10 Predictions for the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball
Crystal balls are not easy to come by.
But with the 2013-14 NBA season wrapped up for a while now and the 2014-15 campaign not set to start for about two months, I've managed to recalibrate mine. Now, it's capable of looking into the future and figuring out what will come to pass at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, set to take place in Spain on the last day of August and continue until we're two weeks into September.
Here, we'll be making those predictions come to life.
They'll center around teams and individual players alike, though they admittedly tend to focus on those who have a better shot at advancing at least through the group stage of the tournament.
Please do note that I'm not trying to be bold for the sake of being bold. Some of these might surprise you, but they don't all have to. Rational predictions, even if they fall in line with conventional wisdom, are important to make all the same.
France Experiences an Early Exit
Losing Tony Parker is really going to hurt the French national team, as he'll be sitting out this summer to rest up for the next season with the San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately, there are no established replacements on this roster.
Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw are still in place, but the guard rotation looks as though it could be quite problematic. When discussing natural guards, the conversation both starts and ends with a trio of players—Thomas Heurtel, Antoine Diot and Evan Fournier.
None are established players, though Fournier made strides with the Denver Nuggets during the 2013-14 NBA campaign. If anything, it's up to Diot to live up to the challenge, as the 25-year-old is finally getting his big opportunity to thrive as France's primary playmaker.
But look at those names again. That's not a stellar rotation by any means, even if Diot exceeds the most optimistic expectations for Les Bleus.
Now, what exactly do I mean by an early exit?
France is still one of the better teams in the field, and it's not in much danger of failing to advance past the group stage. Though with Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Serbia and Spain filling up Group A, which has to be considered one of the toughest groups, earning anything more than a No. 4 finish in that stage is by no means a guarantee. In fact, Brazil, Serbia and Spain should be favored to earn more points than France.
And that means a tough matchup to kick off the elimination rounds. The fourth-place team in Group A will face the top team in Group B, which means a likely contest with either Greece or Croatia, both of which pose big problems for the French, pedigree and all.
Ditto for Argentina
Let's not stop at one traditional international power that will fall earlier than expected.
Those pesky Spurs aren't just messing with France due to Parker's hesitance to play; they're also hindering the Argentine cause because Manu Ginobili isn't healthy enough to spend his summer playing international ball. It's not really San Antonio's fault, of course, but the defending NBA champions are still connected to two teams that will disappoint.
However, it's not just Ginobili who's missing. Fabricio Oberto and Carlos Delfino are both sitting out as well, which puts a heaping amount of pressure on Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Pablo Prigioni, as well as the myriad young players on the roster. There are plenty of players who could rise to the challenge, but this is still a fairly inexperienced team, at least by Argentina's standards.
On top of that, there's been plenty of controversy with the Argentine Basketball Federation, which puts the mental fortitude of the team in question. If players aren't happy, it's generally tough for them to play at a level they could otherwise have reached.
Even if everything is fine and dandy during the adventure in Spain, Argentina still has to navigate through Group B, which is also populated by Croatia, Greece, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Senegal. Advancement should be expected, but this team could easily finish at No. 3 in the group, especially after a putrid summer.
"The team's summer campaign has been a disaster, starting with complaints from players about the Argentine Basketball Federation," writes Kevin Pelton for ESPN.com (subscription required). "Before the blowout loss to Spain, Argentina lost both games in Serbia to the hosts and Puerto Rico."
Another loss to Puerto Rico will be surprising, but even a No. 3 finish doesn't bode well. That matches Argentina up against the No. 2 team from Group A, which is likely to be either Brazil or Serbia, whichever finishes directly behind Spain.
Croatia's Young Stars Validate Hype
If you don't make it a point to catch the Croatians whenever they're on your television screen, you'll be missing out on a lot of talent.
Even looking past Damjan Rudez, a shooting specialist who will be coming off the bench for the Indiana Pacers in 2014-15, and Bojan Bogdanovic, a fantastic scorer with shot-creating skills and creativity around the hoop who will soon join the Brooklyn Nets, there's plenty of talent.
Two of the biggest breakout stars at the World Cup will both come from Croatia—Dario Saric and Mario Hezonja.
The former has been one of Europe's better players in recent days, and he's best known among the American crowd for his prominence on the day of the 2014 NBA draft. The Philadelphia 76ers made him the No. 12 pick of the proceedings, and though he's a lottery selection, he's still largely an unknown commodity. This is the first chance many will have to see him strut his scoring talent and all-around play on a worldwide stage.
As for Hezonja, he's even more of a mystery to most at this time.
