Dubai // Australia is a country with a population of just 23 million from which to draw sporting talent.
Despite that obvious numerical limitation, they routinely field elite squads in rugby union and cricket, have thriving domestic rugby league and Australian rules football competitions and even maintain status as an Asian football power.
With all of those sports commanding resources and talent, it would seem there would not be much left over for an American sport like basketball.
Yet it seems there is. Australia just might be a rising international basketball powerhouse.
They put their balling chops on display yesterday at the Fiba Under 17 World Championships in Dubai to edge out France in one of the most-closely contested games of the tournament, 84-81.
Australia can claim a few NBA regulars, among them Golden State Warriors centre Andrew Bogut and guard Patty Mills, who just won a title with the San Antonio Spurs.
But their youth ranks might be where the real excitement lies.
Dante Exum, a 19-year-old phenom, was taken fifth this summer in the NBA draft by the Utah Jazz.
Thon Maker, their 17-year-old, 2.16-metre man-child, is the top-ranked recruit for the class of 2016 by ESPN and his YouTube highlight compilations qualify as must-see for any watcher of basketball prospects.
With the win over France yesterday and their opening 97-84 victory over Japan on Friday, the Australia Under 17 side would appear to be on the up-and-up, as well. They have a clear path to finishing atop Group B, with just Canada to play.
It was no guarantee, though, with a last-second France attempt rimming out, which allowed the Aussies to avoid overtime.
“I’m glad the hoop gods were on our side that last shot,” said Australia coach Mark Watson.
Australia won with a combination of hounding team defence – lots of double-teams on France standout Stephane Gombauld and plenty of pressing – and their ability to get to the free throw line.
Defensively they managed 10 steals to France’s eight and forced one more turnover than their opponents.
Offensively they made four more free-throws. Almost everywhere else on the stat-sheet the sides were neck-and-neck.
“It was a heart starter. Both teams evenly matched – we played each other in France and they beat us by 20 points, so we were determined to turn that result around,” said Watson.
“The game went in cycles – they made runs, we made runs. I was proud of my boys, how we stuck together.”
This grouping of kids is missing the certain prospects like an Exum or Maker, but it was evident they still have no shortage of talent capable of playing college ball in the US.
Isaac Humphries, their 1.85-metre centre, had nine points, six rebounds and three of the team’s four blocks. Humphries is a big presence inside, an imposing and smart defender.
Dejan Vasiljevic, an undersized but aggressive guard, led them in scoring with 18 points. His game was reminiscent of Cleveland Cavaliers role-player and fellow Aussie, Matthew Dellavedova.
Kouat Noi, a 1.95m forward, brought good length and a crafty, fluid offensive game in contributing nine points. Harry Frolling displayed a smooth jump shot and an ability to draw a foul in scoring 12 points.
Humphries said he and his teammates look to a guy like Exum as an example of how far an Australian player can make it.
He said that it is not “expectation” that Australians have a pathway to the pros now. “It’s more motivation, like you look at them and think that can be you.”
Watson said that while football, in all its forms, offers more money in Australia, a tournament like this one in Dubai is something unique that they can hold out to kids as a reason to stay in basketball.
“You can’t go to these big games and represent your country. That’s the bait we throw out to our players,” he said.
“We’re only 23 million people in Australia, but I guess we’re a sporting country, we’re proud of our sporting culture.
“When you represent your country we talk about the fighting spirit and Australians really embrace that.”
This collection of talent, Watson said, has a chance of matching Australia’s silver-medal finish at the 2012 Fiba Under 17s – and maybe even give the US a run this time in the final.
“The last group that came through with Dante (Exum) was a special group,” he said.
“This group is different. The expectations are just on ourselves to make the final four and win a medal.
“My goal is to play the US in the final and win. Turn around that result from two years ago.”
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