By: George Rowland / @georgerowland
While Bilbao’s will they-won’t-they saga of whether they’ll be an ACB team has drawn the eyes of the Spanish media, the world’s basketball media will fall onto Bizkaia Arena this September, as Team USA and the media circus that will follow them descend into El Pais Vasco. While USA are undoubtedly the best team here, and are the only team in the group likely to pick up a medal, the rest of the group leaves a little to be desired. There are two Wild Cards in Finland and Turkey; Ukraine, who finished an unexpected 6th last Eurobasket; New Zealand, one of two Oceanic teams (Australia being the other) competing for two Oceanic berths and the Dominican Republic, the fourth (and final) qualifier from last year’s FIBA Americas Tournament. USA should run away with the group but below them expect the three European teams to pick up the other qualifying spots, with New Zealand and the Dominican Republic looking to upset one of the European teams to try to steal a qualifying berth.
We know they’re the best. They know they’re the best. Every other team in the tournament knows that they’re the best. But as we’ve seen in the last three Euroleague Final Fours that does not guarantee victory by any stretch of the imagination. The preparation period for Team USA has been blighted by injuries and withdrawals, but with their great depth and most importantly Coach K at the helm they are still the strong favourites for the tournament. In an obvious attempt to counter the Spanish frontcourt that features the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka, USA have loaded up with 5 bigs; which brings about perhaps their only weakness- lack of options for a stretch four, with Rudy Gay being the only player suitable for that role.
Ukraine was a surprise at the last Eurobasket, not only in beating Germany, Israel and Belgium on their way to the second round, but also playing their way into the World Cup by beating Italy. They have maintained much of their roster from last year, where they looked to let Pooh Jeter create while surrounded with a bunch of shooters and a tough big or two. Standing on the sideline for them is veteran NBA coach and broadcaster Mike Fratello, along with a whole raft of American and Ukrainian assistant coaches. After their performance at Eurobasket they should be aiming for a spot in the second round at the very least, and could well go further.
Finland has been the surprise team of the past two Eurobaskets. They have a modest group of players headlined by Khimki guard Petteri Koponen and former Chicago Bull Erik Murphy. But look over the ‘Wolfpack’ at your peril, they will have a raucous bunch of travelling fans and will play great team basketball. There is something quintessentially Nordic about the Finnish team. Whether it’s the amount of faith and autonomy given to coach Henrik Dettmann; who has been coach for ten years and also has control over the countries youth programmes; the way they scheme around their lack of size and at times talent to beat more prestigious teams; or the togetherness and team spirit that embodies not only the team but also the travelling support. Many will know Finland as the team that qualified because of Angry Birds, but overlook them at your peril, they thrive when written off and underrated.
Since their Silver medal at the last World Championships, Turkey has been underwhelming to say the least. In the 2011 Eurobasket they failed to advance beyond the second group stage, and last year in Slovenia they went one better and were knocked out in the initial group stage. With new coach Ergin Ataman replacing the much maligned Bogdan Tanjevic, and the equally maligned Hedo Turkoglu retiring, this will be a new look for Turkey. But without Ersan Ilyasova they are missing a true scorer, with Emir Preldzic likely having to fulfil that role. The Turks also lack an elite playmaker in their back court, with once again Preldzic looking like he’ll have to take the creative reigns.
New Zealand is an unknown quantity outside of the Antipodes, with the majority of their players plying their trade in New Zealand. Though with Oklahoma City centre Steven Adams and fellow seven footer Alex Pledger absent, the Tall Blacks will be massively undersized up front with just Rob Loe (210cm), Casey Frank (203cm) and Isaac Fotu (203cm) as the only players topping 2m. Leading the way for New Zealand will be the veteran shooter Kirk Penney, who has had a journeyman career which found him playing for Trabzonspor in the TBL last year, averaging 14 points along the way. Joining Penney on the wing is the athletic Tom Abercrombie, who can provide scoring in bunches, and may even catch the odd lob pass along the way. And there’s Tai Webster, a young wing currently playing at the University of Nebraska in the USA. It would take an upset to see New Zealand coming out of the group with such a small team (though it’s not beyond the imagination with their victory over Serbia in preparation), though with them performing the fearsome haka, a Maori war-dance made famous by the New Zealand rugby team pre game they are definitely worth finding the time to watch.
With Karl Towns Jr staying in the States to prepare for college and Al Horford recovering from an injury that cost him the last NBA season the Dominican Republic are a little less intriguing than we all would’ve hoped. But that’s not to take away from the quality they have with some good European players in Eulis Baez, Edgar Sosa and James Feldeine along with NBA veteran Francisco Garcia. Joining them will be a whole raft of players plying their trade in South and Central America that includes the inimitable Jack Michael Martinez. Like with New Zealand it would take an upset or two for the Dominican Republic to get out of their group, but with the European teams being among the weaker in the tournament, it would not be a massive shock.
Most Watchable Team: Finland
The issue that many have with summer international tournaments is the fact that many preparation games will be played with half empty arenas, as fans simply do not travel for them. For this reason the most watchable team for this group has to be Finland and their large travelling support, simply for the closest thing to a club team atmosphere in the group stages.
Lineup You Really Want To See
USA: Steph Curry - Klay Thompson - James Harden - Rudy Gay - Andre Drummond
This is a selection purely for Andre Drummond. He’s a guy who has had to endure a team often featuring line-ups with the unholy trinity of non-shooting in Rodney Stuckey, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe. This line up is with four other guys who can shoot well from behind the long line, and with plenty of creativity too, look for Drummond to thrive in these stretch line-ups especially when the tempo rises.
G: Petteri Koponen, Finland - Koponen is the best player and leader of the Finnish team, and thus is often given carte blanche by Coach Dettmann to create for himself and for others. Look for Koponen to be putting up pull up threes and flashing passes across the lane to some of Finland’s shooters.
G: Sergiy Gladyr, Ukraine - While Pooh Jeter might be the most dangerous guy on Ukraine’s roster, don’t sleep on Sergiy Gladyr at your peril. Gladyr is perfect for Mike Fratello’s system; a superb catch and shoot player, he is also the best athlete on this Ukraine team and can punish a close out going to the rim.
F: Cedi Osman, Turkey - With Turkey’s lack of elite guards Cedi Osman could be one of the break out young players at the World Cup; and with a group lacking elite talent outside of the USA, he could find a platform to showcase himself.
F: Mika Vukona, New Zealand - Vukona is a name that many outside of Oceana will not be aware of, having spent his entire domestic career there (other than four games in Lebanon). He is a very undersized power forward that will battle hard defensively and on the boards while providing a canny playmaking and scoring ability on the other end. With New Zealand fielding a small roster they’ll need a lot from Vukona.
C: Eulis Baez, Dominican Republic - Baez, a Sam Meyerkopf favourite, is an undersized forward/centre who plies his trade in the ACB with Gran Canaria. At just 201cm Baez is a solid three point shooter with a stocky frame which in part makes up for his lack of height. With the Dominican Republic missing Karl Towns Jr up front, Baez looks to be the most intriguing piece of their puzzle.