1 Player to Watch from Each Country Participating in 2014 FIBA World Cup
Twenty-four teams will compete at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, set to be played throughout various locations in Spain starting August 30, but only one will emerge as a champion.
Will it be Team USA, earning a gold medal just as it did during the 2012 London Olympics? Will Spain exact revenge by taking down the depleted Americans? Will someone else emerge as a champion after beginning the proceedings as a distinct underdog?
Don't count out any team right at the beginning, especially because anything can happen in the group stage of the tournament. But for each squad to either live up to the expectations or dramatically exceed them, certain players will need to take on a big role.
Those are the X-factors and best players. The guys we're featuring here are different, though.
For entertainment purposes, the players showing up throughout this article are the ones you want to keep an eye on. Some are established players who will lead their teams statistically while entertaining fans, and others are up-and-comers who will show development before playing NBA contests in 2014-15.
If you make an effort to watch all 24 teams, these are the players you should seek out.
Angola: Carlos Morais
Angola doesn't feature too many players with high-level experience, whether in the NBA or one of Europe's top leagues, but defenses still have to focus on one scoring stud—Carlos Morais.
The 6'4" shooting guard has been scoring at an impressive rate for the last six years, but he's coming off the FIBA Africa Championship, a competition in which he paced Angola by putting up 15.9 points to go along with his 4.6 rebounds. He's just not afraid to fire away from beyond the arc, and teams can't afford to leave him open.
If his name sounds familiar, you might be a Toronto Raptors fan.
He played in three preseason games with Canada's NBA representatives last October, though he took only a combined five shots, four of which came from beyond the three-point line. Morais was subsequently waived, but the 28-year-old surely gleaned some valuable experience from that venture into the ranks of the Association.
Now it's time to see what he learned.
Argentina: Luis Scola
Without Manu Ginobili competing for Argentina, the squad is noticeably thinner, particularly at the guard positions. There's still plenty of NBA talent on the roster, and Pablo Prigioni's role might be bigger than ever.
However, Luis Scola is the man best suited to pick up the scoring slack.
Even though he struggled during the playoffs for the Indiana Pacers, he's still a crafty scorer who thrives when the court is spread out in international play. His veteran savvy works out quite nicely against inexperienced and limited defenders, and there's never any shortage of points when he's on the floor.
Scola played for Argentina in two international competitions one year ago—the FIBA Americas Championship and the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup. He averaged 18.8 and 20 points per game, respectively. Back at the London Olympics, he contributed with 18 points per contest.
Without Ginobili by his side, the long-haired big man might top each of those numbers in 2014.
Australia: Dante Exum
While Matthew Dellavedova is the player who shined in London, it's time to see what Dante Exum has in the tank.
The Utah Jazz's lottery pick will be suiting up for the Boomers, and it's the first time many will have seen him play against some of the best the world has to offer. He started doing so during the Las Vegas Summer League, but this is a completely different experience.
Expect the mystery to be peeled back, game by game.
Exum is a big, athletic guard who's capable of handling the ball while guarding multiple positions on the other end of the floor. He's a unique commodity for Australia, and a standout performance from him could result in the Boomers living up to their No. 9 FIBA world ranking, even if Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills will both miss the adventures in Spain.
"I'm also about to head into the NBA season as a rookie, so this World Cup is going to help me grow a bit more, before I take that step," Exum told ABC.net.au.
He better grow fast.
Brazil: Marcelinho Huertas
This is what Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine had to say about Brazil's Marcelinho Huertas after his standout performance in the London Olympics:
Maybe I'm just biased toward point guards. But watching the 29-year-old Huertas, frequently feted as the best point guard not playing in the NBA, turn Tiago Splitter into a legitimate scoring threat near the basket during Brazil's run to the quarterfinals was sensational. Huertas' pace in the halfcourt, control in the pick-and-roll game, court vision in transition and ability to complete passes others might not attempt made him a gripping watch throughout the tournament, and while Brazil came up just shy of the medal round, Huertas showed in the five-point loss to Argentina that he's willing and able to call his own number when needed, scoring 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting. (Just lay off the one-foot 3-pointers late in the fourth, OK, Marcelinho? There's such a thing as too much swag.)
What has the flashy, 31-year-old point guard done since then?
He's had two excellent seasons for FC Barcelona, including making the clinching shot against Real Madrid to advance to the Endesa final, which his squad would go on to win. He's also continued to excel for the national squad, particularly at the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup, where he averaged 11.0 points and 4.2 assists per game on 48.6 percent shooting from the field.
