Here’s the thing about FIBA ball: It’s juuuust different enough to scramble what you thought you knew about the teams.
On paper, the U.S should win the 2023 FIBA World Cup going away, and Canada should be the runner-up. Those two countries have far more talent at their disposal than any of their international rivals, especially with Serbia’s Nikola Jokić sitting this one out. Particularly on the perimeter, the North Americans have an embarrassment of riches.
Alas, something gets lost in translation between the NBA and FIBA, and it’s not something that gets eliminated with a two-week training camp. Size and continuity combine to close the talent gap for European sides, especially against teams loaded with players who are used to NBA rules and lack much time for cohesion. The U.S., especially, checks all those boxes, which is why a Lithuania side with only one current NBA player — but years of spending summers together on the national team — was able to run circles around the Americans for the first 15 minutes on Sunday in their 110-104 upset win. Similarly, Canada barely survived elimination after losing to Brazil on Friday and needed a late rally to beat Spain on Sunday.
Yes, Lithuania’s victory had some 15-beats-a-2 vibes: They made their first nine 3-point attempts, most notably, and iced the game on a prayer shot from former Knick Mindaugas Kuzminskas. Even in defeat, the U.S. scored at will after a meh first quarter, finishing with 104 points on 84 trips, and forced 19 Lithuania turnovers.
On the other hand, FIBA also exposes one of the interesting differences between the NBA and international ball: Size matters a lot more in FIBA, and it’s the one area in which both the U.S. and Canada lack an overwhelming talent advantage compared to their opponents.
Of the American players, only little-used Walker Kessler is a full-time center in the NBA, and the taller U.S. players (Kessler, Jaren Jackson Jr., Paolo Banchero, Brandon Ingram) aren’t exactly renowned for their rebounding and physicality. In a related story, the Lithuanians mashed the U.S. for 18 offensive rebounds and a constant parade of fouls on post-ups. The strength advantage enjoyed by powerhouse Jonas Valančiūnas was particularly notable, while the different FIBA defense rules make it harder to just shred him in pick-and-roll at the other end … as a team of NBA stars would undoubtedly do under those league’s rules.
Valančiūnas actually had zero of the Lithuanian’s 18 offensive boards. The signature moment of the game was Lithuanian sub Vaidas Kariniauskas — a mid-career overseas vagabond who played in Romania last year — wagging his tongue at Austin Reaves after beasting him for an and-1 on a post-up. Reaves fouled out in just 14 minutes.
— FIBA (@FIBA) September 3, 2023
Lithuania’s offensive strategy showcased one of many areas of FIBA ball that makes it harder for players who are unfamiliar. With no illegal defense rules, the defense can be way more aggressive against isos on the block, but the U.S. seemed reluctant to try this after Lithuania’s Steph Curry impersonation in the first quarter. Typically international teams will have a second, bigger defender waiting inside the charge circle on a post-up, meaning they can force a pass out and, with less area to cover on the international floor, hopefully rotate effectively. That’s usually preferable to letting post players work freely with no help.
We’ve also seen the FIBA familiarity tax at times at the offensive end, where American players drive into the paint and see an unexpected help defender but no great angle for a kickout. At both ends, reprogramming in three weeks after years spent playing another way is really hard. It’s less of an issue for the European NBA players simply because many of them A) grew up with these rules before shifting to the NBA and B) have been repping their international teams nearly every summer.
Other subtle rules differences sometimes trip up the North American sides at random times too. For instance, the U.S. seemed to completely forget that the shot clock is only 14 seconds on possessions that begin on the opposite side of half court, leading to a costly second-half turnover as they tried to come back against Lithuania. I talked about post-ups and illegal defense above, but in the end, it’s never one big thing as much as 100 little things that tend to level the playing field in international basketball, combined with the element of randomness that a tournament can add.
Thus, after a first round that was largely a waste of time winnowed the field from 32 to 16, things have become genuinely interesting. Canada lost to Brazil and was nearly eliminated by Spain, the U.S. lost to Lithuania, Serbia lost to Italy and Australia and its nine NBA players were sent home in the second round.
Recent losses by the U.S. and Canada ended up harmless, but the single-elimination format from here on out means that one night of Lithuania-esque hot shooting can upend the bracket. It’s just enough of an equalizer that any of the six European teams left can win on any given night.
