The optimism within the Greek national team (8th in the FIBA World Rankings), heading into the FIBA 2019 World Cup, is at an all time high. Undoubtedly the biggest impetus for these lofty expectations is their superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
At just 24-years-old, the 6-11 combo guard/forward put together an incredible season for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks with averages of 27.7 points per game, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks, as the Bucks amassed a league-leading 60 wins.
Assuming Antetokounmpo is not limited to a more traditional positional role in China, we could in fact see the team employ two entirely different styles of play, dependent on whether or not he is on the court. His skillset is, afterall, quite unique and whilst he can log heavy minutes, any opportunity to preserve energy for the later rounds should be taken.
Giannis is one of three Antetokounmpo’s in Greece’s initial squad, being joined by older brother, Thanasis (Milwaukee Bucks) and younger brother, Kostas (LA Lakers).
Guards, and fellow 2018-19 All-Euroleague First Team selections, Nick Calathes (Panathinaikos) and Kostas Sloukas (Fenerbahçe) will resume their longstanding roles as the team’s floor generals, despite having only appeared in a combined five qualifying games.
In what will likely be his farewell tour with the national team, veteran leader Ioannis Bourousis returns to China after his professional career took him to the Chinese Basketball Association’s Zhenjiang Lions in 2017. Bourousis turns 36 in November and is the last remaining player from Greece’s 2005 FIBA EuroBasket winning squad.
Greece started their campaign off in dramatic fashion, needing a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Giannis Athinaiou (PAOK) to despatch an upstart Great Britain in the very first game.
If that got the ball rolling, then the rest of phase one picked it up at full sprint, going end to end for a fast-break dunk, as the Greeks finished the initial group stage a perfect 6-0. Ultimately, Team Hellas would go on to qualify with relative ease, winning an impressive 11 of their 12 games.
Consistency of player availability has been an issue for a number of nations throughout the qualifying windows and Greece were no different, with 31 different players featuring. Of those 31, only one player, forward Panagiotis Vasilopoulos (Peristeri), featured in all 12 games.
The team’s offensive firepower was obvious, as the Greeks averaged 81 points per game, outscoring opponents by 7.7 points. Hitting on 49.5% of their attempts was a testament to their efficiency and represented the best field goal percentage amongst European teams.
Bourousis (19.6 Effpg) had the best efficiency rating per game among the European players with more than six games played during the World Cup 2019 qualifiers. A solid contributor, he grabbed the most rebounds for Greece in both the World Cups 2010 (38) and 2014 (55).
Team Hellas were also opportunistic and testing on the defensive end, averaging the most steals in the European Zone, with 10.2 per game. In 9 games, 36-year-old power forward, Evangelos Margaritis proved himself an unlikely pick-pocket, averaging 1.9 steals per game.
Brazil (12th in FIBA world ranking)
Other than the USA, Brazil are the only team to have qualified for every one of the 18 FIBA Basketball World Cups. Throughout qualifying the Brazilians lost just three games and suffocated opponents, holding them to just 65.6 points per game – the lowest average throughout the Americas. Having outscored opponents by an impressive 10.9 points per game, the South American giants will be hoping to continue in this vein as they pursue a third World Cup title, and their first in 56 years.
Anderson Varejao (Flamengo) was pivotal to Brazil’s qualifying campaign, appearing in 10 of their fixtures. The 36-year-old 6-9 center posted averages of 11.6 points alongside 8.3 rebounds en route to a solid (team high) efficiency rating of 18.
Montenegro (28th in FIBA world ranking)
Montenegro join the Czech Republic in making their FIBA Basketball World Cup debuts in China, having won seven of their 12 qualifying games. Notably, their conceded points average of 75.1 per game en route to China, ranks as the worst amongst European teams that will take part in the World Cup.
Bojan Dubljevic (Valencia Basket Club SAD) scored 18.2 points per game in six qualifiers, the third highest average amongst European players. His 61.5% field goal percentage was the highest amongst European forwards.
New Zealand (38th in FIBA world ranking)
New Zealand won Groupe E of the Asian Qualifiers, amassing 10 victories. Their participation in China marks their sixth FIBA World Cup appearance and their fifth in a row. The Tall Blacks’ 90.8 points per game was the most amongst the Asian zone, outscoring opponents by an incredible 19 points per game.
