By Rob Scott, George Rowland and Austin Green

EuroBasket 2017 is nearly here, and after all of the build up, anticipation and almost daily news of another star player’s injury, it’s finally time for some games. With 24 teams across four cities, all of a sudden there’s a lot going on here.

There’s a full schedule here, but maybe you don’t have the time or patience to sit through every matchup – and with either six or, gasp, 12 games per day over eight days, who has? Don’t stress though, ELA has your back, and we’ve picked out five must-see encounters from the group phase of play, presented below in chronological order.

If you have those tiresome obligations like seeing your friends/spouse/children or mandatory attendance at your place of employment, consider this a cheat sheet for maximum EuroBasket efficiency.

Of course if you want a full breakdown of each group in podcast form, our four EuroBasket 2017 Preview Podcasts are on our Patreon page. For $5 per month you can get these plus exclusive EuroLeague content over the season, including a weekly newsletter, analysis and podcasts you won’t find anywher else.

Serbia vs Latvia

Group D, Friday 1st September, Istanbul, 1600 CET

(Rob)

The first game for both teams should offer revealing insights into their prospects for the tournament, against a contrasting background to their preparations. Serbia has been ravaged by injuries and withdrawals, counting Nikola Jokic, Milos Teodosic, Nikola Kalinic, Stefan Markovic, Nemanja Nedovic, Nemanja Bjelica, Marko Simonovic and Miroslav Raduljica missing from the squad. In a Eurobasket that runs the risk of being defined by who isn’t playing than who is, no country has suffered a bigger dent to its personnel.

On the contrary, Lativa has been invigorated by the presence of their very own seven-foot unicorn, treasured Patronus of what’s left of Knicks fans’ sanity, Kristaps Porzingis.  Alongside the Bertans Brothers, spritely shotmaker Janis Strelnieks, bouncy new Baskonia wing Janis Timma and a mixture of youth and experience on the bench, it’s almost too obviously tempting to place the ‘other’ Baltic nation in the medal rounds before the first ball has been tipped. Only Philly’s second round pick Anzejs Pasecniks chose to lift weights rather than play ball this summer, and he plays the same position as their best player anyway.

So those are the headline narratives, but in the Case of the Absent Serbs let’s flip it round to a positive reason to tune in. Serbian basketball is at its most compelling when its back is against the wall. Despite the insane volume of talent that won’t be playing, let’s look the amount that is.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, freshly minted Euroleague champion looking to make his mark in the NBA, is the best non-Gasol in the tournament. Remember the head-bobbing dementor of OAKA? If Bogdan can run the show, pulling up for threes and punishing defenders off the dribble, the creativity of Milos and Markovic can be replaced. Not to mention a hopefully-healthy Stefan Jovic pulling the strings in a more artful way.

In Branko Lazic they still have the most destructive on-ball defender in last season’s Euroleague, and a centre rotation that boasts height, size and depth. Boban Marjanovic was an impossible cover before he departed for San Antonio, Ognjen Kuzmic was reborn at Crvena Zvezda – and has an impeccable Pick and Roll relationship with former teammate Jovic. Vlado Stimac can bang around with and body up pretty much anybody. Dragan Milosavljevic and Vladimir Lucuc can bring shooting and off-the dribble closeout attacks. At the slow, slow pace they will probably play with, it will still be mentally and physically tough to beat this squad. If they do manage to make it to the late stages, imagine the siege mentality and togetherness that beating the odds could instill in them?

Countering all of that is a Latvian roster that poses Serbia the most difficult questions of any Group D opponent in terms of matchups. How does any team defend a pair of forwards 2.08m and 2.21m who can curl off screens and bury threes, let alone one whose frontline is Milan Macvan, Stefan Bircevic and a trio of bulky, relatively immobile centres? Davis Bertans and Porzingis will expose many frontcourts this way, but Serbia’s depleted lineup might be particularly vulnerable.

In our Patreon preview podcasts, we debated whether Nikola Kalinic might be given the task of trying to harass Bertans despite the height disadvantage, but he was a late scratch.

Having said all of this about the deep ball, Porzingis himself hasn’t been involved in many pick and pop or pindown action in friendlies, more often rolling to the rim to finish inside, or attacking off the dribble, something that hurt Donatas Motiejunas in a warmup win over Lithuania. Since he departed Sevilla for New York he has sprouted to 221cm, just a lone centimetre smaller than Marjanovic. On the defensive end, Porzingis is one of the few truly big humans who can matchup equally with the Bobinator.

If Latvia makes it rain from beyond the arc, perhaps coach Sasa Djordevic will have to rely on Lazic to cut off the supply at source and hedge his bigs high above the three-point line anyway, risking gaps behind. Porzingis has never been the most visionary passer, so perhaps trying to force him into decisions with the ball might be the best poison to pick? Add in the likely clash of styles with Ainars Bagatskis’ uptempo Latvia against Djordevic’s more slow-grind Serbia and this game should be fascinating.

