August 30, 2019, 1:51 am
Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight feature and Part 2 of our preview of the upcoming FIBA World Championship that begins this Saturday! Last week we talked about the tournament’s details and the Group phase’s schedule while looking at some of the bottom and middle-tier teams that will be traveling to China.
I wanted to spend a few words on the different FIBA rules that make this event somewhat different from the NBA. Other than the playing time (4×10 minutes vs 4×12 minutes), the 3-point line (6.75m vs 7.24m), fouling out on five personal fouls, not six, and the lack of an offensive goaltending violation, it’s the importance of zone defense that makes the game very different. There is no “Shaquille O’ Neal rule” and the defensive player can stay in the paint for as long as he wants (and not up to three seconds like the NBA). This gives teams with a defensive force like Rudy Gobert a tremendous advantage while making the 3-point shooting a critical element for all competing teams.
It’s the reason why Kris Middleton and Joe Harris should have a strong tournament if Team USA wants to win the gold medal, and why teams like Australia and Lithuania will just form a wall (with Aron Baynes – Andrew Bogut and Domantas Sabonis – Jonas Valanciunas), challenging teams to beat them from long range.
Another little-known fact is that we’ll see a brand-new ball used at the tournament. Back in March, FIBA and Molten revealed the Molten BG5000, a next generation basketball that will make its debut at the World Cup. It’s a basketball with markedly improved control and grip performance, softer than in the past and therefore easier to control in every moment of the game. The general feedback has been solid and teams have been playing exhibition games with the new ball but I’m pretty sure that it will affect some players in the tournament.
Now let’s take a look at the teams that are expected to compete for the medals this year!
Canada (FIBA Ranking: 23)
Team Canada was consistently placed among the top teams in the world in the 70s and 80s, while the emergence of Steve Nash gave another boost to the team in the 90s, but the successful performances have become more sporadic in recent years. The North last played at a FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2010 and lost all five of their games but there is growing optimism after the national team’s reins were handed to Nick Nurse, who just led the Raptors to the club’s first NBA crown in his first season as a head coach in the league.
Nearly 30 NBA Canadians were invited to training camp but, similar to Team USA, there have been many dropouts including Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, R.J. Barrett, Tristan Thompson, Dwight Powell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kelly Olynyk, Chris Boucher and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Khem Birch and ex-NBAer Kyle Wiltjer will carry this group while it’s still unclear whether Cory Joseph, who has been away the last few weeks, will join the team on time.
Canada still has the potential to make some noise in China but they were unlucky as they were placed in the “group of death” along with Lithuania and Australia and getting out of the Group stage might prove to be a long shot.
Germany (FIBA Ranking: 22)
Germany has made strides in the international game the past several years, as the national team played well at the 2015 EuroBasket in Berlin, while, a couple years later at the 2017 EuroBasket they beat France in the Round of 16 to reach the quarterfinals.
Entering their first major competition since the retirement of Dirk Nowitzki, the Germans boast a healthy mix of energy that comes with youth and leadership brought by experienced veterans. The team will be looking to make a splash in China with their young and exciting NBA-based trio of Dennis Schroder, Daniel Theis and Maxi Kleber. Add in former Bull Paul Zipser and combo guard Isaac Bonga and nobody really knows what to expect from this team, which could ultimately be the most dangerous weapon at their disposal.
Turkey (FIBA Ranking: 17)
Turkey hasn’t missed a World Cup since 2002 and will look to build on its success in recent years, most notably the silver metal won in the 2010 World tournament held in Turkey. Cedi Osman, Furkan Korkmaz and Ersan Ilyasova highlight a deep squad that includes former Texas Longhorn Dogus Balbay, naturalized Turkish citizen Scottie Wilbekin, who was a stand out during his time at the University of Florida, and former Celtic Semih Erden.
Turkey is not among the heavy favorites for the World Cup crown, but this squad will absolutely fight for a chance to earn a trip to the Olympics in Tokyo next year.
Italy (FIBA Ranking: 13)
In the aftermath of Ettore Messina’s resignation following the team’s failure at the 2017 EuroBasket, Italy’s future looked uncertain, but the Federation hired Romeo Sacchetti, a relaxed and funny character with a pleasant and down-to-earth approach to the game.
In their first appearance at a World Cup since 2006, the Azzurri will count on Marco Belinelli, Danilo Gallinari and Luigi Datome, even though recent injuries have put their participation at risk. Datome has been dealing with a knee injury, while Gallinari underwent appendectomy in early August, but both players have progressed significantly and are expected to be medically cleared to play in the World Cup. Pelicans forward Nicolo Melli won’t be participating as he had knee surgery a couple weeks ago and is not yet ready to return to the court and give us a glimpse of what to expect from him next year in the NBA.
