A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

Turkey and Canada are still two teams that have a chance to qualify for a spot in the Olympics in this Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a preliminary round of games, we have reached the bracket rounds of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The reward? Three teams will get berths in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they can fight for a chance to earn a bronze or silver medal (sorry…nobody’s competing with the USA, even though the lack of big-name stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will make it a little bit more interesting). 12 teams remain in the OQT, and to be frank, there is a strong chance a team worthy of an Olympic berth will not qualify through this tournament. While I do think the FIBA World Cup is a better venue for National Team basketball competition, the Olympics still remains the most high-profile, and the dogfight for the last three spots will be interesting to follow this weekend.

For those who are unaware, the tournament is split into “three groups”: An Italy Group, a Serbia Group and a Philippines Group. The winner of each group goes to the Olympics. Everybody else will be forced to watch the Olympics on the NBC Family of networks from their home country (whether or not it’s the one they participated for in this tournament though is to be determined). Before going into the preview of the “bracket” round, let’s point out some key events and thoughts from the tournament so far.

  • Not a great tournament for FIBA Asia or FIBA Africa, as the teams from the two continents went a combined 0-12 in group play. I know the NBA is trying to make great inroads with both those continents, both economically with fans as well as in basketball development. However, it is obvious that those continents are still years away from seriously competing on the global level with major continents like the Americas and Europe.
  • Speaking of FIBA Asia, it was a bit of a disappointing showing for Gilas Pilipinas (the name of the Filipino National Team). Despite the home court advantage, Gilas went 0-2, with losses to France and New Zealand in Manila. They played admirably in both games, and actually gave France a pretty good fight, as they actually led the global power after the first quarter. However, their lack of size (average height was 6’5 and that was with naturalized citizen Andray Blatche) ended up being their own worst enemy in both games, as it has been in FIBA Tournaments in the past. There still is some promise with Gilas, as Terrence Romeo and Bobby Ray Parks look to be a good combo to take over the mantle at the guard positions when Jayson Castro and Jeff Chan retire from international play. It’ll be interesting though to see how long Gilas lasts with Tab Baldwin, who has obviously made an impact offensively and defensively with the club (they played a much more aggressive scheme in the OQT). The Filipino Basketball organization isn’t known for being patient, but I think Baldwin deserves some more time, at least through the next FIBA Asia Championship to prove his worth.
  • The Americas was a bit of a surprise, as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Bracket round. Canada, despite missing Minnesota Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins, has remained competitive in their group (though inconsistent…as always) and has really been boosted by the presence of Tristan Thompson, who hasn’t been as active in the international scene the past couple of years. Mexico was missing former NBA player Gustavo Ayon, who just recently signed an extension for the reigning ACB champions, Real Madrid. However, they were able to pull the upset over Iran, who had former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, to qualify for the bracket round in their group. And Puerto Rico, who have faded a bit since their “monumental” Olympic win over the USA in 2004, have played well, and parlayed the experience winning the Centrobasket Tournament weeks earlier into solid play in the OQT.
  • There is going to be at least 1 deserving European squad left out of the Olympics this August. Latvia, Greece, France, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Italy have all proven that they would be competitive if they made the Olympic field, but unfortunately, only three of those listed have a chance to make it. At this point, I would not be surprised to see all three slots go to European squads. The FIBA Europe field in this OQT has been that strong (the lone exception being Turkey, who have not looked very good this tournament).

Okay, with some of those thoughts out-of-the-way, let’s get to the preview of the bracket round of each group.

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

Analysis: Puerto Rico has been a good story, as they pulled off a big win over African power Angola 91-81 in Game 2, and only lost by 6 points to Serbia, a heavy favorite as they are playing these group games in Belgrade. Puerto Rico is led by their point guards, as Carlos Arroyo (who went through an up and down season with FC Barcelona in the ACB last year) and JJ Barea have played well, as expected for Puerto Rico, averaging 12.5 ppg and 14 ppg, respectively. However, the big surprise has been John Holland, who is averaging a team-high 16 ppg and 5 rpg from the wing position. The depth on the perimeter for Puerto Rico has made them a sneaky dark horse threat.

As for Latvia, they have been led by Bilbao Basket star Dairis Bertans, who is averaging a group high 19 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, and the two Janis’: Janis Timma and Janis Blums. Timma has done more of his damage around the basket, as he is averaging 10.5 ppg but only shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Blums has been a marksman from three, averaging 10 ppg on 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. The only issue for both teams will be in the post, as Puerto Rico relies on aging players like Renaldo Balkman to hold down the fort, while Latvia is missing Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Whoever wins the rebounding edge will be key to who makes it to the championship game in this matchup, especially since they are both strong teams on the perimeter.

As for Serbia, they are the favorite and rightfully so: they are in Belgrade, and are led by a lot of NBA and European talent such as Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Nedovic. Serbia struggled a bit to put away Puerto Rico in game 1, but they have seemed to find a groove against Angola, as they won by 23 points. Jokic and Raduljica have been key in the post for Serbia, and Bogdanovic has provided impact, as expected, on the offensive end both off the drive and from beyond the arc (he is averaging 12 ppg and shooting 46.2 from beyond the arc. However, the key to the team earning an Olympic berth rests on Teodosic and his ability to create offense for this Serbia team. While Teodosic’s leadership and presence on the floor has been felt (he was a +24 in net rating in their win against Angola), he hasn’t really exploded with a big performance (he had 8 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers in the game 2 win). If he can channel his big-performance capability in this bracket round like he did in the Euroleague, then Serbia will be a shoe-in for 1 of the 3 Olympic berths.

However, they might have a tougher time in the semifinal round than in a possible championship game. Led by first-team All-Euroleague center Jan Vesely and future Washington Wizard and former FC Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky, the Czech Republic bounced back with a convincing 16 point win over Japan in game 2 after a rough 12 points loss to Latvia where they shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 2 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key to a possible dark horse run in this bracket will be the combo of Vesely and Satoransky, as they are a tough combo to stop when they are on. Satoransky has been a bit up and down though, as he only scored 5 points against Latvia. He will need to improve upon that performance against Serbia if the Czechs want a possible rematch with Latvia. Only this time an Olympic berth could possible be on the line.

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

Analysis: This is arguably the strongest of the three groups, as you have three legitimate Olympic teams in Greece, Croatia and Italy. Unfortunately for FIBA and International basketball fans, two of these worthy teams will be left out in Rio.

Mexico has been a surprising story, led by NBA journeyman Jorge Gutierrez at the guard position, who is averaging 12.5 ppg, and under-the-radar guard Francisco Cruz, who plays for VEF Riga in Latvia. However, the lack of Ayon in the post is a serious hinderance for this Mexican club, and though Lorenzo Mata is serviceable, they are going to have issues defending Italy’s long and outside-oriented bigs.

Speaking of Italy, no team has looked better than this country over the past month, in both OQT and in international friendlies. Coached by former CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid head coach and current San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Italy cruised through group play with their meticulous, outside-oriented style. Italy is not known for playing a physical style of ball, but they have hurt teams with the 3-ball, as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani, Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari are all threats to hurt opponents from beyond the arc. The big question though will be how they fare in the post, as Bargnani isn’t exactly the kind of physical player to bang with the potential posts from either Greece or Croatia.

Greece is probably the deepest team in this group, and arguably the whole OQT in general. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ioannis Bourousis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Efstratios Perperoglou, Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes leading the roster, Greece is a squad chock full of NBA and Euroleague pedigree. They don’t have the shooting depth of Italy, but the length they have will give Croatia fits, and Italy in the Championship, should they get past Croatia.

However, don’t count out Croatia, who bounced back from a 7-point loss to Italy with a 20-point win over Tunisia. This isn’t the kind of “strong” Croatia team we have seen in the past with Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja or Drazen Petrovic, but the talent on this team is young and capable of pulling the upset. Bojan Bogdanovic has carried the young squad, as he is the group’s leading scorer, averaging 25.5 ppg in group play. And Darko Planinic and Dario Saric (who will be going to Philly next year) have been holding things down in the post, though they still have room to grow as players. And lastly, don’t count out Mario Hezonja, who’s struggled this tournament, but has the potential to light it up from beyond the arc. I think this Croatia team is probably a couple of years away from being a real contender on the global scene, but they have a puncher’s chance against Greece.

