Fiba Basketball World Cup 2019: Guardian writers' predictions

Beau Dure, Greydy Diaz, Bryan Armen Graham and Aaron Timms
<span>Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

What are you most looking forward to, on or off the court?

Beau Dure Seeing how far Giannis Antetokounmpo can take Greece. He’s surely the best player in this tournament.

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Greydy Diaz Several countries have NBA teammates playing alongside each other and it will be interesting to watch them build chemistry ahead of the upcoming season. Team USA leads the way with four: the Boston Celtics quartet of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker. Brothers Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, both of the Milwaukee Bucks, will be a force for Greece, while Serbia’s roster includes Bogdan Bogdanović and Nemanja Bjelica of the Sacramento Kings.

Related: No excuses for Australia's Boomers as they aim for first Basketball World Cup medal

Bryan Armen Graham The best ever finish by an African team in this tournament was Egypt’s fifth-place showing way back in 1950. Nigeria appear to have the talent in place to raise that bar with five NBA players on their 12-man squad, but whether they can overcome the financial drama and player unrest that have come to the fore during the run-up remains to be seen.

Aaron Timms Watching Kemba Walker, the most resourceful player in the NBA, run the show for a diminished, second-string Team USA. Barely taller than 6ft, Walker is that increasingly rare sight in the NBA: a comparatively little point guard. But what he lacks in height and defensive ability (he has, essentially, none of the latter), he more than makes up for with a magician’s bag of feints, trick dribbles, changes of direction and moments of improvisational genius. Unleash the bamboozlement.

Who will be the surprise team of the tournament?

BD Nigeria have a couple of former NBA lottery picks, including Al-Farouq Aminu, who recently moved from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Orlando Magic. Josh Okogie, who will turn 21 during the tournament, burst onto the scene at Georgia Tech and impressed in his rookie year in Minnesota. The D’Tigers are unbeatable in Africa when they have their full roster. In the 2016 Olympics, without Aminu, they managed to hang close with Lithuania and Spain before beating Croatia.

GD Senegal, ranked 35th in the world, will surprise not because they will win many games, but because they will hold their own against Canada (ranked 23rd), Australia (11th) and Lithuania (sixth) in this year’s group of death.

BAG China have never finished better than eighth in this tournament or the Olympics, but they will benefit from rabid home support and a somewhat easy draw in Group A with Ivory Coast, Poland and Venezuela. A run to the quarter-finals behind NBA veterans Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi is not out of the question.

AT Greece. With so much of the emphasis in the build-up on the presence of the reigning NBA MVP in their ranks, it’s easy to forget that the Greeks have always been solid performers at the World Cup. With a support cast drawn from the country’s traditional Panathinaikos-Olympiakos basketball heartland, Greece is more than just Giannis. Players like Nick Calathes and Ioannis Bourouris are capable enough to give Greece’s star man the platform he needs to dominate the tournament.

<span class="element-image__caption">Senegal, drawn into the group of death, won 10 of 12 games in African qualifying behind former New York Knicks forward Maurice Ndour.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images</span>
Senegal, drawn into the group of death, won 10 of 12 games in African qualifying behind former New York Knicks forward Maurice Ndour. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The biggest threat to Team USA is ...

BD Any European team they could meet in the knockout rounds. These teams have plenty of experience in tough international games. European champion Slovenia, ranked seventh in the world, went 3-9 in qualifying and didn’t come close to making it here. The teams that survived all that won’t be intimidated by this US squad.

GD Although Australia handed Team USA their first loss in a major international tournament or exhibition in 13 years, they are not the biggest threat to the two-time defending champions. Serbia, led by Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokić, will be out to avenge their losses to the United States in the last two major international finals.

BAG The obvious pick is Serbia, who are loaded with NBA talent and in form, unbeaten since February and a perfect 9-0 in pre-tournament friendlies. But the US team’s defeat on Saturday to an Australia side that’s not even on the short list of tournament favorites will no doubt hearten legit European contenders like Spain, Greece and France.

