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In our Thrills in Tokyo series, we’ll highlight some of the summer Olympics biggest competitions. More than just focusing on the teams, we’ll look at the colleges from which these athletes hail.
With its players of Olympics past, USA Men’s Basketball has managed to rake in three consecutive gold medals. But with a mostly rookie team, can the squad continue the streak?
The 2020 team doesn’t come to Tokyo with much Olympic experience. Of its 12 players, 10 are making their debut in Tokyo, with Jayson Tatum and Keldon Johnson among the notable new names on the roster. As for the veterans, NBA star Kevin Durant returns for his third Games, seeking his third gold medal.
A former Texas Longhorn, Durant recently passed NBA player Carmelo Anthony as the all-time leading scorer in men’s Olympic basketball, breaking the record in a group stage game against the Czech Republic this Saturday. Considering that Durant’s the only active player in the top 10 scorers, he’ll most likely keep this title for many years.
But this is not the only Carmelo Anthony record Durant is keeping his eye on. If the U.S. team takes the gold August 7th, the 11-time NBA All Star will become the second American man to win three golds, after Anthony. And considering that the U.S. men have medaled in all 18 Olympics in which they’ve competed (including 15 gold), and that they’re on a three-Olympic victory streak, Durant may very well have another achievement by the time he leaves Tokyo.
With this long list of Olympic victories, the pressure is on for Team USA newcomers, as they’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill. Not only are they looking to make names for themselves in the world of basketball, they’re aiming to make history in the Olympic sport. And, while the new guys have been on point so far—the team has reached the finals for the fourth time in a row—anything can still happen.
Jayson Tatum and Keldon Johnson are among these newcomers participating in their first Olympics and, at 23 and 21 years old, are the youngest squad members.
While Tatum is just beginning his Olympic journey, he has already shown that he’s earned his spot. In Saturday’s game against the Czech Republic, the former Blue Devil scored a game-high of 27 points. Similarly, he played a key role in the team’s victory over Spain on Tuesday, coming off the bench to score 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting with three rebounds, two assists, and one steal in 18 minutes. As a result, Tatum has been publicly praised by teammate Kevin Durant. Of his teammate, Durant told NBC Boston, “This guy next to me will be the next one.”
And Tatum isn’t taking any of the praise for granted. After a year full of frustrations, including a battle with COVID-19 earlier this year that ended up costing him a spot on an All-NBA team, he understands the importance of this opportunity, and is making sure he enjoys the journey.
"You never know what could or couldn’t happen,” Tatum told NBC sports last month. “Just staying in the moment and enjoying this journey and process of being 23 and in the Olympics. It’s an honor and a dream come true,”
Johnson, who played for the University of Kentucky, was named to the Olympic roster days before the opening of the Games. While initially named to the U.S. select team, he was soon called to substitute for Bradley Beal, who had to withdraw from the Olympics after testing positive for COVID-19. The former Wildcat was handpicked by the team’s head coach Gregg Popovich, who also happens to be Johnson’s NBA head coach for the San Antonio Spurs.
Basketball runs in both Tatum and Johnson’s families. Johnson’s brother, Kaleb, also played college basketball. Similarly, Tatum’s father played basketball in college and is now a gym teacher and basketball coach. His cousin is former NBA player Tyronn Lue, and his godfather is retired NBA player Larry Hughes.
Although team USA got off to a rough start in these Games, losing 83-76 to France, their resilience has shone throughout subsequent matches. But there’s still work to do.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Tatum recently told NBC. “It’s win or go home right now. Everybody’s gotta do, contribute, do something extra, and make sure we win.”
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Catch full Olympic coverage on NBC, including the Men’s Basketball Final tonight, Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET.