This is part of WTLC's coverage of the Eurobasket! Serge Ibaka won't be playing in Spain this year, but there will be a lot of familiar faces in Europe, so we'll be doing some skeleton coverage to keep you up to date. Here's my preview of Group A.
FIBA World Ranking: 8th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: Silver (2nd Place)
NBA Players: Nicholas Batum (Portland Trail Blazers), Nando De Colo (San Antonio Spurs), Boris Diaw (San Antonio Spurs), Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs), Mickael Gelabale (Minnesota Timberwolves), Johan Petro (Atlanta Hawks)
Team Overview: After many years of being good but not great, France has recently distinguished themselves as one of the best teams in the world. Boasting a roster that teems with NBA players, they can win most games on talent alone, and this year should be no different. However, they're clearly a step below where they were in 2011 and 2012. The French team has lost pretty much every front court player that they've had play for them recently. The problem has become so rampant that French basketball fans are using the hashtag "ousontlepivots" (roughly translated: Where are the centers?) to describe their current situation. Here's the list: Kevin Seraphin of the Wizards elected to go with a personal training program. Joakim Noah is recovering from injury. Ronny Turiaf wants to take care of his body and get a contract. Ali Traore, a European stud, is recovering from injury. Rudy Gobert had his foot operated on and can't play. Ian Mahimni is on a personal training program. Even Ludovic Vaty, and up-and-coming star, had to retire at the age of 24 due to a heart condition.
So, who is France left with? Well, if you're a Thunder fan, you'll be delighted to know that former Thunder player Johan Petro is re-joining the French national squad. Former NBA player Alexis Ajinca will join him as the other center, while Diaw and Florent Pietrus (brother of Michael Pietrus) will play minutes as tweener power forwards. Normally going so deep into a talent pool would destroy a national team, but having Aljinca and Petro is hardly a setback in terms of the broader talent pool of Europe.
Play Style: France is one of the tournament's most athletic and experienced teams. They love to use their speed to run the floor, and that tendency should only see an upswing with the recent downsizing of their roster. Aside from Batum, the team really struggles from behind the three point line, so they use a lot of Tony Parker's magic to get opportunities on the inside. They'll also isolate players on the wing and let them go to work.
Main Strength: Athleticism. It seems like an odd strength to give a team, but in a continent famed for the amount of stiffs that it produces, the description seems apt. De Colo and Parker provide a constant amount of excellent ballhandling and quickness, so the team rarely struggles with turnovers. In terms of athleticism, high flyers like Gelabale, Pietrus, and Batum have plenty to offer. As you'd expect, the team goes to the line quite frequently.
Main Weakness: I gave it away earlier, but France's main weakness is their lack of three point shooting. The general school of thought is to go into a zone against them, but France can usually make the other team pay one way or another. They'll either shoot open threes until they start going down or use their speed to find spots in-between the zones and gather easy points.
Final Verdict: France is still probably the favorite to face Spain in the title game, as the only other team of their caliber with great bigs, Russia, just lost their entire front line as well. But really, the Eurobasket championship is completely up in the air this year, and France has just as good of a chance as the next five teams do. They're a solid lock to win Group A and eventually advance to the knockout stage, but the rest really depends on how gimmicky they are. Can they handle a Marc Gasol-type player? Can they hit threes when they need it? Can they avoid using too much pressure on defense?
FIBA World Ranking: 29th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 13th Place
NBA Players: Omri Cassipi, Houston Rockets
Team Overview: Israel has always been a contender in Europe, competing on the fringes of the elite but always finishing just short of where they'd like to be. In the past two Eurobaskets, however, they've been on a bit of a downward slope. They've faced tough opening draws on both occasions, narrowly losing to Macedonia in 2009 and getting crushed by Dirk's Germany in 2011. However, with Group A shaping up to be the weakest group in this year's Eurobasket, Israel has a very good chance to advance to the second round of the group stage. Moveover, this is the first Eurobasket that they'll play with NBA player Omri Cassipi, who should be a nice shot in the arm.
