This year’s European Championship, the Eurobasket, will be kicking off this weekend with group play taking place in France, Croatia, Germany and Latvia, with 24 teams fighting for two automatic bids for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Both the champion and the runner-up will automatically qualify for the prestigious competition next summer, with the 3rd-7th place teams earning the right to fight for one of the three final bids for the Olympics in next summer’s three pre-Olympic qualifying tournaments.
Team USA is poised to field a special team next summer in the Olympic Games, with a star-studded roster that could even rival the original Dream Team. However, since 2002 we have seen that the rest of the world, especially the top European teams, have no intention of bowing before Team USA, and the pride of European basketball will be in full swing to prove that they can take down a team of American NBA superstars.
With the 2015 European Championships kicking off this weekend, here is a look at which teams from Europe can pose a challenge for the Americans in Rio next summer.
Nine years after the Greeks pulled off their biggest win in National Team History, putting on a Pick and Roll clinic against a Team USA squad that featured LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony in the 2006 World Championships, the Greeks look poised to reclaim their place among the upper echelon of European basketball.
Greece is always known for being one of the most physically aggressive and mentally tough national teams, who can dictate the pace of the game with their physicality.
Euroleague legend Vassilis Spanoulis will be suiting up for the Greeks, giving them a chance to win any game that is within 10 with 5 minutes to go. Spanoulis has had some unbelievable performances for Olympiacos over the last few years, leading them to back-to-back Euroleague titles in ’12 and ’13, and leading them to the Finals this past year.
If Jeff Van Gundy hadn’t robbed American fans of the chance to see Spanoulis play when the two were together with the Rockets, the Greek guard could have had a career on par with Manu Ginobili, and would almost certainly have had a few memorable playoff performances.
The real upside with Greece lies with the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been improving at an impressive rate in his two NBA seasons. Throughout preliminary games, the Greek Freak looks like he is about to show the world he has taken another step forward this summer, and if he makes that jump Greece will be very tough to beat.
The Greeks have a deep and strong team, with the grittiness of Nuggets forward Kostas Papanikolaou, the Greek Robert Horry in Olympiacos forward Giorgios Printezis, and the ex-Grizzlies duo of play making guard Nick Calathes and big man Kostas Koufos. Spain may be considered the world’s second-best basketball nation, but look for this tough Greek squad to come out on top in this competition.
The reigning European champion, France features a squad filled not only with NBA talent, but proven winners who have the type of experience required to compete for a medal in the Olympics.
Led by Tony Parker, one of the most accomplished point guards of this era, France is the odds-on favorite to finish first in Group A. Parker’s dynamic pick-and-roll play and ability to take over a game by getting into the paint off the dribble, make France a team that can be very tough to beat when they get it going. With fellow vets Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum and Nando DeColo by Parker’s side, the French squad has played together over many campaigns, and has the kind of experience that gives them a needed edge.
Along with fellow youngsters Evan Fournier and Joffrey Lauvergne, France has some very nice young pieces would could help keep them in Europe’s upper tier for the foreseeable future.
A powerhouse in European competition, Spain will be looking to reestablish themselves as the top dog of European basketball. Led by Pau Gasol (although brother Marc is sitting out), Spain should be one of the top teams in this tournament, and one of the handful of teams genuinely playing for the gold.
Bulls rookie sensation Nikola Mirotic will be replacing Serge Ibaka as the Spanish squad’s naturalized player, and should bring a more complementing dynamic with his ability to stretch the floor and make plays facing the rim. Mirotic will be joined by his fellow former Real Madrid teammates, Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull. After Real Madrid took the title this past season, the Spaniards will have an even bigger target on their back, and more pressure to come home with the Gold.
With Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navvaro, Jose Carlderon and Alex Abrines sitting out this campaign, Spain won’t have as much of an edge on paper as they have had in recent years, and are surprisingly not a shoo-in to get an automatic bid. However, even if Spain fails to make the finals at Eurobasket, they should be a lock to not only gain an Olympic bid in the qualifiers next summer, but to take a medal in Rio.
Croatia is the dark horse of this tournament, with some of the most intriguing young talent in this competition. Croatia will feature the trio of Dario Saric, Mario Hezonja and Bojan Bogdanovic, three youngsters who have the potential to be among the most dominant European players of this generation.
Saric had a full year of seasoning with Fenerbahce Ulker this past season, after totally dominating the season before for Cibona Zagreb. Saric is a do-everything 6’9” forward with handles and the ability to see the floor. Saric will have every opportunity in this tournament to show the world he is worth the hype, and he could make Sixers fans giddy for his arrival in Philadelphia a year from now.
Magic draft pick Mario Hezonja will be the biggest wild card for Croatia. The European T-Mac, Hezonja is going to be on many posters throughout his career with his penchant for step-back 3- pointers, and explosive leaping ability. He can light it up in a hurry, and he can not only help Croatia do something big this summer with a standout performance, but he could also earn himself more minutes in Orlando’s wing rotation.
Nets wing Bojan Bogdanovic had a solid rookie year for the Nets, after proving himself to be an elite scorer in European competition. His scoring ability will be a big factor for the Croatians, and he should have the chance to prove that he can take on a much bigger role in his second season with the Nets.
Dontaye Draper, newcomer of Lokomotiv Kuban in Russia, will be suiting up for the Croatians as their Nationalized player, after starring in the past for Cedevita Zagreb, and his dribble penetration and overall playmaking ability will be a big factor for the Croatians. Ante Tomic, whose rights are owned by the Jazz, has been among Europe’s elite big men for quite some time now, and his combination of size and skill will prove to be a big asset for Croatia.
The Croatians may not be a favorite to win it this year, but if their youngsters take a big jump they could turn out to be the most exciting team of this competition. The Croatians may not have the same type of experience as Spain, France or Greece, but they have the highest upside of any team in this tournament, and it would be no surprise to see them ultimately win this competition.
The Serbians shocked many by sneaking their way into the Finals at the Basketball World Cup last summer, where they were taken down by Team USA. While the Serbians, led by CSKA Moscow star PG Milos Teodosic, are a good team, their National Team has been very mercurial and filled with controversy in recent years, and their success will depend a lot on whether they can build on the chemistry from last year.
Teodosic will have a lot of pressure on him, as he has been criticized for his inability to lead CSKA to Euroleague glory in his career, despite having championship expectations every year. Teodosic will need to lead Serbia to gold in this competition to silence his critics, but without longtime running mate Nenad Krstic, that may not prove to be an easy task by any means.
T’Wolves fans will get their last look at Nemanja Bjellica before he heads over to the NBA this season. The versatile forward will be playing a very important role for the Serbs and in this setting he could end up having one of the most impressive overall stat lines of any player in this competition. Miroslav Raduljica, the 7-foot center who recently had a cup of coffee in the NBA, will be manning the middle for the Serbians and will be largely responsible for filling the hole left with Krstic no longer in the mix.
The duo will be joined in the frontcourt by veteran forward Zoran Erceg, who was fantastic for Galatasarray this past season and is still on the free agent market. Erceg is coming off his best season of his career, and is playing to earn himself a job in the Euroleague this coming season, and could possibly sneak into the league if Serbia has another special summer like they did last year.
Youngsters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Nedovic will be big x-factors for the Serbia squad, who will need production from their talented youngsters to even make it out of the ultra-competitive Group B. Both players are borderline NBA talents right now, but could drastically improve their stock with standout performances at Eurobasket.
Once considered the top basketball country in Europe, Italy has been underwhelming in their lack of accomplishments in recent years — both with the National Team and in European competitions. However, the Italians are showing up to Eurobasket with a talented group with several top players looking for redemption.
Andrea Bargnani and Danillo Gallinari, both top shelf draft picks whose careers have been mired by injuries, will be looking to show the basketball community that they are among Europe’s elite. Bargnani especially will be looking to show he can still really play, in spite of being considered one of the weakest top overall draft picks in NBA history.
The duo will be joined by Marco Belinelli and Luigi Datome, as the group will be looking to show that with their talent and depth they can claw their way into next summer’s Olympics. The Italians will be bringing some very exciting players from the Italian league that are perfect for these types of competitions, with Alessandro Gentile (2014 2nd round pick), Pietro Aradori and Andrea Cinciarrini, all of whom are more effective than some NBA players in the European style of play.
Daniel Hackett, an Nationalized Italian who played at USC, will be rejoining the National Team after being suspended from Italian League play for bailing on his National Team responsibilities in the Basketball World Cup. Hackett has great size and versatility for a ballhandling guard, and there is a reason why the newcomer in Olympiacos has been linked several times to NBA teams (especially the Knicks), as he can flat out play.
The Italians may not be a favorite to earn an automatic bid, but they have the tools to pull off some upsets in the elimination rounds with their deep roster. Look for Italy to at least earn the right to play in the qualifiers next summer.
Lithuania will have a clear path to the elimination rounds out of the relatively easy Group D.
Jonas Valanciunas will have his first opportunity to show he is worth his new $60 million dollar contract, by leading the Grateful Dead’s favorite national team to the Olympics. With size at almost every position, the obvious weak point for Lithuania will be its lack of guard play, with 6’5″ guard Mantas Kalnietis as the teams primary ballhandler.
The Lithuanians, however, have lots of size and shooting from every position, and despite the absence of Linas Kleiza have a deep roster that could surprise some people if their guard play proves reliable. Noteworthy to watch is Domantas Sabonis, the son of the greatest European Center of all time, Arvydas Sabonis, who will be making his Senior National Team debut. Sabonis averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds as a Freshman at Gonzaga, and as the son of a legend he could be a potential star in the making.
Any team with Dirk Nowitzki, the best European player of all time, has a chance to do something special. Despite getting up there in age, Dirk remains one of the premier players in the world, and the ability he has for a 7-footer makes any team he suits up for formidable.
This wouldn’t be the first time Dirk led a rag-tag group of Germans to the top stage, and Dirk will be making a major push to get one last taste of the Olympics before he calls it quits.
If Germany is going to earn one of the top 7 spots in this competition, they will need Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroeder to emerge as one of Europe’s top guards. Schroeder looked fantastic this past season, and he his incredible foot speed makes him one of the toughest guards for defenders to stay in front of. If Schroeder, and the young 7-footer Tibor Pleiss, can step up their game, they could help give Dirk an Olympic sendoff in Rio next summer.
AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working as an assistant coach in the Israeli Basketball Winner League. Mitnick is the assistant coach of Bnei Herzliya, following three seasons with Maccabi Rishon-Lezion. Follow him on Twitter.