Brazil's squad is loaded with NBA talent—Nene, Leandro Barbosa, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao.
However, it's the man who has never shown interest in the NBA who stands out as the one to watch. He's that entertaining...and good.
Croatia: Bojan Bogdanovic
Want a sneak peak of what the Brooklyn Nets bench will look like? Well then, don't hesitate to watch Croatia's national team take the court.
Of course, it helps that you can also catch a glimpse of Mario Hezonja (expected to be a top-10 pick in the 2015 NBA draft), Dario Saric (first-round pick by Philadelphia 76ers in 2014 who won't debut in the NBA for a while) and Damjan Rudez (signed by the Indiana Pacers this summer).
So, why Bojan Bogdanovic? Well, there's a reason he earned a three-year deal for $10 million this early in his career with the Nets.
He's excelled throughout his tenure with Fenerbahce Ulker. During the 2013-14 season, he was on the floor for only 27.2 minutes per game, and he still averaged 13.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists during the average contest. His 16.4 PER was the first such number he'd recorded under 20 during his three-year stint in the Turkish TBL.
"Well, he's another versatile player," new Brooklyn head coach Lionel Hollins said after viewing same game film, per NetsDaily.com. "He's a 2-3, a 3-2 basically and he can shoot the ball and he can put the ball on the floor. And the more shooters you have, the better. The more versatility, the more playmakers you have, the better your team can be."
The versatility of this 6'8" shooter will be on full display, especially when surrounded by such talented—but young—teammates.
Dominican Republic: Francisco Garcia
The Dominican Republic has a handful of players participating in some of the world's top basketball leagues, but Francisco Garcia is the only representative from the NBA.
He's coming off a season for the Houston Rockets in which he averaged 5.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per game during his 55 forays onto the court, and he was largely hindered by injuries throughout the year. However, Garcia is still a great shooter, and the 32-year-old has typically stepped up for his country.
Take the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, when he averaged 14.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. At the 2013 Tuto Marchand Continental Cup, he averaged 16, 3.0 and 4.0 for the Dominican Republic.
Garcia is a veteran, and he should emerge as the leader of this team, both statistically and mentally.
Egypt: Assem Marei
Twenty-two-year-old big man Assem Marei needs to put up some big numbers for Egypt to have a chance in the FIBA World Cup.
With the No. 46 ranking in the world, the Egyptians are going to be largely overmatched throughout the competition, but the 6'9" Marei can help keep things close in some matchups. He's a solid athlete with good finishing skills around the basket, and he's proved capable of inhaling rebounds on a regular basis.
Marei played his college ball at Minnesota State-Makato, but his most notable contributions come for his country. During the FIBA Africa Championship, he put up some incredibly impressive numbers—14.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game while shooting 53.3 percent from the field.
He's a handful during live action, and Egypt has to hope he connects on his shots from the foul stripe, especially if other teams begin hacking away.
Finland: Drew Gooden
According to a report from Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post, Drew Gooden will be putting on a new uniform for the FIBA World Cup:
Drew Gooden was born in Oakland, went to college in Kansas, and has made a living playing for 10 NBA franchises across the United States.
Now the Wizards forward plans on extending his footprint overseas at the end of the month when he suits up for Finland in the FIBA World Cup, according to a person with knowledge of Gooden’s intentions. Gooden, 32, is eligible to play for Finland because his mother is Finnish.
Well, things get even more interesting when Gooden immediately becomes the best player on the Finnish team, just in time for its opening contest against...the United States. He and Erik Murphy are the only NBA players on the roster, and the 32-year-old big man is far more established against high-level competition.
It's time to see just how far he can carry a team at this stage of his professional career.
France: Nicolas Batum
Even without Tony Parker, it's hard to pick just one representative for France.
Nando De Colo should play a big role without the San Antonio Spurs star on the roster, and Thomas Heurtel, Evan Fournier, Mickael Gelabale, Ian Mahinmi and Boris Diaw will all be key players as well. But how can any of them match the versatility of Nicolas Batum?
The small forward is capable of contributing in just about every way possible, but there's one key.
Batum made headlines during the 2012 Olympics for an ill-advised blow to Juan-Carlos Navarro's groin. "I wanted to give him a good reason to flop," he said after the game, via Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Now, it's time for redemption.
