By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
Group D, along with Group B, are the two most open groups at the World Cup. There are two potential medal contenders (Lithuania and Australia), one team not too far behind (Slovenia), and three teams from three different continents (Angola, Korea, and Mexico) all looking to grab the last qualification spot to the knockout round. This makes a distinctive two tiers in the group with those fighting for first place and those fighting just to qualify. Though 2014 Centrobasket MVP Gustavo Ayon has the ability to take Mexico on his back and lock up the group’s fourth spot.
Lithuania looked like the closest thing to a favorite in this group but that was until Mantas Kalnietis dislocated his collarbone and was ruled out for the tournament. Now inexperienced Sarunas Vasiliauskas will step in as the starting point guard to a position where the Lithuanians were already weak. But with the Kalnietis injury this group looks wide open and an explosive offense showing from the young Australians or a relentless attack by Slovenia’s Dragic brothers could find either one of them near the top spot.
Lithuania is the team with probably the most impressive record leading up the World Cup, winning 11 straight games until finally losing to Slovenia by two in Ljubljana. The strength of this team is up front where the young emerging core of Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas have a great ying and yang with their styles of play. Valanciunas is the physical, hard-working interior force giving Motiejunas room to roam as the skilled four-man who can stretch the floor and drive the ball. They will be used with long time national team big men Paulis Jankunas and the Lavrinovic brothers to make one of the best front-lines outside the USA and Spain at the tournament.
The question for Lithuania will be what the rotation will be on the perimeter, where the shooting will come from, and if once again Mantas Kalnietis can play his best ball in his national team kit. The end of that sentence rang true earlier this week when I started writing this but not now and the young Šarūnas Vasiliauskas will have to play huge minutes in Kalnietis’ absence. Wing Renaldias Seibutis is a capable playmaker and can function as a point forward and will probably have to more now. Marty Pocius, Jonas Maciulis,and Mindaugas Kuzminskas won’t only be counted on to score from the wing but to create offense for themselves and others. They are a talented group of wing players but all are more slashers than shooters or distributers. With Kalnietis this was a Bronze Medal contender but without him it’s hard to image how they will play because he has been such a key cog in the national squad for so many years. Could they potentially function better with the ball being shared more on a very deep team and having less reliance on Kalnietis’ aggressive but sometimes inconsistent play? Sure, but they have little time to prepare and will be learning as they go.
Get up and GO! Slovenia is built to run, I just hope they do. The Dragic brothers in the backcourt are not only very talented, but extremely aggressive attackers and hustlers. Goran is one of the stars of the whole tournament and should be able to win some games on his own with his offensive talent while Zoran is his perfect compliment, a hard working driver who doesn’t give the defense a rest when Goran kicks the ball out. But who else will contribute to the Dragic attack?
Slovenia has other talented shot makers in Jaka Blazic, Klemen Prepelic, Domen Lorbek, Jaka Klobucar, and Edo Muric. Anyone of those five can catch fire, giving Slovenia seven capable perimeter scorers. The problems come when you start to look at the interior of the team. Gone are the days of Rasho Nesterovic and Matjaz Smodis and most recently with Erazem Lorbek, Boki Nachbar, and Gasper Vidmar. Now the older likes of Miha Zupan, Uros Slokar, Jure Balazic will have to catch up with all the guard talent. Young and extremely tall (7’1″) center Alen Omic has the best chance of keeping up with the fast paced Slovenian attack but he is not yet consistent enough to warrant big minutes. Who will step up? Will anybody be able to play a stretch big role to space the floor? These are key questions not to Slovenia’s advancement possibilities but to their ability to get first or second in the group giving them a much better chance at making a potential Medal game.
The team from down under is an incredibly solid squad with depth at almost every position, but they are lacking one thing - a Go-To Guy. Normally that was Patty Mills’ role, who has been excellent in the gold and green. Now the reigns are handed off to an electric talent but still teenage Dante Exum and the solid but not quite spectacular point guard Matthew Dellevadova. The backcourt hasn’t played together much but it is quite talented and is a look into the future of the Aussies.
Australia has great depth on the wings with Joe Ingles, Brad Newley, Chris Goulding, and Ryan Broekhoff all bringing something different to the table. Coach Andrej Lemanis can make subs to make his lineups have more shooting, get faster, or go bigger. But his real advantage is how flexible these players are. Ingles and Broekhoff can move up to the four for stretches and they can all play both wing positions.
Up front Australia continues its great depth. Aron Baynes, a hopefully close to 100% healthy Nate Jawai, and Cameron Bairstow is a devastating center trio who will hammer the offensive glass. David Anderson and Brock Motum provide a elder and younger spin on the stretch four position but both have the ability to knockdown the perimeter jump shot.
This whole mix provides a lot of interesting lineups, combinations, and intruige for Australia. The key will be who steps up in go-to situation vacated by no Mills on the team and if Coach Lemanis can figure out the right rotations that maximize his teams’ talent.
