• World Cup Preview: Serbia

    Rarely are seventh-place games meaningful, but the one in the 2013 Eurobasket between Serbia and Italy was. Six teams were going to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Cup via the European Championships but Spain already had a spot secured as host nation, and sure enough it finished among the six first, which gave importance to that seventh-place game. It was the final game of legend Dusan Ivkovic as head coach of the national team and he went out successful, as the Serbians won to earn a spot in the tournament that starts in 10 days.

    And they did it without star Milos Teodosic, who missed that event due to injury. His absence provided Nemanja Nedovic and Bogdan Bogdanovic a chance to step up, and the duo of young combo guards did so by leading the team in minutes and assists. They ran the offense through Nenad Krstic (Ivkovic is very fond of his skill-set) and the veteran responded by ranking fifth on the tournament in scoring. Nemanja Bjelica also took a step forward in a role of importance and started there what would eventually become the best season of his career to date.

    Things will be different this summer, though. Ivkovic is gone and Teodosic returns. The 27-year-old is a high usage point guard who finished 23.5% of CSKA Moscow’s possessions with a shot, free throw or turnover on top of assisting on 31% of the team’s field goals when he was on the floor. He is a gunner with great passing instincts. 58% of his 429 shots in 47 appearances in the Euroleague and the VTB United league were three-point attempts (he hit them at a 39.4% clip), and he is a very good passer out of the pick-and-roll.

    Krstic remains a decent option off the ball-screen, but his athleticism is on the decline and Ettore Messina opted to split them up a little more at CSKA last season. The 30-year-old remains a productive scorer due to his post up skills and his mid-range jump-shooting. Krstic is able to set deep position in the block due to his seven-foot, 267-pound frame. He favors finishing over his right shoulder but continues to exhibit excellent footwork to neutralize his defenders and release his hook from a high point difficult for the average European center to block. He hit 41.7% of 120 two-point jump-shots in 521 Euroleague minutes and 40.2% of 77 midrange attempts in 559 VTB United league minutes.

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    Serbia has better pick-and-roll centers on the roster, in Vladimir Stimac and Miroslav Raduljica, but Krstic is still the most talented player of the group on offense and should get the bulk of the minutes. Running the offense through him in the post must be considered again, since it is the best way to maximize his skills at this point, but the Serbians have enough for a very versatile attack, not only with the addition of Teodosic, but also with the development Bogdanovic and Bjelica showed with their respective teams during the season.

    Bogdanovic ran point for Partizan once Leo Westermann went down with a knee injury early in the year. He isn’t particularly fast off the bounce and struggled at the rim but proved himself a quality passer out of dribble penetration, with 52 of his 84 assists in the Euroleague leading to scores at the rim or from three-point range. His percentages were down as result of having to create his own shot but Bogdanovic is an excellent shooter off the catch, and should get good looks playing alongside a scoring threat like Krstic and great passers such as Teodosic and Bjelica, whose first season under Zeljko Obradovic’s tutelage was very promising.

    The six-foot-10 combo forward has always been a very interesting player but only now playing for the legend, Bjelica has managed to translate all his versatility into high level production. Fenerbahçe was almost 19 points per 100 possessions better with him than without him in the lineup in the Euroleague. Bjelica used to run point at times for Red Star Belgrade and possesses good ball skills and passing instincts. When an opponent tries matching up his athleticism by going small and defending him with a wing player, his high vantage point helps him see over smaller defenders. He can run a pick-and-roll in a pinch and hit 40.7% of his 83 three-point attempts in 61 total games, which provides incredible flexibility to an offense.

    Serbia has so much shot creation on the roster (with Stefan Markovic and Vasilije Micic also on the team) that it should not miss Nedovic, who suffered a foot injury that may or may not have been a stress fracture. He is still with the team and wants to play but the possibility of the Warriors stepping in and vetoing his participation still looms. More important is how Vladimir Micov performs. Serbia did not shoot well at the 2013 Eurobasket and Micov is the only other consistent above average three-point shooter on the team (hitting 42.6% of his 342 three-point attempts with CSKA the last two seasons) besides Teodosic and Bogdanovic.

    Though it should have a potent offense, defense keeps Serbia from being considered a legit title contender right now. Only two players on its top seven are above average athletes for the European game (Micov and Bjelica). As in-the-game.org’s Rod Hig details here, it’s difficult to build an above average defense around Krstic at this point; he struggles even on flat pick-and-roll defense and doesn’t rotate off the weak side to protect the rim properly. And Teodosic is one of the very worst pick-and-roll defenders on Earth; dying on picks at the point of attack and just exposing his big men.

    There’s potential for average performance here, though. Bjelica took a step forward as a defender last season, which should limit the need to play Stimac with Krstic (which hurt Serbia’s spacing on offense last Eurobasket), and Micov will be around this time (he wasn’t there last summer). When he wasn’t saving his effort for offense, Bogdanovic flashed quite good individual defense. His quick moving feet translated into lateral mobility that permitted him to consistently stay in front of opponents. And Raduljica is thought of very highly among those that bothered to watch the Bucks play last season.

    Serbia is placed on Group A, alongside Egypt, France, Iran, Brazil and Spain. That’s by far the toughest group in the tournament and any upset could cost one of the powerhouses a berth in the round of 16. Serbia has enough talent to advance, though.

    (Photo Credit: Christopher Johnson)


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