The 19-year-old swingman is quite the intriguing player, though. He's got plenty of size at 6'8", and he has an abundance of natural scoring talent, using a quick, smooth release and a fast first step to create space at will. Once he matures, he'll be able to justify the eventual lottery pick that will be spent on him in the 2015 NBA draft.
When Croatia makes a deep run, these two players will undoubtedly help lead the charge.
Petteri Koponen Proves Himself
Is Finland going to make much noise in the World Cup? Probably not, though they could certainly advance past the first stage in a tightly packed Group C. Well, tightly packed outside of the United States, who should sweep through the competition with nary a loss.
If that happens (the Finnish part, not Team USA completing the sweep), much of the credit will inevitably go to Petteri Koponen, who should use the time in Spain as a way to prove he's one of the top talents in the world, as Fran Fraschilla explains for ESPN.com (subscription required):
The former first-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2007 is currently property of the Dallas Mavericks, but he has spent his entire career in Europe so far. This year he will play in Russia. The 6-5 point guard can run a team and really shoot the ball. The Wolfpack have a legitimate chance to get out of pool play because of Koponen and, if they do, Mavs fans should start paying attention. He is just 26 years old.
Let's dig a bit deeper.
Per RealGM.com, Koponen last played for Khimki BC in the VTP United League, where he averaged a team-high 12.7 points to go along with his 2.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 0.9 steals per game. He did all that while playing only 27.6 minutes during the average contest, and his player efficiency rating was a solid 18.3.
With his 6'5" frame (or 6'4", if you take RealGM.com's word over Fraschilla's) and ability to pull up off the dribble and drain triples, he fits in perfectly with the Finnish mentality—uptempo basketball filled with shots and plenty of teamwork.
Though Finland is by no means guaranteed to be one of the four teams moving on from Group C, quick and impressive development from Koponen could easily force that issue.
Milos Teodosic Captures World-Wide Attention
Milos Teodosic is an interesting case.
On offense, he's a phenomenal player, capable of thriving as a score-first point guard, a spot-up shooting guard or a primary distributor for the Serbians. In fact, he can fill multiple offensive roles whether he's playing with his home country or CSKA Moscow, his team during domestic competition.
Defensively, he can often be a liability, as he tends to get thrown off his game as soon as screens are set against him. He often makes the wrong decision when trying to fight over them or drop under the pick, and he's severely slowed down in such situations even if he makes the correct call.
Nonetheless, the former EuroLeague MVP is one of the best non-NBA players in the world, and there's a good chance he could thrive as a starter in the Association if he ever chose to come across the pond. Now 27 years old, though, that may not happen until he's past his prime, depriving the United States of a terrific and entertaining talent.
NBA or no NBA, Teodosic is still going to put on a show for Serbia during the 2014 World Cup.
While Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nenad Krstic and Miroslav Raduljica are all impressive international talents who make Serbia quite the difficult out, this team will go as he goes. And this year, that will be quite far, especially if he manages to lead them past Brazil and surprise the world with a No. 2 finish in the brutally difficult Group A.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Leaves No Doubt About Stardom
Group B is wide open.
Greece and Croatia should be considered the favorites—though maybe not of the heavy variety—when discussing who will emerge from the stage with top billing, but Argentina could defy conventional wisdom and finish at the top of the table. So too could Puerto Rico behind heroics from J.J. Barea, though that would be a massive surprise.
When it's all said and done, expect the Greeks to be earning the right to play the fourth-place team from Group A, thanks in part to the ever-improving play of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The 19-year-old member of the Milwaukee Bucks is a burgeoning star, fresh off a statistically lackluster rookie season that still has to be considered a success. The very fact he worked his way into the starting lineup and held his own on the defensive end is impressive enough, and some of the plays he made left no doubt about his bright future.
This summer, Antetokounmpo began validating the hype in Las Vegas, thriving for the Bucks when he was asked to play virtually any position. Whether he was functioning as a point guard or protecting the rim on defense, he looked the part of a future star.
Now, he gets a chance to be a key contributor for a Greek squad that also boasts the services of Nick Calathes and Kostas Papanikolaou, among others. It's one he won't take lightly, and the rest of the field won't be prepared for the full extent of what he's learning to do on a basketball court.
Giannis is a very special kind of player, so he needs to be handled in a special way because he is young, extremely talented and everyone associated with Greek basketball expects a lot from him. The most important of all is that we give him a specific role so that he won't get confused, which is being used as a 3. That doesn't mean we won't let him show his talent as far as ball handling or in 1-on-1 situations.
Antetokounmpo won't necessarily play like a star in Spain. Nor will he be Greece's best player, especially after he got a reality check when he went scoreless in his debut for the national team during exhibition season.