AT Serbia. When the Serbs lost to Team USA in the final five years ago, Boban Marjanović was still playing in Europe and Nikola Jokić was still a year away from quietly making his NBA debut as a second-round draft pick for the Denver Nuggets. With the physique of a center and the hands of a point guard, Jokić will be the focal point for the Serbs’ offense, but in Marjanović and Sacramento Kings duo Bogdan Bogdanović and Nemanja Bjelica he’ll have plenty of support, giving the Serbs unrivaled height and menace in the paint.

The unsung player to look out for is …

BD If you’re scouting NBA lottery picks, check out French point guard Theo Maledon, who was named MVP of the French Cup final in May at age 17. He’ll have plenty of passing options, including Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Orlando’s Evan Fournier.

GD Frank Ntilikina, one of five NBA players on France, has an opportunity to showcase his talent in this World Cup after his second season with the New York Knicks was cut short by a severe groin injury. The lengthy, athletic combo guard will contribute on both ends and be a difference-maker in the backcourt.

BAG June Mar Fajardo, the 6ft 11in center for the Philippines known as the Kraken, has won the Philippine Basketball Association’s MVP award for the last five years straight. His frontcourt pairing with nine-year NBA veteran Andray Blatche could be enough to see Gilas Pilipinas through to the knockout stage and, if China falters, secure the basketball-mad country’s first Olympic berth since 1972.

AT USA’s Jayson Tatum. “Unsung” is not really the word for a player who’s been overhyped and under-delivered in his career with the Celtics to date, but Tatum might find the freedom of the World Cup, in a US roster shorn of its biggest stars, to his liking. There’s a short history of American starlets-in-waiting using international competition as a platform to “find themselves” in the NBA, the best example being Kevin Durant’s breakout performance for Team USA at the 2010 World Cup. Tatum will be hoping China can be a springboard to something similar. If you’re looking for a slightly more “unsung” unsung player to look out for, consider incoming Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura – the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, the first ever first-round pick from Japan, and already the fulcrum for the Japanese national team.

<span class="element-image__caption">Frank Ntilikina will look to shine for country after his second NBA season was cut short by a groin injury.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images</span>
Frank Ntilikina will look to shine for country after his second NBA season was cut short by a groin injury. Photograph: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Group-stage game to watch

BD China v Poland on 2 September. As hosts, China earned one of the top eight seeds and therefore a relatively easy group-stage draw. If they win their opener against Ivory Coast, this game will give them a good grip on a spot in the second round. If they lose the opener, this game is a must-win. China have been an Asian power for decades but have yet to break through on the world stage.

GD Lithuania v Australia on 5 September. The two best teams in the toughest group of the pack meet in the final game of the preliminary round.

BAG USA v Turkey on 3 September. After what should be a drama-free opener against the Czech Republic, the Americans will face their first real test against in-form Turkey, the 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists whose projected starting five includes the Cavaliers’ Cedi Osman, the Bucks’ Ersan Ilyasova, the 76ers’ Furkan Korkmaz, former Celtics seven-footer Semih Erden and 2014 SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin.

AT Ivory Coast v China on 31 August. Not for the game itself so much as the spectacle of the Chinese national team’s return to the Wukesong Culture & Sports Center, now rebranded in slightly more capitalist style as “Cadillac Arena” – the venue for basketball competition at the 2008 Olympics. Stuck out on the western edge of Beijing amid bland apartment towers and the crumbling remains of the old CCTV headquarters, Cadillac Arena is an oddly atmospheric place. I’m maybe unreasonably excited at the prospect of seeing big-ticket international basketball played there again.

One bold prediction

BD The USA’s struggles leading up to the tournament will increase interest. Some people will be interested so they can voice their displeasure with NBA stars who didn’t go; others will tune in because they love seeing relatively unheralded players succeed.