Batum has been a model citizen for the Portland Trail Blazers ever since, and this is his first trip back to the international stage, at least while playing for his home country instead of representing Rip City during the NBA playoffs. He has the talent, and now it's time for him to use it and become a true leader in Parker's stead.
Greece: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The journey continues.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has quickly become one of the most fascinating players in the NBA, as he's shattered the expected developmental timetables. First, he did so by starting for the Milwaukee Bucks as a rookie, even if he didn't record particularly impressive numbers.
This offseason, he thrived in summer league action, offering hope that he could become an All-Star sooner rather than later. Now, he'll get a chance to take his surprisingly developed skills to the big stage, competing for Greece against the best the world has to offer.
Failure to use him as a featured option would be tantamount to giving up at this stage, as the precocious talent is long, lanky, athletic and raring to prove he's capable of strutting his stuff. This could be a big step in the Greek Freak's development, as dominating for his home country would set the tone for what could become a breakout sophomore year in Milwaukee.
Iran: Arsalan Kazemi
Arsalan Kazemi was drafted out of Oregon by the Washington Wizards with the No. 54 pick in the 2013 NBA draft and immediately traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. When that happened, he became the first Iranian-born player selected in the NBA draft.
An incredible rebounder for his size and a stellar athlete, Kazemi hasn't shown off his skills in the Association yet, as he instead kept playing for Petrochimi Bandar Imam in Iran.
Kazemi was formerly the captain of his country's U-19 team, and he was called up to the big leagues for the 2010 World Cup. There, he was the No. 2 scorer on the team, trailing only Hamed Haddadi, and he finished with per-game averages of 12 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 steals.
Now, he's more seasoned than ever after a collegiate career that took him to both Rice and Oregon. Haddadi is still on the squad, but it's Kazemi's turn to be Iran's best player.
Korea: Sungmin Cho
The Korean national team is ranked No. 31 in the FIBA world rankings, but it tends to win games by committee. There are no NBA players on the roster, and every single member of the squad either plays professionally in the KBL or is still attending college in Korea.
But if there's one standout, it would be Sungmin Cho.
In the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, Cho was Korea's second-leading scorer, averaging 11.1 points per game, which left him trailing only Taejong Moon. Moon is still on the roster, but he's 38 years old now, which makes him eight years older than Cho.
In the 2013 FIBA Asian Championship, Cho was once more the second-leading scorer. This time, he averaged 12.3 points per game, finishing 0.4 behind Min-goo Kim, who won't be playing in the 2014 World Cup.
The stage is set for this 6'2" guard to take the pole position.
Lithuania: Jonas Valanciunas
Is this where the breakout is going to come?
Jonas Valanciunas has been teetering on the brink of an explosion for a while now, but the detonation hasn't occurred. Though he certainly improved during the 2013-14 season with the Toronto Raptors, he was unable to live up to the lofty expectations, some of which seemed to have him contending for an All-Star berth during his sophomore year north of the border.
Well, now he gets to go back to his comfort zone and play for a Lithuanian team that has always maximized his talents.
This is a big squad, but only Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas are on NBA rosters. It's the former who should be set to thrive, particularly if he can keep expanding the range of his jumper and add to his offensive arsenal.
A big tournament could preclude even more improvement during the NBA calendar.
Mexico: Gustavo Ayon
It's either Jorge Gutierrez or Gustavo Ayon.
Based on the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship, I'm rolling with the latter.
During that competition, Ayon sparked Mexico to a gold medal, averaging 17.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game over the course of 10 contests. He shot 58 percent from the field all the while.
Meanwhile, Gutierrez struggled from the field, finishing with 9.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 dimes per game throughout the tournament.
It's the 6'3" point guard who has the most upside, but Ayon is the more experienced talent. He's been a solid per-minute player throughout his various stints in the NBA, and he's already emerged as a leader of the Mexican national squad.
That won't change.
New Zealand: Isaac Fotu
I promise this is about more than Isaac Fotu's hair.
Though the bushy mane should definitely catch your eye whenever New Zealand is on the television screen—how could it not?—Fotu's game is also worth watching. He's not really an NBA prospect, but neither are any players on his team. Rob Loe and Taj Webster are also playing NCAA ball, but Fotu is the most intriguing of the bunch.
Without his hair factoring into the equation, Fotu is a 6'8" forward, and he still believes he can make it to the Association one day.
