The second round of the 2019 FIBA World Cup gets underway Friday, with the top 16 teams from the original 32-team field moving on to another group stage to determine which eight countries will advance to the single-elimination knockout rounds. If you’re reading this from the U.S. or elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, though, you might not have caught too much of the tournament so far—well, beyond a depleted Team USA getting through undefeated, but looking awful rickety at times in the process—since the action in China has largely taken place while you’re either sleeping or getting ready for your commute.
On the off chance that you prioritized REM cycles over watching former Washington Wizards captain Andray Blatche suit up for the Philippines—spoiler: It didn’t go great— let’s quickly catch up on the state of play after Round 1 by taking a look at the five most interesting (non-U.S.) things that’ve happened so far in the World Cup, starting with the (non-U.S.) team to beat ...
Serbia’s the Best Team in the World (Cup)
Before the World Cup, Serbian head coach Sasha Djordjevic made it plain that his team was hungry for another crack at Team USA after coming up short in the finals of both the 2014 FIBA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“Let’s let them play their basketball and we will play ours,” Djordjevic said during an interview with Serbia’s RTS. “And if we meet, may God help them.”
Eurohoops.net noted that Djordjevic gave that quote “in a semi-serious tone.” But after watching their first four games, it doesn’t seem like Serbia’s messing around. Like, at all.
After winning its first two games in Group D by a total of 105 points, Serbia faced its first real challenge against Italy, the no. 13 team in FIBA’s rankings, who featured veteran NBA scorers Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli, plus several players with EuroLeague experience. When Gallinari ripped off 11 straight points to cut Serbia’s lead to 55-53 in the third quarter, it looked like maybe, on the heels of Team USA’s nail-biter against Turkey and Greece’s falling to Brazil despite employing the NBA’s MVP, there was no dominant side, and close calls would be more the rule than the exception.
But Serbia promptly shook off Gallinari’s haymaker and regained control, using its significant size advantage to bulldoze the Italians on the glass and earn free throws. (Former Bucks bruiser Miroslav Raduljica shot 13 freebies in just eight minutes.) By the end of the third, Serbia was back up by 13; Italy wouldn’t get closer than eight the rest of the way, as Serbia cruised to a 92-77 win to finish Round 1 undefeated, and largely unbothered. They kept rolling on Friday, opening the second round with a 90-47 pasting of underdog Puerto Rico.
Serbia boasts the tournament’s highest-scoring and most efficient offense, led by the inside-out tandem of big man Nikola Jokic and guard Bogdan Bogdanovic. Jokic has built on his MVP-caliber campaign for the Nuggets with a killer start to the World Cup, going 20-for-24 from the floor through four games. He’s been a load to handle on the boards and the block. He’s also been a dynamic facilitator, delivering 18 assists:
What makes Serbia so dangerous is the combination of Jokic’s presence in the paint, his peerless passing vision, and a roster full of shooters capable of making defenses pay for overloading to stop the star big man. The rest of the team is feasting, going 41-for-90 (45.6 percent) from 3-point range. And nobody’s been hotter than Bogdanovic, the Kings swingman who has thrived as Serbia’s top finisher, averaging 19.3 points in 23.4 minutes per game while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and a scorching 57.1 percent from 3-point range on seven attempts per game:
31 PTS, 5 AST & 5 STL for Bogdan Bogdanovic during Serbia's win over Italy. He's now shooting 15-of-23 from 3 through 3 World Cup games. Italy gave him too much space off the catch. Such a killer at the FIBA level with his ability to score + playmake out of a variety of actions. pic.twitter.com/TUiZOhA2VZ— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) September 4, 2019
Point guards Stefan Jovic and Vasilije Micic have controlled the action, combining for 46 assists against 16 turnovers. The mammoth frontcourt rotation of Jokic, Raduljica, Boban Marjanovic, and Nikola Milutinov has dominated the front of the basket on both ends of the floor; in fact, Serbia’s front line is so loaded that Jokic, arguably the second-best player in this tournament, has been coming off the bench, allowing the enormous Marjanovic to start the game by pulverizing overmatched opponents to set the tone.
Serbia’s deep, tough, and versatile, with the playmaking talent to spread you out and the physical presence to win a street fight. Sunday brings what should be a damn good test against Marc Gasol and Spain. If Jokic, Bogdanovic, and Co. pass that, they may well enter the knockout stage as the favorite to go all the way, no matter what sort of work Team USA turns in during the second round.
FIBA Patty Mills Is an Absolute Boss
If you’ve caught only his act in the NBA, you might think of Mills in positive but somewhat diminutive terms—as a “spark plug,” or a “microwave,” or a “solid role player.” But when Mills trades the silver and black of the San Antonio Spurs for the green and gold of Australia, he goes from sixth man to superstar.
Mills led all scorers in points per game at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He finished second at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, behind only Bojan Bogdanovic of Croatia. And he’s the highest scorer at this World Cup among players whose countries made it out of the first group stage. With Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavadova handling primary playmaking duties in Australia’s multiple-ball-handler system, Mills has free rein to whip around the court with reckless abandon. He slaloms around screens, sprints into catches before exploding into the paint, and rises and fires without compunction. Defenders know he’s coming, but they still can’t seem to stay in front of him, keep him from getting to his spots, or prevent him from finding just enough daylight to get his shot off. It’s wild.
The structure of the Aussie offense calls for Mills to be a gunner, and he obliges, putting relentless pressure on opposing defenses all over the court. And once he gets going, he can put up points in bunches …
… as he did when he took over in the fourth quarter of Australia’s second exhibition matchup with the U.S., handing the Americans their first loss in any international competition in 13 years:
What Mills does in San Antonio is nothing to sneeze at. He’s earned his keep at the NBA level, growing from the 55th pick in the 2009 draft and a towel-waving novelty act into a vital rotation cog in the Spurs’ ever-whirring machine; lest we forget, it was Patty’s 14-point third quarter that helped seal the fate of the last Big Three Heat team in the 2014 NBA Finals. What he gets to be for the Boomers, though, is something special; it’s just so much fun to watch a scorer fully unleashed.
Mills relishes that latitude. Australia’s success in recent years has been built on its defense, and the interior toughness of big men like Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes. But Mills’s flair for offensive fireworks is a big reason why—despite the absence of hoped-for national teamers like Ben Simmons, Dante Exum, Jonah Bolden, and Thon Maker—Australia enters the second round undefeated, with a berth in next summer’s Olympics already sewn up and with a real shot to make a run for a medal over the next week and a half.
Luis Scola Won’t Let Argentina’s Golden Generation Die
Manu Ginobili’s watching tennis. Pablo Prigioni’s getting ready for his first training camp as an assistant coach with the Timberwolves. Andres Nocioni’s tending to his businesses back home, and Fabricio Oberto’s getting inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame. Carlos Delfino, Walter Herrmann, Pepe Sanchez—they’re all gone now. The members of the “golden generation,” the group that shocked the United States out of its fat-and-happy slumber and turned Argentina into an international basketball power, have all fallen victim to Father Time and hung up their sky-blue-and-white uniforms.
Well, all except one.
A little under eight months shy of his 40th birthday, Luis Scola is still in those blue-and-whites, still running up and down the court with dudes who hadn’t yet hit puberty when he first joined the senior national team. And, delightfully, he’s still roasting defenders who must think to themselves, “Surely this older gentleman with the salt-and-pepper hair poses no threat to me and my teammates,” only to find themselves getting drop-stepped around and on the business end of a soft scoop layup off the window.
Scola’s no longer the top dog on the Argentine side; these days, the squad’s led by star Real Madrid point guard Facundo Campazzo (whom U.S. fans might best remember as the guy who punched Carmelo Anthony in the balls that time). But Scola can still produce, averaging a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds per game in the first group stage to help Argentina go 3-0 to top Group B. The veteran big man is now the second-leading scorer in FIBA World Cup history, trailing only Brazilian legend Oscar Schmidt.
While he’s firmly a below-the-rim player these days—no more emphatic dunks like the one he hammered on the cruller of Richard Jefferson back in 2004—Scola’s proving that the craft of his game can still be plenty effective. How long and how well he’ll hold up amid the physicality of life in the FIBA paint remains to be seen, but for the time being, Scola’s decision to keep lacing up his high-tops after his longtime compatriots have hung theirs up seems like a good one—and one that might help Argentina make some noise come the knockout round.
