 4 tournaments (12 out of 16.) Our national team made its first appearance in the Pan-American Games in 1959 in Chicago, finishing with the silver medal. Since those first Pan-Am games, Puerto Rico has finished in the top three in all but 3 tournaments (9 out of 12.) In the World Championships, Puerto Rico finished 4th in 1959, 6th in 1963, 10th in 1967, 7th in 1974, 10th in 1978, 10th in 1986, 4th in 1990, 6th in 1994, 11th in 1998 and 7th in 2002 after failing to clinch at least the 4th place by losing to New Zealand by just two points. In Olympic competition, Puerto Rico has a similar record as in the World Games after making its debut in 1960 with a 13th place but improving dramatically four years later by finishing in the 4th place. The last time we played in the Olympics was in Atlanta (1996), finishing in 10th place. Our national team failed to qualify for the Sydney games after losing to Brazil for the 3rd and last spot available in the 1999 qualifying tournament. In order to clinch a spot in the 2004 Olympics in Greece, Puerto Rico defeated Canada for the 3rd and final spot 79-66 in last year's qualifiers. In that game, Puerto Rican legend Jos Piculín Ortiz had a superb outing with 21pts, 10rebs, 10ast, 7blk and 3stl. Ortiz could be recognized by Puerto Ricans as the best basketball player ever from Puerto Rico along with Juan Pachín Vicens, Raymond Dalmau and five time Olympian Teófilo Cruz.

This year our team is full of young, but well seasoned players who happen to have experience playing in leagues around the world. Besides 40 year old Jos Ortiz, no other player is more than 31 years old. This is our squad:

-Carlos Arroyo (1979, 6"1' 205lbs. Utah Jazz) - The best player of this team. Has great quickness and speed, excellent court vision, can adapt to any game plan, can play defense, runs the floor very well, but not a great 3 point shooter.

-Jos Ortiz (1963, 6' 10" 240lbs. Santurce, P.R.) Our legend. Can score, rebound and block shots. All around type of player. Strong and wise. Has played in Greece, Spain, the NBA and other leagues in the world. Coming off a serious knee injury but is almost at 100%.

-Larry Ayuso (1977, 6' 2" 215lbs. Besiktas, Turkey) Strong, great 3pt shooter. Can rebound and play good defense. Excellent free throw shooter. Too short for shooting guard; depends a lot on the screens.

-Sharif Fajardo (1976, 6' 8" 245lbs. Trieste, Italy) Strong body. Good rebounder and shot blocker. Can play SF, PF and center. Can shoot the 3 pointer. Good jump shooter and good low post moves.

-Daniel Santiago (1976, 7' 245lbs. Milwaukee Bucks) Good jump shooter. Can block shots and rebound. Not so good at defense. Will have his ups and downs. Prone to foul trouble.

-Eddie Casiano (1972, 6' 4" 190lbs. Ponce PR) Great 3 point shooter. Good at penetrating to the basket. Excellent free throw shooter. Not so good at defense. Will get minutes at SF.

-Peter John Ramos (1985, 7' 3" 235lbs. Washington Wizards, PR) Can score from the low post and also has a good mid range jump shot. Not so good at defense. Very young.

-Bobby Joe Hatton (1976 6' 4", 180lbs. Ponce, PR) Lightning quickness. Good in the open court. Likes to run and to create. Good passer in traffic. Able to score in bunches.

-Christian Dalmau (1975, 6' 3", 200lbs. San Germán, PR) The MVP of the Puerto Rican league. Strong. Good 3 point shooter. Great passer in traffic. Can score from the perimeter and by penetrating. Can rebound. Prone to turnovers.

-Rick Apodaca (1980, 6' 4" 200lbs. Arecibo, PR) Excellent defense. Explosive towards the basket. Good vertical leap. Can score in bunches.

-Rolando Hourruitiner (1975, 6' 7" 205lbs. Santurce, PR) Excellent defense. Great basketball sense. Can score the 3pt. Can do the dirty work but also knows how to create offense.

Jorge Rivera (1973, 6' 7" 238lbs. Bayamón, PR) Strong. Can play defense. Good rebounder. Good jump shooter. Will do the dirty work.

Strengths and Weaknesses
We are missing two players that were not available due to injuries: Orlando Santiago and Antonio Látimer. The line up of this team will depend of the height of the team to face. We can go sometimes with Arroyo, Ayuso, Casiano, Ortiz and Santiago or with Arroyo, Casiano, Fajardo, Ortiz and Santiago.

The biggest weakness of this team is its height. Our shooting guards and small forwards are from 6' 2" Ayuso to 6' 7" Hourruitiner and even the point guards are taller than some of the SG's, mainly Ayuso. We'll also depend on how well Santiago plays in certain games. Sometimes he tends to disappear when we need a big man like him the most. We need to see a dramatic improvement in defense from Peter John Ramos, especially trying to keep himself out of foul trouble. Ayuso will score anyway but we have to focus on trying to find him open. Arroyo needs to have an excellent tournament in order to give us a good chance to advance to the next stage. Hatton and Dalmau will have to step up their game coming of the bench to let Arroyo get some rest. Fajardo needs to be consistent and accept his role; we need his hustle in the paint and defense on the big man of the other team. Apodaca and Hourruitiner will try to stop the best scorer on the other team and they are very good at that, especially Apodaca, who draws a lot of offensive fouls. The veterans of this team Ortiz, Casiano and Rivera will have to do what they are good at: the small things. That means score a lot and hustle respectively. As a team, we need to establish an inside/outside game, giving the ball to the big man and trying to free up space to the shooters so they can take the easiest shot. The key to success is to rebound. We are undersized so we need to hustle every ball, make the other team to miss and trying to outsmart them.

Here in Puerto Rico when you say our National Team nobody asks what sport you are talking about, they just assume that it's the basketball team. The expectations are very high. Since we beat Spain and Yugoslavia in 2002 World Games and after coming so close to a medal in that tournament, the people here are just excited waiting to see we can do in Athens. Everybody knows right now that any team can defeat any team on any given day and we hope we can take advantage of that, but given those chances, we could get defeated as well. I'll tell you, we will be very upset if Puerto Rico don't move on to the second round, but after that whatever we can do, if people see that the team make an evident effort to try to win the games, we'll be happy.

It won't be easy, everybody is well prepared and everybody is aware that there is no lock for the gold. I hope that everything goes alright and that the sport of basketball gets stronger after the Olympics.


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