Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

48 hours after it still feels surreal and it'll probably continue to feel surreal, no matter what. Italy will play in the Olympic Games again, 17 years have passed since their last appearance, which was in Athens in 2004 when the Italian NT got the silver medal.

Points this season

45%
90,3
Points made: 90,3
Accuracy: 45,2%
Place in standings: 4
Record max: 102
Record min: 79
Best scorer: Simone Fontecchio

I was 15 years old when that happened, Italy playing against Argentina in the basketball tournament final at the Olympic Games. Since then Italy was unable to return to such a level again. There have been many disappointments, many failures, and obviously no Olympics.

Now, in 2021, in a period so complex for so many different reasons, the national team pulled off a miracle, securing a ticket to Tokyo in a qualification tournament hosted by Serbia. Is it maybe too much to call it a miracle? Well, not necessarily. The team coached by Meo Sacchetti arrived in Belgrade without its three best players: Danilo Gallinari, who was still playing in the NBA playoffs, Marco Belinelli, and Gigi Datome, both dealing with very long seasons and recovering from physical issues. All the hopes were placed in Nik Melli, coming from an NBA season in which he played very limited minutes, Achille Polonara, who just had a fantastic season with Baskonia, and the young gun Niccolo Mannion, coming from his rookie season in the NBA.

To be completely honest, even the Italian federation wasn't exactly showing a lot of confidence. In the months leading up to the Qualifying tournament, Gianni Petrucci, the president of the Italian basketball federation (FIP), made no secret that he was already talking with other coaches for the future of the National Team. The current coach's contract was set to expire in September.

"The coach at the Qualifying tournament will be Sacchetti but as the president of the federation, it's my duty to explore the options for the future. Sacchetti's contract is set to expire in September and I have to consider all the options on the table. Eurobasket 2022 will be in Italy, can I think about the future? I'm free to think that Ettore Messina is the best Italian coach and one of the best in Europe," Petrucci said back in March.

But after the victory in the qualifying tournament, Petrucci decided to extend Sacchetti's deal until Eurobasket 2022. He announced such news during an interview in Italy. A one-year extension will give some level of safety for the coach. Sacchetti himself was coming from a very complicated season. He had been hired by Fortitudo Bologna and expectations were pretty high but the season began in a very poor way and Sacchetti was fired in December. The overall situation wasn't good and the level of hope to secure a spot for the Olympic Games wasn't at an all-time high. Moreover, Italy hadn't beaten Serbia in an official tournament since 2009. 

But now, hopefully, many of us can say that we saw what happened on Sunday evening. Italy was the best team on the court and they deserved to get the spot in Tokyo. Even coach Kokoskov and player Nemanja Bjelica stated in the post-game conference that "the better team won."

Nico Mannion was lights out with 24 points and 4 assists in less than 28 minutes. He played with pride, energy, and swagger in front of his parents, Pace, a former NBA player, and Gaia, a former Italian volleyball player. His parents came all the way from Utah to watch him play, something that made Nico so proud of his decision to represent the Italian colors: "This is not what I expected, it's even bigger than I imagined. The last time that Italy played in the Olympics I was 3 years old. I saw my mom crying in the stands, the fact that my parents were here to watch means the world to me. I feel so lucky and blessed," Mannion said after the game.

Another young gun on the Italian roster, Alessandro Pajola, born in 1999, was a key factor during the win over Serbia. Despite spraining his ankle in the first game of the tournament against Puerto Rico, the Virtus Bologna's guard was able to recover from the injury and play a fantastic game in the final. Pajola finished with 10 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal in 21 minutes. He showed, once again, what a fierce defensive player he is but also how he could impact a game offensively, shooting 66% from 3-point and finding his teammates in the corners.

Simone Fontecchio, another Italian player that really started to shine only after he left the Italian league, made a huge statement during the Qualifying tournament, averaging 19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists per game while shooting 53% from 3-point range. His season in Berlin under coach Aito Garcia improved him as a better player. Fontecchio seemed always in control, confident in his qualities, and was able to be a constant threat on both ends of the court. When he made the jump to Euroleague last summer, many in Italy didn't believe he was good enough for the elite level. After just one season in Germany, he has already become one of the most coveted players on the market. This tournament has only confirmed his impressive growth.

