The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China begins Saturday, Aug. 31, with Serbia kicking off the tournament against Angola at 3:30 a.m. ET.
There’s been a lot made about how this is likely a more “watered-down” tournament than it was originally hyped up to be because of the number of notable NBA player withdrawals, and if all you know or care about is NBA basketball then there’s a lot of truth to that statement.
However, this isn’t NBA basketball. This is about as high level international basketball as you’re going to see, and with it comes stars on each team you will be familiar with — and some you won’t.
Here’s a look at one player to watch on each of the 32 teams participating in the World Cup, organized by group.
FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Groups are IN!
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) March 16, 2019
Cote d’Ivoire – Charles Abouo (Guard)
A 6-foot-5 guard best known in North America for his four-year collegiate career at BYU from 2008-2012, Abouo is among the finest Ivorian hoopers in the world.
During the qualifying stages for the World Cup, he led the Ivory Coast in scoring and will likely be called upon as the go-to guy again in China.
Poland – Mateusz Pontika (Guard)
Though an unknown player on these shores, Ponitka is one of the best young wings in Europe today. He’s been named a Polish League MVP in 2016 and was a Turkish League all-star in 2017.
Last season, he played for Russian club Lokomotiv Kuban and will remain in Russia for at least two more seasons after signing with Zenit Saint Petersburg in July.
During the qualifying stage, Ponitka averaged 13.4 points per game and shot an astounding 42.9 per cent from deep, a skill that will be relied upon if Poland is going to make any noise during World Cup.
Venezuela – Heissler Guillent (Guard)
Guillent definitely isn’t the best player on Venezuela, but to many Canadian basketball fans, he’s probably one of the most infamous because of that shot he hit in 2015 against Canada that you see above.
Partially responsible for one of the most gut-wrenching losses in Canadian basketball history, even though Guillent is a bench piece he’s proven before that he can come on and rescue Venezuela in the clutch, an asset that will probably be needed as this squad isn’t the most talented out there.
China – Yi Jianlian (Forward/Centre)
The former No. 6 overall pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007, Yi is CBA legend, having played multiple stints with the Guangdong Southern Tigers both before and after his NBA stint, winning five CBA championships, being named CBA MVP four times and getting selected to the CBA all-star team nine times.
During the qualifying phase, he was a scoring machine, averaging 19.5 points per game on 58.8 per cent shooting. Expect more of the same during the big tournament as his combination of size (he’s a seven-footer) and skill make him nearly impossible to guard in the international game.
Russia – Sergey Karasev (Guard/Forward)
Taken 19th overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013, Karasev’s most memorable NBA days come from his two-season stint with the Brooklyn Nets from 2014-16.
Since playing in the NBA, the 25-year-old has returned to Russia where he continues to play professionally, most recently as a member of Zenit Saint Petersburg, where he shot 40.7 per cent from deep, a skill that will aid a potent Russian attack from deep in China.
Argentina – Luis Scola (Forward)
At 39-years-young and still killing it, Argentine basketball legend Scola is definitive proof that age is merely a number.
A man who has won basically everything in international basketball, Scola is still hungry for more and will lead a powerful Argentina side into China fresh off a 2019 Pan American Games gold medal that saw him drop 28 in the final game.
Argentina features a lot of strong players on its roster, but none more important and impactful than Scola.
South Korea – Ra Gun-ah, a.k.a Ricardo Ratliffe (Centre)
Ratliffe is a natrualized South Korean who was given the Korean name Ra Gun-ah.
Originally born in Hampton, Va., Ratliffe came to a level of prominence in 2010-11 when he transferred from Central Florida CC to Missouri, earning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honours and then helping the Tigers reach the NCAA tournament in 2012 while being named Second-team All-Big-12.
Following his senior year he wasn’t drafted by the NBA but he did become the first American player to be drafted into the KBL, taken sixth overall by Mobis Phoebus. This began a pro career that saw him remain in Asia, playing in both South Korea and the Philippines, and falling in love with Korea enough that he’s decided to play for their national team.
Nigeria – Josh Okogie (Guard)
Nigeria features many players that should be familiar to NBA fans: Al-Farouq Aminu, Ike Diogu, Ekpe Udoh, Ben “triple-double that cost the Raptors Harrison Barnes” Uzoh.
None of these players are as interesting as Okogie, though.
This is because we still don’t really know what Okogie is as a player. He was taken 20th overall by Minnesota in 2018 after a sterling couple of seasons at Georgia Tech that saw him average 18.2 points per game in his sophomore year.
He has potential to be a big-time scorer, but stuck behind Andrew Wiggins and then-Jimmy Butler on Minnesota’s depth chart, he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to show what he can really do. During this tournament, however, he should have plenty of chances to showcase his ability to get buckets.
Spain – Sergio Llull (Guard)
As one of the favourites to win it all, Spain is loaded with talent. Most notably, names like Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, and the future of their national program, brothers Willy and Juan Hernangomez.
However, as good as talnted as Spain is, it still wouldn’t be Spain without Llull. Spain’s glue-guy do-everything guard acts as the engine that makes this Spanish basketball-playing machine run.
An emotional player, the team’s demeanour will often mirror Llull’s own, and if he’s on and is running hot so will Spain.
Iran – Hamed Haddadi (Centre)
Haddadi is a seven-foot-three centre with nice post skills both as a scorer and passer, and is a strong rim protector.
Hi old-school kind of game didn’t age well during his five seasons that he spent in the NBA – mostly with the Memphis Grizzlies and bouncing between the big league and the G League – but he does own a somewhat significant footnote in a much larger transaction to call his very own.
On Jan. 30, 2013, Haddadi was briefly traded by the Grizzlies to the Toronto Raptors in a three-way deal that saw the Raptors acquire Rudy Gay and sent Jose Calderon to the Detroit Pistons. Due to immigration issues, Haddadi was unable to play for the Raptors and was then flipped to the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 21, 2013 for Sebastian Telfair.
Puerto Rico – Renaldo Balkman (Forward)
Doomed, but surprisingly long, NBA career aside, Balkman has had a good overseas pro career playing in both the Philippines and Latin America, winning MVP awards and championships.
Playing for Puerto Rico, Balkman’s natural motor and energy levels lend themselves well to international basketball where you can be more physical. He’s not the most prolific scorer, but his hustle will affect games positively for Puerto Rico on both sides of the ball.
Tunisia – Michael Roll (Guard)
Hardcore college basketball fans will remember Roll as a solid but unspectacular member of those UCLA teams that made three straight Final Fours under Ben Howland from 2006-2008. Roll ended up staying five years with the Bruins, becoming the team’s senior leader in his final season (2009-10) and then kind of falling off many peoples’ radars from there.
He played Summer League with the Toronto Raptors in 2010, but after that he went overseas and has enjoyed a pro career there across many countries, including, most recently, in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv where he won two league titles.
Roll became a naturalized citizen of Tunisia in July 2015 and has played for their national team ever since. Always a good shooter, for the underdog Tunisia side to have any hope in the World Cup, it’ll need Roll to catch fire.
Angola – Yanick Moreira (Centre)
Moreira played two seasons for Larry Brown’s Southern Methodist Mustangs, being crowned AAC champions and reaching the NCAA tournament in 2015.
Following that year, Moreira began a pro career that’s seen him bounce around mostly across Europe, but included a one-season stint in 2016-17 with Raptors 905, where he won a championship.
At six-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Moreira brings to Angola and inside post game with some perimeter skills. He was Angola’s leading scorer during the qualifiers and will be looked upon to do more of the same in China.
Philippines – Andray Blatche (Forward/Centre)
Blatche was a talented NBA player, but conditioning issues and off-the-court things kept him from really reaching his peak potential. Still, it was a surprise when, on Sept. 2014, he announced he was heading to play in China as there was still an NBA market to be had for him.
As it turns out, heading to Asia turned out to be one of the best things for his career as he’s enjoyed dominant seasons playing for Xinjiang Flying Tigers and, last season, the Tianjin Gold Lions.
Playing in the CBA also gave him the opportunity to play for the Philippines, who approached him to play for them and he has done so since 2014.
Playing for the Philippines he’s always been a focal-point of the offence and that shouldn’t change at the World Cup as, even at age 33, Blatche is still an adept scorer from all over the floor.
Italy – Danilo Gallinari (Forward)
Gallinari is, without question, Italy’s best player and figures to be one of the brightest stars at the World Cup with his special scoring ability.
The only thing that will hold him back is the appendectomy he underwent at the beginning of August, a situation what will be worth monitoring.
If he isn’t feeling any effects, however, Gallinari will surely fill it up at the World Cup, a sight that will be most welcome to Oklahoma City Thunder fans that may not know that much about the 31-year-old.
