HAVING the best player in the world and a host of veterans makes Greece an attractive pick to fight for the top spots at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China, yet danger lurks at every turn in the first round for the European giants.
Both Brazil and New Zealand made it to the knockout round five years ago in Spain, with the latter having advanced to the knockout stage at every World Cup since 2002. Each of those teams have several veterans from previous campaigns on board while Montenegro, led by inspirational captain Bojan Dubljevic and NBA star Nikola Vucevic, are sure to pack a mean punch in their first-ever World Cup appearance on the evidence of their performances in the European qualifiers.
Team to Beat: Greece
This is a no-brainer, and not just because the NBA’s Most Valuable Player this past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is in the lineup and preparing for his second World Cup. Slick-passing, intelligent floor general Nick Calathes, power forward Georgios Printezis, center Ioannis Bourousis and forward Kostas Papanikolaou are as experienced as they come. Getting the best out of every player while maintaining chemistry is a strength of coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos. The last time the event was staged in the Far East, Greece upset the USA in the 2006 semifinals 101-95.
Greece vs. Brazil
This is a game Brazil’s veterans like Marcelo Huertas, Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa will be particularly looking forward to. Having a lot of tournaments under their belts is a strength, while the fresh impetus that youngsters Bruno Caboclo, Didi Louzada and Cristiano Felicio bring should be a shot in the arm for a Brazil team led by Aco Petrovic, a coach confident in his own abilities and for good reason. He led Croatia to the 2016 Olympics and then to the quarterfinals. It’ll be fascinating to watch Calathes and Huertas square off, and to see Varejao battle Bourousis. Vitor Benite’s three-point shot is a threat for Brazil, though it’s going to take a collective effort to stop Antetokounmpo.
Star of the group:
The Greek Freak has improved every year of his professional career, so much so that in the 2018-19 season the Milwaukee Bucks superstar was named as the best player in the NBA. His combination of size, length and athleticism makes him hard to stop. Offensively he gets to the rim and thrives in transition. Defensively he swats shots and guards any player at any time. Greece has not fully capitalized on this amazing talent yet, but it seems inevitable that Antetokounmpo will lead the national team to the podium and it could just be this year, even with opponents doing all they can to neutralize his impact. Of all his skills that will come in handy, Antetokounmpo’s passing should come to the fore because when there are double- and triple-teams, other Greek players will be open.