As the basketball appetizer for the 2024 Paris Olympics will be served the next few weeks in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia, it should satisfy anyone with a hoops craving during the NBA offseason.
Those are the sites for the 2023 FIBA World Championships, where most competing countries will use the tournament to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, while a select handful of basketball powerhouses, including Team USA, have their sights on a bigger prize — like, the World title.
It should be a bouncy basketball carnival that will once again show how the game has grown globally and highlight the rising number of international players who are already stars, or are ascending.
Obviously, most of the best players are in the NBA, where they’re better known for playing for their respective teams. But ask anyone in Spain, France or Australia, and they’ll explain why the pride of representing their country will rival any emotion in the NBA.
Yes, a number of great players are skipping this in favor of the Olympics next year, which isn’t too unusual anymore for the Worlds. They will be missed, but otherwise, this tournament gives up-and-comers a platform and maybe plant seeds for a possible spot on the Olympic team.
Here are 12 players to watch on the international stage and why they hold importance to their teams:
RJ Barrett, Canada
He’s one of the top players to emerge from Up North. While he hasn’t developed quite like Jamal Murray or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the highest level, Barrett is unquestionably a pure talent at the swing position who just needs polishing. The 6-foot-6 shot creator could use this platform to enhance his reputation and he’ll certainly get the touches and the chance. Barrett brings improving deep shooting and a solid transition game, and going through coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive training with the New York Knicks certainly won’t hurt him in this tournament.
Jalen Brunson, USA
If casual basketball fans were only mildly familiar with Brunson’s game, he’s all set to emerge from this tournament as one of the best pure point guards in the game. Yes, that’s a heavy statement, but Brunson seems built for that stage. He’s been a winner everywhere he has played and expects to continue that with Team USA. He’s an excellent leader, only takes risks when necessary, is calm under pressure and can create for himself and for others. Knicks fans know.
Jordan Clarkson, Philippines
Numerous players who wouldn’t make the cut for Team USA have regularly suited up for other countries because of a family heritage link, and that’s why Clarkson is playing for a team half a world away. But this is no cameo for the Utah Jazz guard — actually, he’s making his third international appearance with the Philippines after leading the team at the 2018 Asian Games and the World Cup Asian Qualifiers last year. He sees himself as a basketball ambassador for the host country. He’s the only NBA player on his squad and will have the green light to shoot as much as possible.
Luka Doncic, Slovenia
There’s nobody in the world championships who’s a better team centerpiece than Doncic. As in: If you had to choose one player in this tournament to build a team around, who is it? He checks all the boxes and he’s passionate about playing for his homeland and competing against the bigger countries. In addition, Doncic’s game translates to the international style as much as anybody’s. He’s more valuable and important to Slovenia than any other player is to their country, of whom is considered a medal favorite.
Anthony Edwards, USA
Consider this opportunity as an audition for Edwards to be included on the 2024 Olympic team. That’s almost a certainty by now because Edwards has made a terrific impression on all the decision-makers with Team USA, especially coach Steve Kerr. Everyone knows the Minnesota Timberwolves’ star wing is on the verge of superstardom and a sneak preview of that could come in this tournament. He was the team’s best player through the warmup games. As the primary option on a team with several, Edwards will most certainly see the ball with the game on the line.
Josh Giddey, Australia
With Patty Mills and Joe Ingles in their twilight, Jock Landale injured, Ben Simmons unwilling to represent and Shane Heal long done playing, the Aussies will lean on one of their country’s generational talents to introduce a new era of Down Under hoops. Giddey is that guy, a tall and versatile combo guard who can be trusted with a heavy role and lots of responsibilities. Giddey reflects the amount of basketball development and growth that Australia has experienced over the past few decades. Plus, the Oklahoma City Thunder star is only getting better while playing in the NBA.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Canada
Is he already the greatest Canadian-born player ever? You could make that case (keep in mind that Steve Nash, two-time MVP, was born in South Africa, raised in Canada). Fresh off a second straight breakout season in the NBA where he touched upon next-level stardom, Gilgeous-Alexander looks to make a splash internationally with a quick-rising Canadian team. If his time with the Thunder is any indication of what’s coming, he’ll drop plenty of mid-range shots and get to the line often. He lacks the volume deep shooting that’s often associated with international ball but he’s too talented to allow that to stop him.
Rudy Gobert, France
One of the major reasons for France’s success in international play over the last several years is “The Stifle Tower.” The former three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year has been a rock for France. Remember, in international play, once the ball touches the rim, it’s fair game to be grabbed or swatted no matter what. That falls within Gobert’s strengths: rebounding and defense. It will be curious to see if age will begin to wear on Gobert, or if he is one of those players who never seems to age for their country in this format.
Rudy Fernandez, Spain
The sentiment in this tourney will follow Fernandez because of his age — he’s 38 — and his hoops history with the Spaniards. He has two World titles, four EuroBasket championships and three Olympic medals. He played four seasons in the NBA and was part of the core of a string of fantastic Spanish teams over the last few decades (along with Pau and Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio). This team isn’t that deep, but Spain is always known for its chemistry because its players have grown up together — not quite like the Hernangomez brothers, Willy and Juancho, who hooped in the backyard — but you get the idea.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, Serbia
Even without the two-time NBA MVP and current champion Nikola Jokic, who’s resting from a long season and tending to his horses, Serbia is expected to be a problem. Bogdanovic (of the Atlanta Hawks) is the most accomplished player on a team that also includes Nikola Jovic, who’ll start his second season with the Miami Heat in a few months. Meanwhile, “Bogie” brings stretch shooting and lots of experience, both internationally and NBA, and will be this team’s leader until “The Joker” suits up for Paris next summer.
Lauri Markkanen, Finland
A country better known for producing speed skaters and biathletes (that sport combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting, FYI) has a gem on its hands when it comes to hoops. Markkanen is coming off a Kia Most Improved Player Award season in Utah and eager to show his teammates how it’s done in the Worlds. Obviously, Finland probably won’t be a big deal in this tournament but “The Finnisher” most certainly will be.
Franz Wagner, Germany
With Dirk Nowitzki done with basketball, the Germans are searching for their next star. And although it’ll take a while before anyone fills his shoes, Wagner is comfortable in his own. He’s rapidly improving in the NBA after a few seasons with the Magic and seems ready for a fair-sized international splash. A good shot creator and smart player, Wagner could be the best player on team Germany for the next decade.
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