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

Analysis: A bit of a blah group, as Turkey and New Zealand should be easy fodder for France and Canada, respectively. However, don’t count out Canada’s history of inconsistency on the big stage, as evidenced last year where they dropped a semifinal game against Venezuela that cost them the FIBA Americas 2nd automatic berth.

Athletically, Canada could compete with anybody in the OQT field. Their average height is 6’6 and they are a young team with an average age of 25 (and this is without Andrew Wiggins). However, sans Corey Joseph, who is averaging a team-high 17 ppg, this Canada team has struggled. Thompson has added NBA experience and defensive versatility to Canada’s roster, but has gone through efficiency issues on the offensive end, as he is shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 ppg. Brady Heslip, who lit up the D-League with the Reno Bighorns a year ago, has hit a cold streak so far in the OQT, averaging only 3 ppg while shooting 18 percent from the field. The talent is there for Canada: Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Tyler Ennis, etc. However, they have not been able to mesh at times, as evidenced in their 58-55 win over a Senegal team they were much better than on paper.

Canada should make it to the Championship game of this tournament (most likely against France), but they should not take New Zealand lightly. The Tall Blacks pulled a big win in front of a passionate pro-Filipino crowd in Game 2, winning 89-80 in a game which they won every quarter but one (they tied the third quarter). They key to the Tall Blacks’ to qualifying for the bracket round has been guard Tal John and Corey Webster and forward Reggie Abercrombie. New Zealand doesn’t possess a ton of athleticism or highly skilled or big-name players in comparison to their competition, but they play well together, and they run a lot of different looks on defense to give teams fits. If Canada shows up to play like they did against Senegal, it would not surprise me to see the Tall Black add another upset to their OQT resume.

The Turkey-France matchup is one that would have been good four years ago, but will most likely be a blowout in favor of the latter. Turkey has a solid mix of NBA and Euroleague stars in Omer Asik, Bobby Dixon, Semih Erden, and Furkan Korkmaz.  However, the absence of real big NBA stars like Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova makes this Turkish squad feel a bit second-rate in comparison to teams from past international competitions. And it has shown on the court, as Turkey not only hasn’t been impressive in group play, but they didn’t impress either in many of their friendlies leading up to the OQT competition.

On the other hand, though they are missing Rudy Gobert, and with Nic Batum sitting out (but on the bench), France is loaded with star power who play well together. They mix of NBA veterans like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have meshed well with Euroleague stars like Nando de Colo and Thomas Huertel. The absence of Gobert and Batum has left France a bit fragile in the post, as Joseph Lauvergne and Kim Tillie haven’t been able to duplicate Gobert’s presence, as evidenced their 93-84 shootout against the Philippines. But, France can score from all over the court and in a variety of ways, and the presence of two highly skilled and polished playmakers like Parker and de Colo makes France one of the smoothest offensive teams in the OQT, which should carry them to victory in this group, and a spot in the Olympics.

Pick: France.

Homecoming Hurrah: Is There Hope for Former No.1 Pick Anthony Bennett Back in Canada?

Anthony Bennett has been a stud in FIBA play for Canada, but he hasn’t been able to break through in the league with Cleveland or Minnesota. Will the former No. 1 pick find his niche with his hometown Raptors?

It’s official. Anthony Bennett, the former No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the first Canadian to ever be drafted No. 1 overall (followed by fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins being drafted No.1 the next drat), is back in his home country of Canada. After the Timberwolves bought out the remaining year of his contract, Bennett cleared waivers and signed with the Toronto Raptors for a 1 year, $947,000 deal, not bad change considering that Bennett will still be getting the $3.65 million from the Timberwolves in the buyout deal. Nonetheless, it is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for Bennett, who will be on his 3rd team in 3 years. Though always seen as a stretch for the No. 1 pick, Cleveland, Minnesota and NBA fans in general surely expected more than what Bennett has produced his first two seasons in the league.

