Predicting Biggest X-Factors of 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup
The stars will be out at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, but so too will the players who aren't locks for positive production.
Though we're focusing largely on the countries with a decent chance to make a deep run at the international competition, every squad has a crucially important player. He's usually a guy who isn't guaranteed to play at a high level—though he could—but realizing his upside would make the team all the more dangerous.
In other words, he's the X-factor.
It's worth noting that Team USA will not have a featured spot here. These are the biggest X-factors, which indicates a large disparity between what the team can produce with the player in question playing at a high level and how it will fare if he flops.
Even if someone like Derrick Rose or Kenneth Faried fails to make any positive impact in Spain, the Americans will still be just fine. If they explode, well, wasn't Team USA supposed to be No. 1 anyway?
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece
Giannis Antetokounmpo has only participated in one FIBA event for Greece—the 2013 U20 European Championship.
During that competition, he averaged 8.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, highlighted by a 20-point outing against Germany in which he caught fire from the outside. But even in one summer, a lot has changed for this 19-year-old player without a true position.
In the year that's passed, Antetokounmpo picked up a full season of experience with the Milwaukee Bucks, learning and growing on the job—both literally and figuratively.
Now, he's commonly thought of as a rising star, and he looked the part while suiting up for the Bucks in the Las Vegas Summer League.
If he can become more than a role player for the Greeks, he'll help carry his country much further than expected. After all, Greece enters the FIBA World Cup ranked No. 5 in the world, but there's no established star on the team.
Vasileios Spanoulis, the top scorer at the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket, is no longer on the roster. Giannis Bourousis, who trailed only Spanoulis at the competition, is back, but he's 30 years old and might not be capable of serving as the No. 1 option each and every game.
The same applies to Nikos Zisis and Kostas Kaimakoglou.
Antetokounmpo doesn't have to morph into a star, but it would be highly beneficial to Greece if he did.
Leandro Barbosa, Brazil
For the most part, Brazil knows what it's going to get from its best players.
The team playing caboose in the top 10 of the world rankings boasts the services of Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene, all of whom are steady forces in the frontcourt even if they have to form an unorthodox three-man rotation at the biggest spots on the court.
Each of them can be counted on, but none have immense upside in international competition.
Marcelo Heurtas is another reliable presence, though he's known for his flashy passes from the point and knack for making creative plays. He's easily one of the more entertaining players at the tournament. When he's on his game, Brazil is incredibly dangerous.
However, it's Leandro Barbosa, the Brazilian Blur himself, who functions as the country's biggest X-factor.
Barbosa isn't exactly a consistent player, especially coming off an NBA season with the Phoenix Suns in which he couldn't stay healthy.
Now 31 years old, the combo guard has lost a bit of his speed, but he's still a dynamic scorer when he's on his game—one who can put up points in bunches by getting to the rim and complementing that burst with a steady dose of triples.
Welcome to Loud City indicates that Barbosa finished with 11 points, four rebounds and four assists in Brazil's exhibition game against Team USA, but he also needed to take 14 shots from the field in order to record that scoring total.
That's not going to cut it. Against the best teams in the competition, the Brazilians need a potent scoring option from the backcourt, and Barbosa is the man best suited to fill that role.
J.J. Barea, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico typically goes as J.J. Barea goes, which can be a great thing when he's absolutely feeling it. The diminutive guard is one of those proverbial irrational-confidence guys, and he's perfectly capable of catching fire and carrying his team.
Carlos Arroyo and Renaldo Balkman will be vitally important to Puerto Rico at the World Cup, as will the undersized Ramon Clemente, but Barea must carry the scoring load.
He did so at the 2014 Centrobasket Championship, pacing his team with 17.8 points per game. That wasn't exactly the first time he'd put up big numbers in international competition. In 2013, he averaged 18.3 points per contest at the Tuto Marchand Continental Championship Cup. Later that year, he averaged 15.6 points at the FIBA Americas Championship.
He's a consistent scorer for Puerto Rico, even if he's struggled to assert himself in the NBA lately. Perhaps he'll take all that frustration out while playing in Spain, scoring in bulk to make up for all the lackluster performances he endured with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2013-14.
Puerto Rico is in the tough Group B, set to face Argentina, Croatia, Greece, the Philippines and Senegal, making his job all the more important.
Facundo Campazzo, Argentina
If you're an American NBA fan and haven't heard of Facundo Campazzo, I can't really blame you. He's never come close to playing in the Association, instead staying put for Penarol in the Argentinian LNB (Liga Nacional de Basquet).
And he's thrived.
According to RealGM, Campazzo has made the LNB's Liga A First Team each of his past three seasons, and he's won Finals MVP in two of those campaigns.
