By Mark Douglass
The World Cup in China represented the Boomers’ best chance to scale the heights of men’s basketball: devoid of superstars, the United States had fallen; the powerful Serbians, too, perished after a shock loss.
But there are no guarantees in elite sport as the Boomers found out against a veteran Spanish team well-rehearsed in winning medals at major events.
Had Patty Mills not missed a late free throw in the semi-final match against Spain, we could today be hailing the Boomers as World Champions.
Instead, the Australians were dragged through an epic double-overtime loss that left them physically and emotionally drained.
So small are the margins in international basketball that the Boomers ultimately leave China empty-handed.
It was no surprise to see them settle for fourth after a predictable loss to France in the playoff for Bronze — Australia’s tank simply ran dry.
As brilliant as the Boomers campaign was through their first six matches, flaws were exposed when it mattered.
The Boomers had to rely too heavily on too few in their quest to win their first medal at a major competition.
No one could question the commitment of Patty Mills and Joe Ingles.
Mills finished as the tournament’s third leading scorer while Ingles routinely made important plays.
Yet as their minutes grew, their effectiveness diminished. Depth became an issue.
The Australians used a nine-man rotation across the tournament.
Three members of Australia’s 12-man squad — Nathan Sobey, Cameron Gliddon and David Barlow — combined for less than seven minutes of total court time.
But on the evidence of this campaign, Australia is in tremendous shape for a breakthrough performance at the 2020 Olympics.
The likes of Mills, Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova and Andrew Bogut are still hungry for international success, and while they may carry the scars of heartbreaking finishes at World Cups and Olympic Games, NBA-based reinforcements are on the way.
The game changer in Tokyo will be Ben Simmons.
The 23-year-old Philadelphia 76ers point guard is already considered the best male basketballer Australia has ever produced and is expected to make himself available for next year’s Olympic Games.
Simmons is the future of Australian men’s basketball and his inclusion would likely lead to a seismic shift in the way the Boomers play.
If the coaching staff and team veterans embrace what he brings in playmaking, the Boomers will be feared by everyone.
Simmons has often spoken about his desire to represent his nation on the world stage. Leading Australia to a first men’s Olympic medal would be a perfect way to start.
But Simmons will not be the only fresh face expected to be available for the campaign.
Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum missed the World Cup while recovering from a serious knee injury (not the first of his brief professional career) but wants in on what the Boomers are building.
Simmons’ Philadelphia teammate Jonah Bolden and Detroit big man Thon Maker are both expected to be available. Australia could effectively field a 12-man team made up entirely of overseas-based players.
Of course, much can happen between now and Tokyo 2020.
Just ask USA basketball about the vagaries of player availability; of the 35 players initially selected in the USA’s player pool for the World Cup, only four ended up on the final roster — largely due to player drop-outs.
Unfortunately for the Boomers and every other Olympic basketball nation, the embarrassment of a 7th-placed finish for Team USA will spur America’s legion of NBA superstars to restore dignity at international level.
The household names will be back and the desire to dominate will return.
So while Australia’s medal chances have never been brighter, Olympic gold may remain elusive.