Olympic basketball: Key questions for the Tokyo Games in 2021

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With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, OlympicTalk is taking a sport-by-sport look at where things stood before sports were halted and how global circumstances could alter the Olympic picture …

How was Olympic men’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

Eight of the 12 Olympic berths were filled: U.S., Spain, France, Argentina, Australia, Iran, Nigeria and host Japan. The last four were to be decided at four June qualifying tournaments, which have now been postponed to 2021.

USA Basketball, after a flooring seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (without NBA superstars), named 44 finalists for its 12-man roster in February. Every NBA superstar was included, but it did not necessarily mean every player was making himself available for selection. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were two of the biggest names who, after the finalists announcement, were not yet ready to commit. James will be 36 come the Tokyo Games in 2021, older than any previous U.S. Olympic men’s basketball player.

With the Olympic postponement, USA Basketball could alter that finalist list over the next year. It already had the option to do so. For example, in the last Olympic cycle, Damian Lillard was added to the pool after many withdrew from consideration, but he ultimately also withdrew.

The biggest roster concern for the U.S. and coach Gregg Popovich had to be at center. Neither of the 2016 Olympic centers was named a Tokyo finalist (injured DeMarcus Cousins and healthy DeAndre Jordan). Outside of Davis, none of the NBA’s All-Star centers this season were Americans: Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania).

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

The biggest variable will be the end date of the 2020-21 NBA season. While the Olympics in 2021 are the same weeks as they were in 2020, it’s unknown what a 2020-21 NBA schedule could look like in these unprecedented times. If the NBA season goes longer, and brushes closer to the Olympic dates, players will obviously have less time to rest. This is key, because the primary reason when healthy players bow out of Olympic consideration is citing a need for rest between NBA seasons.

That said, more key players could be available to the U.S. Kevin Durant, though named as a finalist, was set to miss the rest of the 2019-20 NBA season with a ruptured Achilles, putting his Olympic status in question. Other players who weren’t named finalists were, at the time, recovering from major injuries: Cousins, Blake Griffin and John Wall.

Younger players not named as finalists who could get a longer look include Zion Williamson, the 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick who missed the first three months of last season with a torn meniscus.

2021 Olympic Capsules: Track and Field | Swimming | Gymnastics | Beach Volleyball | Diving

How was Olympic women’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

The entire Olympic field was already set — U.S., Australia, Spain, France, Belgium, Canada, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Serbia, China, South Korea and host Japan. Nine of the world’s top 10 nations qualified, the lone exception being No. 6 Turkey, which has no Olympic medal history.

The U.S. seeks a seventh straight Olympic title to match the basketball record held by U.S. men’s teams from the first seven Olympic tournaments from 1936-68. The U.S. women have won 46 straight games between the Olympics and FIBA World Cup dating to 2006, though it did lose an exhibition to the University of Oregon in November.

U.S. roster decisions again figured to be difficult. Stalwarts Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are in for, potentially, their fifth Olympics. Maya Moore (focusing on criminal justice reform) and Candace Parker announced they were out (More on Parker’s situation here). The biggest question, if any, remained who could succeed Bird as a reliable point guard.

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

Sabrina Ionescu. The Oregon superstar and WNBA No. 1 draft pick missed key U.S. women’s national team activities in the fall and winter as they happened during the college season. However, she was as of January the U.S.’ top player in international rankings for 3×3, a new Olympic event. Ionescu said at the 2019 Pan American Games that, if forced to choose between 5×5 and 3×3 at the Olympics, she preferred 3×3, according to the Olympic Channel.

The extra year until the Olympics means that Ionescu could be available for more national team activities next fall and winter, making her more appealing for the traditional Olympic tournament rather than 3×3.

What about the Olympic debut of 3×3 basketball?

Both the U.S. men and women still need to qualify for the Tokyo Games. They were in line to compete at a global qualifier in India in March, but that was postponed.

A potential U.S. Olympic men’s team is extremely unlikely to include an active NBA player. Its roster for the qualifying tournament — a peek into the thinking of a U.S. Olympic selection committee — included three of the four players from the 2019 FIBA World Cup — Robbie Hummel, Canyon Barry and Kareem Maddox, plus Dominique Jones. Hummel, Maddox and Jones are retired from traditional 5×5 basketball, while Barry plays in the NBA’s G League.

A U.S. women’s team could very include WNBA players, given its qualifying roster was made up of WNBA All-Stars Napheesa Collier and Stefanie Dolson and league standouts Allisha Gray and Kelsey Plum.

MORE: NBCSN Olympic Games Week TV, live stream schedule

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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Conseslus Kipruto tests positive for coronavirus, canceling world-record bid

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Conseslus Kipruto, the Olympic and world 3000m steeplechase champion, tested positive for the coronavirus without symptoms, which will keep him from a world-record chase on Friday, according to his social media.

The Kenyan was to race in the first in-person Diamond League meet of the year in Monaco on Friday.

“Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities,” was posted. “Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League.

“I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well.”

Kipruto, 25, is the 14th-fastest steepler in history with a personal best of 8:00.12. The world record is 7:53.63, set by Kenyan-born Qatari Saif Saaeed Shaheen in 2004.

Last year, Kipruto won the world title by .01, extending a streak of a Kenyan or Kenyan-born man winning every Olympic or world title in the event since the 1988 Seoul Games. He was sidelined by a stress fracture in his left foot until opening his season extremely late on Aug. 24.

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Our World is going through a challenging period and we all have to take our responsibilities. Unfortunately my covid-19 test, as part of the Monaco-protocol, came back positive and therefore I can’t be part of the Monaco Diamond League on August 14th. I don’t have any symptoms and I was actually in great shape. I was planning to go for the WR: it has stayed too long outside Kenya. As the World & Olympic Champion I feel strongly its something I should go for as well. Wish to thank Monaco for all the work they have done and I wish them and my colleagues a wonderful competition. Athletics is back and I will be back as well. Anyone willing to organise a steeple once I can be cleared? @diamondleaguemonaco #nike #quarantine #WR #Kenya

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