Feature | Basketball

No Dream in this USA Team? Six Olympic storylines to watch at the 2019 FIBA World Cup

Team USA will be all about the team, Serbia could spring an upset, Nigeria, Tunisia and the Philippines could qualify for Tokyo 2020, Luis Scola, Rui Hachimania, Kemba Walker, Sala Mejri to shine and much more. 

By Sam Friedman and Ken Browne ·

The FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 will have China bouncing as the best ballers on the planet descend on the Middle Kingdom.

Tune-up games are in play, final rosters being agonised over, and the 2008 (and 2022) Olympic hosts are prepared to welcome the world once again.

With 32 teams playing 92 games over 16 days, there will be no lack of stories and subplots, but we've picked six of the best Olympic-related ones to follow.

Here they are:

1. Team USA

When you’re the number one ranked team in the world, it's all eyes on you.

And when you’re the number one team in the world and aren't bringing the biggest NBA names to court, the cross-examination is all the more fierce.

USA's first loss in 13 years to Australia's 'Boomers' on 24 August 2019 snapped a 78 game winning streak and their rivals smell blood.

"They wanted it more than us tonight," U.S. guard Kemba Walker said. "Lesson learned for us."

Coach Gregg Popovich said the loss would make the U.S. "a better team."

Will the flood of criticism and doubts that followed the loss inspire the 3-in-a-row Olympic gold medallists to make it three Worlds on the bounce too?

With no leadership from LeBron or Harden, no metronomic three-pointers falling like rain from Steph Curry, and the absence of a host of other household names (Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, CJ McCollum, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap all come to mind), the question marks are breeding.

And for the first time in a long time, the best player at the FIBA World Cup will not be wearing a Team USA singlet.

Reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will suit up for Greece, bringing his 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game to China with him.

But with so many names withdrawing - the latest Kyle Kuzma due to an ankle injury - it’s made the selection easier for Team USA and San Antonio Spurs coach Popovic who has confirmed his 12-man roster for the World Cup.

There's a little less Dream in this Team, but it's still a strong unit more than capable of keeping the U.S. at No.1.

Team USA roster for the FIBA World Cup 2019

PG: Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics), Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs)

SG: Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz), Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics), Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics), Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets)

SF: Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)

C: Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers), Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks), Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)

A roster that may not strike the same fear in the hearts of the opposition the way Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Anthony Davis and others did before the 2014 World Championships.

Team USA seemed to ease some of the concern with an exhibition win over a strong Spain side in Anaheim but the recent loss to Australia has opened up a world of concern from U.S. critics and hope for rivals.

This is, without doubt, the weakest USA team since 1998 when NBA players were not allowed to compete.

When you're Team USA basketball, only winning is acceptable, and every loss is amplified to something near a national emergency.

But when you look closely at this more discreet 2019 roster, you can see a design in its mix of experienced veterans and hungry young guns.

Harrison Barnes is an Olympic gold medallist from Rio 2016, Mason Plumlee won the last World Cup in 2014 and Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker have emerged as leaders of the team that the coach will lean on despite their age.

There's rhyme and reason in bringing 4 Boston Celtics players who know each other through-and-through, that's one third of the roster from the same club.

And don't forget one their most potent weapons:

Gregg Popovich.

Arguably one of the greatest coaches the game of basketball has ever seen, they call him 'Pop' and he is as excited about his debut as Team USA coach as he is keen to make it count, the U.S. will have to play as a team within a system and not rely on big individual moments.

Pop is the man to manage, organise and motivate that team.

And he isn't alone either.

His assistant coaches are Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, and Villanova University head coach Jay Wright.

They know well what happens whenever a team of NBA stars representing the United States of America loses.

Remember Athens 2004?

2. Europe’s Olympic crowded house

As laid out in our All you need to know about the FIBA World Cup article, Europe gets two of the seven direct qualification spots to Tokyo 2020.

That means the two highest European finishers in the tournament will book their tickets to the next Olympic Games, and most watchers foresee those two coming from Europe's big four:

Serbia, Greece, Spain, and France.

But don't write off Lithuania, Germany, Italy, and Russia's chances. They all made the top 12 in FIBA’s latest Pre-World Cup Power Rankings.

However Europe’s race to Tokyo plays out, it'll be fascinating to watch.

"May God help them"

Of Europe's top four, Serbia is seen as the principal threat to a USA threepeat.

Lead by 2019 NBA All-Star Nikola Jokic who does his day job at the Denver Nuggets, Jokic is a giant among giants and with a number of other NBA stars and capable ball handlers on the roster, and USA's pre-tournament stumbles, Serbia is growing more sure by the day that this title is theirs for the taking.

With the likes of Boban Marjanovic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Nemanja Bjelica in the line-up, Serbia aren't quietly confident of pulling off an upset - they're very loudly confident of it.

The Serb coach Sasha Djordjevic has even allowed himself to become a bit of a fighting-talk quote machine, pumping out memorable soundbites like this one:

“There’s Greece, Russia, France, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, Spain. I don’t think about the Americans at all.” - Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic

And this widely quoted gem:

“Let’s let them [Team USA] play their basketball and we will play ours and if we meet, may God help them” - Djordjevic

A USA-Serbia final would be a repeat of the 2016 Olympic final in Rio where the U.S. won their third Olympic gold medal in a row.

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3. Nigeria or Tunisia?

While the U.S. and Serbia ponder the podium, the African teams are focused on Tokyo plane tickets.

Africa’s one Olympic qualifying spot from this World Cup to the next Olympics looks like a two-horse race between Nigeria and Tunisia.

Whoever misses out in China will likely be favourite to book a place through Olympic qualification tournaments later this year.

