I never know if it’s fair to really label anyone other than the United States as the team to beat in international competition, even if excitement over Team USA at this FIBA World Cup has been unusually and understandably tepid. Nobody wears a bigger target on their backs than the U.S., even watered-down iterations like this team, because prestige, how infrequently they lose, (and perhaps a sprinkle of good old American hubris) will always make beating them mean something. As far as tournament favorites go, I don’t know what the right answer is, nor have I been awake for 3 a.m. games on the East Coast, but at least I can reasonably tell you that Serbia is the team you really need to be watching.
It’s not news that Serbia is good, nor that it is the primary threat to American dominance. But even with the USA’s bounce-back win over Japan on Thursday—and the fact that the two teams can’t meet until late in the tournament—Serbia’s presence in the field looms. While it was far from a shock to watch them roll through pool play behind Nikola Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and a host of role players including Nemanja Bjelica and Boban Marjanovic. Earmarked by many as a real contender coming in, Serbia blew out Angola and the Phillippines, pulled away from Italy in a compelling matchup on Wednesday, and heads into the second round of group play undefeated, averaging a tournament-high 107.7 points per game, and shooting an absurd 53% from three-point range. You can see where this might be headed. Now sorted into a second group with Spain, Italy and Puerto Rico, it’ll be fascinating to see whether they can maintain.
Serbia fell handily to the U.S. in the gold medal game in 2014, but that team didn’t have Jokic as its focal point and was down a few key pieces due to injury (and the U.S. had basically everyone). Right now, it’s not so much what Serbia has done as it is the way they’re doing it, and how fun it’s been to watch. Although the competition will stiffen, they have been clinically efficient, and there is no such thing as overexposure to Nikola Jokic, who’s evolved into more than just a dark horse MVP candidate in Denver. He’s become a dominant NBA player in his own, very specific way, and is essentially an unstoppable force against most FIBA opponents. When other teams can’t effectively throw athletic bodies at him and make him work, Jokic is going to get what he wants most of the time, be it an easy post-up or a simple assist (or as he often does, a less-simple assist). He’s averaging 22.2 points, 10 rebounds and 9.4 assists per-36 minutes right now, which, of course, is totally farcical. But he’s such a singular force that his teams adapt to his style, and never vice versa.
It’s worth noting this is the first major international tournament in recent memory where the best player in the field isn’t American. (You can also make the argument for Giannis, but Greece isn’t quite at the same level here). Serbia plays with pace, moves the ball masterfully, and is unafraid to let everything run through Jokic, who’s a conduit for collapsing defenders, initiating assist sequences, and breaking opposing coverages without really having to move all that much. They’re able to get good shots whenever they want, they’re willing to take them early in the clock, and it’s the most compelling brand of basketball anywhere in the tournament.
Admittedly, all this could amount to very little. There are always opponents earmarked as real threats, but Team USA tends to find a way, and it’s a script we’ve seen before. They’re still the deepest, most athletic team in the field, even if their connective tissue is fresh and slightly unstable. On a good day, they can make it look easy, and there’s not much FIBA opponents can do about that. But it’s fair to re-state that the gap is narrower this year, and a real question whether the Americans can get to that level. The point here is that Serbia is playing the best basketball in the world right now, and that alone is deserving of attention, regardless of where the endpoint lies. It’s more than just a looming threat to the U.S. bid for gold—it’s something worth appreciating. It’s certainly worth waking up early for.