In his rookie campaign, Bennett was injured and out-of-shape in Cleveland, which limited his court time and production (he only played in 52 games and averaged 12.8 MPG). In his second season, he was traded along with fellow Canadian and No.1 pick Wiggins in the LeBron “super-deal”, and many expected Bennett to have a better opportunity to improve in a rebuilding situation rather than a competitive one in Cleveland (which was the case with LeBron arriving back home). However, he was unable to find a fit on the young Wolves squad amidst Wiggins, Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and Ricky Rubio. His minutes only improved to 15.7 MPG and his stats only improved slightly across the board (6.9 PER to 11.4 PER; minus-0.4 win shares to 0.3). Yes, the class he was part of wasn’t good at the top (though foreign picks like Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo are looking like steals and may end up being the cream of the crop along with Nerlens Noel, who is already a plus-plus defensive player after his first full year in the league), but even compared to his peers, Bennett pales mightily. His career win shares in negative-0.1, which ranks him 54th out of the 60 players drafted that year. Bennett may not be a bust just yet, but he hasn’t done anything so far in his first two years to prove that narrative wrong either.

So far, the biggest thing people remember of Bennett’s career so far is the wild reaction from fans, other draft picks and commentators when he was surprisingly selected No. 1, as evidenced in the video below:

Again, the shock from Bill Simmons’ “Whoa!” The hands on the back of the necks of the Cleveland Cavs fans in attendance. The shock on Noel’s face, unable to even look in Bennett’s direction. Hell, I think even David Stern, who was performing his last NBA Draft as commissioner, was shocked, as he took a second to pause before announcing Bennett’s name over the loud speakers to the passionate NBA fans in New York City. All profiled in the video demonstrated such a state of utter disbelief that has been a microcosm of the Bennett pick and his early NBA career: how the heck did he go Number One in the NBA Draft?

Nonetheless, scrape away the No. 1 pick aura. It was a lousy draft that really had no consensus No. 1 pick going in. He may rate as one of the lesser No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft’s history, but he won’t be the worst, as long as he stays healthy, which he has done for the most part (no missed seasons like some No. 1 picks). It’s easy to understand the performance in the first two years as well. He just wasn’t in prime physical condition due to nagging injuries prior and during his rookie year, and in Minnesota, it was understandable that he was unable to crack Flip Saunder’s rotation, especially with more proven and traditional bigs like Nikola Pekovic and Dieng (and later Kevin Garnett), and wings that Saunders was more familiar with such as Muhammad, Thaddeus Young and Chase Budinger. Lastly, it’s difficult to see where Bennett projects in the league position-wise: he is not quick enough to be a regular on the wing at small forward, but he is not big enough to be a regular at the 4 position either.

There certainly are a lot of warts with Bennett’s tenure in the NBA, and his game overall has been hard to define and project ever since he was at UNLV (is he a 3 or 4 is the biggest debate concerning Bennett; some argue he has to be a 3 to last in this league, but on a BS Report with Bill Simmons, Steve Nash remarked that Bennett is a more natural 4 whose preference is to play like a stretch 4; this isn’t exactly pushover analysis, as Nash is currently the GM for the Canadian Men’s National Team). But, as evidenced during the Pan American Games and FIBA Americas Tournament, Bennett can put up games like the one below:

It’s easy to see why scouts and organizations were so enamored with Bennett when they see him play for his home country. He plays confident. He shows surprising athleticism and ability to drive to the rim. He can hit the 3-pointer with regularity and ease. His post game is still a bit raw, as I don’t think he is truly a natural post player and still needs to work on his footwork around the paint (as do many young big men in the NBA). That being said, what he lacks in physical skills he makes up intangibles. Bennett has the aggressiveness, body and strength to overpower smaller wings on the block, while still maintaining the good shooting touch and quickness with the dribble to beat bigger forwards who are with him out on the perimeter. When it comes to FIBA play, Bennett makes his naysayers question a bit for dubbing him a “bust” and “one of the worst No. 1 picks ever”.

But unfortunately for Bennett, NBA legacies are determined by NBA games, not FIBA ones. Maybe Bennett will simply be a greater international competition player than a NBA one. Maybe he will find a team in Europe or another foreign country that will appreciate that FIBA success and he won’t be judged by the stigma of being a former No. 1 pick. But if he wants to be more than just a FIBA player and stay in the league, he will have to transition those intangibles he showcases in FIBA play to the NBA court. At times last year, Bennett showed that in Minnesota, and you can see it below in his highlight tape from last year. There were at times Bennett flashed the “Team Canada” swagger and brilliance with the Timberwolves last season. Unfortunately, for Bennett and the Wolves, those moments were too few and far between.

