Boomers gold medal contenders with Ben Simmons inclusion

AP Photo/Chris Szagola

There was no hesitation in Luc Longley's voice.

"It certainly changes what we do, and how we do it," the Boomers assistant coach told ESPN. "It changes everybody's expectations."

The "it" of course was in reference to Ben Simmons officially making himself available for the Boomers, in their quest for a major tournament medal in the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China. Simmons headlines a 17-man Boomers World Cup selection squad announced this morning at Marvel Stadium, and one which features 9 NBA players, and few surprises.

Thon Maker made himself unavailable, joining Ryan Broekhoff and Dante Exum in missing the tournament.

The NBL is well-represented by the likes of Chris Goulding, Nathan Sobey, Nick Kay, Mitch McCarron and Cam Gliddon, rewarded for their strong efforts during the qualification process. Perhaps the only mild surprise was the inclusion of Todd Blanchfield, though outside shooting was a premium need.

The announcement of the 17 combatants -- that will be trimmed to 12 as the final tournament roster takes shape -- to take on the world crystallises the imminent journey for that elusive major tournament medal. The metaphorical wheels are firmly in motion; it makes it all real.

And the realisation is that the Boomers should not only be contenders for a medal - they are perhaps at the vanguard of the proverbial line, behind only Team USA. On paper, it's a very strong squad that features a balance of size, shooting and athleticism, as well as a cocktail of tournament veterans and steady hands.

The likes of Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles and Aron Baynes have graced multiple Olympic campaigns. Ditto for Brock Motum. They understand fully the challenges of tournament play, and the highs and lows that must be mastered over a short span of time.

There is fresh blood in the form Jonah Bolden, Deng Adel, Jock Landale. The youth infuses a wondrous vibrancy and effervescent vibe that youth naturally brings.

Of course, the centrepiece of all this is Ben Simmons. With him, the Boomers rocket past a gaggle of jostling teams for medal contention. They could, and should, eye the gold medal.

He is the singular star talent within the squad - shooting ability or not - who lifts the ceiling of this team, and capable of handling the pressures foisted upon his young shoulders.

With that in mind, how he is utilised within the system will be key.

"We imagine him handling the ball a lot," Longley told ESPN, "and pushing the ball up the floor."

The coaching staff will undoubtedly consult with Simmons, and work with him to identify how he can be most effectively embedded within Andrej Lemanis' ecosystem of player movement, dribble hand-offs, and side-to-side action in the half-court.

Key to this is decision-making, and in Simmons, the Boomers have a huge (literally) playmaker.

"We want him in a decision-making position for sure," says Longley

Much will be revealed over the next few months as the Boomers prepare for camp and their pre-World Cup warm-up games, yet the early indications are that Simmons will be deployed as the head of the snake. He will handle the ball a tonne.

In that respect, on-court spacing looms large. Lemanis line-ups typically deploy two traditional bigs in the system.

Remember, at the last major tournament, in Rio, he was happy to pair two non-shooting bigs in Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes (yes, Baynes dabbles in the midrange and 3-point range a bit, but that essentially amounts to surrendering a possession). It appears we're set for something similar.

"Some of our strengths are still [having] Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes," says Longley. "So we'll definitely play bigs."

It's true that this Boomers squad boasts an armada of big men with divergent skillsets which potentially makes jumbo line-ups more palatable. And how Lemanis pairs and cycles his big men rotation take on added significance, particularly with a non-shooter in Simmons.

"We like playing through the post," adds Longley, "and obviously Ben [Simmons] can't penetrate every possession. So the other way to penetrate is to throw it to the middle. So we'll do some of that."

Yet a jumbo line-up makes very little sense if it ostensibly dooms your shooting quotient on the floor. Jonah Bolden can legitimately stretch the floor, as can Motum.

Young Zalgiris centre, Jock Landale, provides another big, mobile body who excels at rolling and bouncy finishes around the rim. His outside shooting is a thing in progress. Thon Maker's absence removes a shooting big from the equation. We saw teams dare Joe Ingles to shoot in Rio, when his shot deserted him (memo to teams: you can't get away with that anymore).

On Ingles, Longley says "he's going to play a major role. We'll get him onto his left hand, and get him downhill a bit, and get him shooting."

The Boomers' brains trust will need to strike that balance between maintaining size and just enough shooting on the court.

"I think teams are going to pack it in the paint against us and just try to basically wall off at the foul line with Ben," says Longley. "I suspect we will have to practice a lot against the zone."

Without the floor-spacing services of Ryan Broekhoff, NBL-based sharpshooters in Chris Goulding, Gliddon and Blanchfield will vie for tournament berths.

How the rotation plays out will be fascinating.

"Obviously we're going to need to select shooting around [Simmons], because he penetrates so well," says Longley. "And we're going to try to get into transition, an even bigger emphasis than the one we already had."

One way to beat the zone, and any set defence, will be to quicken the pace of play, looking for early looks in transition and semi-transition. This Boomers squad, perhaps more so than any other iteration, boasts collective athleticism which could potentially unlock a deadly transition game.

"I think our big focus is going to be having to play a really good defensive game, and run out of defensive transition. That's the way to use Ben and Joe, [and that] is to get up and down the floor."

In Simmons, Creek, Sobey, McCarron and Deng Adel, the Boomers have a group of slashers which adds an athletic edge to the squad.

It's clearly an added dimension. As Lemanis told ESPN in February regarding Sobey and his supernova athletiscm, "that's something in the international level that you look at and go, 'well, that's worth something.' It's intriguing."

That intrigue becomes an amorphous, shapeshifting group who can provide the Boomers with defensive line-up flexibility.

"[Simmons] can obviously guard one through four," says Longley, "so it gives us a lot of switchability playing alongside some of the guys we've got."

"Jonah Bolden is a great athlete. He can play a few positions for us, and he can really guard."

The fully-actualised image is tantalising; Simmons fully unleashed in transition, quick-hitting passes up-court - after makes and misses from the opposition - with athletes lining the wings.

"But then we're going to need the Creeks and the [Nick] Kays of this world also," says Longley. "It doesn't matter how long and glamourous you want to be. There's still a fair bit of bump and grind to do at the defensive end. Getting through screens and under pindowns, and over cross-screens, boxing out."

Despite the imagery, Longley's note of caution rings true. All the possibilities of the glitz and glamour of up-tempo basketball can dissipate against teams that scout effectively, impose a physicality, and grind down the pace of play.

This is where the veterans come in; where the steady hand, the gruff and hardened souls of the team surface with sage advice, or a well-timed play. It's where the oft-used notion of "toughness" resurfaces.

And it should.

The final team will take shape, and there are selections that will be no-brainers. But it appears the notion of size and toughness will play an integral role within the calculus of final team construction, an aspect that is firmly entrenched within the minds of the Boomers.

"You know what happened to us against Serbia in Rio [Olympic semi-final]," says Longley, "where we got out-muscled, particularly in the middle of the floor."

That last point perhaps remains most poignant - a stark reminder of the challenge that awaits and that there is no easy path. Still, expectations shouldn't be tempered; this Boomers squad has the versatility and the ingredients to be special and achieve history.

Ben Simmons will headline the final squad to China. We'll soon find out who joins him.