Italy will have a lot of offensive firepower but everything will depend on the team’s ability to defend at a higher level as, traditionally, FIBA competitions include low-scoring affairs where making stops wins games. This was evident in Italy’s latest exhibition games where they simply had no answer to the quick ball movement and pace of New Zealand, who defied the odds with one of the bigger wins (88-82) in their basketball history.
Getting out of Round 1 likely won’t be a problem as they face Angola, Philippines and Serbia in Group D but I’m not very optimistic about their chances of advancing further in the tournament.
Brazil (FIBA Ranking: 12)
Other than the USA, Brazil is the only team to have qualified for every one of the 18 FIBA Basketball World Cups. They head to China with a team that blends a number of veterans, including four-time World Cup participants Alex Garcia, Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa, and promising stars Bruno Caboclo, Yago Dos Santos and Marcos Louzada, while their head coach is no other than Aleksandar Petrovic, Drazen Petrovic’s older brother.
Brazil will battle Greece and Montenegro in Group F and their physical style is what makes them a favorite to advance deep into the tournament.
Australia (FIBA Ranking: 11)
Australia is expected to be one of the deepest teams in the World Cup, and they will be represented by no fewer than five players who saw action in the 2018-19 NBA season: Aron Baynes, Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles and Patty Mills. Physically imposing big men Baynes and Bogut will be ready to dominate under the basket while Ingles, veteran Mills and defensive pest Dellavedova are key components of a team that is clearly targeting a medal in the tournament.
Mills dropped 30 points on Team USA as the Boomers prevailed 98-94 last week, and while this may have just been an exhibition game, it will give them plenty of confidence as they enter the World Cup in China in a tough group against Canada and Lithuania. Ben Simmons’ absence definitely hurts but this is a group of players that have participated in multiple events together throughout the years and this might be one of their last chances to win a world class tournament together.
Russia (FIBA Ranking: 10)
Russia won a pair of silver medals at the World Cup in 1994 and 1998 but they haven’t been on the podium in the time since, having to settle for the 10th position in 2002 and the 7th in 2010, while the team has not won a medal at a major competition since the 2012 Olympics in London.
Under the guidance of David Blatt, the national team became champions at the 2007 EuroBasket and also won bronze medals at the 2011 EuroBasket and the 2012 Summer Olympics, validating Russia’s elite status, but after the American coach left, the Russian national basketball saw a deep crisis due to corruption and the federation’s conflict with FIBA.
The team performed poorly in recent years, partly due to a vast majority of top players rejecting participation and following a failed performance at the 2015 EuroBasket, Russia did not qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics. President of the Russian Basketball Federation Andrei Kirilenko believes in the success of the national team at the upcoming FIBA World Cup, although some of the leading players will be absent due to injuries.
Alexey Shved will miss the tournament since he has not fully recovered from an ankle injury, while point guards Dmitry Khvostov and Dmitry Kulagin, as well as centers Timofey Mozgov and Joel Bolomboy were also excluded from the team’s roster due to miscellaneous injuries. Russia looks like a wild card to me as they can be extremely dangerous if all the pieces fall together but the lack of focus and internal problems have hurt the team in recent years and I’m not so sure about their on- and off-court chemistry.
Greece (FIBA Ranking: 8)
The Greek national team has appeared at the FIBA World Cup seven times, with their best performance being in 2006 where they stunned United States in the tournament’s semifinal and lost to Spain in the final.
NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo joined the squad after a couple years of absence and he has been developing solid chemistry with the rest of the group that includes 2018-19 All-EuroLeague First Team selections Nick Calathes and Kostas Sloukas.
This is another deep roster that traditionally counts on elite defense and great execution, while the team has finally found some coaching stability with Thanasis Skourtopoulos after a lot of turmoil the last few years. I expect nothing less than a monster tournament by Giannis and this is a team that lacks elite shooting but has some nice all-around balance, making them one of the toughest opponents.
Lithuania (FIBA Ranking: 6)
Despite Lithuania’s small size, with a population of almost 3 million, the country’s devotion to basketball has made them a traditional global force. After the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990, the national team has won bronze medals in the first three Olympics to include NBA players – 1992, 1996, and 2000 – in addition to finishing fourth in 2004 and 2008, and in eighth place at the London 2012 Olympics, while also winning the FIBA EuroBasket for the third time in 2003, and a bronze medal in the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
The current team will be made up of an interesting mixture of veteran leadership and exciting young talent with Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas serving as the team’s interior anchors. Mantas Kalnietis is worth keeping an eye on after averaging 7.2 assists per game at the 2017 EuroBasket, while Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Jonas Maciulis will spread the floor. Facing Senegal, Australia and Canada, in the widely discussed “group of death”, they are my favorites for one of the medals and I believe they are one of the few teams that could actually challenge Team USA.
