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44 Bojan Bogdanovic (CRO)
Jeff Taylor's Eurovision
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Success in Qualifiers doesn't hinge on presence of NBA players

VALENCIA (Jeff Taylor's Eurovision) - As we approach a very important fifth window in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers, these questions have to be asked:

1) Are national teams capable of winning basketball games when their NBA players aren't involved?
2) Does the presence of NBA players guarantee victory?

The European Qualifiers played in September strongly suggests yes to the first and no to the second. 

Exhibit A: Croatia had their two biggest NBA studs, Bojan Bogdanovic (Indiana Pacers) and Dario Saric (Minnesota Timberwolves), as well as Ante Zizic (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Ivica Zubac (Los Angeles Lakers) on the roster in September's European Qualifiers against Lithuania in Osijek and at Poland in Gdansk and lost both times, falling 84-83 to the Lithuanians and then 79-74 to the Poles. Lithuania had none of their NBA players involved and Poland have no NBA players.

Exhibit B: France, despite the presence of Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum on September 13 at Bulgaria, lost 74-68.

Exhibit C: Finland didn't have Chicago Bulls star Lauri Markkanen for their home game against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Espoo yet still prevailed, 85-81. The visitors, in fact, did have their NBA players, Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trailblazers) and Dzanan Musa (Brooklyn Nets).

Portland Trailblazers star Jusuf Nurkic played but Bosnia and Herzegovina fell at Finland in September

There have been, of course, plenty of instances where NBA players did play, did excel and their teams did win. The bottom line is that a team may look better on paper when it has players from the world's elite league, yet there are numerous intangibles that must be taken into consideration.

Now, as a reminder, the NBA players were out of season in the June/July window, and the September window, and therefore could have played. 

So to the point, how did Ukraine win against Spain, a team that was perfect in the Qualifiers until their meeting? Was it the presence of NBA duo Alex Lin and Svi Mykhailiuk in the Ukraine squad? They did play well, combining for 30 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks. Yet how does one explain Ukraine's 90-84 defeat at Montenegro a few days later, when Len had 13 points 7 rebounds and 3 assists and Mykhailiuk 15 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists?

Montenegro had not a single NBA player on their roster yet won that encounter against Ukraine, 90-84. So let me repeat. Ukraine had a couple of NBA players while Montenegro, whose Nikola Vucevic plays for the Orlando Magic but did not make himself available for the Qualifiers, had none, yet won and really did so more convincingly than the final result suggests.

When it came time for Montenegro to beat Ukraine in a game they had to win to maintain a realistic hope of making it to the World Cup, their fans showed up in big numbers and created an electric atmosphere for their team. And a far less heralded player named Nikola Ivanovic of Montenegro had the game of his life, and that might be an understatement. This kind of thing happens when a player puts on the shirt of his national team.

Getting a chance to play for his country in a loud Niksic arena was all he needed to transform himself from super anonymous to superman. The 24-year-old guard erupted for 30 points, handed out 6 assists and grabbed 4 rebounds. Ivanovic hit 3-ball after 3-ball, five in all, including one at the half-time buzzer.

Bojan Dubljevic of Valencia Basket fame also had a big night that was perhaps less surprising, yet one that he'll remember for the rest of his life. He had 4 3-pointers and scored 26 points in all while also hauling in 8 rebounds.

In their win over Spain, Ukraine also got a combined 24 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal and 1 block from Viacheslav Kravtsov and Denys Lukashov.

Here's the main point, folks. There are many factors to take on board when teams compete in the Qualifiers.

It probably helped Finland in their win over Bosnia and Herzegovina that the national team has continuity on the coaching staff, and the fact that the way that the Susijengi get after opponents with their fast, modern and attacking style is the same approach of their youth teams.

That's why a 24-year-old like Topias Palmi and a 22-year-old like Fiifi Aidoo were able to make important contributions in their first runs with the senior team. They combined for 11 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds and 2 steals in 22 minutes against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Poland's case, against Croatia, there was the "rise to the occasion" factor of a veteran Adam Hrycaniuk. Having the word POLAND on his jersey seemed to transform his game. The 34-year-old just seemed to have a different quality in his game, and more energy while contributing 14 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. Coach Mike Taylor also showed he continues to do a wonderful job at the helm of Poland, particularly in getting his players to believe in themselves.

Do you think the absence of San Antonio Spurs guard Marco Belinelli for Italy took any of the shine off their win over Poland on September 14? No, if anything it allowed Amedeo Della Valle to stand out. He drilled 8 of 11 shots from behind the arc and scored 28 points against Poland.

I like watching NBA players put on their national team shirts but I love it just as much when the Della Valle's of this world make the most of their chances.

Maybe with longer training camps, the likes of Bogdanovic and Saric could make a bigger difference for Croatia but then again, maybe not.

I can't wait for fifth window to tip off.  Countries will continue to battle for their World Cup lives and even without players currently on NBA rosters, it's going to be great theater as the four previous windows have been.

Jeff Taylor


FIBA's columnists write on a wide range of topics relating to basketball that are of interest to them. The opinions they express are their own and in no way reflect those of FIBA.

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Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor, a North Carolina native and UNC Chapel Hill graduate, has been a journalist since 1990. He started covering international basketball after moving to Europe in 1996. Jeff provides insight and opinion every week about players and teams on the old continent that are causing a buzz.