In terms of departures, the Israelis will really miss David Blu, the only true post player the team had in 2011. Alexander Tyus will be more than and adequate replacement though, as he fills the same skillset. As always, the team will continue to rely upon old standbys. Lior Eliyahu is a dynamic small forward who can do everything but shoot threes. Guy Pnini is a skilled shooter and defender. Lastly, Yotam Halperin (whom the Thunder still own the rights to, LOL) is a point guard who does well to work both on and off the ball.
Play Style: The three words I'd use to describe Israel are fearless, fast, and messy. With no player taller than 6'7", the team loves to use their speed to their advantage, playing for steals in the passing lanes and using any opportunity they can to get out on the break. As a result, their offense can be really haphazard at times, as they're usually just looking for the quickest way to get up the floor. When they are in a halfcourt set, they'll usually have a bunch of guys continually cut to the basket with and without the ball, trying to draw defenders and open up opportunities. Defensively, despite their small size, they're not fond of using the zone. They like to pressure beyond the half-court line and get up in their matchup's grill as much as possible.
Main Strength: Excellent offensive efficiency. In 10 qualification games, the team managed to shoot 54% from the floor overall, and average 17 shots from the line. Those are really impressive numbers, and it's a testament to how well these players know each other. All of them but Cassipi play in the domestic league, and a good number of them have been with the national team for years.
Main Weakness: Defensive miscommunication. Israel is a small team, but they can pack the paint, so they don't usually have trouble against opposing centers. Of course, they do face the traditional problems that small ball teams have, like a lack of rebounding in some games, and a plethora of turnovers in others. But overall, I'd pinpoint Israel's weakness as miscommunication on defense. When they face a really good passing team, it's not uncommon for them to leave a man wide open because they pressured in the wrong place. At the end of the day, their objective is to outscore you, and when their shots don't fall it's difficult for them to win.
Final Verdict: Ranking them second seems pretty high for Israel, but they're past due for a good Eurobasket performance. The only team that really has any sort of matchup advantage against them is Belgium, and Belgium will most likely drop a game to another team. As long as Israel can keep packing the paint and subvert the talented bigs of Ukraine and Germany, they should be a safe bet to make it to the second round. Beyond that, they have a decent shot at the knockout round, but anything beyond that would be a huge overachievement.
FIBA World Ranking: Tied for 77th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 21st Place
NBA Players: None
Team Overview: Belgium doesn't have the stand-out talent that other teams do, but they aren't as bad as you might think. Their starting lineup boasts three players from some of Europe's premier clubs, and the majority of their team comes from the Belgian clubs Belgacom Spirou and the Antwerp Giants. Furthermore, the club doesn't experience very much turnover, so there's a definite degree of familiarity to the team. However, they did take a hit with the recent injury to the American-born Matt Lojeski, who would have likely been the club's best shot creator.
Obviously, the three players who play outside of the country form Belgium's main core. Sam Van Rossom is an excellent three point shooter who plays for Valencia. Jonathan Tabu is an energetic point guard who works exceedingly well off the ball. Axel Hervelle is an undersized power forward with a lot of energy and a hell of a name.
Play Style: The best description I can give for Belgium's offense is "always in motion". It's not uncommon to see all five players moving around on any given play, at least in the first few seconds, and it's pretty apparent that Belgium's offense is more sophisticated and rehearsed than most international teams. All in all, plays center around getting players in good positions, like isolating a post player on the block, dishing it around to an open guy on the perimeter, or running the two-man game. Most of the plays Belgium runs focus on one side of the floor, attempting to confuse the opposing defense into leaving an open man on the weak side. Defensively, Belgium doesn't have a lot of bulk inside, so they rely on a zone defense.
Main Strength: Belgium's main asset is their excellent array of shooters. Every player on their roster is capable of nailing a three, and it's not uncommon to see two big men on the perimeter while they let their smaller players isolate inside. As mentioned above, the team is also familiar with each other and passes well, so they're capable of tearing up pressure-heavy teams like Italy and Israel.
