Great Britain-Russia Preview
Britain barely has a history worth mentioning when it comes to Olympic basketball, but Luol Deng hopes to change that this summer.
Paced by a talented frontcourt, Russia believes this might be the year it finally reaches the podium.
Competing on the Olympic stage for the first time in 64 years, host Britain opens play Sunday against Russia in London.
With basketball having such little presence in Britain, FIBA, the sport's governing body, hesitated to award the hosts the traditional automatic Olympic bid -- its first since going 0-5 when London hosted the 1948 Games. The federation wanted to make sure the team would be competitive and interest in the sport would remain in Britain well after these Games ended.
The club held up its part, qualifying for the European championships in 2009 and 2011.
Deng, the Chicago Bulls' All-Star who was born in the Sudan and grew up in London, is the only current NBA player on the British roster.
"Plan to make Britain proud," Deng said. "(Can't) wait to step on the court with my teammates at the Games."
Recovered from a wrist injury, Deng averaged 18 points during the national team's six warmup games this summer. That included a 25-point effort during a 117-78 loss to the United States on July 19.
Though the team could have a hard time winning a game, let alone a medal, Deng hopes it puts forth a respectable showing to make basketball more than an afterthought in Britain.
"I am excited," Deng told FIBA's official website. "There are lots of kids in the UK who want to get to the NBA. Whatever we are doing here will make them believe in it."
Though Deng has the most extensive NBA experience on the roster, Britain is not void of talent. Joel Freeland, a 6-foot-10 forward, signed with the Portland Trail Blazers on July 13 while forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu played 61 games for five NBA teams from 2006-11. Guard Andrew Lawrence averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 assists for the College of Charleston last season.
However, the hosts will be without NBA players Ben Gordon and Byron Mullens. While Mullens is injured, the London-born Gordon opted to pass on the Olympic experience.
"It's really disappointing as (Gordon is) a world-class player who would have made a huge difference," Houston Rockets assistant and British head coach Chris Finch said.
Britain opens pool play against a Russian team it lost 76-54 to during an exhibition contest in Houston on June 28. Andrei Kirilenko, who recently received a two-year, $20 million contract from the Minnesota Timberwolves, scored 16 points and had eight rebounds to lead the way for the Russians.
The 6-10 Kirilenko averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds for the Utah Jazz from 2001-11 before playing with CSKA Moscow last season. He's joined by 7-1 center Timofey Mozgov, who averaged 5.4 points and 4.1 boards for the Denver Nuggets in 2011-12, and 6-9 former Trail Blazer and Bull Viktor Khryapa to make up a talented post presence.
Looking for the nation's first Olympic basketball medal, Russia hopes for a better performance after finishing ninth in Beijing in 2008. The Russians, however, went 10-1 to place third at the 2011 Euros. Kirilenko averaged 14.6 points and Khryapa 5.1 assists during the tournament.
That performance and some success in tune-up games have the Russian's believing they can be a sleeper in London.
"We worked hard for this all summer," said forward Alexsey Shved, who signed with the Timberwolves this week. "Everyone on our team wants to take a medal."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index