The reigning NBA MVP is headed to the basketball World Cup. So are three other members of this past season’s All-NBA squad, and so is the starting centre from the team that won the NBA championship a couple months ago.
Most of those guys won’t be playing for the United States.
The majority of America’s best players are sitting out the World Cup, while many of the best international players are not. NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, fellow All-NBA players Nikola Jokic of Serbia and Rudy Gobert of France, and Marc Gasol of Spain — a significant part of Toronto’s run to the NBA title — are among the headliners who won’t be in U.S. colours when the tournament starts Saturday in China.
"We’re going to China with the goal of a medal," Jokic said.
The Denver star isn’t just looking for any medal. He’s seeking gold.
And the Serbians would seem to have as good a chance as anyone in a tournament that suddenly looks wide open.
France and Australia — which is coming off a 98-94 victory over the United States on Saturday that ended the Americans’ 78-game winning streak in international play — are expected to have five NBA players on their rosters for the World Cup, and Serbia is likely to bring four. In all, more than 60 players with NBA experience are likely to participate in the tournament and only 12 of them are playing for the U.S.
"A lot of teams can be in the medal spots and it’s going to be intense, very hard for every team to be in those spots," said France’s Nicolas Batum — the only player from the last World Cup All-Tournament team in 2014 who is expected to compete in this year’s event. "But every team, including ours, is going to fight for it, to play at its best level to try to come back home with a medal."
The only U.S. World Cup player who was an All-NBA pick this past season is Kemba Walker, then of the Charlotte Hornets and now of the Boston Celtics. Look at the NBA stats from last season for World Cup-bound players and the leading scorer, the top three in assists per game and the top seven rebounders all are on international rosters.
The world is getting better.
That means the U.S. is no lock in this tournament.
"There are a lot of contenders out there," U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said.
The Americans are the only team with a roster composed entirely of NBA players, but that isn’t stopping some from scoffing at the notion that the U.S. is vulnerable heading into this tournament because its World Cup roster doesn’t have anything close to a Dream Team-esque level of star-studded names.
Spain coach Sergio Scariolo bluntly dismisses that notion.
Scariolo, a Toronto assistant coach when he’s not leading Spain, is quick to point out that a glance at the NBA salaries of the U.S. players dwarfs the combined salaries of every other World Cup roster. When the Americans played Spain in an exhibition earlier this month, the U.S. sent out a starting five that will make roughly $105 million this season.
So yes, in terms of earning power, no other team in the world comes close to the roster that the Americans are bringing to China this week.
But as evidenced by how Australia battled the U.S. twice in a pair of exhibitions in Melbourne, and beat the Americans there on Saturday, at least some of the world’s best teams aren’t exactly fearful of the two-time defending World Cup champions.
"Let’s let them play their basketball and we will play ours," Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic now-famously said earlier this month. "And if we meet, may God help them."
Clearly, the tournament means quite a bit to Serbia. It means plenty to other nations as well.
Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee star who won NBA MVP this past season, even said earlier this month that he would give back the award if it could be exchanged for a World Cup gold medal for Greece.
"I believe him," U.S. centre and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks teammate Brook Lopez said. "That’s how much he wants this."