While soccer is dominant throughout most of Europe, basketball rivals it for popularity and importance to Serbian culture. The world knows how the FR Yugoslavia national team won back-to-back FIBA Basketball World Cups in 1998 and 2002, and the country of Serbia has retained that rich history.
The country might be seeing the start of another golden generation with a well balanced mix of tough team leaders and talented scorers. Serbians love basketball, and they are in love with the way the country is performing on the national stage at present, from the tough performance that the women’s team put together after a difficult year to finish with bronze at EuroBasket, to the optimism of the men’s team heading into the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
With most of the A-list talent unavailable for the majority of the qualification period, Serbia didn’t have as easy a run to the World Cup as you might have expected. A grand total of 30 players donned the red and white jerseys in the qualification period, and Nikola Jokic – probably a top 10 player in the world – wasn’t present for a single game. So, the 7-5 record with the players available was a solid result that got the job done, but two losses to Germany and losing to the likes of Israel will sting.
The team that has been put together for this year’s trip to China will certainly want to prove any doubters wrong, but the ability to do so has been slightly hampered by the news that the wizardry of point guard Milos Teodosic will not add any magic to the tournament. A foot injury during a World Cup warm-up game against Lithuania has ruled him out of the tournament. The team should still be optimistic about their chances, and a shot across the bow was fired from head coach Sasha Djordjevic to Team USA when he said “...if we meet, may God help them” certainly showed the confidence Serbia has this year.
Strong enough to survive
Without Teodosic, the World Cup could act as a coming out party for Vasilije Micic. While the Serbian game is built on good passing at almost every position, the guard will likely take over the ball-handling duties (alongside Stefan Jovic) following his best season yet with the EuroLeague’s Anadolu Efes Istanbul. Selected a few years ago in the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, Micic is yet to try and break America, but he may have an opportunity to do so in a different manner in China. He averaged 12 points and 5.5 assists last season, and has the ability to run the offense and score well from inside or outside the arc. His numbers weren’t particularly strong in the World Cup qualifying games, but as he played less than half of them, that shouldn’t be an indicator of what is to come.
One Serb that was available for every game in the European qualification period was Marko Simonovic, and while he’s not a high scoring member of this squad, his availability has been rewarded with a spot on the roster. Miroslav Raduljica is another who managed to play most of the games, and his contribution of 13 points, nearly 5 rebounds and 2 assists has made the bearded one a home favourite, especially as he has bounced around the NBA, the Chinese Basketball Association and top European teams during his lengthy career. Radulica will likely support Jokic off the bench, but the veteran can provide smart minutes while the Serbian leader is resting.
There are some NBA names that will feature on the Serbian roster. First up is Nemanja Bjelica. Having carved out a regular rotation role on the upstart Sacramento Kings last season, Bjelica has been given room to flourish under the team’s general manager, Serbian basketball legend Vlade Divac. Despite missing out on a few tournaments for the national team in recent years, Bjelica has performed well wearing his country’s colors, and will be a useful scoring forward for the team at this year’s World Cup. He is a perennial three-point threat, but can also pass and rebound, and is a sneakily good defensive presence. His age and previous national experience makes him a veteran presence, but this is a role he has been succeeding in on young teams recently, including the Kings and the Minnesota Timberwolves during the 2015-2018 seasons.
The Serbs can go big – very big – if they wanted to. With Bjelica as a 6’10 small forward and the 7’0 Jokic as a power forward, coach Djordjevic can also throw out the 7’4 Boban Marjanovic at center. The supersized center has bounced around NBA teams in recent years, and while he has defensive limitations at times, Marjanovic is no stiff out there. He has soft hands and a beautiful jump shot, but can also use his size well in the post. While his usage is sporadic, the results per-minute border on greatness, though many feel the box score stats wouldn’t improve much with the extra court time. Regardless, he fits in well on this national team of great-passing scoring threats, and was the country’s second highest scorer at 2017’s EuroBasket, despite averaging just 16 minutes across nine games.
Another Serbian under the wing of Divac on the Kings is Bogdan Bogdanovic. The sharp-shooting feisty guard has made a name for himself during his first two seasons in the NBA. Last year, his well-rounded game helped push the Kings to brink of making the playoffs for the first time in several years.
Bogdanovic scored 14 points with 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists last season, and he is improving. He could be an important player for Sacramento in the future, but he already has been for Serbia. At EuroBasket two years ago, Bogdanovic averaged 20.4, 3.4 and 5 and his team came away with a silver medal. He will obviously be hoping for a similar color or better in China, but his country will need similar or better production from the 6’6 shooting guard.
One name that NBA fans might not be aware of yet, but will be soon enough, is Marko Guduric. The hot-shooting guard has just signed with the Memphis Grizzlies on a two-year contract and he also previously helped Serbia win a silver medal at EuroBasket. His long-distance shooting performance last season was ridiculous, hitting 47.7% from beyond the arc for Fenerbahce. He also won the Turkish Basketball Super League Three-Point Shootout and won the 2019 Turkish Cup. At 24, his national team experience is limited to just that 2017 tournament, but he will be a useful role player for this year’s incarnation and possibly could be a key piece in the future for Serbia.
Jokic will make his first return to the national squad since the 2016 Rio Olympics, when Serbia picked up a silver medal and he managed just 9.6 points and 6 rebounds per game in 22 minutes of action. During the interim years, Jokic has become one of the best players in the world: perhaps the best passing big man of all time, an elite rebounder, and someone who prefers not to, but can score at will from all over the floor. His four seasons with the Denver Nuggets have seen Jokic’s production double, especially since the team moved on from Bosnia’s Jusuf Nurkic and built around the Serbian. The success of this country at the World Cup will largely rest on his shoulders.
The road to gold
Serbia is the only true historical powerhouse in Group D. Italy has had a good level of success on the international stage, and stands an outside chance of reaching the medal stages this year, but the men in red are the only ones with World Cup gold in their history to live up to.
The Serbians open up their campaign against Angola. Having finished the African Qualifiers with a record of 9-3, the Angolan team showed itself as one of the formidable countries in the region. Much of the continent still doesn’t quite stand up against some of the traditional top teams from the rest of the world, but the dynamic guard-center duo of Carlos Morais and Yanick Moreira, respectively, are enough to make Serbia take the match-up seriously.
A country that has enough love for basketball to potentially match the Serbians is the Philippines. And while the nation’s stature or talent isn’t as strong heading into the World Cup, the team comprises a list of speedy scorers, with a familiar name roaming the middle.
At 32, Andray Blatche might not be the force he once was, but when he finished his NBA career in Brooklyn after the 2013-2014 season, the big man moved to China to dominate the CBA with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers. He averaged 25 and 10 with 4 assists, 2 steals and a block per game in three seasons with the Tigers, and playing the World Cup in the same country where he has become a star will help him stay motivated to push this Philippine team as far as possible. Serbia’s size should be able to contain Blatche, and the country’s guards should be able to stay locked in to the likes of Jordan Clarkson (should he be ruled eligible to play as a non-naturalized player) and Robert Bolick.
The final team in Group D will pose the greatest threat to Serbia achieving a clean sweep in the first round. Italy is made up of a list of stretchy, talented shooters and scorers, and boasts a good coach in Romeo Sacchetti, who keeps the team well organised on defense.
But Serbia has good defense built into their teaching of the game from a young age, and with tall wings and big point guards – including the likes of Stefan Jovic, one of EuroLeague’s elite point guards, especially on the defensive end – the team should be able to slow down Italy’s powerful offense enough to win the game and the group, but it will not be easy.
In the second round, Serbia will probably face Spain – another podium challenger – and one of Iran, Puerto Rico or Tunisia. A place in the quarterfinals is Serbia’s to lose, but every game is key at the World Cup, and without their lead point guard, Serbia does show signs of weakness.
But aside from being without Teodosic, Jokic has never been better – and is still improving. He is supported by a balanced group of height, strength and scoring that is hungry to reach the mountain top again – and this year being their best chance to win gold in a generation.