Serbia – Nikola Jokic (Centre)
By now you should know who Jokic is. Just a refresher, however, Jokic is simply one of the best 10-15 players on the planet, and he does so with the most incredible old-man, YMCA game possible.
Jokic isn’t the only player of note on this outstanding Serbian squad, but when you have a team as laden with as much natural talent at every position as Serbia does and then you add an NBA MVP candidate you have the makings of a squad that can make a run at a gold medal.
Turkey – Cedi Osman (Guard/Forward)
Thanks to more opportunity, Osman enjoyed a bit of breakout year last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, averaging 13 points per game and starting 75 contests after only averaging 3.9 points in very sparse minutes in his rookie season the year before.
Osman isn’t the only NBA player on Turkey (Ersan Ilyasova and Furkan Korkmaz are also on this squad) but given the fact he should only be given that much more opportunity with Cleveland, how he performs at the World Cup will be worth monitoring as it could help set the tone for how his 2019-20 campaign plays out.
Czech Republic – Tomas Satoransky (Guard/Forward)
Though he’s yet to have much of a chance to show it in the NBA, Satoransky is one of the most creative and entertaining players to watch and with a Czech team that will squarely be his to command at the World Cup, there’s a good chance North American audiences will finally get to see what he can do when unleashed.
This is exciting news for Chicago Bulls fans as he was traded to them from the Washington Wizards – where he was buried behind John Wall and Bradley Beal for the past three seasons. A strong showing in China figures to lead to strong season in Chicago where he should have a much better opportunity to show the kind of player he really is.
United States of America – The Celtics players
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) August 24, 2019
This is admittedly cheating a bit, but when you’re dealing with a roster as (still) stacked as the United States has there are exceptions to the rule.
In this case, instead of just one player to watch it’ll be worth keeping an eye on the four Boston Celtics players on Team USA: Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
It’s worth watching these four in particular to see how they co-exist with each other on the floor. Last season, the Celtics got derailed because of reported toxicity in the locker room between Kyrie Irving and some of the young Celtics stars (i.e. Tatum, Brown and Smart). This will be the first time we see this trio play with new star point guard Walker, and it’ll be intriguing to see if they can find some early chemistry to carry over into the season.
For Tatum, especially, this will be important as he looked like a potential superstar during the playoffs of his rookie season but appeared to drop off last season. Was that just the result of being unable to click with Irving? The World Cup could help provide an answer.
Japan – Rui Hachimura (Forward)
With Japan getting an automatic berth to the 2020 Olympic basketball tournament as the host nation there’s not nearly as much at stake here for the country but there is, potentially, for its shining hoops star.
Hachimura was a the ninth-overall selection in this past June’s NBA draft, making him the first-ever Japanese player taken in the first round of the draft. He played three seasons at Gonzaga, the latest that saw him average 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds on 59.1 per cent shooting, earning him the WCC Player of the Year and the Julius Erving Award as the top collegiate small forward.
There’s a lot on Hachimura’s shoulders heading into the 2020 Games, most of all just playing well and proving he’s worthy of the hype he will generate as one of Japan’s faces of the Olympics. He’ll get a great opportunity to show he’s worthy of that at the World Cup, the only question remains is whether he’ll be able to rise to the occasion or not.
Greece – Giannis Antetokounmpo (Forward)
He’s the MVP of the NBA and, arguably, the best player in the entire world and he’s still suiting up for his national team to try to make the Olympics.
What does that say about all the other NBA guys who chose to pass on the World Cup?
New Zealand – Corey Webster (Guard)
The Tall Blacks’ leading scorer during the qualifying phase, Webster is a sharpshooter capable of playing both guard positions.
Regardless of what role in the backcourt he’s playing, however, this 30-year-old is on the floor to score and will figure to be a focal point of New Zealand’s offensive attack during the World Cup.
Brazil – Bruno Caboclo (Forward)
A far cry from his “two years from being two years away” inauspicious beginnings, Caboclo managed to turn his career around somewhat when he landed with the Memphis Grizzlies in January of this year, averaging a career-best 8.3 points per game and managing to start 19 games of the 34 he got into with the Grizzlies.
Brazil will be hoping he can carry that confidence boost over and give the national team a needed youthful invigoration as it still relies on former NBA veterans Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa to carry a heavy load for the squad.
Montenegro – Nikola Vucevic (Centre)
Having signed a four-year $100-million contract to stay with the Orlando Magic, Vucevic is now being paid like the player he always was: One of the best centres in the world.
With his NBA contract taken care of, he’ll have a chance to show why he’s being paid as such by Orlando at the World Cup as he will be Montenegro’s everything on the offensive end. Post buckets, three-pointers, play-making, Vucevic can do it all, and he’s going to have to if Montenegro’s going to have any shot.
Dominican Republic – Victor Liz (Guard)
The Dominican’s leading scorer during the qualification period, Liz is the closest thing the country has to a true go-to guy within their balanced attack.
Creative off the bounce and a strong finisher, don’t be surprised to see Liz come up with a few circus shots that find the bottom of the hoop during the tournament.
France – Rudy Gobert (Centre)
The two-time NBA defensive player of the year will be patrolling the paint for France at the World Cup and, alongside a loaded roster that includes other NBA players like Nicoloas Batum, Evan Fournier, Frank Ntilikina and EuroLeague stars like Nando de Colo, Gobert has sights only on gold.
He has good reason, too. France is among the deepest and most talented teams in the entire tournament, and with Gobert as the last line of defence, it just might be the World Cup’s stingiest as well. All good ingredients for a potential World Cup championship.
Germany – Maxi Kleber (Forward)
Kleber has taken incremental steps since signing with the Dallas Mavericks in 2017 following a successful pro career in Germany. Coming into this coming NBA season, however, after re-signing with the Mavericks, there will be much more expectation put onto the six-foot-11 stretch four as expectations around the Mavericks rise with the core of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
Germany isn’t a team that many believe will go far, meaning this is a team that will be able to play free. This could help give Kleber the confidence boost he needs heading into the 2019-20 campaign.
Jordan – Dar Tucker (Guard)
With an average of 21.8 points per during the qualifying period across 11 games, Tucker, at times, looked like the only player for Jordan who was capable of scoring.
A former player at DePaul University, Tucker is, perhaps, best known as being a two-time NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contest champion.
At Age 31, he’s become more of a scorer since his days as a high-flyer, but still occasionally gets up there. Something to watch for if you decide to take in a Jordanian contest during the World Cup.
Canada – Kevin Pangos (Guard)
Devoid of NBA talent, Canada will be looking to its European pros to find a path to the Olympics and with a player like Pangos suiting up for the nation it just might be possible.
Best known for his standout collegiate career at Gonzaga, Pangos has also enjoyed a strong pro career overseas, winning two Lithuanian championships and just this past season signing with Barcelona in the Spanish ACB — probably the second best basketball league in the entire world.
During the exhibition games leading up to the World Cup, Pangos has looked like Canada’s best player, with an outside stroke as good as anyone’s in the world.
Canada is notably thin offensively, so it’s an encouraging sign to see Pangos breaking out now just before the tournament starts.
Senegal – Maurice Ndour (Forward)
A one-time member of the New York Knicks, for Ndour seeing Senegal qualify for the 2020 Olympics would be extra special because of the fact the Games are in Japan.
In an odd turn of events, Ndour ended up playing his final two years of high school basketball at Okayama Gakugeikan High School in Okayama, Japan, making qualification to the Tokyo Games a homecoming of sorts for the 27-year-old.
Lithuania – Jonas Valanciunas (Centre)
In 19 games played with the Memphis Grizzlies after being traded from the Toronto Raptors, Valanciunas averaged 19.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Good numbers that were partially thanks to the slower style of play Memphis played at.
It’s unrealistic to think Valanciunas will perform exactly the same for Lithuania at the World Cup, but there’s no question that he should still be in for a good tournament as one of the team’s best players and a style of play the suits his bruising nature well.
Australia – Andrew Bogut (Centre)
Australia features a large NBA contingent – Aron Baynes, Jonah Bolden, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Patty Mills – but there’s no player more important on the team than Bogut, who left the NBA last season, won a domestic league title and was named league MVP in Australia, and then came back to play with the Golden State Warriros and helped them reach their fifth straight Finals.
At 34 years of age, the former number one overall pick isn’t as spry as he once was and isn’t the player he used to be, but he’s still a big, physical presence who’s an absolute nightmare to guard and play against, especially in the international game where physical play is more common.
Though he may no longer be the best player on Australia, Bogut is still the team’s de facto leader and as he goes, so will the team.