There will be a long way to go after the final buzzer at Ulker Arena on Friday afternoon, but this game should give us a clue as to how real these teams’ medal prospects really are. To me, both seem completely legitimate.

Montenegro vs Croatia

Group C, Monday 4th September, Cluj, 1645 CET

(George)

Group C has the potential to be a damp squib. Hosts Romania are clearly a cut below the rest of the competition, Spain are clearly the favourites for not only the group but also the whole tournament, and both Hungary and the Czech Republic lack both the quality and excitement to really capture attention.

That leaves us with Croatia and Montenegro, both teams have been understated in a preparation period that has been dominated more by the players who won’t be on court than those that will. But match ups between ex-Yugoslav nations – where regional bragging rights are on the table – always have more than just tournament progression at stake.

On the face of things both teams carry levels of talent that should see them progress through into the later stages of the competition. But both have had a bad habit for chemistry issues leading to underwhelming performances in recent years.

Croatia will be led by the indomitable spirit of Dario Saric hustling for rebounds, leading fast breaks and screaming his way around the court and with Bojan Bogdanovic, Kruno Simon, Marko Popovic and Roko Ukic hanging around in the backcourt, there’s sure to be some ballsy offensive plays and blown defensive coverages keeping things interesting.

The wild card for Croatia is Dragan Bender, a super talented youth player who didn’t get to show much in Maccabi’s senior team before heading to the NBA where he wasn’t able to see much court time with the Phoenix Suns either. Whether Bender will be able to contribute much at all remains to be seen, especially with Saric eating up a major amount of minutes at the 4 but with a weak center rotation (Planinic, Zoric, Buva) there should be an opportunity for him to grab minutes elsewhere.

Montenegro present a wholly different set of strengths than Croatia, with Nikola Vucevic, Bojan Dubljevic, Filip Barovic and Marko Todorovic they arguably have the strongest centre rotation that doesn’t have a Gasol in it. As this lines up with Croatia’s biggest weakness, it will probably help them overcome their weakness at the wings, where they have some handy role players, but lack out and out elite talent unless Dino Radoncic has a breakout tournament.

The big question mark for Montenegro is Tyrese Rice, whose ongoing off-season drama with Barcelona will probably have put not just a chip, but an entire plank on his shoulder. If Rice can harness this constructively, Montenegro have the players elsewhere on court to be able to ride him deep into the tournament, if not, they could blow up very quickly.

Germany v Italy

Group B, Tuesday 5th September, Tel Aviv, 1945 CET

(Rob)

The mere mention of games between these nations is instantly evocative – in football. Marco Tardelli, Fabio Grosso and all that. In hoops, not so much, but this could be an intriguing contrast to the gruelling, high stakes endurance events of those World Cup football clashes.

Germany will be led by Dennis Schröder, the irrepressible Atlanta Hawks scoring guard. He played for his country at Dirk’s last hurrah, the deeply unsuccessful EuroBasket 2015 in which Germany finished 18th, but between then and now he has blossomed into an NBA star, signed a $70 million contract and established himself as the Hawks lead playmaker. Going into the 2015 tournament he had started 10 NBA games. Now he is the bona fide leader for the national squad, and the main question going into these games is if anyone will be able to stop him?

Italy couldn’t manage in it in a group phase game in Berlin two years ago, as Schröder racked up 29 points, but they eventually got the win in OT. Danilo Gallinari poured in 25 of his own, but of course he’ll be missing this time around.

Italy is in a transitional period. Andrea Bargnani returned to Europe like a guy with $71 million career earnings. Ale Gentile may have matched his rapid decline without the lucrative NBA chapter. Gallinari jumped the queue and broke his hand punching someone before he even wore the damn Clippers jersey. Marco Belinelli plays in his fifth Eurobasket, the first since 2007 with no NBA teammates.

Ettore Messina’s team is in a curious position, trying to bridge between the Belinelli-Datome-Gallinari generation born between 1986 and ‘88, and a bright future. The 1998 generation won bronze at the 2016 European u18s and silver at this summer’s World u19s. Backup wing Awudu Abass won gold at the 2013 European u20s but teammates Amadeo Della Valle and Stefano Tonut weren’t selected for the senior squad this summer, mystifyingly from my point of view at least.

It’s hard to see what a drill-sergeant like Messina has to gain from it all as he builds a late-career NBA resume, adrift from a European hoops scene that may have passed him by. He will step down after the tournament, which some think for the Azzurri may be the day after this game.  It might be a few years before the next generation steps up at senior level.

So why tune in? Because against Messina’s best instincts, Italy may have to go all-out for pace-and-space shotmaking, with either Daniel Hackett or (my choice) Ariel Filloy spreading the ball to Pietro Aradori, Belinelli, Datome and Nicolo Melli and shoot teams out of the gym. Schröder, Maodo Lo’s growing confidence as a shotmaker with Robin Benzing and Johannes Voigtmann spacing the floor could be showtime. There’s new Celtic Daniel Theis and his rim-running/shot-blocking act at either end, particularly if he plays alongside erstwhile Bamberg teammate Lo.