That's because their continental rivals have struggled. World No.64 Ivory Coast barely made the World Cup cut, and only did so thanks to 1.96m or 6’5” shooting guard Charles-Noe’ Abouo. Angola are drawn in the same group as Italy, Serbia, and the Philippines. While Senegal got arguably the most perilous group of all, which includes Canada, Australia and Lithuania.

Nigeria, who have made the last two Olympic Games, are looking to make it three in a row.

But drawn in a Group B that features a tournament favourite Argentina coming off their Pan American Games gold medal, and a Russia squad that looks to be hitting their stride, Nigeria will likely need to beat one of these teams in the group stage if they want to advance to the next round.

20-year-old NCAA baller Jordan Nwora was the money man during qualifiers for Nigeria with a 21.7 point and 8 assist average in 3 performances.

He’s been lighting it up for Louisville too.

Oh, and Nigeria's coach Alexander Nwora just happens to be his dad.

Tunisia can feel relatively lucky when they look at Angola and Ivory Coast's group, they were drawn with Spain, Puerto Rico and Iran.

While Spain are pretenders to the crown with NBA ringers Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, and the Hernangomez brothers allied to qualifying scoring sensation Quino Colom and Real Madrid's experienced Sergio Llull, Tunisia will fancy their chances against Iran and an outside shot vs. 2019 Pan American Games finalists Puerto Rico.

One win might even be enough to advance to the second round depending on other results.

Based on their groups, however, Tunisia would face stiffer competition than Nigeria if they both advance to the second round so their hopes of claiming that automatic Olympic berth is most likely to happen if Nigeria don't make it out of group stage.

The Tunisian team is built around NBA centre Salah Mejri, who just finished his fourth season with the Dallas Mavericks.

The supporting cast includes point guard Omar Abada (12.3 PTS, 3.8 AST in Qualifying) and center Makrem Ben Romdhane (11.8 PTS, 6.4 REB, 2.7 AST) who'll need to step up if Tunisia are to grab that golden ticket to Tokyo.

4. Rui-Fever? Hachimania?

Japan is already guaranteed their Olympic place as hosts, but there are two words that explain why you have to watch them in China:

Rui Hachimura.

The all-dunking, all-dazzling Japan prodigy is set to stun at his first big international tournament.

Gonzaga standout and first ever Japanese-born player to get drafted to the NBA - a first round pick for the Washington Wizards - will get up close and personal with future big-league rivals as the USA are in Japan's group.

Hachimura was the 'Akatsuki Five' highest scorer in the World Cup Asian Qualifiers, averaging 21.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, shooting nearly 58 percent from the field.

You can't miss him, he wears number 23.

The World Cup in China will be a good gauge for the Japan team, telling them where they stand in the global order less than a year out from Tokyo 2020.

Japan's media is hinging their hopes on the country's 'Big Three' — Rui Hachimura, Yuta Watanabe, and Nick Fazekas.

5. Argentina prospecting for more gold

Argentina’s recent Luis Scola-led Pan American Games victory in Lima showed why they are once again the team to beat from South America.

Argentina demolished the USA in the semi-finals in Peru, then overcame a spirited Puerto Rico in the final. Scola and their Real Madrid connection of Nicolas Laprovittola and Facundo Campazzo were key to success in the continental competition, but the Worlds is a step up.

The Argentines are no strangers to this competition, however. They won the first ever FIBA World Cup and enter Group B as clear favourites in the mix with South Korea, Nigeria, and Russia.

The albiceleste blue-and-whites went 9-3 in qualifying with Nicolas Brussino leading the team on a 12.6 points per game average and practically 5 rebounds a game during qualifiers.

Luis Scola, a 10-year NBA vet and living legend of Argentine basketball shows no signs of slowing down and aims to add to his weighty treasure chest of medals and trophies in Beijing.

Scola isn't just there for sentimental value either, he averaged 16.7 PPG and 8.1 RPG in 9 qualifying games.

How Argentina would love to write another story similar to when the Golden Generation featuring Scola and Manu Ginobili downed the U.S. dream team that included LeBron, Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony, and Allen Iverson at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games:

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With only two teams advancing to the Olympics from the Americas via the World Cup, and with USA and Canada in that region, a potential quarter-final matchup against Spain could see Argentina (or Spain) in a must win situation for Tokyo 2020.

If not, one of those two teams may need to go through the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments.

6. Pride of the Philippines

It's hard to think of a country in the world that plays, follows, and watches the game of basketball with more pride and passion than the Philippines.

The scenes of joy when they secured qualification for the World Cup were something to behold.

Now here's a bold prediction:

The Philippines won't win the 2019 World Cup.

But they might cause a couple of upsets through pure heart and hustle, and they could also claim the one Olympic spot going for Asia, depending on how China and South Korea do.

The 'Gilas Pilipinas' are in Group D with Serbia, Italy, and Angola - a tough ask.

But a win against Angola who are ranked 39 to Philippines' 31 and a surprise result against Italy could see them through to the next round - and may even be enough to secure that safe passage to Tokyo.

If they can manage it, they'll be dancing in the streets of Manila, Mindanao, Davao, Puerto Princesa, and Cebu again.

We won't see Kai Sotto at this World Cup, but with experienced hands like Andray Blatche, Gabe Norwood and young promises Bolick and CJ Perez, there are reasons for the Gilas basketball faithful to believe.

Find out more on how Kai Sotto is trying to make the NBA his home by clicking the link below.

If you’ve missed anything, don’t forget to check out our World Cup Preview and stay up to date with everything that’s happening in China with the Olympic Channel throughout the event.