Main Weakness: Creating their own shot. Once Belgium fails to run a play, it usually results in players running around willy-nilly, trying to get open. They don't really have a player who's capable of isolating it when the going gets tough, and their panic button is usually a long contested three from Sam Van Rossom or Jonathan Tabu. As such, the team can really live or die by the three sometimes, and have long stretches of non-offense. They also don't deal with back to the basket players very well, since they're a smaller team.
Final Verdict: It might seem crazy to rank Belgium this high, but they've only improved since 2011 and they've beaten some traditional European powerhouses in their preliminary games. In a tournament where Ukraine and Germany are dealing with massive roster turnover, Belgium's consistency should shine through. I doubt they go any further than advancement out of group A, though. All of the Group B teams will have a higher talent level, and all of them play pretty traditional European style basketball. That is, they take care of the ball and won't play to Belgiums strengths. Still, as it stands, it would be Belgium's best result since 1993.
FIBA World Ranking: Tied for 50th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 17th
Team Overview: Ukraine has undergone a lot of change since their appearance in the 2011 Eurobasket, but it's unclear as to whether it's for the better. Their top four scorers have departed, including American import Steven Bertt and former Wizard Oleksiy Pecherov. Additionally, they lost a former member of the Utah Jazz, Kyrylo Fesenko. But, in their place, they gain a more experienced Viacheslav Kravtsov, a three point bomber that they desperately needed in Sergii Gladyr, and a superior American import in Pooh Jeter, who once played for the Sacremento Kings.
While it's not clear if Ukraine is any better, it is clear they're a lot younger. Ukraine will play host to the 2015 Eurobasket, so coach Mike Fratello has admitted that he's pretty much putting a team in place for that time. As such, you can expect some growing pains from this team. But the type of personnel that they have is basically the same, so you can expect their strategy to be very similar to the one employed in 2011.
Play Style: Ukraine is a team that likes to work from the inside out. They've got a ton of bigs who love to get position and bruise in the post, and a lot of their plays boil down to isolating their bigs on one block or the other. They also rely on their bigs for a good portion of the ball handling, as they'll get double-teamed and have to make a risky pass back to the other side of the post or out to the perimeter. Defensively, Ukraine likes to use a zone because it masks a lot of their flaws, but it usually leads to them getting picked off by teams with good three point shooting. But even when they go man-to-man, the team still has a tendency to clog the paint and force the other team to shoot.
Main Strength: It's hard to pin one main strength on Ukraine, so I'll throw two at ya. One is post defense. It's rare that an opposing post player will have his way in the paint, since Ukraine will throw the kitchen sink at him. It's also rare for an opposing team to succeed with simple pick and rolls for the aforementioned reason. Of course, this advantage can be undermined by offensive rebounds and slick passes. The other strength Ukraine has is responsible offense. It's rare for anyone to take a wild shot, and a lot of Ukraine's attempts are close to the rim. Unfortunately, they don't have the level of talent that some other European teams do, so they end up missing wide open jumpers.
Main Weakness: Without a doubt, Ukraine's biggest weakness is rebounding. In every Eurobasket 2011 game they played (aside from their matchup with Belgium) they managed to lose the rebounding battle by a sizeable margin, and it can be counted as a big factor in all of their losses. Usually, it's because the team focuses so heavily on shot defense. Unfortunately for them, the strategy usually just results in them clogging the paint, failing to cover shooters, and giving up prime offensive boards.
Final Verdict: This team is missing a lot of their talent, so I'm expecting a dip in their quality of play. Also, their basic strategy relies upon good decision making from each player that touches the ball, which isn't a good sign when your team is so young. Plus, they're going to have to face some well-rehearsed teams in Israel and Belgium, so I just can't see them advancing. Eurobasket 2015, ahoy!
FIBA World Ranking: 13th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 9th Place
NBA Players: None
Team Overview: Don't be fooled by this team's high ranking, as Germany is sending its' weakest squad to the Eurobasket in years. Obviously, the team formerly relied upon the talents of Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman, two absolute beasts in the post. But Dirk unofficially retired from international play after last year's Eurobasket, and Chris Kaman went along with him. Germany's front line took a further hit when current Houston Rocket Tim Ohlbrecht decided to sit this tournament out, and when backup point Steffen Hamann decided to retire from international play along with Dirk.