France Is Dangerous (but France Might Also Be in Danger)
We knew coming into the tournament that France would hang its hat on defense; teams with Rudy Gobert in the middle tend to do that. Sure enough, Les Bleus allowed fewer total points in the opening round (194) than any team besides Spain (190), helping them complete a 3-0 run through Group G. France also has a ton of perimeter talent, with longtime national team star Nicolas Batum, Magic wing Evan Fournier, EuroLeague guards Nando de Colo and Andrew Albicy, and former top-10 NBA draft pick Frank Ntilikina all capable of initiating offense, knocking down shots, and handling multiple defensive assignments. Few teams in the field can match their combination of stifling defense, length on the wing, 3-point shooting, and off-the-bounce juice; that’s why our Danny Chau tabbed France as one of the five teams with the best chance of knocking off Team USA in a potential matchup.
The problem, though, is that the structure of the tournament hasn’t done France any favors. Waltzing through Group G with a hard-fought win over Germany, followed by annihilations of Jordan and the Dominican Republic (which also advanced), earned France a spot at the top of their second-round group. But they’re paired with the winners of Group H, Australia and Lithuania, and the format dictates that you’ve got to play both of the teams you haven’t already faced. That means France has to deal with Lithuania on Saturday, with interior bullies Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis plus quality depth on the wing and in the backcourt, and the Aussies on Monday, with their own tough defense and Mills ready to explode at any time.
France looks better than both of those teams on paper, but those are still two tough outs. It’s certainly a more treacherous road than coach Vincent Collet would like to be traveling, knowing that both Australia and Lithuania will get one easier game against the Dominican Republic, and that only two teams will advance to the quarterfinals. Handle this perilous pair of games, and France solidifies its status as a legitimate threat to win the World Cup. But if the French stumble in consecutive appearances against stiff competition, another disappointing result along the lines of their sixth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics and 12th-place performance at EuroBasket 2017 could be in the offing.
Don’t Sleep on Brazil
When I first caught Brazil at this World Cup, I was struck by how much of their roster I remembered from previous international competitions … and, honestly, how that seemed like it might not be that great a thing!
Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejão, last seen in the NBA in 2017? Marcelinho Huertas, once considered among the best point guards not in the NBA, but flamed out during a two-year stint with the Lakers and is now 36? Alex Garcia, who turns 40 next year and has been playing pro ball since 1999? This was the backbone of a good Brazilian team back in 2012, when they made it to the quarterfinals of the Olympics before falling to Manu and Argentina. Seven years later, though, was that—plus a sprinkling of young talent with some NBA ties—going to be enough to win in a World Cup tournament?
Well, so far, so good. Barbosa opened the tournament in style, popping for 22 points in 24 minutes to lead the way in an eight-point win over scrappy New Zealand. Then it was Varejão’s turn, as he went for 22 with nine rebounds against Greece—a game that stunningly saw him outplay Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak struggled at times with the physical defense of Garcia, whom Brazil head coach Aleksandar Petrovic (brother of the late, great Drazen) said “kicked [the MVP’s] ass,” in keeping with Brazil’s game plan.
Even with Garcia’s ass-kicking and Varejão’s turning back the clock a decade, Brazil still needed some last-second heroics to eke out a win over Greece. So, naturally, Bruno Caboclo—yeah, the “two years away from being two years away” guy, now past that ETA and just trying to catch on in Memphis—stepped up to handle things:
Bruno Caboclo clutch steal on the lob to Giannis pic.twitter.com/OwsrKdxXmY— Heart of NBA (@HeartofNBA) September 3, 2019
BRUNO CABOCLO SECURES BRAZIL'S WIN OVER GREECE pic.twitter.com/GeeKwaQHi4— Rob Lopez (@r0bato) September 3, 2019
After Huertas (16 points and six assists) and Bulls center Cristiano Felício (14 points on 7-for-7 shooting with eight rebounds) led the way over Nikola Vucevic and Montenegro, Brazil won Group F. When Brazil lines up against the Americans on Monday, it’ll know that Barbosa and Huertas can test the U.S. guards’ ability to stall dribble penetration; that Varejão, Felício, and Caboclo can keep Team USA’s bigs busy on the glass; that Garcia, Caboclo, and 20-year-old Didi Louzada can provide length and defensive disruption on the wings; and that Petrovic has the brass to try something unconventional (like putting the 6-foot-4 Garcia on Giannis) if he thinks it might wrongfoot the U.S. enough to narrow the talent gap. That might not be enough to take down the U.S. and make a push for a medal, but there are worse places to start.