"Scouts will be looking more in America than overseas," the 20-year-old told Joey Ramirez of Kaleo.org after turning down a three-year contract with the New Zealand Breakers so that he could return to Hawaii. "Every basketballer's dream is to make the NBA. I want to go as far as I can with basketball."
And, as Ramirez makes clear, high-level play is still a distinct possibility:
'Isaac's gonna have a lot better offers than the Breakers when it's all said and done,' head coach Gib Arnold said. 'I really hope he’s thinking a lot higher than that. I think he’s got a chance to make real money in real leagues like the NBA.'
Arnold believes Fotu has the talent to potentially make a name for himself in the NBA and can 'for sure' make it in one of the main European leagues.
This would be a nice place to start.
Philippines: Andray Blatche
Yes, I was confused when I heard this news. So were most people, as Chuck Araneta breaks down for Yahoo Sports:
It’s safe to say that was how people reacted upon hearing that former Brooklyn Nets forward and current NBA free agent Andray Blatche had agreed to reinforce Gilas Pilipinas in the upcoming FIBA World Cup. It was awesome that the Philippines recruited an NBA-caliber player.
But… Andray Blatche?
Turns out, the man who spent the 2013-14 season coming off the Brooklyn Nets bench became a Philippines citizen earlier this year. He's suiting up for the Gilas during the World Cup, and he's immediately going to be one of the best offensive talents on the roster.
Blatche may have had attitude problems and trouble with his work ethic in the past, but he's quite the scorer nonetheless. There's always a place for a floor-spacing big in FIBA play, and that's exactly what this particular power forward is.
Except, unlike most, he's more than a spot-up shooter. Blatche's turnaround jumper off the bounce is sure to unveil itself in Spain, along with the vast variety of moves in his arsenal.
Puerto Rico: J.J. Barea
Doesn't J.J. Barea always seem to thrive on the big stages?
He might not have lived up to the expectations with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the dimunitive point guard is a great example of a player with irrational confidence. He's by no means a superstar, but he sure thinks he's one. And when the ball is in his hands—as it often will be while playing with Puerto Rico—he gets a chance to convince himself further.
Barea was actually the MVP of the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup, an award earned while leading his squad to gold with per-game averages of 18.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists. He also shot 52.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown, leaving no doubt he was quite the efficient player.
This is the follow-up tournament, and there's no doubt he'll have free rein when he's on the court.
This team will go as Barea goes, and he's a tough player to stop when he gets hot.
Senegal: Gorgui Dieng
Was Rick Adelman holding Gorgui Dieng back?
The Minnesota Timberwolves' former head coach was notorious for refusing to play rookies during his time at the helm, and Dieng was no exception until injuries forced the issue. Then, he excelled during the end of the season, averaging 12.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game over his final 18 outings of the 2013-14 season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Now, he's no longer a well-kept secret.
Dieng was an experienced college player, thanks to his time under Rick Pitino. With that under his belt, as well as his one season with the 'Wolves, he's ready to emerge as a leader for Senegal, especially because he's the squad's only NBA player.
Hamady Ndiaye, who last played with the Philadelphia 87ers in the D-League, will also play a large role, but it's Dieng who should function as the best player during the 2014 World Cup.
Serbia: Vasilje Micic
Even with Nemanja Nedovic missing the tournament after fracturing his foot in training camp, the Serbian national team has plenty of intriguing players. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Dangubic, Nenad Krstic, Ognjen Kuzmic, Vasilje Micic, Miroslav Raduljica and Milos Teodosic are all worth watching, but it's Micic who reigns supreme here.
The 20-year-old point guard was picked at No. 52 in the 2014 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, and he could arrive in the Association as soon as next season. First, he'll remain overseas for at least one season, plying his trade with Mega Vizura in the Serbian League.
For many, this will be the only chance to see him in action until he comes across the pond for good.
"There's no point guard in this draft class with better vision and pure passing skills," wrote Bleacher Report's Daniel O'Brien. "Micic averaged 7.5 assists per 40 minutes in the Adriatic League in 2013-14, which few (if any) collegiate point guards could have pulled off."
He may not be the best player on the roster, but he's crafty and extremely skilled. Think about someone like Ricky Rubio, minus the extreme flashiness, if you're looking for a comparison. O'Brien likens him to Jose Calderon and Greivis Vasquez.
Plus, with his 6'6" frame, he won't be hard to miss.
Note: Nemanja Nedovic was originally the Serbian representative, but a fractured foot will keep him out of action.