There are a lot of things to like though about Bennett and his new team. First all, I truly think Bennett appreciates being Canadian and playing in front of home-country fans. Yes, FIBA competition is a lot different from the NBA. But, there is a special electric charge some players get when representing their country. Toronto provides Bennett that same kind of outlet as Canada’s only NBA team. If there is a NBA organization that could motivate Bennett in the same way that the Canadian National Team does during FIBA competitions in the summer, it has to be the Raptors with their fervent and heavily nationalistic fan base. (Seriously, can you argue that with their “We the North” campaign?)

Another benefit in Bennett’s favor is that it will be easier to crack the rotation than it was in Cleveland and even Minnesota. The Raptors won 49 games, finished as the winner of the Atlantic Division in the East (though the division was pretty lousy, as the sub.500 Celtics finished second), and were one of the better offensive teams in the NBA (4th overall in Offensive Rating). But, there is a lot to be determined with this Raptors roster this season. The Raptors lost long-time post player Amir Johnson and valuable scoring wings Lou Williams and Grievis Vasquez to free agency, and while they did sign DeMare Carroll from the Raptors, it’ll be interesting to see how Carroll fares offensively transitioning from Mike Budenholzer’s system in Atlanta. That is not to say Bennett will leap Carroll by any means, but if Carroll struggles to adapt to head coach Dwane Casey’s system, it’ll be interesting to see who minutes and shots will go to at the small forward position off the bench.

The most interesting position where Bennett could fit in though will be at power forward. Though Patrick Patterson has been good, he is far from spectacular, as evidenced by his 14.6 PER and meager 8.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg in 26.6 mpg last year. However, Patterson fit in with the Raptors as an excellent stretch four, as he took 52.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and hit 37.1 percent of them. Patterson and Bennett’s games are similar, and Bennett may be a better ball-handler and a bit more athletic on the wing. It’ll be interesting to see if Casey utilizes Bennett in a similar way to Patterson and maybe cut Bennett some of Patterson’s minutes. After all, Bennett could provide the same kind of arsenal that Patterson already brings, but with a bit more athleticism, positional versatility and obviously, more youth. That being said, Patterson won’t be giving up his minutes easy, as Patterson really established himself on this team last season as a key contributor (his 6.1 win shares were 4th most on the team) as well as fan favorite.

Bennett certainly could have fit in Portland (where his national team coach Jay Triano is an assistant) as well as Charlotte and Philly (where there were more obvious playing opportunities). But, I think the Raptors situation is the best for Bennett now. He needs to be in a place where he’s comfortable and he’s been the most comfortable and passionate as a player when he’s wearing the Red and White for Canada. The Raptors should give him the same kind of energy: he’s representing his country in another way, and realizing the dream of finally playing for his hometown team growing up only adds more fuel to Bennett’s fire. Bennett has always made it known how much he liked the Raptors growing up and has been impressed with Toronto fans, and that was on display in this interview last year with fellow Canadian and former teammate Tristan Thompson:

And while all the home country and hometown team ties are important, let’s not forget the most important aspect for Bennett and his NBA future: he’s in a good situation where he can compete and earn playing time right away for a competitive, playoff-seeking team. Granted, it won’t be starting playing time, and I doubt it’ll be in the 20-minute marks, especially early-on, but he’ll have a shot to make his mark and perhaps earn more if he can play loose and display his versatile offensive game. His skill set and size are a need for a team that is a bit shaky in the post, and his ability to shoot the 3 as well as score in the paint and finish with authority in the fast break will help give the Raptors a valuable option off the bench, which will help the keep competitive in the NBA Eastern Conference.

The big question about Bennett is whether NBA fans should have any hope going further for the guy after how bad his first two years have been. I think so. I don’t know if he’ll be a major star in the league, heck, I am not even sure if he can be a regular starter on a competitive team. But, as a key role player, a 7th-8th man who can stretch defenses and find multiple ways to score in limited 16-22 minute stretches? To me, that is possible for Bennett, even as soon as next year.

That kind of production will make him worth much more than the $947,000 the Raptors will pay him next year.

And that kind of production too will at least give him a better legacy than Greg Oden and Darko Milicic as well.