Sometimes in basketball, one transcendent star is all you need.
Thus, as Team USA’s top players began withdrawing from the 2019 2019 FIBA World Cup, a window of opportunity opened for other countries to emerge.
Now, the Americans still boast the deepest team and remain the best bet to win the tournament, but they cannot claim the best player in the tournament. That designation belongs to Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP.
And so with the tournament tipping off Saturday, here are 10 international stars hoping to take down the heavily favoured Americans.
Canadians are well aware of the Greek Freak’s powers following his showdown with the Raptors during the East final. Antetokounmpo is long, athletic, quick and nearly seven-feet tall.
He ripped through the NBA last season en route to the MVP title, and was only slowed down once faced with defensive menace Kawhi Leonard each and every possession against Toronto.
With brother Thanasis by his side, Antetokounmpo’s Greek team could be the best bet to topple USA.
Still, the literal best non-US bet, according to oddsmakers, to win gold is Serbia, led by doughy Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic. Jokic, 24, is the prototypical international basketball big man.
The seven-footer possesses a vast skillset reminiscent of former Lithuanian star Arvydas Sabonis. Jokic combines sublime passing with solid shooting and unrivalled vision from the post. He led all NBA centres with 7.3 assists per game last season as the Nuggets flowed with the ball in his hands.
Jokic made first-team All-NBA last season — something no American, and only Antetokounmpo, can claim among World Cup participants.
Montenegro owns just the 17th-best odds of winning the tournament, but Vucevic easily slots in as a top-10 World Cup player after earning his first NBA All-Star nod last season.
The Magic centre is a pure scorer and strong rebounder to boot, but lacks some of the passing skills that make Jokic such a unique player.
Vucevic, though, proved this past season he can be the best player on an NBA playoff team, and success for Montenegro in China would likely count as promising from their group alongside Greece.
Vucevic’s presence alone elevates his country from afterthought to intriguing.
Continuing with our theme of centres, the “Stifle Tower” enters the World Cup as reigning NBA defensive player of the year — two times over.
On that note, the Jazz player represented just part of the international flair of the NBA awards. Besides Gobert and Antetokounmpo, Cameroonian Pascal Siakam won most improved player and Slovenia’s Luka Doncic earned rookie of the year. Their countries, however, did not qualify for the World Cup.
Gobert is a shot-blocking nightmare, ready to shut down any and all other big men in China. His mere presence at the rim should be enough to propel a strong French team into the Olympics, and possibly toward a gold medal.
While brother Pau won’t be joining the team this year, Gasol will still have Spanish stalwart guard Llull by his side.
Llull may be the best basketball player outside the NBA, and his experience with the national team is the great connector on a Spanish team relying more on chemistry than skill this time around.
The former Raptor is another loyal national player. Alongside Domantas Sabonis (Arvydas’s son), Lithuania boasts what could be the best frontcourt in China.
The duo is primed to take advantage of the weaker big-man unit of Canada and Australia in their group of death. Valanciunas’ brute force in the post might prove too much to handle for the short-handed rosters of Canada and Australia.
Argentina is the only Americas team listed with better odds than Canada of winning the World Cup outside of the U.S.
The country famously won Olympic gold in 2004 at Athens, led by the now-retired Manu Ginobili. Scola, the power forward who spent one season with the Raptors, is the lone remaining player from that ’04 squad.
Still, the Argentines are coming off of Pan Am gold and the cerebral Scola dropped 28 points in the decisive match. They should not be quickly forgotten.
The “Brazilian KD” and the “Brazilian Blur” lead another one of Canada’s top Americas contenders. Caboclo finally made an NBA impact last season with the Memphis Grizzlies, where he started 19 of his 34 games played and flashed some of the upside the Raptors envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2014.
Barbosa, another ex-Raptor, didn’t play in the NBA the past two seasons, but he’s a capable scorer who doubles as a playmaker with the ball in his hands.