Vamos a Jugar! Hernangómez, Spain Primed for 2019 FIBA World Cup

By Sam Perley

Following a one-summer hiatus, Hornets center Willy Hernangómez is back with the Spanish National Team as “La Roja” looks to bring home another coveted medal at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, which runs from Saturday, Aug. 31 until Sunday, Sept. 15 throughout the country of China.  

This year’s rendition of the 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 into four more groups of four. The two highest-ranking squads (eight total) in each of these newer foursomes will advance to the single-elimination quarterfinal round.  

Coming off his first full season in Charlotte, Hernangómez averaged 7.3 PPG on 51.9% shooting, 5.4 RPG and 1.0 APG in 58 appearances, three of which were starts. The now 25-year-old chose not to join the National Team last offseason for a series of World Cup qualifying matches, electing to attend NBA Summer League with the Hornets instead. 

“I made a tough decision [and] went to Summer League and said no to the National Team,” he stated back in May. “[The World Cup] is a big tournament for us and it’s going to be big if I can go.” Hernangómez has been a member of medal-winning squads at each of the last two European Championships (gold in 2015, bronze in 2017) and at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil (bronze). 

Spain has medaled just once at the FIBA World Cup though, grabbing gold back in 2006 at the Japanese-hosted competition. The federation finished fifth in 2014, although has medaled in each of the last three Summer Olympics and nine of the last 10 European Championships. The two highest-finishing European teams at the 2019 World Cup will automatically qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

NBAers joining Hernangómez on the Spanish National Team will be his younger brother and forward Juancho (Denver), center Marc Gasol (Toronto) and guard Ricky Rubio (Phoenix). A pair of former Portland Trail Blazers forwards in Rudy Fernández and Víctor Claver plus 2017 EuroLeague MVP and Real Madrid combo guard Sergio Llull will round out the core of the roster.

The owner of a federation-record 11 senior-level international medals, two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol will not be with the team as he recovers from a navicular stress fracture in his left foot. The future Hall-of-Famer, who hopes to rejoin the National Team next summer in Japan, has been a huge influence on Hernangómez as well as many other European players.  

“Every time I’m playing with Pau or Marc, it’s just another opportunity to be better,” said Hernangómez. “It’s another day to get better, it’s another day to learn something on or off the court. I think there’s no better practice or way to get better than to be with the Gasol brothers. I try and learn as much as I can every day. Every year with the National Team, I need to be a better player.”

Toronto Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo has been the National Team Head Coach since 2015 and previously from 2009-12. Spain is slotted into Group C and will play its first three games against Tunisia (Aug. 31), Puerto Rico (Sept. 2) and Iran (Sept. 4), all of which will tip off at 8:30 AM EST on ESPN+. 

Tunisian center Salah Mejri (Dallas), Puerto Rican forward Renaldo Balkman and Iranian center Hamed Haddadi will be the most notable NBA-experienced opposing players Spain will face in the opening round. If and likely when the Spanish team advances, they will likely face powerhouse Serbia and probably a talented Italian squad in the ensuing stage. 

Although the United States has won the last two FIBA World Cups, a handful of other countries could make things interesting, particularly with so many American players withdrawing from the tournament. One opponent Spain would love to send packing is neighboring France, which is led by Charlotte teammate Nic Batum. The two sides (and their fanbases) have developed a palpable dislike for each other, although it all seems to be in the spirit of competition.

“We don’t talk anymore now,” Hernangómez said jokingly when asked about his offseason relationship with Batum. “Throughout the years, we’ve been talking about France and Spain. We lost in the World Cup to France in Spain [in 2014] and I always remind [Tony Parker] and Nico we beat them in France in the European Championships [in 2015] and then we won [the title]. It’s going to be a fun World Cup. Obviously, I want to have success and if we play against each other it’s going to be a big game, but there are no friendships.” 

The earliest Spain and France could possibly meet each other is the semifinals, which would certainly ramp up the intensity in what is already the best head-to-head rivalry in international basketball. Regardless of the final outcome, the FIBA World Cup will be a hotly-contested tournament and a pleasant appetizer for basketball junkies heading into the 2019-20 NBA regular season. 

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