There’s also a chance, with Italian absences, to see some relatively unheralded domestic league players get their moment. Filipo Baldi Rossi won Euro u20 gold in 2011 with Melli and Gentile but missed Trento’s lightning-in-a-bottle run to the Serie A finals with an ACL injury. Filloy won those finals with Venezia and his smooth, sober distribution should be ideal on a team where other guys should be taking most of the shots. Paul Biligha is a bouncy undersized centre who has worked his way up the leagues. These guys will hustle, unlike some of their more illustrious recent predecessors in the blue jersey.

Belinelli has existed in NBA purgatory in Sacramento and Charlotte after becoming the first Italian to hoist the LO’B, so it’s a rare treat to see his effortless scoring flurries on this side of the Atlantic. It probably won’t be significant for the tournament as a whole, but could be a very enjoyable game.

Slovenia vs France

Group A, Wednesday 6th September, Helsinki, 1345 CET

(Austin)

The Milwaukee Bucks robbed us of Luka Doncic vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, so I’m going with the next best thing: Doncic vs. France’s army of fun, creative wings.

At just 18-years-old, Doncic will have an incredible amount of responsibility for Slovenia. He’ll likely be their primary scoring option and secondary creator when Goran Dragic is on the floor, and take over as the primary playmaker when Dragic is out. Like with Real Madrid, he will play a role we typically expect from grown men in their primes. And also like with Real Madrid, I expect him to deliver.

In Slovenia’s friendly games, Doncic was excellent. He rebounded and pushed the ball upcourt, set up his teammates, moved well without the ball, buried 3s at a high rate and attacked with his special blend of patience and aggressiveness.

Doncic will likely be a top 5 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and he’s been touted by many (including me) as perhaps the best European prospect ever. A strong showing vs. France will help justify the hype.

The French are missing their premier NBA stars (Gobert, Parker, Batum), but they still have a loaded squad, especially on the perimeter.

Evan Fournier is the headliner, and it will be interesting to see how well (and how much) Doncic defends a scorer of Fournier’s caliber. Fournier, 24, averaged 17 points per game for the Orlando Magic last season, and that commands a lot of respect. With Doncic widely regarded as Europe’s best perimeter prospect ever, Fournier is probably going to take this matchup personally. Nobody wants to get punked by an 18-year-old, especially prideful NBA starters. He’s going to go at Doncic hard.

On the other end of the floor, I expect France to put Axel Toupane on Doncic for much of the game. Toupane couldn’t quite make it in the NBA, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his European return with Zalgiris is a one-and-done situation. He’s an excellent athlete, and it remains to be seen if Doncic can consistently create separation against NBA-level athleticism.

Outside of those two, France features a delightful group of creators — Thomas Heurtel, Nando de Colo, Leo Westermann and Antoine Diot are all brilliant passers who can also create for themselves. Paired with Fournier and Toupane, they have six guys who are good-to-great pick-and-roll ball-handlers, and with Boris Diaw in the frontcourt, this France squad is a skilled, unselfish group who play a beautiful style.

At the receiving end of these pretty passes, France has some exciting finishers in Kevin Seraphin (if healthy), Joffrey Lauvergne, Vincent Poirier and the beautifully Afro’d Louis Labeyrie.

Watching these guys try to dunk on naturalized Slovenian Anthony Randolph — and vice-versa — will be just as fun as Doncic and Dragic vs. the French perimeter players.

Finland vs Iceland

Group A, Wednesday September 6th, Helsinki, 1945 CET

(George)

The hipster’s choice! Both of these teams have built reputations as lovable underdogs over the past few tournaments, and with the game coming as the final game in front of a normally raucous Finnish crowd, there should be an atmosphere to match.

Finland and Iceland have both built their national teams along similar principles, they have both had head coaches who have held the job for a number of years, that have instituted a defined system that gets the best out of a limited stock of players.

Both teams feature young big men who will be looking to make an impact at their first Eurobasket. Trygvi Hlinason only rose to prominence this summer, with a move to Valencia and a dominant performance at the Under 20s tournament [Not to mention hanging 19 and 7 on Valanciunas and making me regret my medal pick for LTU – ed]. Standing over 2.00m, Hlinason bucks a trend in Icelandic national team basketball – they have to date survived with undersized big men, hustling defence and a spread offence to date – giving them a genuine presence as a pick and roll finisher and rebounder against bigger teams.

For Finland, Lauri Markkanen will likely be the headline attraction for many fans; a silky smooth shooter at 7 feet tall, he fills a Hanno Möttölä shaped hole in the Finnish front line. His ability to play on the perimeter should allow for further space for Petteri Koponen and Finland’s other gunners to thrive.

Outside of the marquee players, there are an array of esoteric, unusual role players on both sides. Whether it’s Pavel Ermolinskij as a 6’9 point guard, Sasu Salin as an itchy trigger finger three point bomber or Hlynur Baeringsson as the littlest big man with the biggest heart. The weird, wacky and wonderful of European basketball will be on display in Helsinki, and this match up epitomises some of the best of it.