Serbia (FIBA Ranking: 4)
The Serbians haven’t lost any of their exhibition games to date, highlighted by wins over Lithuania (twice), Italy (twice), Turkey and Greece. Powering Serbia’s engine will be Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets, Boban Marjanovic of the Mavs and Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica of the Kings. There is also Marko Guduric, who recently penned a deal with the Grizzlies, former Clipper Miroslav Raduljica, who scored 13.3 points per game in the European Qualifiers and Spurs’ draft pick Nikola Milutinov.
Jokic’s performance at the Rio 2016 Olympics wasn’t exactly amazing (just 9.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game), but he is no longer a 21-year-old kid and is coming off his first playoff appearance and his first season as an NBA All-Star.
Serbia will miss Milos Teodosic but they have a frontline that will be tough for any other team in the tournament to match and their only opponent is really themselves, as proved by head coach’s Sasha Djordjevic ridiculous statement that “If we meet Team USA, may God help them.”
Argentina (FIBA Ranking: 5)
Argentina´s national basketball team remains among the most successful in the Americas, as it is the only national team in the FIBA Americas zone that has won the quintuplet crown: the FIBA World Cup (in 1950), the Olympic Gold Medal (2004), the FIBA Diamond Ball (2008), the FIBA AmeriCup (2001 and 2011) and the Pan American Gold Medal (1995 and 2019).
Luis Scola will be the man in the middle for Argentina while the always-reliable star duo of Patricio Garino and Facundo Campazzo join him as the faces of Argentina’s roster, while Spanish Liga ACB MVP Nicolas Laprovittola together with Spanish Liga ACB Finals MVP Campazzo (who is nursing a sprained ankle, however) make Argentina a clear favorite in the tournament. Scola has shown no signs of slowing down, and at the age of 39 he will play his fifth FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Even though I’m worried about the team’s durability, they are traditionally one of the most consistent squads.
France (FIBA Ranking: 3)
France has been constantly underachieving in recent years but they had tremendous success at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2014, stunning hosts Spain at the quarterfinals in Madrid before finishing third. Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo headline a deep roster where Frank Ntilikina was able to beat Elie Okobo for the third-string guard position. With France aiming for the top spots in China, they will also keep an eye in Group H, where Lithuania, Australia, Canada and Senegal will provide two of France’s opponents in the second round. This is another solid all-around team that could easily win the tournament.
Spain (FIBA Ranking: 2)
In the early years of the FIBA World Cup, Spain struggled to establish a steady presence as a competitor and the national team only qualified once between 1950 and 1970. Then, beginning in 1974, Spain developed into an elite basketball program and finished regularly among the tournament’s top, finally earning the gold medal at the 2006 FIBA World Cup.
Headlining the roster are NBA champion Marc Gasol, who will see action in his fourth World Cup, Ricky Rubio of the Suns (in his third World Cup) and the Hernangomez brothers, Willy and Juancho. Seasoned World Cup veterans Victor Claver, Segio Llull and Rudy Fernandez are also back for Spain, who will be led by Raptors assistant head coach Sergio Scariolo.
Getting out of the group phase won’t be an issue and the team will likely be cautious with its veterans in order to make a deep run.
USA (FIBA Ranking: 1)
The United States has been the most dominant team in international basketball for more than a decade, going unbeaten at every Olympics and FIBA Basketball World Cup since 2008. It’s been such a tremendous run that fans have to go all the way back to the 2006 World Cup semifinals in Japan to find the last time a USA team lost an official game (an 101-95 Greece triumph). What’s different in this tournament, though, is that Team USA will have to get it done as a team in the truest sense since most of the NBA’s top players are not in China.
Coach Gregg Popovich and his staff won’t have to manage any superstar egos but they will need to work on developing a system with a starting lineup and a second unit that fits every game plan. The problem is that most of the teams in the tournament also play under a system and count less on their superstars and more on playing as a group so USA will have to adjust to facing teams with tremendous cohesion and chemistry.
Everybody will be watching to see who emerges as the alpha dog while Team USA has to maintain their focus and composure at all costs against tough and physical squads that will absolutely challenge the team’s dominance.
Must-watch games in Round 1 (August 31st until September 5th)
Russia – Nigeria (8/31)
Turkey – Japan (9/1)
France – Germany (9/1)
Canada – Australia (9/1)
Nigeria – Argentina (9/2)
Brazil – Greece (9/3)
Lithuania – Canada (9/3)
Russia – Argentina (9/4)
Italy – Serbia (9/4)
Lithuania – Australia (9/5)