At the last World Cup in 2019, Team USA finished a disappointing seventh.
That was still good enough to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics — where the USA won gold — but it was a reminder that basketball has become a global game with talent everywhere. The gap between the USA and the rest of the world has shrunk.
That will be evident at the FIBA World Cup, which begins this weekend in Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines. The Americans are sending a talented but inexperienced team to Manilla for their games, which start on Saturday. If you don't know much about the World Cup — which runs Aug. 25 through Sept. 10 — we've got you covered.
Here are the five key things to know about the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
1) Team USA are the favorites — and should be
While the biggest American names may be taking this summer off with their eye on the 2024 Paris Olympics, the depth of talent in the states shows out in this roster that has gone 5-0 — with a couple of real tests — in its tune-up games for the World Cup. The USA rolls out 12 quality NBA players (more than any other nation), three of them All-Stars last year, and more importantly this roster has shown a chemistry and flow that was lacking in the previous World Cup (or even early in the Tokyo Olympics).
Anthony Edwards has emerged as the team's best player (more on him later), Jalen Brunson has been a leader in some tune-up games, Jaren Jackson Jr. has been critical on both ends, and there are pure scorers on the roster such as Brandon Ingram who can take over a game. However, maybe the most impressive part of the USA's run-up has been a bench led by Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves, which has come in games, changed the tempo and been the driving force in the USA's key wins over FIBA No. 1 ranked Spain plus a good German team.
Austin Reaves is too nice pic.twitter.com/ueB1EPo8tV
— The Laker Files (@LakerFiles) August 18, 2023
The Americans have one other big advantage: The draw. It starts with a first group stage against Greece (without Giannis Antetokounmpo), New Zealand and Jordan (two teams from each of the eight groups advance to a second group stage where two games are played, and the top two teams from those second groups advance to an eight-team knockout phase).
More critical for Team USA is the fact that every team considered a threat to them — France, Australia, Spain, Canada, Germany — is on the other side of the bracket for the knockout round. The Americans wouldn't see any of them until the semifinals. Not that all the games will be easy, but the USA has a relatively clear path until that final four.
2) France, Canada, Australia, Germany are biggest threats to USA
This is not going to be a cakewalk for the Americans — no international competition ever will be again. The rest of the world is catching up (the NBA MVP each of the past five years has been a foreign-born player). Here are the threats.
France has been the second-best team on the world stage for a few years now, winning the silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics and the bronze in the past two World Cups. They are led by Rudy Gobert (Timberwolves), Evan Fournier (Knicks, and a force in FIBA games), Nicolas Batum (Clippers), and a roster full of experienced international players such as Nando de Colo and Guerschon Yabusele. BetMGM has France as the second betting favorite at the World Cup (+800) behind the Americans (-135).
Canada has a roster stacked with talent — Shai Gilgious-Alexander, RJ Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Kelly Olynyk — but it has stumbled through a series of tune-up games. Maybe they use that to come together (remember how Team USA stumbled before the Tokyo Olympics), or perhaps it's a sign this team isn't as good as projected. Canada still has the talent to win a medal.
Australia is loaded with NBA talent — Patty Mills, Josh Giddey, Joe Ingles, Josh Green, Dyson Daniels, Matisse Thybule — and they won the bronze in the Tokyo games. Spain won the last World Cup and FIBA has them ranked No. 1 in the world, but this is not the peak of Spain (no Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio and others). The USA handled Spain in their tune-up. Germany has been a surprise threat and led the USA by 16 in the second half of their tune-up matchup, with Dennis Schroder, the Wagner brothers, and Daniel Theis leading the way. Germany is the surprise contender in this tournament but the team coming in hot is always a threat.
3) This looks like Anthony Edwards breakout tournament
"He's unquestionably the guy. You can see he knows it. But now the team knows it, and I think the fans see it...
"He genuinely believes he's the best player in the gym every single night. And he's such a dynamic young player. I think he's taking a leap.”
That was USA coach Steve Kerr — who has seen a player or two make a leap in his time — talking about Anthony Edwards. Kerr is not wrong. Edwards looks like a player about to make the leap from All-Star to All-NBA, maybe MVP-candidate level based on the confidence he is showing in the USA training camp and tune-up games. If you won't take Kerr's or my word on this, how about Kevin Garnett?
— Kevin Garnett (@KevinGarnett5KG) August 21, 2023
As Marc Stein noted, this could be a fun tournament for Timberwolves fans. Besides Edward's ascension, there is Karl-Anthony Towns leading the Dominican Republic, Rudy Gobert at the heart of a very good French team, and Kyle Anderson will be the best player on the Chinese team by a mile. All should enter camp healthy and in shape, and if they can figure out how to make it all mesh the Timberwolves will look dangerous.
4) A lot of the talk is about who isn’t at the World Cup
It is unfair to a very deep pool of talent headed to the World Cup — 56 NBA players in total, plus the top players in the European leagues — but much of the focus will be on who is not playing.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had his knee scoped this summer after it bothered him last season, and he decided to sit out and make sure he fully recovered. Both Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray of the Nuggets decided to sit out after their championship run (and likely a long season and deep playoff run ahead of them again). Team USA does not have a number of guys who played in Tokyo or expressed interest in playing being on the team for the Paris Olympics including Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant. Joel Embiid likely will play in Paris as well, but has yet to choose if he would represent France or the USA. Just know USA Basketball head honcho Grant Hill said recently that if this World Cup team continues to play as well in these games as it did in the tune ups, a lot of them will be back for Paris.
Blame FIBA for many of these absenses. The international basketball organization wanted to get out of the shadow of the soccer World Cup, so FIBA moved its World Cup to one year before the Olympics (and made it an Olympic qualifier, read No. 5 below). For players who expect to make deep playoff runs with their teams, they could be looking at nearly two years of non-stop basketball — season, playoffs, World Cup, season, playoffs, Olympics — and in a sport more focused on rest and recovery than ever, top players had to make a choice. Paris and the Olympics are winning out big time. That hurts the depth at the World Cup.
5) This is the primary qualifier for the Paris Olympics next summer
There are just 12 men's basketball teams who will play in the Paris Olympics, and one of those spots goes to the host, France (who should have qualified anyway). That leaves 11 spots open, and seven of them will be filled based on finishes at the World Cup this summer.
This is how it breaks down: The top two World Cup finishers from Europe and the Americas go, plus the top finishers each from Africa, Asia and Oceania qualify. As a hypothetical example, if the World Cup semifinals featured the USA, Mexico, Germany and Spain, those four would qualify for the World Cup (two from the Americas, two from Europe). Because of the unbalanced brackets, there could be some real challenges for teams like Canada, which faces a tough path through to that final two from the Americas.
Nineteen teams from the World Cup who do not qualify for the Olympics will join five teams that came through qualifying tournaments this summer — including the Bahamas with Deandre Ayton, Buddy Hield and Eric Gordon — in four six-team qualifying tournaments next summer. The winners of those four tournaments make up the final four teams in the Olympics.
Prediction: Team USA beats Australia in the World Cup final to win gold. This American team is showing an early chemistry we haven't seen from our international teams in a while, and they have the Alpha they needed in Edwards. Combine that with a relatively easy path through so they gain confidence going into the knockout rounds, and the Americans will be tough to beat.