Croatia asserts itself among Team USA’s biggest threat in 2020 Olympics

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Team USA was the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball. Team USA is the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball. Team USA will be the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball.

The Americans have won 14 of 18 gold medals in the sport, half the misses coming in controversy – the stolen 1972 finish and a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. The U.S. has won the last two golds and carries a 23-game winning streak.

The United States’ biggest competition is the field. Play enough games in what becomes a single-elimination tournament, and you’re bound to slip somewhere.

But there are always another nations that presents bigger tests than others. Right now, Spain leads the pack. The Spaniards have won the last two silver medals, looked darned good against top competition in Rio and spooked Team USA more than anyone else.

By the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. could have a new top challenger. Keep an eye on Croatia.

Croatia was narrowly eliminated by Serbia in a quarterfinal yesterday, but the Croatians impressed prior. They beat Spain, Brazil and Lithuania to win Group B. A loss to Nigeria is inexplicable, but it can probably be attributed to another reason I’m so high on Croatia: its youth.

The Croatians – led by Bojan Bogdanovic (27), Dario Saric (22) and Mario Hezonja (20) – are the youngest team to win a game in Rio.

Here’s every team in the 2016 Olympics sorted by average age, weighted by playing time:

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China went 0-5, losing by nearly 30 points per game. It’ll take far more than typical player development for the Chinese to make an impact in Tokyo

Serbia is nearly as young as Croatia, and 21-year-old Nikola Jokic remains underrated. The Serbs aren’t going anywhere, either.

But it’s also about who’s missing. While Serbia is playing without Boban Marjanovic and Nemanja Bjelica, Croatia could add three 2016 draft picks: No. 4 pick Dragan Bender (Suns), No. 23 pick Ante Zizic (Celtics) and No. 32 Ivica Zubac (Lakers).

Of course, Croatia isn’t the only team with talent that didn’t reach Rio.

Australia – which beat Serbia, which beat Croatia – has Ben Simmons, Dante Exum and Thon Maker in the wings. But don’t count on Patty Mills (28), Andrew Bogut (31), Aron Baynes (29), David Anderson (36) and even Matthew Dellavedova (25) to be as good four years from now.

France could reload with Evan Fournier, Ian Mahinmi, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Petr Cornelie and maybe even Joakim Noah. (The Knicks think the 31-year-old Noah will be fine in four years.)

Canada, which didn’t even qualify for the 2016 Olympics, might be able to build a roster full of NBA talent. Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles, Jamal Murray and Kelly Olynyk look formidable.

But, aside from Team USA, nobody in Tokyo will match Croatia’s Olympic success, youth and incoming talent – at least if all goes to plan. Four years is a long time, and a lot can change between now and 2020.

Still, Croatia entered the 2016 Games looking to be an Olympiad away from seriously threatening for a medal. The Rio results should only lift expectations for Croatia in Tokyo.