Follow the World Cup on Facebook
Stojakovic on Serbia: ''You can go far with guys like Bogdanovic, Bjelica, Teodosic, Jokic''
BELGRADE (Serbia) - Peja Stojakovic knows what his native Serbia must do to have success at this summer's FIBA Basketball World Cup in China because he was a leading player in Yugoslavia's title-winning side of 2002.
The explosive shooting guard, who had a long career in the NBA, averaged 18.8 points that summer in Indianapolis, Indiana. The secret to the team's championship run 17 years ago?
"I LOVE THE TALENT AND CHEMISTRY IN THE (SERBIA) NATIONAL TEAM. THERE ARE SO MANY GUYS, SO MUCH TALENT"
"The way we were playing was very good," he said to FIBA.basketball.
"We had a super solid defense and a very efficient offense, so both ends of the floor were doing pretty good for us. It wasn't an easy task to win this title, but with resilience, focus and hard work, we did it.
"We worked hard to get ready for the competition and when we got some wins and in a good rhythm, we knew that we could go far."
Stojakovic (left) and former teammate Dragan Tarlac attended the U16 European Championship in Serbia last summer
Stojakovic's 2002 Yugoslavia team, which was coached by Svetislav Pesic, showed its resilience on several occasions. They struggled early.
Spain defeated them, 71-69, in their second game and then Puerto Rico edged them, 85-83, in their fourth, yet Yugoslavia persevered and advanced. Later in the Quarter-Finals, the USA fought back from a 40-36 deficit at half-time to lead 58-52 heading to the last quarter, only for Yugoslavia to win, 81-78. Stojakovic hit 3 of 5 shots from behind the arc and scored a game-high 20 points.
Serbia's 24-year-old Nikola Jokic has become one of the best players in the world
Then in the Semi-Finals, New Zealand threatened to eliminate them after opening up a 48-39 half-time advantage. Yugoslavia prevail, though, 89-78.
Their last show of resilience was against the Argentina in the Final, with Yugoslavia scraping an 84-77 overtime triumph.
"Their defense was so solid and intense," Stojakovic said of Argentina. "They play with their pride and their heart, and those teams are always the hardest to beat. (Fabricio) Oberto had a gigantic game and he almost carried his team on his shoulders. We had a good overtime and were able to push them to their limits and win the game. I remember when I heard the final buzzer, it was such a relief for all of us, and such a moment of joy, it was very emotional."
Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia has been the most powerful team in the region. The Serbians came in second at FIBA EuroBasket 2009, the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2014, the 2016 Olympics and FIBA EuroBasket 2017. They were fourth at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2010.
"THERE AREN'T ANY EASY GAMES ANYMORE AND ALMOST EVERY TEAM CAN GO TO THE KNOCKOUT STAGE AND HAVE GREAT RUNS. THE FAVORITES WILL HAVE TO BE CAREFUL AND PLAY EVERY TEAM WITH HIGH INTENSITY TO NOT GET ANY SURPRISE."
Stojakovic likes his native Serbia's chances of doing well at the World Cup in China, where they will take on Italy, Angola and Philippines in Group D.
"I love the talent and chemistry in the national team," he said. "There are so many guys, so much talent on this team. I'm looking forward to seeing them play in China and I think that they have every reason to be ambitious after what they've done the last couple of years."
That includes the European Qualifiers when Serbia it has a very deep talent pool and often relied on unheralded players to get crucial wins.
Serbia are not going to be short of talent in China, with leading players from the NBA set to play. There will also be fiery competitors like national team stars Dragan Milosavljevic, Miroslav Raduljica and Stefan Jovic.
"With guys like (Bogdan) Bogdanovic, (Nemanja) Bjelica, (Milos) Teodosic, (Nikola) Jokic and all the others, you can go far in the competition and bring something back home," Stojakovic said. "They're one of the best teams in the world and they are going to have a great campaign this summer."
Of course one major difference between 2002 and 2019 is that this year's event will have 32 teams. When Stojakovic won with Yugoslavia, the World Cup had 16 teams.
If Serbia finish in the top two of their First Round pool, they'll have to cross over with Group C and claim a top-two finish in in Second Round Group J to advance to the Quarter-Finals.
"The competition is going to be so interesting as so many teams can reach the top spots and fight for a medal and for the title," he said. "Teams like France, Canada, Lithuania, but also Australia and Spain, for example, can reach the top three spots and have very good campaigns in China."
Stefan Jovic and Serbia hammered Australia in their 2016 Olympic Semi-Final, 87-61
The USA, who followed up 2002 with a third-place finish in 2006, have since won every game they've played at Olympic Games and World Cups. Even so, as Stojakovic says, the tournament will have plenty of good teams.
"It's interesting to see how the competitiveness in the world of basketball has been growing so much," he said. "There aren't any easy games anymore and almost every team can go to the knockout stage and have great runs. The favorites will have to be careful and play every team with high intensity to not get any surprise."