Everything starts for Mexico with Gustavo Ayon. The NBA big man is one of the best post players headed to Spain and was an unstoppable force at last year’s FIBA Americas and this summer’s Centrobasket tournament Mexico came out victorious in both tournaments. Rarely does Ayon not end a game in a Mexican jersey without a double-double and usually he’ll be contending for the team lead in assists, steals, and blocks too.
Ayon’s supporting cast is not deep but there are some very useful parts. The big and physical guard Jorge Gutierrez has yet to breakout with the national team but he has the ability to. Gutierrez has good NBA and D-League experience and can be counted to play a variety of roles for Mexico from lead distributor to perimeter scorer to lockdown top of the key defender. Mexico fills in around these two with point guard Paul Stoll also being a key contributor from an offensive perspective. Stoll has had a short but successful European career as a 3-point shooting point guard. Lorenzo Mata Real, Mexico’s hard-nosed defensive center is sincerely missed and can’t play because of an injury. Overall Mexico shouldn’t have too tough of a time making it to the knockout stage unless Ayon gets into foul trouble in a game when Angola and Korea play the best basketball of their lives.
Angola took back their African crown last summer, winning Afrobasket behind a spectacular performance from guard Carlos Morais. Sadly Morais will not be making the trip off the African coast to Gran Canaria and his duties will have to be shared by fellow All-Afrobasket team member forward Eduardo Mingas, forward Reggie Moore, and guard Olimpio Cipriano. All three are over the age of 33, so while some of their best ball may be behind them, they have experience and won’t be afraid of any big games in this tournament. The most intriguing member of the team is young center Yanick Moreira who plays at SMU. The lanky and athletic big man fills a youthful energy role needed by Angola. In top talent they are behind Mexico but in overall depth they can semi-rival them, giving them a slight chance to snag that fourth qualification spot away from the Latin’s.
Korea had nine players average over 15 minutes a game in their third place showing at last summer’s FIBA Asia Championships. Only two of those players averaged in double figures scoring wise and one of them (Mingoo Kim), is out with an injury. That means the team that relies on balanced play and depth will have to dig even deeper into the that well. Korea averaged over 20 assists a game in that same tournament and are a team that’s not afraid to share the ball. Even their big men possess an acute ability to make accurate post entry passes and on time kick-out looks.
There is a good mix of old and young on the team. Taejong Moon is back for another go-around with his country and at the ripe age of 38 he still has some scoring ability left in those legs. Young post players Jongkyu Kim and Jonghyun Lee at 23 years old and 20 years old respectively, already have good experience with the national team and are young bigs to watch. Overall Korea will be a fun squad to cheer for because they play together and embody the “team” concept but with their best scoring option out, their slim chance of advancing only became slimmer.
Most Watchable Team: Slovenia
Growing up as a twin, I’ve always loved the symmetry of brothers playing together. The Gasols for Spain, the Deiners recently for Sassari, the Lopez brothers at Stanford, the Morris twins for the Suns, and on down the line. But nothing is quite like seeing Goran and Zoran race up and down the court seeing who can beat the other to the basket first. Slovenia will battle through some tough games with their lack of front court depth but the beauty of seeing the Dragic brothers play off each other just like it’s a day at the park in Ljubljana make them a must-see team every time they hit the floor.
Lineup You Really Want To See
Australia: Matthew Dellavedova - Dante Exum - Chris Goulding - Joe Ingles - Cameron Bairstow
Australia’s “next generation” lineup has tons of youth, ball handling, and versatility. I’m a big believer in small ball lineups that have a big shooting or quickness advantage and that is magnified even more in FIBA ball. This lineup can give you both advantages and Ingles played a fair amount of the bigger forward spot for a smaller (and Euroleague champion) Maccabi Tel Aviv team during the club season.
G Jorge Gutierrez, Mexico -Big, tough point guard who got an NBA look with the Brooklyn Nets at the end of last year. Has always been a favorite of mine cause of his bulldog defense and ability to post up for a point.
G Dante Exum, Australia - I think the name says enough. Is Dante ready to blow up?
F Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Lithuania - Didn’t break out like I thought he might for Unicaja but will get a chance to be an off-the-bench energizer in Spain. There’s a ton of depth on this roster but interested to see if he can be impactful in limited minute spurts. Sneaky candidate to get in to the tournament leaders in blocked shots and definitely will be one of the leaders of the highlight variety stuffs.
F Edo Muric, Slovenia - The slashing forward had a good year in Slovenia and had some flashes of offensive knowhow with the Atlanta Hawks in Summer League. Now we can hopefully see what kind of player he is on a competitive stage he hasn’t always been on.
C Yanick Moreira, Angola - The big man who goes to SMU is enticing because of his length and athleticism. Could be primed for breakout year in Dallas and a good showing with Angola is a great jumping off point.