GD Japan’s Rui Hachimura, a lottery pick in June’s NBA draft, will be the breakout player of the World Cup with no fewer than five 25-10 games. We caught a glimpse of how talented the 21-year-old is when he scored 31 points in his team’s come-from-behind 86-83 win over Germany in a tune-up friendly.

BAG Australia, whose medal hopes are high despite the absences of Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden, Dante Exum, Thon Maker and Ryan Broekhoff, will fail to make it out of the group stage.

AT The Stifle Tower will do more than just stifle. Rudy Gobert has a deserved reputation as one of the NBA’s elite defenders but he’s more than a simple block machine. Over the past three seasons with the Utah Jazz he’s become far more efficient at the non-Gobert end of the court as well, deploying his massive frame to destructive effect in offense. If they’re to make an impression in the tournament, France will need to see the Full Gobert. His form in the warm-up games suggests they will.

<span class="element-image__caption">Japan will rely heavily on Rui Hachimura, who was chosen by the Washington Wizards in June’s NBA draft.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Matt Roberts/Getty Images</span>
Japan will rely heavily on Rui Hachimura, who was chosen by the Washington Wizards in June’s NBA draft. Photograph: Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Who will be the Most Valuable Player?

BD Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo will win it after scoring 50 points in a quarter-final heartbreaker against France.

GD Kemba Walker of the United States has emerged as the team’s leader during the run-up exhibitions with his ability to create offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates. The newly signed Celtics point guard, who was named MVP of the 2008 Fiba U-18 Americas championship, will be the reason the Americans cruise to the final and lift the trophy.

BAG Nikola Jokić. When Serbia were throttled by the Americans in the gold medal game at the 2016 Olympics (after a three-point loss in group play), Jokić was among the youngest players in the tournament. Today he’s one of the 10 best players on the planet and the centerpiece of a team with the size, depth and professional vintage to challenge even a full-strength USA, let alone the under-strength group on hand.

AT Nikola Jokić. The best player on the best team. Giannis will run him close, but Jokic will benefit from a superior supporting cast.

<span class="element-image__caption">Nikola Jokić, who was named to the All-NBA first team last season, is one of six Serbia players listed at 6ft 10in or taller.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Tao Zhang/Getty Images</span>
Nikola Jokić, who was named to the All-NBA first team last season, is one of six Serbia players listed at 6ft 10in or taller. Photograph: Tao Zhang/Getty Images

Quarter-finals

BD Poland v Spain, USA v Australia, Serbia v Russia, France v Greece

GD Argentina v Spain, USA v France, Serbia v Russia, Australia v Greece

BAG Argentina v Spain, USA v Lithuania, Serbia v China, France v Greece

AT Poland v Spain, USA v France, Serbia v China, Australia v Greece

Semi-finals

BD Russia v USA, Spain v France

GD Spain v USA, Serbia v Australia

BAG Spain v USA, Serbia v Greece

AT Spain v USA, Serbia v Greece

Which two teams will reach the final – and who will win?

BD France 92, USA 85. The USA’s disastrous loss to their own B team of G-Leaguers and overseas players proved how susceptible they are to a team that can move the ball around. Flashy dunks don’t play defense.

GD The United States will become the first country to win three straight Fiba World Cups despite a roster without America’s top stars, seeing off Serbia in a second consecutive major final. While the Serbians will have a height advantage and more World Cup experience among their players, the depth and athleticism of Team USA will be the difference as they look to close out the game in the fourth quarter.

BAG Serbia over Spain. The veteran Spanish side led by Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernández and Sergio Llull will collect one more scalp for the country’s aging golden generation in a semi-final thriller against the United States before falling at the final hurdle.

AT Serbia v USA with Serbia to win. A lot has been said about this World Cup being the best chance since 2004 for a non-US team to win a major tournament – and it’s all correct. The Serbs have the talent and the depth to take advantage of this periodic lull in the attention of the US’s biggest names to the international game. Team USA’s revenge at next year’s Tokyo Olympics will be fun to watch.

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