Batum, France Look to Make History Again at World Cup

By Sam Perley

Five years ago, Hornets wing Nicolas Batum helped lead the French National Team to its first-ever medal at the FIBA World Cup. This weekend, the journey starts all over again for “Les Bleus” in China as they begin play at the latest rendition of this global competition, which runs from Saturday, Aug. 31 until Sunday, Sept. 15. 

This year’s tournament will feature 32 teams divided into eight groups of four for round robin play. The top two teams in each group will advance to the second round, where they will be slotted together into another group of four. The squads will then play a pair of games against the two opponents they haven’t faced yet with the top two teams (eight total) in each of these newer foursomes advancing to the single-elimination quarterfinal round.    

Batum elected to sit out France’s most recent major international competition – the 2017 European Championships – in order to physically and mentally recuperate after eight straight summers competing with the National Team. His decision garnered backlash from the French fans and was then compounded with the federation’s 12th place finish – its lowest since 1963.

“I need to play this summer,” said Batum back in April during his media exit interview. “Two years ago, I skipped the EuroBasket and I got a lot of heat back home when I announced that. I made the right decision that summer. So, it’s been a while technically - the [2016] Olympics – since I’ve played in the summertime.”

Batum was never able to really reap the benefits of that time off though as he tore an elbow ligament in a Hornets preseason game that October and spent much of the year in an uphill battle trying to get back to normal. He notably did participate in a handful of lower intensity World Cup qualifying matches last summer as well. 

As previously mentioned, France snagged its first World Cup medal following a two-point win over Lithuania in the 2014 bronze medal game. Batum tallied a game-high 27 points in the outing, helping him become the second Frenchman and first since Maxime Dorigo in 1963 to make the All-Tournament Team. He averaged a team-high 14.6 PPG on 48.9% shooting, 3.1 RPG, 1.3 APG and 1.3 SPG in nine total outings. 

The French have medaled in four of the last seven European Championships and finished sixth at both the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics. France has only relatively recently become a major factor on the FIBA stage thanks in part to the consistent efforts of players like Batum, Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Florent Piétrus, Mickaël Gelabale and Joffrey Lauvergne. 

Outside of trying to bring home a second consecutive medal, France’s biggest incentive over the next couple of weeks is qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. To do so, they’ll have to be one of the two highest-finishing European teams at the World Cup, which won’t be an easy task with countries like Spain (which features Batum’s Hornets teammate Willy Hernangómez), Serbia, Lithuania, Greece and Russia in the fold. 

France’s preliminary roster includes four fellow NBAers in center Rudy Gobert (Utah), guard Evan Fournier (Orlando), guard Frank Ntilikina (New York) and incoming center Vincent Poirier (Boston). France’s likely starting point guard and three-year NBA veteran Nando de Colo is also coming off his second EuroLeague title in four seasons with Russia’s CSKA Moscow. 

The squad is led by Vincent Collet, who also heads SIG Strasbourg in the French LNB Pro A League. Collet has been at the helm since 2009 and has guided France to four combined medals at either the World Cup or European Championships in addition to two Olympic qualifications. He was also Batum’s club coach at Le Mans in the LNB Pro A League from 2006-08. 

France is slotted into Group G, where it’ll have pool play games against Germany (Sunday, Sept. 1), Jordan (Tuesday, Sept. 3) and the Dominican Republic (Thursday, Sept. 5), all of which begin at 8:30 AM EST in Shenzhen on ESPN+. If and likely when France advances, they’ll face two teams from the so-called “Group of Death” - Australia, Canada, Lithuania or Senegal. 

Germany’s roster features four active NBA players in guard Dennis Schröder (Oklahoma City), forward Maxi Kleber (Dallas), forward Daniel Theis (Boston) and guard Isaac Bonga (Washington), along with one former one in forward Paul Zipser. Jordan has never produced an NBA player, while the Dominican Republic will have guard Luis Montero, who appeared in 14 games with Portland and Detroit from 2015-18.   

Although the United States is the two-time defending World Cup champions, the Americans will be missing many of their higher-profile players after they chose to withdraw for one reason or another. Contrarily though, Batum and other international players relish the timing of this particular tournament.

“When you get to training camp, you’re ready to go,” he stated. “You’ve been in games, you’re in game shape, you’ve played in big games, stuff like that. Sometimes, the first two days in training camp, you have to get back to it and go through the motions. [After playing in the summer], you’re already in game shape there. During the offseason, yes, you’re working out, playing pickup games, stuff like that. To play a real game is different.” 

And if all goes according to plan, Batum and the French National Team will be playing in as many as eight “real games” if they advance to the medal portion of the tournament. Regardless of the final outcome, expect the 2019 FIBA World Cup to be a highly-competitive affair featuring the best teams the international basketball stage has to offer. 

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