Standing in Gilas Pilipinas’ way: With or without NBA stars, Serbia still Group D favorites

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Gilas Pilipinas will be playing in Foshan, China in the FIBA World Cup after finding itself in Group D with two European teams, Serbia and Italy, and the most dominant team in Africa in the last three decades, Angola.

In this three-part series, we will look at how Gilas Pilipinas matches up with each of the teams it will be facing.

Serbia (World No. 4 in the FIBA World Rankings)

Major achievements
– FIBA World Cup: 2nd place (2014), 4th place (2010)
– Olympics: 2nd place (2016)
– Eurobasket: 2nd place (2017), 4th place (2015)

Next to France, which Gilas Pilipinas lost close games to in the Antibes International Basketball Tournament (68-75) in 2014 and in the 2016 Olympic qualifier (84-93), Serbia is arguably the strongest the Philippine national team would be playing against in an international competition.

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There is a good reason why Serbia is 4th in the world rankings. In the short time that it has competed as an independent country (following the dissolution of the Serbia and Montenegro state in 2006), Serbia has established itself as a contender in every major tournament it has joined. It finished runner-up to the United States in the 2014 FIBA World Cup and placed 4th in the 2010 edition. Serbia was also a silver medalist in the 2016 Rio Olympics and copped another runner-up finish in the 2017 Eurobasket after losing to the Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic-led Slovenia in the finals.

Sergio Scariolo, the head coach of title favorite Spain and current assistant coach of the Toronto Raptors, shared his thoughts in an interview with FIBA about the Serbian team for this year’s World Cup.

“I put Serbia just a small step below the U.S. Knowing the opponent and the players, and from what I’m hearing that everyone wants to be a part of it, it appears to me a team of almost that level (of the US). Not quite, but almost.”

If Scariolo is right, then we may very well see a fully-loaded Serbian squad that will be fielding its four NBA players in the World Cup.

RELATED – Gilas Pilipinas to clash against Serbia, Italy, Angola in FIBA World Cup

Nikola Jokic, the first Denver Nugget to be named to the NBA All-Stars since Carmelo Anthony in 2011, is having the best all-around performance among all big men this season. Jokic is averaging 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 7.6 assists and will definitely be Serbia’s main man in China. A pair of Sacramento Kings — 6’6 shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who averages 14.9 points this season, and 6’10 power forward Nemanja Bjelica, who is scoring 9.6 points and grabbing 5.8 rebounds — will form a potent triumvirate with Jokic. Bogdanovic made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 2018. 7’3 giant Boban Marjanovic of the Philadephia Sixers, one of the most efficient players in NBA history, will also be Jokic’s main reliever.

Serbian coach Aleksander Djordjevic will have a deep well of talents to draw out from. As if big men Jokic, Bjelica, and Marjanovic are not enough, Serbia also can choose among 7’0 Miroslav Raduljica (Jiangsu Dragons, China), who averaged 13.3 points and 4.9 boards in 10 games in the qualifiers, 6’10 Stevan Jelovac (Gaziantep, Turkey), who scored 11.8 points, 2015 San Antonio Spurs 1st round draft pick 7’0 Nikola Milutinov (Olympiacos, Greece), and 7’0 Ognen Kuzmic (Real Madrid, Spain) to fortify the team’s frontline. Both Raduljica and Kuzmic previously saw action in the NBA.

But do not expect Serbia to merely pound the ball down low. They also have tall, athletic wings who impressed in the qualifiers. 24-year-old 6’5 small forward Dejan Todorovic (Murcia, Spain), who played for the Chicago Bulls in the 2017 NBA Summer League, averaged 11.2 points and 2.6 assists. 6’8 Vladimir Lucic (Bayern Munich, Germany), projected to start at small forward for the team in the World Cup, scored 11 points on 68.6% three-point shooting. 6’6 Dragan Milosavljevic (Unicaja, Spain), expected to rotate with Bogdanovic in the shooting guard position, normed 11.5 points.

Jayson Castro, Mark Barroca, Paul Lee, and possibly Remy Martin will find themselves outsized by Serbia’s choices at the point guard spot. Potentially manning the backcourt for Serbia are 2010 Euroleague MVP and former LA Clipper 6’5 Milos Teodosic, 6’6 Stefan Jovic (Bayern Munich, Germany) who averaged 12.7 points and 3.3 assists in the qualifiers, former Golden State Warrior 6’3 Nemanja Nedovic (Olimpio Milano, Italy), and 2014 Philadelphia 76ers draft pick 6’6 Vasilije Micic (Anadolu Efes, Turkey).

Serbia, known as the ‘Beli Orlovi’ or ‘The White Eagles’, will be going to the World Cup looking to make the finals and will be one of the title contenders. It would be great to romanticize about June Mar Fajardo stopping Marjanovic, Andray Blatche holding his own against Jokic, or Gabe Norwood shutting down Bogdanovic. But an objective assessement of both teams will lead one to conclude that Gilas Pilipinas will need to play the game of their lives to have a realistic chance at making the game versus Serbia competitive.

RELATED – Meet the FIBA World Cup teams: USA, Spain and the top seeds

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