By: Scott Brock-Wilson
With the recent news of Dante Exum, is it really worth it for NBA guys to play in international games?
Basketball has been a staple of the Olympics for what seems like forever. Ever since 1989, when the International Olympic Committee allowed professional basketball players to participate in the Olympics in support of their country, more and more NBA players have chosen to sit out and skip not only the World Championships, but also the Olympics. This (especially the Olympics) is not due to lack of desire or spirit for their country, but due to the risk of injury. However, the National teams have proven to be a very useful setting for young players to learn how to be professional.
The experience one gains can be priceless. For example, a player like Anthony Davis, who was coming right out of college and was expected to do great things at the professional level, benefitted greatly by learning how to be a pro and experiencing the difficulty of the transition from college to NBA. He got the opportunity to play with, and practice against, the top NBA players. They showed him how to be a pro, train, and work hard. That accelerated his success at the NBA level, and he now seems as though he is on the track to ultimate stardom.
Demarcus (Boogie) Cousins also benefitted greatly from the 2014 USA World Cup team. He learned to be more mature on the court, and this showed in his production this past year. In 2014-15, the year directly after his first summer with the Olympic team, he averaged career highs in points (24.1), rebounds (12.7), blocks (1.7), and assists (3.6). The jump he made was clearly visible, as he made it to his first ever all-star game as well. Overall this experience was quite valuable to Cousins, but he did also briefly understand the negative side to being on the team. In his first practice, he suffered a knee injury that gave him and the team a scare. Thankfully, it was not severe. However, many of the following players were not so lucky.
Now, obviously, this has been hyped up recently due to Paul George’s injury last summer, but injuries during practice and during the Olympic or World Championship games have always been pressing issues to the public. However, the public and the NBA owners had always been more relaxed and understanding about it before. The National teams meant more back in the days of the Dream Team in 1992 than it does now. Now, allow me to go on a tangent of the past injuries to star players in Olympic Events and/or World Championships.
In recent history, there have been a plethora of injuries of star players in Olympic events. Manu Ginobili went into the 2008 Olympics with an ankle injury from the previous NBA playoffs and severely worsened it during the Beijing Olympics. Ginobili led his Argentinian team to the Bronze medal as he got hurt in their semi-final game against the United States National team. Obviously Popovich and Holt (the Spurs owner) were not too happy to see their then-31-year-old player, who had already had several injuries that had forced him to miss extended periods of time, have yet another injury that may hamper him in the future. This is a case of attempting to play through an injury for your country and making it worse, but many others are injured solely because of the Olympics with no prior similar injury.
Pau Gasol, the star player for the Memphis Grizzlies, was participating in the World Championships in 2006 when he broke his foot. Now this can be a devastating and lingering injury to any big man and caused a lot of concern from the Memphis front office. This injury forced Gasol to be inactive for the first 22 games of the 2006-07 season. To preface, in the 2005-06 season, Memphis was fifth in the Western Conference but got swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round; however, after a horrible start without Gasol in 2006 (5-17), the Grizzlies finished with the worst record in the league. Obviously, Gasol's injury in the World Championships had a large impact on the future of the franchise.
Now, returning to the most current star injury, Paul George’s leg fracture forced him to miss all but 6 games of this past season. This drastically changed the dynamic for the Pacers and the rest of the Eastern Conference. In the 2013-14 season, the Pacers had the best record in the Eastern Conference (56-26), and if it were not for a bad decision by Frank Vogel to pull Roy Hibbert late in game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, they very well may have beaten the Miami Heat and advanced to the NBA Finals. This past year, with George missing almost all of the season, the Pacers finished just out of the playoff picture at 38-44 and struggled without their main scoring threat.
The injury risk of playing in international games can many times outweigh the positives. For example, after George’s injury, Kevin Durant a superstar (and soon to be MVP) decided the risk was too great. He pulled out technically due to not having the mental and physical strain, but many believe it was due to the realism of how quickly an injury can happen. Durant said in interview later, “It took everything out of me seeing that...Everything I had to play for Team USA, that injury stripped it away from me.” This is becoming more of a trend among players as they think more about their futures and their financial ability.
Durant’s concerns were clearly warranted as another NBA player went down just days ago. Dante Exum has injured his left knee and could possibly have torn his ACL while playing for his Australian National team. It was a non-contact injury. If it was his ACL, Exum could miss the entire year. This is tough news to hear for a young, improving, talented player (and even tougher for the Jazz, a team thought to be on the rise). The Jazz had high expectations that will now need to be tempered depending on Exum’s injury.
Now, who knows what the future entails for the Olympic National teams, but if this trend continues, it is not looking good. After giving all of these examples, I must say that I, personally, am for playing for the National team. In my mind, especially if a player is young or has under six or so years of experience in the league and gets offered the chance to participate, the player should take it every time. There is no doubt that it is beneficial to rising stars and helps transition to the NBA. With that being said, I may shy away if I am an older veteran that has a lot of previous mileage on his legs. For them, there is no need to risk injury or even just add up the fatigue. There will always be many players on both sides of the spectrum, but if you like watching the best play for the National team, I would not be too excited.