But there will be multiple times throughout the tournament when he continues validating the hype.
Same for Jonas Valanciunas
Jonas Valanciunas is no stranger to international competition.
Though he averaged only 6.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game at the 2013 EuroBasket competition and 4.2 points and 4.0 rebounds at the 2012 Olympics in London, according to FIBA.com, he's more seasoned now than ever before.
The Lithuanian big man is 22 years old and coming off a solid season with the Toronto Raptors, one in which he averaged 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per contest as a sophomore while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. Though he didn't live up to the most optimistic hopes and dreams of those north of the border, he did continue his development.
Now, the perfect storm of factors has come together, at least for his individual success.
In addition to being more seasoned and skilled, Valanciunas gets to put his extensive international resume on the line while filling a large role for his country. If he was Mr. Everything before for Lithuania, he's now something even more after Mantas Kalnietis fractured his clavicle at the end of the exhibition season.
The now-injured point guard was a huge piece for Lithuania, and his absence means even more responsibility for Valanciunas.
There's never been a better time for him to break out, not just as a quality player, but as a bona fide star.
Anthony Davis Is Team USA's Best Player
I never said I was trying to be bold.
Team USA's roster is loaded with talent. In fact, the only five 2013-14 NBA All-Stars in the World Cup field are all on the American roster—Stephen Curry, Davis, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Plus, Derrick Rose is back in business, and DeMarcus Cousins is unquestionably an All-Star-caliber player.
So, what makes Davis stand out?
How about exploding for 18 points, nine rebounds, three steals and five blocks in 19 minutes during a Team USA exhibition game against Slovenia? How about the overall statistical excellence he's boasted for the last calendar year? How about the ever-expanding nature of his game, which now features mid-range jumpers galore and some corner threes?
But above all else, it's about the position he can play.
Rose, Curry and Irving are all competing for minutes at point guard, and the wings are crowded as well. But the frontcourt, which features the two worst players on the Team USA roster—Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee, with no disrespect intended—isn't nearly as stacked, placing even more importance on Davis' increasingly muscular shoulders.
Thus far, it seems as though he'll be up to the task of leading this team, even at just 21 years old.
Australia Takes 3rd Place
Now we can get a little bit bold.
Even without Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills helping out their country in Spain, the Boomers will ultimately head back to Australia with a bronze medal in tow.
Further growth from Olympic standout Matthew Dellavedova, now a battle-tested NBA player, will help the cause, as will contributions from the intriguing Dante Exum, who offers Australia plenty of athleticism and versatile performances. Plus, this team can flat-out shoot the ball and looks the part of a well-balanced squad with Brock Motum, Ryan Broekhoff, Cameron Bairstow and Aron Baynes all poised to provide aid.
Throughout the exhibition season, Australia consistently tested itself, finishing with a blowout loss against France in which the shooting strokes were all simultaneously off. Then again, the Boomers did beat the French earlier in the summer.
They finished their eight-game schedule beating the opposition by an average of 2.4 points per game (yes, factoring in the 23-point loss to France). Per Pelton, that came while playing a schedule that was more difficult than that faced by the majority of the teams in the World Cup field.
In fact, if you remove the 23-point defeat from the equation, that margin of victory would rise to six points per game, which seems much more impressive.
Brazil, Greece, Croatia and Lithuania, among others, will all be gunning for a spot on the podium, but the Aussies—assuming their shots begin connecting once more, thereby rendering that last outing a fluke performance—will ultimately be the ones to medal.
Gold-Medal Clash Between Team USA and Spain
Even with a few other strong teams in the field, this seems like a foregone conclusion. After all, the United States and Spain are easily the two most talented teams in the field, combining to roster 18 of the 50 current NBA players at the World Cup.
Just think about that for a second.
Spain (six players) and the United States (12) have 36 percent of the current NBA talent at their disposal. If the players were evenly distributed in an attempt to increase parity (obviously, that will never happen), they would have 8.33 percent.
Because this isn't nearly bold enough to justify functioning as one of the 10 featured predictions, let's go one step further: The United States will defend the Olympic gold with a single-digit victory over their international rivals.
Spain might be closer than ever at this competition, but Team USA is just too talented, even without the litany of superstars who dropped out of the running over the past few months, whether voluntarily or because of injuries.
Though Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all fantastic international players and make up one heck of a frontcourt, Davis is the best big man on either roster. DeMarcus Cousins is pretty darn good as well. Plus, there's no way Spain can hope to stop the All-Star guards and promising wings on the American side.
Chemistry, FIBA experience and versatility should keep things close for Spain, but they won't overcome the talent gap.
It will be silver once more for the Spaniards.