This past year, he averaged 16.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 49.9 percent from the field, 38.9 percent beyond the arc and 75.7 percent from the charity stripe, all good for a player efficiency rating of 22.7.
He's also excelled in international competition. In 2013, he averaged 11.8 points and 5.0 assists per contest at the Tuto Marchand Continental Championship Cup, and he put up 13.5 points and 6.2 dimes per game at the FIBA Americas Championship.
Now it's time for him to strut his stuff on an even bigger stage.
Without Manu Ginobili playing for Argentina, the team is searching for a new standout guard. Pablo Prigioni is capable of performing admirably, but the 37-year-old would be best served passing the torch to his 23-year-old counterpart.
Campazzo is ready for that challenge now.
After all, he signed a multiyear deal with Real Madrid this summer, and this is his first big opportunity to justify that deal.
Right now, Campazzo—among most Americans, at least—is perhaps best known for this low blow against Carmelo Anthony during the 2012 Olympics. That led to this exchange, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
Searching for retribution, Campazzo found Anthony an easy target on the release of his statuesque jump shot.
"Because before, Chris Paul punched me," Campazzo said.
Anthony hit the floor hard, and Campazzo ultimately declared that he would be issuing no post-game apologies to him. After the 126-97 victory over Argentina, Kobe Bryant came over and told Campazzo that hitting 'Melo with a low blow was a bad idea, never to be done. Said Bryant: "He said, 'Yeah, I know. It was my fault. I understand.' "
So Campazzo apologized to Anthony too?
"No," he said. "Chris Paul didn't apologize to me."
Now, the 5'10" point guard is more mature and flat-out better. An event like that won't be the lasting memory after the World Cup.
His play will function as such.
Dante Exum, Australia
The Australian man of mystery is poised to show off his skills on a big stage, which will shine a light on his future with the Utah Jazz and the Boomers' chances of making an unexpectedly deep run in this tournament.
After all, they're slotted at No. 9 in the FIBA world rankings, but that'll be hard to justify without Andrew Bogut holding down the paint.
Basketball.net.au offered its impressions on the 19-year-old's performance against the Philippines in a tuneup game:
Young gun Dante Exum had his best all-round performance in the green and gold, posting an impressive stat line of eight points, five rebounds and a game-high six assists in 21 minutes. ...
Exum began to exert his playmaking influence on the game during the second quarter as Broekhoff picked up where he left off, finding his range from beyond the arc as the Australians posted a late 8-0 run to lead 47-42.
If Exum can play like that, Australia should live up to its ranking.
After all, Matthew Dellavedova and Aron Baynes are fairly established players in international competition, and the team should get something from the bevy of young, inexperienced players on the roster. Ryan Broekhoff and Brock Motum, both 23 years old, each look promising.
However, Exum has the highest upside, and it's not even close.
He's a raw player without a consistent jumper, but he's also a big and versatile contributor with as much athleticism as anyone he'll be squaring off against. If he can put the pieces together and record more lines like the one he produced against the Philippines, Australia will be quite pleased.
Without Bogut on the squad, it's easy to sleep on the Boomers.
However, Exum could create nightmares for anyone doing so.
Rudy Gobert, France
Even without Tony Parker on the roster, France has a few key players who are basically sure things. Nicolas Batum, Ian Mahinmi, Boris Diaw and Mickael Gelabale are all reliable international players, after all.
However, there are two young guns with immense upside.
The first is Evan Fournier, who was recently traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Orlando Magic. The 21-year-old is listed as a small forward for France, but he spent time in 2013-14 lining up at shooting guard and even operated at the point when Denver ran out of natural 1-guards.
He's certainly talented and can be a difference-maker for the French squad, but he doesn't have quite the same upside as Rudy Gobert—especially because small forward is already a position of strength for this team.
Gobert, who played in small doses for the Utah Jazz this past season, is only 22 years old, but he's absolutely huge. A 7'2" big man, he also possesses a mind-boggling wingspan of 7'8.5", per DraftExpress.
Though Gobert hasn't yet played for the senior team, instead suiting up for the U20 squad on three separate occasions, he's capable of making an immediate impact.
Is he going to be the best player on the floor? Absolutely not, but he's the team's X-factor because an unexpectedly large performance from him would bolster France's chances rather significantly.
Ricky Rubio, Spain
If Ricky Rubio puts it all together, Spain will be an even more imposing matchup for whomever it faces.
When it comes to this squad, everything has to be geared around the seemingly inevitable clash with Team USA, which remains the prohibitive favorite even without LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and so many other big names on the roster.
Should the contest come to pass, the Spaniards have a big advantage—but only in the literal sense.
Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol make for a huge trio of dominant big men, giving the squad a distinct size advantage against an American unit which unquestionably has its strength coming at the small positions.
That's what makes Rubio so important.
If he can produce offense to support Ibaka and the Gasols, that would be a huge benefit to the Spaniards. But if he could somehow lock down on defense, exerting all his energy there and attempting to stop whatever combination of Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard is thrown at him, that would be even more advantageous.
Spain is basically guaranteed to have an advantage in the frontcourt, and it'll inevitably be left reeling against Team USA's wing players.
If Rubio can even up the point guard disparity, Spain will have a shot to emerge with a gold medal.
Damjan Rudez, Croatia
The NBA world isn't intimately familiar with Bojan Bogdanovic, though he'll soon be joining the Brooklyn Nets on a multiyear deal. Nonetheless, he's established himself as one of the best players in Europe, and Croatia can basically count on him for a big tournament.
Mario Hezonja, a likely lottery pick in the 2015 NBA draft, functions in the same vein. He might only be 19 years old, but he's such an incredible talent that banking on production from him feels like a safe bet. DraftExpress projects him as the sixth overall pick in 2015.
Dario Saric? He's another likely candidate to have a big tournament, even if he'll be remaining in Europe for a few more seasons before joining the Philadelphia 76ers down the road.
While Hezonja is admittedly a big X-factor for Croatia, Damjan Rudez, fresh off a contract with the Indiana Pacers, is a bigger one. A sharp-shooting big man, he's set to space out the court for his country, raining in perimeter jumpers while the defense focuses on the more versatile offensive options.
If he can connect early and often, it'd just open things up for everyone else.
Rudez averaged 8.5 points per game in the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket's qualification round, then he put up only 6.6 points per contest during the tournament itself.
According to RealGM, though, he's averaged double figures in each of his last three seasons, two of which came with CAI Zaragoza and the other with KK Cibona.
There's no doubt he can score. Well, I suppose there is some since he hasn't done it for Croatia in a while.
Renaldas Seibutis, Lithuania
Somebody has to replace Linas Kleiza's scoring for Lithuania.
The easy choices would be one of the two NBA players: Donatas Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas. After all, both players have plenty of talent, and the world is still waiting on a true breakout from the Toronto Raptors big man.
Instead, we're going with a player who flies a bit below the radar.
He doesn't have the NBA experience possessed by the aforementioned duo, but Renaldas Seibutis has still worked plenty of tread off his tires. Kamal Hylton explains for NBA Nation Australia:
In Seibutis, Lithuania has a player that has played for big teams in Greece, Spain as well as the homeland Lithuania for Olympiacos, Bilbao Basket and Leituvos Rytas respectively. His seasons with the Lithuanian club stand out, as he averaged double digit points and shot in the 40% range from beyond the arc.
A 6'5" shooting guard, Seibutis is capable of filling that wing void left by Kleiza—especially if he can score like he did the past few seasons for BC Lietuvos rytas in the Lithuanian LKL (Lietuvos krepsinio lyga). According to RealGM, he averaged 11.3 points per game in 2013-14, and that was actually his worst mark in three years.
Seibutis will not be the star of the Lithuanian squad, but he does have the ability to fill in for Kleiza and provide the support that Valanciunas will so desperately covet.
Milos Teodosic, Serbia
As Rafael Uehara explains for Hoop365, Milos Teodosic is quite an offensive spark:
The 27-year-old is a high usage point guard who finished 23.5% of CSKA Moscow’s possessions with a shot, free throw or turnover on top of assisting on 31% of the team’s field goals when he was on the floor. He is a gunner with great passing instincts. 58% of his 429 shots in 47 appearances in the Euroleague and the VTB United league were three-point attempts (he hit them at a 39.4% clip), and he is a very good passer out of the pick-and-roll.
With a foot injury keeping Nemanja Nedovic off the roster and Nenad Krstic now on the wrong side of 30, generating offense is going to be even more important for the guard than ever before.
He'll need to be a solid scorer and player capable of creating offense for his teammates, which he's been able to do in the past.
After all, his resume is pretty solid at this point:
|2013 FIBA EuroBasket qualifications||12.4||2.9||4.9|
|2011 FIBA EuroBasket||11.3||4.2||5.7|
|2011 London Invitational Tournament||11.2||2.6||6.2|
|2010 FIBA World Championship||11.3||3.4||5.6|
|2009 FIBA EuroBasket||14.1||2.6||5.2|
Krstic, Bogdan Bogdanvoic and Miroslav Raduljica are all bigger names, but it's Teodosic who has the offensive upside necessary to function as Serbia's X-factor.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from FIBA.com's archives.