Of course, talent still matters, and the U.S. and Canada still have more of it than anyone else. Of the other six quarterfinalists, Lithuania, Latvia, Italy and Slovenia each have just one active NBA player on their roster; Germany has four, and Serbia has three. The U.S. and Canada should be favored; that’s just not the same thing as saying they’ll automatically win. In a sign of how relatively even this tournament looks at the top, only two teams have made it to the quarterfinals unbeaten, and those two (Lithuania and Germany) are just fourth and fifth in point differential, respectively.
Our final eight will play on Tuesday (U.S. vs. Italy; Lithuania vs. Serbia) and Wednesday (Canada vs. Slovenia; Germany vs. Latvia) mornings in Manila; the losers will still meet in consolation rounds, so everybody has three games left before Sunday.
Some other quick thoughts other notes on the tournament so far before I look ahead to the quarterfinals:
Best non-NBA player
Arturs Zagars, PG, Latvia. NBA teams comb though rosters at a tournament like this trying to find younger players on international rosters who could become NBA players in a year or two. At this tournament, the player scouts are most likely updating notes on is Zagars, the 23-year-old guard who has helped Latvia make a surprise quarterfinals appearance despite the absence of Kristaps Porziņģis. He was a well-regarded younger prospect whose career never got on track due to myriad injuries — in six professional seasons, his career high in games is 36.
However, he now seems healthy and spry and is still only 23. The 6-foot-3 guard has also been a streaky (at best) shooter over the course of his career but — in the admittedly small sample — has looked comfortable shooting FIBA 3s off the dribble this tournament, making nine of his 21 3-point attempts. More notably, he’s been able to get to his spots off the dribble and has been a masterful distributor with 33 dimes against just 10 turnovers in Latvia’s five games.
Zagars played in the Lithuanian domestic league last year after a failed stint in Spain. He would likely need to prove himself in a high-level European league, perhaps back in Spain, before an NBA side would realistically take the plunge. But he’s done a lot to get himself noticed these last two weeks.
Beyond Zagars, several recent former NBA players are in this tournament too. Of those, the one who did the most to remind teams of his existence was Spanish big man Usman Garuba. Recently waived by Oklahoma City after being salary dumped by both Houston and Atlanta this summer, Garuba is still only 21, moves well defensively and hints at potential stretch capability at the offensive end.
Best draft prospect
Juan Nunez, PG, Spain. Nunez didn’t exactly dominate, but the 19-year-old started for a veteran-laden Spanish team and held his own in a tough, physical competition.
Playing professionally in Germany, Nunez has shown he can run an offense but needs to become more of a perimeter threat to get more traction going on his NBA prospects. He shot just 31.9 percent from 3 and 60.7 percent from the line across all competitions last season, and both of those figures were major improvements from the year before. Nunez only launched eight triples in five games for Spain in the tournament, making three.
I’ll also note here that South Sudan’s Kahma Matid Maluach is 7-1 and just 16 years old, but he only got 41 minutes of run, almost all in garbage time.
Best NCAA prospect
Miro Little, PG, Finland. This wasn’t a particularly good tournament for this ilk of player; several prospects have overseas passports for teams in this tournament but were passed over for more experienced players.
Of this small bunch, Little’s long-term prospects seem the best. The 6-4 19-year-old is committed to Baylor this fall after appearing at the Nike Hoop Summit this past April, where he failed to make an impression. Little also struggled at the start of this tournament, and as at the Hoop Summit needs to show he can generate more of his own offense. However, he got his sea legs during the consolation round; while he struggled with turnovers at times, 23 assists in 88 minutes will get your attention. I don’t see a one-and-done here, but teams will have him on their watch lists.
The other notable college player was shooting guard Keisei Tominaga of Japan. Tominaga plays collegiately for Nebraska and will be draft-eligible in 2024. He’s only 6-2 but shot 40 percent from 3 and 86.8 percent from the line last season while averaging 13.1 points per game for the Huskers. Chances are he’s too undersized to play an off-ball role in the NBA, but he’s an accurate and extremely willing shooter, which could give him a chance to carve out a Troy Daniels-type career arc.
Luka Dončić, Slovenia. Only two All-NBA players are participating in this tournament: Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dončić. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, they’ve been the two best players here. Gilgeous-Alexander has a case for MVP given his fourth-quarter heroics to beat Spain and save Canada, but Dončić’s overall excellence to carry a Slovenian roster with no other pros has to take top honors here.
