Biggest stars in the upcoming FIBA World Cup qualifiers window

Daily Writer
2022-06-28 16:00
Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

FIBA windows are usually associated with B or C national teams' squads, which cannot rely on EuroLeague and NBA players during the outgoing season. However, it's not the case this time, as we approached an off-season stage.

The third window of the FIBA World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers is stacked with big names.

Some of them finished their season early, some arriving for a special occasion, while the others are coming to rescue their countries from the big dip they have fallen in. Croatia is a great example of the latter.

Lauri Markkanen

Lauri  Markkanen
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Position: PF, C
Age: 25
Height: 213 cm
Weight: 116 kg
Birth place: Finland

Ahead of the decisive battles in the respective groups, BasketNews presents the list of brightest individual talents who will fire up the basketball lovers in the stands and in front of TV screens.

Lauri Markkanen

After spending his first 4 seasons in Chicago, the 25-year-old Markkanen completed his first one with the Cleveland Cavaliers, averaging 14.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 assists over 61 games.

His presence on the court helped the ambitious Cavaliers team on the offensive end in particular with some good floor spacing, off-screen driving, and shooting ability. Markkanen shot the ball 35.8 percent from downtown on 6.2 attempts per game.

When Markkanen, Evan Mobley, and Darius Garland were all available to play, the Cavs finished with a record of 19-10. When just one of them was injured, they dropped below .500.

Markkanen's last time with the national team was back in 2018 when he played in FIBA World Cup 2019 Qualifiers after his rookie year in the NBA (Chicago Bulls). He was unstoppable at that time, posting 20.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 21.5 EFF over a two-game span against the Czech Republic and Iceland.

According to the player himself, now he is an even better athlete and Finnish supporters will see an updated version of "Markkanen 2.0".

"I'm a smarter player today. The rookie's sloppiness is gone, hopefully," he laughed while talking to the Finnish Basketball Federation. "I have already spent five years in the NBA. I am in a pretty nice situation that I already know who I am as a basketball player, but I also know that I still have room for improvement at this age."

So, Markkanen is back in Finland and ready to compete against Sweden at home (June 30) and Croatia on the road (July 3). Finland sits first with 3 wins and 1 loss in Group C.

Bojan Bogdanovic

It would certainly be too much for Croatia to miss another major international tournament. Croatian NT arguably suffers the most from not being able to count on its stars. But this time, Bojan Bogdanovic comes to rescue the basketball nation.

The 33-year-old swingman had a major role in the Utah Jazz, which even increased down the most important stretch of the last season when Joe Ingles sustained a season-ending ACL tear. The 8-season NBA veteran registered 18.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 69 matches.

He also broke the Utah Jazz single-game record for 3-pointers made during Utah's match against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 6. Bogdanovic connected on 11 shots from downtown. He became the first player in NBA history to make 11+ threes in a game without making a 2-pointer, via StatMuse.

Bogdanovic has to deliver his A-game in to save Croatia from the fiasco. Another loss, coupled with a Sweden win, would spell the end of the road.

In the upcoming FIBA window, Croatia will take on mighty Slovenia away on June 30 and Finland in their territory on July 3. Croatia plays in Group C and places 4th so far (1-3).

Finland leads the group (3-1), followed by Slovenia (2-2) and Sweden (2-2). Three teams from the group will advance to the next qualifier stage.

Bogdanovic hopes to bounce back after last summer's FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Split. Then he dropped 38 points, but his national team had to bow down against Germany.

Alperen Sengun

The 16th pick of the 2021 NBA Draft, Alperen Sengun, finished his debut season with the Houston Rockets averaging 9.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 72 games.

He showcased his unique style with flashy assists and great court vision that resembles back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic himself, so it will be interesting to see him on the court with other Turkish stars such as Shane Larkin, Cedi Osman, Furkan Korkmaz, Omer Yurtseven, and others.

"He wasn't seeing double teams early in the season," Rockets head coach Stephen Silas said in February. "Now, he is seeing a good amount of them. As far as his play-making ability, he still has that."

"It's very advantageous for us to have him at the top of the floor or the elbow. I would say the reading of the defense is something that has progressed for him because the defenses are more attentive to him than they were earlier," added Silas.

However, Sengun won't be a rookie in the Turkish national team as he already took part in FIBA EuroBasket 2022 qualifiers and Olympic Qualifying tournament.

Numbers-wise, he did great in both of them. In the Olympic qualifying tournament in Canada, the 20-year-old averaged 11.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 14.7 EFF over 3 games, while in EuroBasket qualifiers, his numbers were 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 14.0 EFF.

