It’s easy to focus on the negative when it comes to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Whether it’s the terrible conditions or the big-name superstars who aren’t competing at the Games, the potential for disaster at these Summer Olympics is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. Yet, there are still plenty of reasons to get excited. For us, one of those is easily the sport of basketball.
Barring a collapse of epic proportions, the U.S. will come away with the gold medal. In fact, when it’s all said and done, this group could easily turn out to be one of the best USA teams of all time. Of course, that’s what tends to happen when your roster consists of some of the top players in the NBA. Oddly enough, for many of the other basketball players competing at the Rio Games, facing this sort of talent is a good thing — especially if you’re on the verge of taking your talents to the NBA for the first time.
As it were, plenty of NBA rookies are suiting up for their respective national teams in these 2016 Games. While you’ve probably never heard of any of these individuals, here’s a look at the best of the bunch.
1. Wang Zhelin
With the No. 57 pick in the 2016 draft, the Memphis Grizzlies took a chance on Wang Zhelin, a 7-foot center who’s played the past four seasons with Fujian in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Zhelin has range on his jumper, a nice touch around the basket, and at 22 years old, has plenty of upside.
Despite playing only 16 minutes in China’s first game in Rio, a 119-62 thrashing at the hands of the United States, Zhelin knocked down two of five shots, finishing the contest with five points, one assist, one rebound, and one assist. Although Wang is set to remain in China for the 2016–17 season, if he can continue to develop as a basketball player, he has the potential to be a nice addition to the Grizzlies roster in the future.
2. Michael Gbinije
Former Syracuse standout Michael Gbinije was selected by the Detroit Pistons in the second round (No. 49 overall) of the 2016 NBA Draft. In his last season under coach Jim Boeheim, Gbinije shot 46.1% from the field, knocked down 39.2% of his three pointers, and averaged 17.5 points per game on his way to earning Second-Team All-ACC honors.
As a member of Nigeria’s national basketball team, it’s unlikely that Gbinije will be in serious contention for a medal at these Rio Games. Still, even if his team isn’t up to the task, Gbinije is more than ready to make his presence felt in Brazil.
3. Zhou Qi
The Houston Rockets used the No. 43 pick in the 2016 draft to select Zhou Qi, a 7-foot-2, 218-pound center who hails from the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in China. Like his previously mentioned teammate, Qi failed to be effective in his team’s blowout loss to Team USA, however, he has shown plenty of skills overseas. With an impressive wingspan and a nice touch, Qi has proven to be a solid player on both ends of the floor, averaging 15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks in 42 CBA games in 2015–16. If Qi is able to get stronger, then the Rockets could have a nice player on their hands.
4. Domantas Sabonis
The Orlando Magic may have selected Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis with the No. 11 overall pick, but thanks to a winning draft-night trade, the talented power forward is set to begin his career as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The organization should be absolutely thrilled about that.
At 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, Sabonis, who is suiting up for Lithuania in Rio, has the size, strength, and smarts to compete at the game’s highest level. In his final season with the Zags, Sabonis averaged 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game and shot 61.1% from the field. Look for Sabonis to be a force with the Thunder, and as a member of his national team, for years to come.
5. Dario Saric
If you’re among the Philadelphia faithful who believes in trusting the process, then you’re already familiar with Croatia’s Dario Saric. If you’re not, yet you follow the Rio Games, then you probably recognize him as the beast who blocked Pau Gasol to seal Croatia’s upset victory over Spain. Either way, Saric is easily the most exciting NBA rookie participating in the 2016 Games. Get ready, everyone — “The Homie” Dario Saric is ready to take the world by storm.