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Who is the best player in China Basketball World Cup so far?

The first group stage of the World Cup is over and the tournament slowly starts to get more interesting. It’s really awkward to see any US team to struggle so much in an international competition, but here we are. And this goes without underestimating Team USA full record so far with their 3 wins from 3 games played. We can safely dismiss the last group game against lowly Japan. The first game against Czech Republic, what to say about it…The final result is a bit misleading, the Americans only pulled away at one point in the third quarter and the performance was shaky overall. The real struggle came in their second game against Turkey though. I still can’t believe US didn’t lose that game. Ersan Ilyasova-led Turkey was in almost full control in the deciding 4-5 minutes of the last quarter. Only Kemba Walker put some real fight and kept the game close. Turkey led by 2 points with a few seconds left on the clock and their bench already started to rise their hands in euphoria when a defender made a stupid foul on a desperate 3-pointer by Tatum. Jayson missed the second free throw, but still notched the other two to send the game in overtime. He actually rolled his ankle in the extra period and left the game. Then the whole drama just repeated itself. Turkey seemed to be in control of the game until they missed 4 of 5 foul shots in the final minute. USA won by a point, 93-92, in the end. Turkey made a mockery of the oddsmakers though, who gave 26 points spread in their favour before the game. And guess what? Turkey is only the 4th best team in the tournament (without US), behind Spain, Lithuania and of course, Serbia.

It’s exactly Serbia that plays the most exciting basketball in the tournament and it’s no coincidence the best player in China plays for them. He’s no other than Nikola Jokic himself, The Joker. So, Serbia is maybe the biggest threat to American dominance in the World Cups. The best part of the show is that these two teams can’t meet one another before late in the tournament. But what exactly does Serbia have in store in China?

 

It’s not a big surprise that a team behind Nikola Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and a bunch of role players including Nemanja Bjelica and Boban Marjanovic, dominates a mediocre-level international tournament. Serbia blew out Angola and the Phillippines, no shocks there, and pulled away from Italy in a compelling matchup on Wednesday. So they also head into the second round of groups undefeated, averaging a tournament-high 107.7 points per game, and shooting an astonishing 53% from three-point range. Things get a bit more complicated from this point onwards, of course. Serbia is in a second group with Spain, Italy again and Puerto Rico, and it’ll be highly interesting to see whether they can maintain their current level of play, especially against Spain.

A little bit of history. Serbia fell handily to the USA in the Final game in 2014, but that team didn’t have Jokic as its focal point and was down a few key pieces due to injury (and the States had way stronger roster back then). Although the competition will stiffen for Serbia, they have been clinically efficient, and there is no such thing as overhype when it comes to Nikola Jokic. The big fella has evolved into more than just a dark horse MVP candidate in Denver. He’s become a dominant NBA player in his own, very specific way, and is essentially an unstoppable force against most FIBA opponents. When other teams can’t effectively throw athletic bodies at him and make him work, Jokic is going to get what he wants most of the time, be it an easy lay-up or a simple assist. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 10 rebounds and 9.4 assists per 36 minutes right now in the tournament. Just like Denver Nuggets, the whole Serbian national team has adjusted to Jokic’s style, then vice versa.

It’s worth noting this is the first major international tournament in recent memory where the best player in the field isn’t an American. Of course Giannis is also in China with Greece, but the Greeks don’t have a strong team behind The Beast right now. Serbia plays with pace, moves the ball efficiently, and is unafraid to let everything run through Jokic, who is making fun of defenders in various ways until this point. They’re able to get good shots whenever they want, they’re willing to take them early in the clock (a bit Golden State-like approach), and it’s the most beautiful style of basketball in the whole tournament.

Admittedly, all this could amount to very little if Serbians fail against not to be underestimated Spain, and finally, USA. The Americans are still the deepest, most athletic team in the field, even if their roster is not used to play together and lacks chemistry. On a good day, they can make it look easy, and there’s not much most FIBA opponents can do about that. But it’s evident that the gap in class is narrower this year, and a real question whether the Americans can get to that level when it matters much (as they all in all failed against the Turkish team). The point here is that Serbia is playing the best basketball in the world right now, and that alone deserves applause, regardless of how it all ends up.

We still have a few days before the tournament enters its elimination phase. Let’s see how the second group stage unfolds. For my money’s worth though, I know I will be highly tempted to lay Team USA against any of the best 3 European teams, Serbia, Lithuania and Spain, when such an encounter happens. The best thing is these will be cheap bets, as US will be set as favourites by the oddsmakers, that’s the nature of the game…

 
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