China just served up one of the most entertaining and unpredictable FIBA Men’s World Cup (formerly “World Championship”) tournaments in recent history.
There was a wide-open group of contenders, and a couple of the front-runners were toppled before the medal round.
Leading up to Spain’s coronation against Argentina on Sunday, we witnessed aesthetically dazzling team play and monumental individual performances from several different countries. It seems the talent across the world is reaching new levels yet again.
Here are some key takeaways from this tournament for Team USA, top NBA stars, the 2020 Olympics and international hoops in general.
Spain’s defense is as lethal as its offense (if not more)
Coach Sergio Scariolo has orchestrated some tremendous runs for Spain during the past decade. This one was arguably the best.
Even without their absolute best roster, the Spaniards launched a balanced offensive throughout the event. Tournament MVP Ricky Rubio orchestrated an attack that featured terrific high-low passing and an unpredictable onslaught of different slashers. Their 95-75 trouncing of Argentina in the Gold Medal game was an absolute clinic. But their defense was also dominant.
Scariolo’s crew held opponents to 70.0 points per game over the course of the tournament.
Their effort and coordination were superb, which gave the offense a fighting chance in a couple of low-scoring games during pool play. Spain’s most impressive defensive performance came in the second half of its second-round matchup against Serbia. They held Sasha Djordjevic’s squad (who averaged 47 points per half in the tournament) to 32 points in the half en route to an 81-69 triumph. Spain forced 17 turnovers during that game as well, proving their defense could be weaponized beyond just pure stopping power.
In a mid-tourney press conference, Scarolio explained that Spain didn’t have quite the offensive firepower they used to have, so they had to clamp down defensively (per FIBA):
We are far away from the offensive talent we had in previous years. So if we want to compete against great teams we have to play not good defense but great defense. This is our fate. This is our road map.
The combination of offensive diligence and defensive intensity turned out to be unbeatable in China. If Spain comes to the 2020 Olympics with a full deck and similar efficiency, they’ll be a gold medal contender and a gigantic obstacle—even if Team USA is star-studded.
Team USA’s CHEMISTRY PROBLEM
There are several reasons the United States fell short in its quest for World Cup gold. Much of the chatter is about America deploying second or third-tier stars because the A-list megastars opted to stay home.
But even so, this group had enough collective talent to finish better than seventh. And remember, in addition to their losses against France and Serbia, Team USA was exceptionally lucky they didn’t fall to Turkey.
What doomed Team USA was its lack of chemistry compared to top foes. This group was thrown together relatively quickly this summer, whereas some of the other countries have had the same core of players together for years. From the flow of the offense, to late-game trust, to defensive coordination, the difference was readily apparent.
This was clearly not just a talent problem. Team USA was represented exclusively with current NBA players, and they got bounced in the quarterfinals.
Argentina’s roster had zero current NBA players, and they reached the Gold Medal game.
The U.S. struggled with positioning and communication against the pick-and-roll several times throughout the tournament. It was part of its downfall against France, and things didn’t look much better in other games as well. The offense was equally disappointing, as the Americans didn’t get into a rhythm or get enough production from the frontcourt.
Give the international adversaries plenty of credit. Turkey, France and Serbia all deserve kudos for taking Team USA out of its comfort zone. There are a handful of other countries (think Spain, Argentina, Lithuania) that would have also threatened to topple the Americans if they squared off as well.
The world continues to catch up; Even if the U.S. sends its best stars to the 2020 Olympics, don’t expect it to be a breeze anymore.
Reminder: The FIBA version of Patty Mills is extra fun
On a side note, Australian marksman Patty Mills was an unstoppable catalyst for much of the World Cup. Mills’ scoring spree began during exhibition play when he torched Team USA for 30 points in the Boomers’ upset victory. Then he went on to average 22.8 points on 40.4 percent three-point shooting during the Aussie’s run to the semifinals and fourth-place finish.
His creativity and hot shooting in China probably won’t translate to a larger role in San Antonio. But this tournament was a fun reminder of how lethal Mills can be in international play.
Aggressive, decisive combo guards like Mills are invaluable in FIBA because they can rapidly extend leads or launch quick-strike comebacks in the short 40-minute games.
Greek Freak not as dominant as anticipated
Giannis Antetokounmpo was coming off an NBA MVP campaign and is in the prime of his career. He’s performed some unprecedented physical feats in recent years, and Sports Illustrated named him the top-ranked player entering the 2019-20 season.
Many thought the Greek Freak would be the brightest star of the World Cup.
He ended up having a relatively underwhelming tournament, however, averaging a modest 14.8 points per game en route to Greece’s 11th-place finish. Antetokounmpo never really found an offensive rhythm and had trouble getting to the free-throw line as consistently as he’d like. However, his modest impact is not entirely his fault.
Some credit goes to his opponents for playing high-energy, swarming defense. Some blame goes to his teammates for not consistently supporting him, and the final portion of blame goes to some questionable officiating.
I’m not worried about Giannis’ all-around game, and I think he’ll improve in his next stint with Greece. It was just a little weird to watch the Greek Freak blend into the tournament more often than standing out.
Bogdanovic poised for breakout
We should never overreact about a player’s FIBA performance potentially portending an NBA rise. Nevertheless, you can’t deny Bogdan Bogdanovic looked outstanding during Serbia’s up-and-down World Cup.
The Sacramento Kings guard dropped 22.9 points per game on 53.0 three-point shooting and 56.3 percent from the field. His skills look sharper than ever, and he might have the perfect timing and situation for a breakout season.
He scored in double-figures in each of his first two seasons in Sac-town, but his shooting efficiency wasn’t sparkling during 2018-19 (41.8 percent from the field, 36.0 from deep).
His versatility and accuracy in China could be a confidence springboard to better numbers for the Kings.
Bogdanovic will rejoin a core that includes De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley. Plus, collaborating with Fox for a third year should yield better chemistry and efficiency. And when Fox gets a breather, Bogey can take some of the playmaking duties. He averaged 4.4 assists per game at the World Cup, including six dimes during Serbia’s win over Team USA.
International bigs flourish; USA must prep accordingly for olympics
Familiar faces like Luis Scola or Marc Gasol seemingly turned back the clock in outstanding performances. Meanwhile, young anchors like Rudy Gobert and Isaac Fotu (New Zealand) carried their countries on the interior.
It seems like there is an unending supply of talented big men in the international game., and that translates directly to FIBA success, even as that style continues to erode in importance during NBA seasons.
Although the United States’ top guards and wings are more gifted than the rest of the globe’s, the top handful of international bigs are better and more skilled than America’s top tier of bigs. I’m talking about legit combo bigs or centers who are 6’10”-plus.
Outside of Anthony Davis and a healthy DeMarcus Cousins, the U.S. just doesn’t boast the same level of star talent. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has the likes of Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Vucevic, Clint Capela, etc.
We didn’t even get to see all of the world’s top towers in this tournament, and Team USA will have their hands full if they all show up for the 2020 Olympics. After watching Gobert thoroughly dominate the Americans in the quarterfinals, Team USA architect Jerry Colangelo must prepare accordingly for next summer.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball