One of the most interesting parts about international tournaments is the chance to see players in a new environment and with a different role than on their NBA teams. As usual, Team USA is stocked with All-Stars up and down their lineup in the London Olympics, but many young international players have a chance to make a name for themselves over the next two weeks.
The biggest difference between 1992 and 2012 isn’t the quality of the American team, it’s the quality of the rest of the world. There were only a handful of NBA players on international teams in Barcelona; in London, teams that aren’t guaranteed a spot on the medal stand have NBA players coming off their bench.
France was soundly defeated by Team USA in their Olympic opener on Sunday, with Tony Parker, Nic Batum, Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf all held in check by the stifling American defense. For the most part, the French know what they are going to get from their veterans; their X-factor is Kevin Seraphin, a talented young big man from the Washington Wizards who comes off their bench.
He had a disappointing game on Sunday, going 1-5 with three points, one rebound, one block and four personal fouls in only seven minutes. However, he still showed glimpses of a multi-faceted game in match-ups against Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler, receiving the same type of high-level international experience that Serge Ibaka used to grow his game playing for Spain.
Seraphin, a wide-bodied 6’9, 265 big man with a 7’3 wingspan, was selected No. 17 overall by the Wizards in the 2010 NBA Draft. As a 21-year-old rookie, he struggled to receive consistent minutes, but he began to earn a bigger role with Washington in 2011, when he averaged 7.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks on 53% shooting in 20 minutes a night.
He’s the rare young big man comfortable scoring with his back to the basket, and his wide base and long arms allow him to establish deep post position. With France trying to run offense through him on the second unit, he hit a smooth turn-around jumper over Love, drew a foul on a quick hook shot and sealed him in front of the rim, an easy dunk if the French guards had found him.
Just as importantly, he has the athleticism to finish over the top of NBA defenders, which is often the Achilles heel of 6’9 post players (see: Sullinger, Jared) at the highest level. In the second half, he back-rimmed a dunk off a pick-and-roll that would have put several American players on a poster. He also showed the ability to pass out of a double team, hitting a cutter who drew a foul in the paint in the first half.
However, Seraphin is far from a finished product, especially on the defensive end. Like many young players, he can lose focus on that side of the floor, which both Chandler and Love exploited to get him into foul trouble. Reaching and grabbing when out of position is the quickest way to pick up fouls on the interior, a problem for Seraphin in both the Olympics and the NBA.
The biggest question about his future is his defensive position. At 6’9, he’s a “4.5”: undersized as a center but without the foot-speed to defend small-ball power forwards 20+ feet from the basket. His strength and wingspan should allow him to survive on the post, but he may be best suited for a role as the first big big man off the bench.
In many ways, the player he most resembles is his biggest competition for playing time next season in Washington: Emeka Okafor, whom the Wizards acquired from the New Orleans Hornets in a draft-day deal. While he could learn a lot about being a professional from Okafor, at a certain point, the best way for a young player to learn is doing not watching.
Washington will pay the 30-year-old Okafor $27 million over the next two seasons to block the development of a 23-year-old who can give them production as good, if not better. Per-36 minutes, the two had nearly identical numbers last season: 12 points, 10 rebounds and 1 block (Okafor) vs. 13 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks (Seraphin), both on 53% shooting.
Minutes are going to be hard to come by in the Wizards frontcourt in 2012 as they try to make a playoff push in John Wall’s third season. They have three veteran starters (Okafor, Nene and Trevor Ariza) in front of two combo forwards from the 2011 draft (Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton) and two more traditional big men from 2010 -- Seraphin and Trevor Booker.
The French frontcourt, with Turiaf, Diaw and longtime European veteran Ali Traore, is nearly as crowded. However, Seraphin has the best combination of athleticism, size and scoring ability of the four. If he can stay out of foul trouble and play solid positional defense, his post scoring could get France on the medal stand. It might open up some eyes on the other side of the Atlantic as well.