Although in World Cup qualifiers, Turkey has a 1-2 record, it already clinched a spot in the Second round because Belarus was removed from the competition due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

However, the records from the First round will move into the Second one, so every win counts, and Turkey will finish the first phase in Newcastle, where they will face Great Britain (1-2) national team. Turkey won the first duel in Istanbul 84-67.

Even if Turkey wins the game, it won't be able to catch group leaders Greece, which beat the Turkish national team in both games and has a head-to-head advantage.

Shane Larkin

Larkin once again proved his huge worth in Europe. The 29-year-old player posted EuroLeague's second-best average PIR (18.9) last season in leading Anadolu Efes Istanbul to its third consecutive Final Four and a back-to-back EuroLeague title.

The agile guard did it all, ranking fourth in assists (5.3), sixth in scoring (14.6), and seventh in steals (1.3). He was one of only two players in the Top 10 in all three categories.

The All-EuroLeague First Team member forms one of the greatest EuroLeague backcourts ever, together with Vasilije Micic.

"They'll definitely go in the history of the EuroLeague probably as the most powerful duo of all time," a five-year NBA veteran James Anderson told BasketNews.

With the Turkish national team, Larkin is yet to appear on the biggest international stage. He participated in FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers and the first two windows of FIBA World Cup 2023 Qualifiers.

In total, the prolific scorer competed in 7 games and averaged 15.5 points, 7.4 assists, and 18.2 EFF.

But it's a matter of time before Larkin gets an opportunity to shine in the top-level international basketball with this promising Turk generation.

Sasha Vezenkov

Vezenkov is coming after his career season, where he led Olympiacos to the EuroLeague Final Four, Greek Cup trophy, and Greek League championship, in which he claimed the Finals MVP award.

In 38 EuroLeague games, the 26-year-old averaged 13.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 17.8 PIR (all career-highs).

Vezenkov will make his return to Bulgaria's national team after a 3-year break when he played 7 games in the previous World Cup qualifiers, where he recorded 16.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 17.7 EFF.

Vezenkov holds three passports – Bulgarian, Greek, and Cyprian. So what made him choose Bulgaria?

"My family and parents are from there, they grew up over there," Vezenkov revealed to BasketNews in an interview back in September. "So, that's the main reason. As I said, I love all three countries, and each of them gave me a lot. But because my family is from Bulgaria, I made this decision."

The first and only time Bulgaria participated in World Cup was in 1959, so bringing such glory again would be a huge achievement for Bulgaria, who qualified for the upcoming EuroBasket 2022 after an 11-year break.

However, the task won't be easy. At the moment, Bulgaria sits in third place in Group F, holding a 1-3 record. Bosnia and Herzegovina is second (2-2), while the Czech Republic is in fourth place and also has a 1-3 record.

In the upcoming window, Bulgaria will face group leader Lithuania (July 1) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (July 4) – a matchup that could be crucial for Bulgaria's hopes of making it into the Second round of the qualifiers.

Tomas Satoransky

One more player, who arrives at his country with a clear mission to avoid an early exit. 

Satoransky is coming off a shaky NBA season, which he spent in three NBA teams: the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, and Washington Wizards. Over 55 games, the 30-year-old guard averaged 3.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists.

Satoransky has been in the NBA since 2016 when he left FC Barcelona after two seasons. Hearing the recent rumors, his return to Palau Blaugrana seems imminent.

A five-time Czech Player of the Year saw the whole basketball pyramid of the Czech Republic.

Satoransky has played in all age categories for his country's national basketball team. He rarely says "no", as Satoransky has represented the senior Czech NT at multiple EuroBaskets (2013, 2015, 2017), World Cup 2019, and Tokyo Olympics.

The Czechs will face Bosnia and Herzegovina on July 1 in Pardubice (CZE) and Lithuania on July 4 in Klaipeda (LTU).

The squad sits last in Group F with 1 win and 3 defeats. It will clearly be the do-or-die FIBA window for them.

Nemanja Bjelica

Freshly baked NBA champion Nemanja Bjelica has a very impressive resume in the Serbian national team.

The upcoming FIBA World Cup 2023 qualifiers will be Bjelica's 12th international competition as he previously played in four EuroBaskets (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015), three World Cups (2010, 2014, 2019), London Invitational Tournament (2011), EuroBasket Qualification Round (2013), and most recently in Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade (2021).