Dončić leads the tournament in scoring and, more amazingly, is tied for third in defensive rebounds. He also might be leading the tournament in assists if he had any shooting around him at all, but Slovenia’s 31.4 percent mark from 3 is tied for last among the quarterfinalists. As ever, the threat of FIBA Luka is enough to give Slovenia a puncher’s chance in any international game despite the iffy surrounding talent.
Game within the game
Olympic qualifying. Eight of the 12 teams for the field in the 2024 Olympics in Paris will be determined by World Cup results. France automatically qualifies as the host team, while the top finishing teams from Asia, Oceania and Africa also get automatic bids. Additionally, the top two finishing teams from the Americans and from Europe earn tickets to Paris.
This secondary tournament resulted in some interesting shenanigans — most notably, Egypt hitting 3s at the buzzer in a consolation game against Jordan to help their point differential in case they finished even with South Sudan. (They did not; South Sudan got the bid.) Looking ahead, we have the distinct possibility that the third-place game could also determine one of Europe’s automatic qualifying spots.
The known qualifiers so far are France (host) South Sudan (Africa), Australia (Oceania), Japan (Asia) and the United States and Canada (Americas). Of the six remaining European sides, only two will qualify automatically — the rest will have to join the other hopefuls in a qualifying tournament next July that will determine the last four slots.
This fact also gave added importance to Canada’s comeback win over Spain. It put Canada over Brazil into the automatic qualifying spot, rather than forcing them to win a six-team qualifying group next summer.
Brilliance of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dillon Brooks take Canada to Olympics
I still like the U.S. and Canada the best of the teams remaining, but Germany and Serbia have a legitimate chance of appearing in the final. If those four advance, Friday’s semifinal round should be incredible. In the meantime, here’s my crystal ball for Tuesday and Wednesday:
Germany over Latvia. It’s amazing that tiny Latvia made it this far without their one NBA star in Porziņģis, leaving them with just Thunder reserve Dāvis Bertāns and some others who briefly passed through the league (Rodions Kurucs, Dairis Bertāns, Anžejs Pasečņiks) as well as the emergent Zagars. However, Latvia’s shooting and lightning ball movement could give them some hope against a German side that may again be without its best player (Franz Wagner has been nursing an ankle injury).
That said, the Germans are big and deep, with NBA centers Mo Wagner and Daniel Theis, and have a top-notch perimeter playmaker for this level in Dennis Schröder and a knockdown shooter in Andreas Obst (42.5 percent from 3 for Bayern Munich last season). They’ve also been consistently good, even in the lead-up games to the tournament, and have to be considered a dark horse to win the whole thing. The Latvians won’t beat themselves, but Germany’s talent can.
Canada over Slovenia. The threat of FIBA Luka always looms, but Canada can throw multiple big, physical defenders at him in Lu Dort and Dillon Brooks; no other side can match this. Meanwhile, the Slovenian side has no real answer for Gilgeous-Alexander at the other end. Unless Luka goes bananas and has hot 3-point shooters riding shotgun with him, Slovenia looks outmanned.
Serbia over Lithuania. Not only is this the best matchup of the quarterfinals, but it will decide an Olympic qualifying spot if the U.S. and Canada win. While Serbia doesn’t have a tank like Valančiūnas on the inside, it does have more depth than the Lithuanians and a lot more perimeter shot creation with Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanović and Heat forward Nikola Jović.
Serbia’s offense has been a picture of efficiency all tournament long. The Serbs are shooting tournament-best 55 percent from the floor and averaging 100.4 points per game, second only to the U.S. I don’t see Lithuania being the team that slows them down.
U.S. over Italy. Italy can be potent offensively when Danilo Gallinari is available, but he’s still recuperating from last summer’s ACL tear, and as a result, Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio is their only available NBA player.
Italy did well to get this far but has struggled badly offensively (43.7 percent from the field, 31.4 percent from 3). They’ve played slow, plodding games all tournament, however, and the one interesting aspect to this game is whether Italy can eliminate turnovers, slow the tempo and force the U.S. to win a rock fight played in the 70s. They’ll undoubtedly copy much of Montenegro’s game plan from earlier in the week; that might help them keep things close, but it’s hard to see Italy holding back the tide for 40 minutes.
(Top photo of Jalen Brunson: Yong Teck Lim / Getty Images)