By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Conversations about this Great Britain team always begin and often end with Luol Deng. Asked to play any position from one to four, he is the fulcrum around which everything rotates. But there is top tier talent elsewhere on the roster. Joel Freeland and Pops Mensah-Bonsu will combine with Deng for the first time at a major tournament, and this has justifiably been billed as the strongest roster coach Chris Finch has assembled.
NBA fans wondering exactly how well the ‘Luol Deng, point forward’ plan has fared so far won’t be too surprised. He doesn’t actually dribble the ball up the floor that much but expect him to take plenty of handoffs at the top of the key whilst everyone else stands around, particularly when things are going wrong. Deng can play the facilitator but all too often rushes shots either early or late in the clock. Turnovers are likely to be a problem for a squad that lacks a playmaker, but when this team moves the ball, it can be dangerous for any opponent.
G - Nate Reinking (Sheffield Sharks)
G - Andrew Lawrence (College of Charleston)
G - Mike Lenzly (CEZ Nymburk)
G - Kyle Johnson (APOEL)
F - Luol Deng (Chicago Bulls)
F - Andrew Sullivan (Leicester Riders)
F - Joel Freeland (Portland Trail Blazers)
F - Pops Mensah-Bonsu (Besiktas)
F - Keiron Achara (Assignia Manresa)
F - Daniel Clark (Estudiantes)
C - Robert Archibald (CAI Zaragoza)
C - Eric Boateng (Peristeri)
Head Coach: Chris Finch (Assistant with the Houston Rockets)
Offensively, the best opportunities for Great Britain will fall into four categories: Deng loves to drive down the right hand side of the lane and can finish through contact in a variety of ways. Freeland can score on the low block which will hopefully lead to help and kickouts. Deng can drive and kick to open shooters and finally, transition points from defensive stops. Unfortunately, the team seems unable to string together multiple possessions that create these kinds of shots, primarily because they lack a point guard of the required standard.
Of the probable starters, Nate Reinking is 38 and has never been a true point guard, and Mike Lenzly is strictly an off the ball player. Off the bench, Andrew Lawrence, who recently graduated from a middling mid-major (College of Charleston, Southern Conference) unexpectedly got the nod ahead of Devon van Oostrum. It looks like he has at least improved since last summer when he couldn’t stay on the floor even in spot minutes at EuroBasket and looks to have shed some of his combo tag. However, the lack of an elite playmaker means far too many bad shots with the clock winding down and too many wasted possessions.
The only other guard on the roster is Kyle Johnson, who played for APEOL in Cyprus last year. He certainly has the most athleticism of the four, is a good spot up shooter and also has an improving step back mid range jumper. He could make Reinking obsolete and is the only of the four who has the size to guard international twos.
Finch recently justified only selecting four guards by pointing out that Dan Clark can play some small forward with Deng covering the two. Yes, the Dan Clark who plays for Estudiantes. No, I don’t think it’s a good idea either. But it’s not that much worse an idea than taking another guard who probably wouldn’t have contributed much, in exchange for depth upfront. There is no correct answer to this problem, and van Oostrum aside, Finch has selected the best twelve players and tried to work out a system that gives the better ones the most minutes.
Deng is the life and soul of this team but he may need to play at an even higher level and through the pain of damaged wrist ligaments . According to Hoopdata, his shooting percentages stayed roughly the same for Chicago after the injury but his field goals attempted at the rim reduced each month, from 4.21 FGA per game in January to only 2.8 per game by April, although his shooting percentage on such shots actually rose. His shooting numbers in four exhibition games against France, Spain and Portugal twice were 6/19, 3/14, 8/18 and 4/14 for an overall 32.3%. It’s going to be very difficult for GB to beat anyone unless Deng uses the ball more efficiently. He must perform at a superhuman level if the team is to progress through the group stage. The good news is that Lenzly, Keiron Achara, Johnson and Clark can all drain the three if left open.
Despite the offensive inconsistency, this team can actually get in a rhythm at the defensive end and is adept in turning fastbreaks into easy points, which is where Deng will see most of his ball handling duties. Mensah-Bonsu is as fast down the court as any big man and can throwdown over most defenders if given the chance. Eric Boateng and Robert Archibald have ten fouls between them but the latter has looked like another stalwart whose time may have passed, and Boateng is the more attractive option.
Don’t expect much off the ball movement, don’t expect a European style motion offence. This team will not please the purists but might just succeed on defensive discipline and hot three point shooting behind Deng’s ability to attract multiple defenders. It won’t be pretty, but the home fans won’t care, and a lot of them won’t know the difference.
The Swing Man
So much depends on Joel Freeland being a low post threat and offering GB an easier way to put points on the board. It seems crazy that the team’s second most talented player should be seen as an X-factor, but when he’s ripping down rebounds, using his quickness in the post to spin past defenders and hitting those high post jumpshots, this team is so much more equipped to compete. Lenzly could also make people learn his name if he can bury three or four three pointers a game, which isn’t inconceivable.
The prospect of a quarterfinal place hovers somewhere between unlikely and improbable, given that it will involve beating two of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Australia and China. The latter two are most realistic but, just as at EuroBasket last summer, GB must play their three toughest opponents first.
This team doesn’t have the horses to compete with three silver medal contenders, but the good news is they beat China this time last year and should have beaten the Aussies, eventually dropping an overtime heartbreaker. Going one better doesn’t seem out of reach but Patty Mills missed that game and his presence is a major factor against this thin backcourt.
In all likelihood they will go into the Australia game at 0-3. Winning the last two would probably be good enough to progress, so mark down Saturday, August 4 as the biggest day in British basketball history. Winning three of five seems out of the question and I don’t have the heart to call it 1-5 or worse, so two wins and a quarterfinal place it is. Unless there’s some kind of crazy points differential.
The time for plucky failure is over.
Best English Accent
This is actually a valid question on a team where a lot of the players left home shores for US high schools at 15. I was shocked to hear Andrew Lawrence’s American twang on this video but there’s some London in there somewhere. It must be a key time for accent-development, the mid-teens. Of course, Achara and Archibald would be horrified to sound ‘English’ given that they are from the land of William Wallace. Andrew Sullivan is London through and through, and can probably do a funny Geordie accent having played in Newcastle, so on the grounds of versatility let’s say him.