Nothing proves the age-old adage “ball is life” more than the desperate attention basketball fans are paying to the scraps of basketball in what is essentially a preseason for USA Basketball as it sizes up its roster in friendly competition in the lead-up to the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, which starts on today. With the (sorta) real thing approaching, the stakes are higher than ever and should give all NBA fans reason to enjoy two weeks of a basketball oasis in the summer hoops drought.
Beyond Team USA, plenty of fans know the rosters of powerhouse teams like Spain, which boasts both Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon. France (Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum), Argentina (Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni) and Brazil (Leandrinho Barbosa, Anderson Verajao, Nene and Tiago Splitter) are all going to contend with NBA players who we already know.
However, there are plenty of good NBA players dotting international rosters who will be suiting up. Here’s a guide to maddeningly familiar faces you’ll see in the World Cup.
The Dragon will be unleashed. Well, kinda. His NBA team, the Phoenix Suns, have given him roughly a five-game limit with minutes restrictions throughout the summer of international play, which means that either he or the Slovenian team will likely have to face an early exit (World Cup champion plays in 9 games). I don’t envy Coach Zdovc’s position and decisions here, but having the reigning NBA Most Improved Player (and an All-NBA member) can’t be anything but good. Bonus: Goran Dragic’s brother is the SG for the Slovenian team and he’s pretty good too. That’s right, DOUBLE DRAGON! He’s a pretty entertaining player himself, so if you tune into any Slovenian games and Goran is sitting out then you can kind of squint a little and pretend Zoran is Goran. It’s the perfect plan.1 of 8
FIBA events offer good chances to get good looks at promising international rookies before the NBA season starts. For Jazz fans, Dante Exum will probably be on more nationally televised games in summer league and the World Cup than Utah will have all season. By all accounts, he’s been killing it this summer. While Exum hasn’t been shooting it well, he’s proven to be a solid defender and almost supernatural passer. He hasn’t started or played much in friendlies, but look for him to turn it up a notch as he looks to lead an Australia squad to contention.2 of 8
The Greek Freak. Perhaps you’ve heard of this guy? The 6’10” 6’11” 7’0” small forward point guard is a rising star in the NBA and an internet sensation, but this year is Giannis’s first as a featured player on a Greek team ranked 5th in the world and one that looks to challenge seriously in the World Cup. While the upcoming NBA season with the Bucks as an experimental point guard will be low on both exposure on television and wins, the FIBA World Cup is a chance to get a look at the Greek Freak on a team with the actual talent to win. As he looks to develop into a signature talent in the NBA, Greek fans will be hoping that he can finally take over the reins and dominate less statuesque point guards on offense and lock down all five positions on defense. Should be fun.3 of 8
You may not know about Dieng unless you’re a Timberwolves fan, League Pass fanatic or a dedicated fantasy basketball team owner but he did some great things in the second half of his rookie season. After the All-Star break (after the Wolves realized he was the only person on the roster capable of playing any post defense) Dieng put up nine points, eight rebounds and one block per game in only 22 minutes of action. Now that Flip Saunders will reportedly give him minutes at PF in addition to his traditional backup center role, look for Dieng to have a strong showing as a rim protecting big, maybe in the 10/10/2 range. As the anchor for the Senegalese National Team, Dieng looks to provide a needed presence on a squad without much top-level talent.4 of 8
Now Anthony Davis’s new mate in what appears to be a stout Pelicans frontcourt, Omer Asik will have the opportunity to go head-to-head against his future teammate on August 31st when Turkey plays the U.S. The Turkish big man hasn’t gotten as much playing time as he wanted while stuck behind Dwight Howard on the Rockets’ roster but he’ll contribute big time as the Turkish team’s veteran leader against tough competition in Group C.5 of 8
Ok. I’ve been working on Turkish-themed nicknames for the imposing Asik-Kanter front line. So far, I’ve come up with the Beasts of the Bosphorus and the Istanbullies. Choose wisely in the comments. Kanter looks to be part of a Jazz offense that may be changing directions in a way that doesn’t favor his back-to-the-basket game. He’ll have to show that he can adapt his game and be more efficient at what he already does. The competition in Group C should be a good start.6 of 8
The Lithuanian National Team looks to be a powerhouse this year. With Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejūnas among the NBA or NBA-level talent they’ll field in the World Cup, Lithuania is a real dark horse to win the whole thing, should they or another team prove capable of knocking the U.S. off. Valanciunas was a beast at times in the season for the Raptors and he’s looked like a monster in qualifying international play. While the Raptors look to go even further this year as a playoff team and a legitimate threat out of the East, their TV schedules is certainly not jam-packed. Take the time over the next few weeks to really enjoy his game.7 of 8
Andray Blatche is not from the Philippines. Andray Blatche does not have any Filipino relatives. Andray Blatche hadn’t been to the Philippines until this month. But yet Andray Blatche is now a Filipino citizen and will certainly suit up for his…err…country come the World Cup. In a quixotic quest that took him months and special bills passed by the legislative bodies and the President of the Philippines, Andry Blatche recently became a naturalized citizen. Due to FIBA rules that allow one naturalized citizen per team, it made sense for a team lacking in star power to do everything in its power to attract top-level talent. The problem is that they got Andray Blatche instead. But they should be shooting for the stars. This is their first World Cup in 36 years.8 of 8