Although he had a limited role in offense, Bjelica was vital for the Golden State Warriors on the defensive end, playing in 71 regular-season games and averaging 6.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per contest.

At the beginning of the season, the 33-year-old even surprised his teammate Draymond Green.

"I didn't know Belly could make plays like that off the dribble," Green said in October. "I had no clue. You know, and then I've been spending a little time with him.

He's like, 'Yeah, man, when I was overseas, I won EuroLeague MVP. That's what I was. I made plays, I shot the ball. And then I came here, and they just made me a spot-up shooter. So that's what I do.' Like man, I know you can make plays like that."

In the upcoming window, Serbia will face Latvia (June 30) and Belgium (July 3). Serbia already has a ticket to the Second round and will battle Latvia for the first place in Group A, as both teams have a 3-1 record.

Dennis Schroder

The brightest Germany's national team star, Dennis Schroder, will suit up for his country for the first time since 2019 when he took part in the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

As you would expect, he was a true team leader, averaging 19.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 9.4 assists, and 22.2 EFF per game.

However, Germany finished Group G with a 1-2 record and didn't qualify for the Second round.

Despite that, Schroder is willingly helping his country in every major tournament, as he didn't miss a single one since EuroBasket 2015. 

The 28-year-old guard is coming off after the season with the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets, where he played 64 games in total, averaging 13.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists.

In the upcoming qualifiers window, Germany will face Estonia and Poland. At least one win would secure the Germans first place in Group D.

Schroder is also doing work off the court as well. Back in May, Schroder revealed that he's actively recruiting other NBA Germans to participate in the upcoming EuroBasket 2022, where Germany will be one of the host countries.

"It's a new opportunity to make basketball even bigger in Germany. Everyone is already fired up," Schroder said.

Goran Dragic

If Doncic's early arrival to the national team was surprising, then it's hard to describe how astonished were Slovenian fans who got to know that Goran Dragic is returning to the squad.

The 36-year-old guard will play versus Croatia in the Slovenian capital, which is set to be Dragic's last dance in the national team.

The last time the veteran represented the Slovenian jersey was back in 2017 when he guided his country to the EuroBasket gold. He scored 35 points in the final, which was the most points scored in the ultimate match since Pau Gasol dropped 36 in the final of 2003.

Following his performance, Dragic was given the MVP award of the tournament after averaging 22.6 points per game over 9 duels.

Playing in his 14th NBA season in 2021-22, Dragic posted 7.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists across 21 contests for the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets.

The former NBA All-Star and league's Most Improved Player in 2014 has career averages of 13.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 4.8 assists over 888 games (530 starts) with the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, Raptors, and Nets.

Luka Doncic

No doubt the brightest star in the upcoming international games. The Slovenian wunderkind has already warmed up with a Slovenian jersey in the friendly game over Italy.

Slovenia cruised past their opponents while Doncic activated the All-Star mode with no-look dishes, lobs for the alley-oop jams, and NBA-range step-back threes.

A three-time All-Star and All-NBA First Team member averaged 28.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 8.7 assists in 65 starts last season, finishing third in the league in scoring and fifth in assists.

The Doncic-led Mavericks went to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost against the champions Golden State Warriors in a 5-game series.

Although Luka and the company could not repeat the golden Mavs era with Dirk Nowitzki in front, Doncic's numbers went through the roof in 15 post-season appearances.

His stat line almost marked a double-double average, reaching 31.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.8 steals.

Doncic starred on the biggest stage as a teenager at FIBA EuroBasket 2017. He helped Slovenia win a historic title alongside his co-partner in the perimeter line, Goran Dragic.

Four years later, Luka navigated his country to its first-ever showing at the Olympics and finished in honorable fourth place in Tokyo, behind such basketball nations as the USA, France, and Australia.

Meanwhile, in the approaching FIBA window, the Slovenians will face Croatia on June 30 in Ljubljana, and then on July 3, they will travel to Sweden, Stockholm.

Slovenia ranks second in Group C with 2 victories and 2 setbacks. With a win against Croatia, they would secure a place in the next phase.

Honorable mentions

  • Davis Bertans
  • Mario Hezonja
  • Furkan Korkmaz
  • Boban Marjanovic
  • Cedi Osman
  • Georgios Papagiannis
  • Vincent Poirier
  • Tornike Shengelia
  • Milos Teodosic
  • Omer Yurtseven
  • Ante Zizic
  • Ivica Zubac
  • Ignas Brazdeikis
  • Luigi Datome

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