Nevertheless, Germany still boasts one of the stronger domestic leagues in Europe, and will still have a stronger talent pool than most nations. Their star guard will be Heiko Schaffartzik, a capable distributor and three point bomber from Bayern Munich. They'll also heavily rely on Tibor Pleiss, a proficient post scorer whom the thunder own the rights to. Per Guenther will also be a centerpiece, utilizing his speed and athleticism to spark the mostly tall and slow German team. The rest of the squad centers around excellent three point shooting, which they'll need if they want to advance beyond the first round.
Play Style: Germany is a team that loves to utilize the high pick and roll. Dirk and Kaman were mostly left to isolate and score on their own, so I'd expect them to rely even more heavily upon that play style this year. The point guard (usually Schaffartzik) runs the play, and he either drives down into the post for a foul, or kicks it out to an open three point shooter. It sounds basic, but Germany has a real lack of ballhandlers, so they can't draw up a lot of isolation plays, score on the break, or use any penetration play that doesn't utilize a big.
Main Strength: Germany's main strength is shooting. It seems like a stereotype because of the legacy of Dirk and Detlef Schrempf, but it's true. Dudes from Germany can shoot. Every player on their roster can hit a mid-range jumper, and only the centers are incapable of regularly shooting the three with deadly accuracy. It seems like a weak strength, but when you consider how easily the German front line can clear the paint by nailing jumpers, the whole thing begins to make more sense.
Main Weakness: As hinted at above, Germany is really terrible at moving the ball. If a more athletic team is keen enough, they can grab quite a few easy steals in the back court. This will be helped by the addition of the speedy Per Guenther, but Schaffartzik will still be the primary ball handler, and Guenther isn't that skilled of a distributor. Put quite simply, Germany needs better passers and shot creators. They were able to get by with a mediocre offense when they could just pass it in to Dirk or Kaman, but now they're really going to struggle to get off shots once their basic plays fail.
Final Verdict: As much as I'd like to see Tibor Pleiss do well, I just can't see this team advancing past the first round. They've performed exceptionally poorly in preliminary round matches, losing to Bosnia and barely squeaking past Sweden. Moreover, they'll be seeing athletic teams like France and Israel in the first round, both of whom could crush Germany with their quick guards. Unless Germany gets really hot from beyond the arc, they'll see a quick exit in this year's Eurobasket.
6. Great Britain
FIBA World Ranking: 20th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 13th Place
NBA Players: None.
Team Overview: As the host nation of the 2012 Olympics, Great Britain pulled out all the stops to keep their team competitive. But in the aftermath of their very respectable showing (in which they were within second of beating Spain and Brazil), the nation is primed to go back to their losing ways. They've been competitive since 2009, when Luol Deng joined the team, but before their their only appearance in an international tournament came in 1948, when Britain hosted the Olympics and got in by default. Now, with top scorers Luol Deng, Joel Freeland, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu declining to participate and longtime veteran Nate Reinking retiring, the team is left with a bunch of unknowns.
Daniel Clark should be their star player, as he's in the rotation with a good Spanish league team and was the fifth best option for Great Britain last year. Everything else is a bit of a mystery, as Great Britain rarely used players outside of the aforementioned five regularly, and their results from their warm-up games this summer are remarkably inconsistent. But their main contributors should be Kieron Achara, Eric Boateng, Devon Van Oostrum, Kyle Johnson, and Andrew Sullivan. All but Sullivan play out of the country for respectable first-division clubs, but they're just role players.
I'm going to refrain from commenting on their play style, because I haven't really seen this squad play, and I can't find any clips of their warm-up games.
Final Verdict: If this team wins a game, it would be a huge feat. Hopefully the Olympics sparked some basketball interest in the country, and hopefully they'll acquire more quality players in the future. But honestly, I would expect this to be Team GB's last Eurobasket appearance for a long time.
Who do you see winning Group A this year? Let us know in the comments!
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