GB small forward Nick George and guard Nate Reinking show the skills and moves needed to make smaller players successful at the top level
By Rob Dugdale
This weekend, Great Britain's men's basketball team start their 2009 programme by taking on three top European nations at London's O2 Arena.
In doing so, they are taking the first steps in the most important competitive programme ever for British basketball.
In three and a half weeks' time, they will begin EuroBasket in Poland - the first time a home nation has qualified for the European Championship finals since 1981.
In that time, coach Chris Finch and his squad will have to find a way to make an impact without the prodigious talents of Chicago Bulls superstar Luol Deng, who has decided to rest the stress fracture of the leg that prematurely ended his NBA season.
I really believe that one through 12, we're going to have our deepest squad ever
GB coach Chris Finch
With Deng's former colleague Ben Gordon again opting not to join the national team, there is a danger of GB's summer being an anti-climax after the huge emotional boost that qualification gave the national programme last summer.
Finch, who has seen his team win games in Deng's absence before, remains positive. "The answer is yes - of course we can do it without Luol, that's how we have to approach everything," he told BBC Sport.
EuroBasket offers GB a further chance to convince Fiba, basketball's world governing body, that they deserve a place in the 2012 Olympics, a position that is still not secure despite host status or the team's rapid progress through the European ranks.
If GB were to qualify for the quarter-finals in Poland, they would almost certainly find themselves playing in next year's World Championships, a prospect that would have seemed unattainable when the programme restarted in 2006.
In-depth interview - Luol Deng
"I really believe that one through 12, we're going to have our deepest squad ever," said Finch.
"Certainly we'll be missing Luol's quality, but we may have to take a little more of a traditional approach to the way we play basketball. We're big and strong inside and we have to capitalise on that."
Finch will hope that by the time EuroBasket starts he has more strength inside, as the explosively athletic 6ft 9in Hackney-born forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu is still in Toronto, waiting to sign a new contract with the NBA's Raptors.
Experienced Scottish centre Robert Archibald, meanwhile, is still recovering from hernia surgery.
Deng will be a huge miss - Freeland
That leaves 7ft 1in forward Andy Betts - who began his career in Leicester but now plays for Greek powerhouse Aris Thessaloniki - and he constantly-improving Joel Freeland to provide the physical presence.
Freeland, from Farnham in Surrey, was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2006 NBA draft and has just joined leading Spanish side Unicaja Malaga.
Finch looks set to keep an enlarged squad together for as long as possible - injuries permitting - before naming the final 12 that will line up against Slovenia in the first game of EuroBasket Group C in Warsaw on 7 September.
Poland, Israel and Turkey are the opponents this weekend, in a tournament that offers British fans a chance to see the team at home for the last time this summer.
Nick George has a crucial role to play for GB this summer
Then the team will be "on the road", playing in Seville against Slovenia, Lithuania and world champions Spain and then travelling to Ankara for games against Macedonia and Latvia and probable further match-ups with two of Germany, Turkey or Croatia.
The 28-year wait for a place at Europe's top table is a statistic that is not lost on Nick George, probably Deng's natural replacement on the squad.
"It's going to be an exciting summer," he says. "It's a great time to be a part of British basketball. We've come a long way and the group of guys we have just have to continue to work hard and we can still accomplish everything that we expect."
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