Basketball is a team sport, first and foremost, but it’s also a star-driven game. One or two elite players can often lift a team above an opponent with more collective talent. Such is the case at the FIBA World Cup where depth matters but stars ultimately win games.
After the first two rounds of group play, USA, Serbia, Spain, Australia, and France all cruised to expected berths in the single-elimination quarterfinals of the World Cup. There were a few minor hiccups along the way for these world powers, but they are all ending up right where they wanted to be.
Poland, Argentina and the Czech Republic are flying under the radar to a certain extent, but anything can happen in a do-or-die game.
The two-man game between a guard and a big is a staple at any level of basketball. At the World Cup, those small-big duos often power a team’s offense and set up its supporting cast—who had their chance to shine against inferior depth during the previous rounds.
The performance of these tandems often can be the ultimate difference between advancing another round and a premature exit, so here’s how each quarterfinal team’s duo stacks up.
Argentina: Facundo Campazzo, Luis Scola
This is the best duo at the World Cup that no one is talking about. Luis Scola is a name that should ring a bell for NBA fans, but Facundo Campazzo is far from a household name in the states.
Scola, 39, is a bit long in the tooth at this point in his career, but the former Houston Rockets big man is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s averaging 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in the World Cup and making much younger men look silly. Scola can still step behind the arc and keep teams honest with his consistent three-point stroke, or he can flummox defenders with a flurry of savvy post moves.
It also helps that he has one of the best playmakers in the tournament feeding him assists. Facundo Campazzo is a maestro in the halfcourt and a maven in transition. There’s a reason why the Real Madrid star is known as one of the most exciting point guards in Europe. The 5-foot-11 Campazzo is currently second in assists, only trailing Germany’s Dennis Schroder.
Continuity matters in international competition, and Campazzo and Scola are coming off a Pan-Am Games championship in early August. This squad, despite their under-the-radar status, is firing on all cylinders at the perfect time.
Australia: Patty Mills, Aron Baynes
These are two guys NBA fans should be intimately familiar with. Longtime San Antonio Spur Patty Mills takes his game to another level in international competition. Team USA coach Gregg Popovich even likened overseas players to superheroes when they play for their country. It’s easy to see why he was probably thinking of Mills when he made that comment.
In 30 minutes against the Dominican Republic on Saturday, Mills posted 19 points, four rebounds and nine assists. Even going back to the Boomers’ exhibition win over Team USA, Mills is the dependable option head coach Andrej Lemanis turns to when the game is on the line.
Baynes has scored in double figures during all four games thus far. He and Mills have unmistakable chemistry as Baynes is one of the best screen-setters at the World Cup, and his counterpart is adept at running off those. Whether it’s off-ball or in the pick-and-roll, the combination of Mills and Baynes will give opposing coaches nightmares.
*Czech Republic: Tomas Satoransky, Ondrej Balvin
After suffering a 21-point drubbing in their opening matchup to Kemba Walker and Team USA, the Czech Republic has steadily improved with each passing game. Tomas Satoransky’s 20 points, seven rebounds and nine assists against Brazil are about as close as a player can get to a triple-double in the World Cup. He can create his own shot when his team needs a basket, but he’s finding tons of success as a facilitator.
Center Ondrej Balvin is exactly the type of old-school big man who can find success at the World Cup. He doesn’t miss many opportunities to score when he catches the ball in the paint. The 26-year-old has posted double-doubles during his last two games and is near the tops of the tournament with 1.8 blocks per game.
The Czech Republic certainly won’t be a favorite in their quarterfinal matchup but they won’t lay down for anyone.
France: Evan Fournier, Rudy Gobert
This was probably the easiest duo to choose out of the bunch. France’s depth was on full display against Lithuania due to rampant foul trouble, but this team is only going as far as Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert take them.
Gobert serves as the dominant rim-protector while Fournier is France’s go-to guy when they need a basket. This duo has as much chemistry as any other pairing in China, and Vincent Collet, France’s head coach, knows it.
The longtime French coach routinely begins games by clearing out the right side for a Fournier-Gobert pick-and-roll. Despite the predictability, teams have yet to find a consistent method of stopping this pairing. If Fournier can’t use his feathery touch to drop in a floater, Gobert is there to clean up the mess.
With Fournier’s consistent scoring and Gobert’s elite rim protection, the French appear to be a solid pick to advance out of the quarterfinals. In terms of top-end talent, France can stand toe-to-toe with any other nation at the World Cup.