Slovenia: Goran Dragic
Well, this is pretty obvious.
Not only is Goran Dragic the only NBA player on the Slovenia national team, he should compete for an All-Star bid during his 2014-15 season with the Phoenix Suns. He was on that level last year, asserting himself as a borderline top-20 player in the Association, and now he's primed to expand on his contributions with an even stronger roster and more experience as a leader.
"Goran Dragic most definitely should have made the [All-Star] team last year," claims Bleacher Report's Dan Favale. "He didn't, and he's probably not going to make it next year."
It's not that he isn't good enough, just that the class of guards is way too strong in the Western Conference.
Dragic will get a chance to act as a one-man fast break plenty of times during the World Cup, where he'll serve as Slovenia's unquestioned leader and best player. Plus, he gets to suit up next to his brother, Zoran, which has to be a fun experience.
Spain: Ricky Rubio
Spain's team is absolutely loaded and poised to be Team USA's biggest threat for a gold medal, especially because it's playing on its home turf throughout the World Cup competition. Revenge has to be on the mind of every player, seeing as the Americans took them down in the final game of the 2012 London Olympics.
At this point, we know what we're going to get from the trio of imposing big men—Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol. They're NBA studs, and they're set to dominate the international competition. We also know what we'll get from the veterans, players like Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez and Juan-Carlos Navarro.
However, Ricky Rubio's contributions are the massive question mark, and his play could very well determine how much success the Spaniards enjoy while hosting the tournament. If he's showing off his flashy passing skills and making everything easy for his teammates, Spain will be quite tough to handle. But if he struggles and relies on his ineffective jumper too often, the team will be vulnerable.
It's time for the young point guard to show some serious progress.
Turkey: Enes Kanter
It's time for this 22-year-old big man to break out.
Enes Kanter was the No. 3 pick in the 2011 NBA draft, but he's struggled to make a major impact for the Utah Jazz. This past go-round was his first as a part-time starter, and he averaged 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game but shot below 50 percent and struggled to show much improvement on either end of the court.
Now, he has a chance to change that during his second stint with Turkey's senior squad. Kanter last played for his country at the 2011 EuroBasket Championship, averaging 9.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 59.2 percent from the field. If you prorate those numbers, which came in just under 18 minutes per game, to per-36-minute stats, they're quite impressive.
Kanter is a big body with a great deal of skill, and he'll receive no shortage of minutes at this stage of his career. Omer Asik has the most NBA experience of anyone on the roster, but it's his younger counterpart who has the upside necessary for Turkey to live up to its No. 7 world ranking.
Ukraine: Sergii Gladyr
There's a quartet of Ukrainian players you should keep an eye on during the FIBA World Cup.
Viacheslav Kravtsov is the only player currently on an NBA roster, as he'll be spending the 2014-15 season with the Phoenix Suns. Chances are, though, the big man, who turns 27 shortly before the World Cup, will fill a small role, just as he did last year in the desert and before that with the Detroit Pistons.
Eugene "Pooh" Jeter is another player with experience in the Association, but he's past his prime and has spent the last few years with the Shandong Lions in the Chinese CBA. The opposite is true for 22-year-old shooting guard Oleksandr Lypovyy, who went undrafted last year but has played fairly well for BC Donetsk in the Ukrainian Superleague.
All three are worth watching, but Sergii Gladyr is the man you must keep an eye on.
Drafted by the Atlanta Hawks back in 2009, the 25-year-old is a solid shooting guard, even if he has no NBA experience under his belt. Not only is he a great athlete, but he's a deadeye shooter from the perimeter and can pass well for his position.
Only Jeter scored more than Gladyr at the 2013 EuroBasket competition, but it's time for a passing of the baton.
United States: Derrick Rose
You can close your eyes and point to a player on the Team USA roster. He'll be worth watching.
Even without Kevin Durant, Paul George, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and so many other big-name players who call the United States home, Mike Krzyzewski's squad is absolutely loaded with intriguing talent.
So on and so forth.
However, nothing will be as important as Derrick Rose's development.
This is the Chicago Bulls point guard's first real action since suffering yet another big knee injury, and it'll be a nice litmus test for the regular season. Though a dominant performance, one filled with explosion and aerial acrobats, won't be a guarantee for a great go-round in the Windy City, it'll at least be a positive indicator.
Rose is one of the most entertaining players in the world when he's healthy, and the question marks just make him even more intriguing.