The New Zealanders were lethal from the three, hitting 41.9% from behind the arc. Corey Webster led the team in scoring averaging 15.7 points in his seven appearances, hitting 42.6% of his 6.7 three point field goal attempts.
Game 1 – Sunday 1 September vs Montenegro
The Montenegrins will receive a huge boost to their hopes as their biggest star; 28-year-old, 7 foot, NBA All-Star, Nikola Vucevic joins the team. Fresh from signing a new four-year deal with the Orlando Magic, Vucevic will pair up with Bojan Dubljevic to create a formidable frontcourt.
Whilst this Twin-Tower duo will cause Greece some headaches, it’s the reverse match-up which is most likely going to impact this game. Somehow, Montenegro are going to have slow Giannis Antetokounmpo, this will most likely come in the form of a zone defense. Unlike the NBA, there is no defensive three second rule, which will make Antetokounmpo (somewhat) easier to limit.
Game 2 – Tuesday 3 September vs Brazil
Greece and Brazil are so close in the world rankings, that this really could go either way. The Brazilians will be led by a trio of veterans with significant NBA experience; Anderson Varejao, Leandro Barbosa (Minas Tenis Clube) and Marcelinho Huertas (Baskonia).
Controlling the game-tempo will be key and Brazil, perhaps due to age, like to slow the game down. Brazil’s mere 58 field goal attempts per game in the American qualifiers is a testament to their preferred speed of play (only one team attempted fewer shots per game in the Americas). Luckily for Greece, they’re capable of playing efficiently across a multitude of different ways and have the talent to operate effectively in a half-court set.
Game 3 – Thursday 5 September vs New Zealand
The Tall Blacks will be missing some key players in China. Their biggest star, Steven Adams (Oklahoma City Thunder), is yet to suit up for the senior national team and both long time captain, Mika Vukona (Brisbane Bullets) and 24-year-old guard Reuben Te Rangi have been ruled out with injury.
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Of his 14 man roster, Head Coach Paul Henare said “We believe we have a balanced group of players, a group that is young in age but long in experience and understands the pressure we will face in the weeks ahead and the opportunity that is in front of them”
New Zealand have plenty of offensive weapons, with all five of their players who averaged double digit scoring in the qualifiers, present in the squad. The team has depth too, with their bench putting up an average of 41.8 points per game. Greece should be able to handle them, but New Zealand should not be taken lightly.
Greece’s best performance in a World Cup, to date, was in 2006 when they lost in the final to Spain. For this tournament, anything less than a podium finish would be a disappointment for Team Hellas and they must be surveying their opponents and realise that they have a great chance of going a long way in China.
Head Coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos has a strong squad at his disposal, heading into a run of nine challenging warm-up games against a host of fellow nations participating in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. His eyes should be firmly set on a qualifying as at the top of Group F, which would see them likely face USA and Brazil in the second round, Group K.
The presence of Giannis on this roster, looms as large as the man himself. Having the reigning MVP and, in all likelihood, the best individual player in the tournament on your team is a huge benefit, but it also raises some big questions. With Giannis’ success coming in Milwaukee, in a system engineered to fit his game, how will Skourtopoulos implement him into a national side from which he has been absent for three years?
It’s a great problem to have and the key will be in getting his teammates, who perhaps are used to larger roles, to buy in to fitting in around Antetokounmpo. There are enough savvy veterans on this team to understand the benefits of aligning themselves to their star player. And their pickings should be rich, as opposing teams engineer their entire defensive systems around stopping Giannis, opportunities will arise for his team-mates.
There are so many qualities that the 24-year-old exudes both on and off the court, which make him the ideal star to carry a nation’s hopes. Unwilling to dwell on his incredible accomplishments so far, the man affectionately known as “The Greek Freak” is set to become the first ever reigning NBA MVP to feature in a FIBA Basketball World Cup and was quick to confess that he “would exchange the MVP title for the gold medal in China”.
Giannis’ NBA performances last season rightly saw him emerge as a global superstar and become only the fifth international player to be honoured with the league’s Most Valuable Player award (joining Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki). In China, we could all bear witness to the global breakout of a star who is on track to become one of basketball’s all time greats. He’s presence alone has the potential to make this World Cup one of the most memorable ever.
With Antetokounmpo, Greece look poised for a period of potential dominance on the international stage. Maybe, come late September, Giannis will be trading in that MVP award for the James Naismith trophy after all…