*Greece: Nick Calathes, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Greece has the luxury of the reigning NBA MVP and one of the best point guards in Europe on the same roster. Unfortunately, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nick Calathes don’t complement each other enough to expect anything more than a quarterfinal flameout.
Antetokounmpo and Calathes are both ball-dominant players, making this pairing a wonky fit. Calathes isn’t a catch-and-shoot threat and we already know that outside shooting is one of the only glaring weaknesses in Antetokounmpo’s game.
A shocking loss to Brazil exposed Greece as a paper tiger at the World Cup, not to mention a sporadic showing against the U.S.
In fact, it’s a marvel a disjointed Greece team has made it this far at all.
Poland: Mateusz Ponitka, Adam Hrycaniuk
Despite their undefeated record through four games, the Polish have been beneficiaries of weak competition during the early stages of the World Cup. However, if you’re looking for an underdog in the quarterfinals, Poland is a team to watch.
Any team that underestimates the Polish is doing so at their own risk. Mateusz Ponitka has scored in double figures in every game thus far during the tournament. He’s tough to contain even when his shots aren’t falling. During a crucial game against Russia, Ponitka turned in 14 points on a perfect 9-for-9 from the free-throw line. He has a knack for drawing contact, and that could come in handy during the quarterfinals where early foul trouble can change the course of the game.
Unfortunately for Poland, they’re quite guard-heavy as a team. Ponitka leads the team in rebounds with 6.8 per game, but 6-foot-9 center Adam Hrycaniuk is not far behind him with 5.5 per contest.
It’s hard to envision Poland knocking off one of the favorites with the lack of production coming from the frontcourt—making this the weakest duo of the bunch—but Ponitka has been just that good, and anything can happen in a single-elimination format.
Serbia: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Jokic
The Serbians are doing things a little bit different at the World Cup than most teams. Nikola Jokic, the second-best player at the tournament behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, is coming off the bench. The Denver Nuggets’ First-Team All-NBA center is one of the best passing bigs you will ever watch, and he’s more than comfortable playing the role of facilitator.
He’s averaging 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists through four games, but his shooting percentage really jumps off the page: Jokic is 20-for-24 from the field and 10-for-12 from the line.
Fewer shots for Jokic means more for his running mate, Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Sacramento Kings guard is Serbia’s bell cow on offense. A 31-point night against the Italians put Serbia in a position to cruise into the quarterfinals without even breaking a sweat.
The Serbs have a deep roster, but expect them to lean on Jokic and Bogdanovic when the going gets tough.
Spain: Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol
This pairing is like international basketball’s version of ol’ reliable. Ricky Rubio and Marc Gasol have been playing for the Spanish national team together for more than a decade, and they have racked up their fair share of hardware over the years.
In a game where the Spanish came out sluggish against Italy, Rubio and Gasol were the steady hands that guided Spain to a victory and a perfect record in the opening round of group play. Big free throws from Rubio and timely hoops from Gasol during the waning minutes were enough to suppress any hopes of an Italian upset.
The Spanish have been here many times before, meaning Rubio and Gasol are no strangers to the spotlight of international competition. When the lights grow bright in China, expect these two to shine even brighter.
USA: Kemba Walker, Myles Turner
Kemba Walker is one of the best players at the World Cup, and he’s the clear focal point of Team USA. On a team filled with talented guards, the 6-foot-1 star stands above the rest. His ability to score means teams are going to send tons of attention his way.
If there’s one area where Team USA is weak, however, it’s the frontcourt.
Myles Turner is a versatile defender and skilled offensive player, but he hasn’t quite shown up in the World Cup yet. He’s averaging just 6.5 points and shooting under 40 percent from the field. He’s making up for his offensive struggles by averaging 1.8 blocks per game, but his defense hasn’t been enough to keep him on the floor in crunch time.
Head coach Gregg Popovich has resorted to small-ball lineups with Harrison Barnes or Khris Middleton playing the five at times—something that would be unheard of at the NBA level, even amid the small-craze.
Many of the best teams at FIBA play big lineups late. Sooner or later, Turner must assert himself against names like Jokic, Gobert and Gasol if Team USA is going to bring home the World Cup.
*As of this writing, both Czech Republic and Greece were still in the running to advance to the quarterfinals, though only one will do so.
**All photos via Fiba.com