The United States’ biggest stars may be absent but a number of NBA players are still converging on China for the Basketball World Cup.
Ahead of tip-off on Saturday, AFP Sport picks out five big names to keep an eye on:
– Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) –
The NBA’s MVP for the 2018-19 season is among three Antetokounmpo brothers in the Greece squad. The 24-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward is joined by 27-year-old Thanasis, who spent the last two seasons with Panathinaikos but was snapped up as a free agent by the Bucks last month. Also playing for the Greeks in China will be Kostas Antetokounmpo, a 21-year-old signed last month by the Los Angeles Lakers. But it is Giannis, born in Greece to Nigerian parents, who is the undoubted pick of the siblings and is so good that he has been nicknamed the “Greek Freak”.
– Kemba Walker (USA) –
Plenty has been made of Team USA missing its biggest names, but it will give NBA All-Star Walker more chance to shine. The Boston Celtics guard, 29, showed that he is primed to step up with a daunting display last week on the Americans’ exhibition tour of Australia. Walker, captain for the evening, dazzled with 23 points in a 102-86 victory over the hosts in a warm-up game. But the two-time defending world champions lost to the Australians in a subsequent game — snapping a run of 78 wins in a row in major competitions and exhibition games.
– Patty Mills (Australia) –
The 31-year-old guard was instrumental as Australia beat the United States for the first time ever, sinking a game-high 30 points. The history-making feat was particularly satisfying for Mills because the US are coached by Gregg Popovich — Mills’s boss at San Antonio Spurs. Mills believes that the Boomers can cause more shocks in China, although they must first negotiate a “Group of Death” also containing Senegal, Canada and Lithuania. “We want to be the best team in the world and are absolutely licking our chops at that opportunity,” he said.
– Nikola Jokic (Serbia) –
With his lumbering physique, the seven-footer (2.13m) has entranced fans and sports analysts with his uncanny precision, especially the sharp passes that have seen him likened to an NFL quarterback. Serbia, losing finalists to the United States in 2014, will be hoping that the 24-year-old Denver Nuggets star — who blends the role of centre and point guard — can be the difference this time.
– Marc Gasol (Spain) –
The 34-year-old centre played a key role in the Toronto Raptors’ historic run to the NBA crown and will now shoulder Spain’s World Cup hopes. Gasol was the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year and is a three-time NBA All-Star. He also helped Spain to the 2006 World Cup title as well as two Olympic silvers. In June, he exercised his $25.6 million one-season contract option to return to the Raptors next season.