With the ticket to Tokyo now secured, coach Meo Sacchetti has to decide the 12 players that will compose the Olympic roster. The expectation is that most of the guys that played in the qualifying tournament will remain. Only one change is likely to happen, sources tell BasketNews, Danilo Gallinari is expected to be a part of the roster, replacing one of Pippo Ricci and Awudu Abass, with the latter the most likely losing his spot.

After the elimination of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals, Gallinari said that he'd be honored to join the team. The Italian superstar couldn't play in the qualifying tournament because the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. However, now that his NBA season is over, it looks like Gallinari is not in a rush for a vacation.

Due to his commitment to Duke University, instead, it's highly unlikely that Italian prospect Paolo Banchero will be part of the trip to Tokyo. There's also the need to remind that, according to FIBA rules, Banchero has the "naturalized" status, because he hasn't had enough years of formation in Italy. Per FIBA rules, National teams can only have one of these "naturalized" players on their active rosters.

At the Olympic Games, Italy will play in Group B together with Australia, Germany, and Nigeria. Not the most difficult group but at the same time, not exactly the easiest one either. The preliminary roster of Nigeria is filled with NBA players, including Toronto Raptors Og Anunoby, Detroit Pistons Jahlil Okafor, Denver Nuggets Monte Morris, and Chicago Bulls veteran Al-Farouq Aminu. Australia will not have Ben Simmons but the Sixers will still provide a player to the Boomers with the addition of defensive swingman Matisse Thybulle. All the other NBA stars from the Australian team will be in Tokyo, including Joe Ingles, Patty Mills, and Matthew Dellavedova. Germany followed the same path as Italy to arrive in Tokyo, winning the qualifying tournament in Split. This might not be the strongest version of the German side but they remain a very dangerous team with several EuroLeague players, including Maodo Lo, Johannes Voigtmann, and Danilo Barthel. But Italian fans want to keep dreaming after securing a spot in the Olympics. After all, they managed to win a silver medal the last time they played in the Olympics.

But dreams aside, Italy cannot waste such a great chance to strengthen its movement. After the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the Italian movement started to lose momentum and despite producing some great talent, the level of the domestic league got worse and the National team failed several opportunities to win trophies.

Paris 2024 must be the real target for the federation, as there are several young prospects on the way up (Matteo Spagnolo, Sasha Grant, Abramo Canka, and Federico Casarin). And with Paolo Banchero considered as one of the best draft prospects for 2022, the future looks promising for Italy but something has to change, especially in the Italian Serie A. Petrucci keeps repeating this mantra that teams should give more minutes to the Italian players because they'll produce results. But what he fails to realize is that it's not only about minutes but also about the amount of trust that they receive from their teams.

Minutes are just numbers. You can play minutes in garbage time and learn nothing. You can play minutes in not particularly competitive environments and do not improve. A lot of teams in Italy sign Italian players because they have to, not because they really want to build a project around them. Because the rules of the federation are really protective of the local players, teams need to sign at least 5 Italians, otherwise, they will not be allowed to compete.

And while the richest teams are able to offer much more money to the players, for the rest, the available pool of Italian guys becomes smaller, forcing them to sign guys who'd be better suited for the second division or that are simply not good enough to have a certain level of ambition. And let's not start talking about arenas and infrastructures, because Italy is light years behind the other main basketball countries.

Maybe the dark clouds are really behind the Italian basketball now, however, as always, only time will tell. For the moment, it's time to pack the bags and go to Tokyo. The Olympic Games are waiting.

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Sigis
this is good stuff! Especially last part about improving italian league and how the local player protection is essentially a failed experiment when done on its own... Russia has the same issue
2021-07-06
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Simone Fontecchio

Simone  Fontecchio
Team: ALBA Berlin
Italy
Position: SF, SG
Age: 25
Height: 203 cm
Weight: 91 kg
Birth place: Pescara, Italy