The NBA doesn’t tip off for another month, but basketball fans across the globe have been treated to high-level hoops over the past two weeks by EuroBasket 2017, FIBA’s continental championship tournament for European countries. Sunday’s final pits upstart Slovenia against typically strong Serbia in a matchup of two nations where interest in basketball has reached a fever pitch. It’s not just flag-waving locals who should tune in on Watch ESPN Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.
Here’s everything you need to know about the 2017 EuroBasket Final.
Whom To Watch For
- Luka Doncic, Slovenia G/F
Dubbed by some as the greatest European prospect of all time, Doncic was already a household name to draft prognosticators before helping Slovenia to the gold medal game. Now, he might be a favorite to go first next June, ahead of top-tier domestic talents Michael Porter and Marvin Bagley. Doncic’s averages of 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game don’t do his game or overall influence justice. He has a preternatural sense of pace in pick-and-roll play, one that he uses to create passing angles across the floor most players can’t even imagine, let alone create. At 6-8, Doncic is a point forward in every sense of the term, yet plays bigger than his supposedly average athleticism suggests. He’s a star right now, and time is the only thing keeping him from reaching that status on the NBA level. Good thing it’s still on his side; Doncic, incredibly, is just 18.
- Goran Dragic, Slovenia G
The Miami Heat floor general has been a known commodity in the league for years, and has continued his strong play over the second half of 2016-17 with a stellar performance at EuroBasket. The tournament’s fifth-leading scorer at 21 points per game, Dragic has been everything Slovenia has needed him to be and more. He’s already a superstar back home, but a gold medal in Istanbul would take his local reputation to levels reserved for icons like Yao Ming, Arvydas Sabonis and Dirk Nowitzki.
- Anthony Randolph, Slovenia F
Yes, this is the guy you think it is. Randolph, a former lottery pick of the Golden State Warriors who last played in the league in 2014, has found his niche playing in Europe. Now a member of Real Madrid, he became a naturalized Slovenian earlier this summer to play for the national team, and certainly hasn’t disappointed. Few big men at this level have the footspeed to keep up with Randolph off the bounce, a task made especially difficult by his 45.5 percent mark beyond the arc at Eurobasket.
- Bogdan Bogdanovic, Serbia G
No, this probably isn’t the guy you think it is. Not to be confused with Bojan Bogdanovic, the Indiana Pacers sharpshooter from Croatia, Bogdan was a 2014 late first-round pick of the Phoenix Suns. He was traded to the Sacramento Kings on draft night two years later, and signed a deal to play in the States this upcoming season in July. A 6-6 guard equally comfortable letting fly from deep as attacking the paint with his improved handle, Bogdanovic averages 20.3 points per game on 48.3 percent from the field. He won’t be Doncic in the NBA, but certainly has the offensive chops to be a meaningful contributor on a good team for many years.
- Boban Marjanovic, Serbia C
A former cult hero with the San Antonio Spurs, Marjanovic couldn’t get off the bench for Stan Van Gundy after signing a three-year, $21 million deal with the Detroit Pistons in the summer of 2015. If there’s one thing the 7-3 giant has shown at Eurobasket, though, it’s that regression wasn’t behind his surprising lack of playing time. Marjanovic is averaging a remarkable 13.3 points in just 16.4 minutes per game while splitting time in the middle with Ognjen Kuzmic, who helped the Santa Cruz Warriors to a D-League title in 2015 and sat on the parent club’s bench during its own championship run the same year.
How They Got Here
If Doncic isn’t the darling of Eurobasket, it’s because his team as a whole owns that distinction. Slovenia went undefeated in Group A, with close wins over Finland and Greece to begin the tournament before shellacking overmatched Iceland and an undermanned French squad.
Igor Kokoskov’s team made quick work of Ukraine in the Round of 16, then outlasted Kristaps Porzingis and Latvia by a score of 103-97 in what might have been the game of Eurobasket – and Doncic’s official coming-out party on the global stage. He had 27 points and nine rebounds on 7-14 shooting in the quarterfinals, and put to rest any concerns about his ability to score on world-class athletes with several baskets past, around, or through the New York Knicks’ franchise player.
It was an eye-popping performance, but it wouldn’t have been enough without the similarly dominant play of Dragic, perhaps the tournament’s MVP front-runner regardless of Sunday’s outcome. Neither player was quite as sharp in Slovenia’s shockingly routine 92-72 victory over Spain in the semifinals, a result that guaranteed the country its first-ever medal in senior FIBA competition.
No matter, though: Randolph and Dragic led a balanced scoring effort in which five players reached double-figures with 15 points each. Doncic came two assists away from notching a triple-double.
The emotion on the faces of Slovenia’s players and coaches after the game was real. Merely reaching the final registers as an historic development for this nation of over two million people. It only marks the beginning of what could be even greater success to come with Dragic, Doncic and sharpshooting wing Klemen Prepelic poised for years of appearances with a national team that has its country in a frenzy.
The best is yet to come for Slovenia no matter what, but a Eurobasket championship – over an established Eastern European power, to boot – would forcefully cement its status as a true contender in international play.
FIBA’s third-ranked team after winning silver at the 2016 Olympic Games, Serbia was a medal favorite coming into Eurobasket – even without the services of Denver Nugget maestro Nikola Jokic. The team showed why in its Eurobasket opener, a 92-82 win over Latvia propelled by a 30-point outpouring from Bogdanovic that put his full repertoire of offensive skills on display. He struggled by comparison one game later, a 75-72 loss to tempo-controlling Russia that Serbia eventually got the chance to avenge. Bogdanovic and company closed out Group D play with consecutive victories over Turkey, Great Britain and Belgium to reach the knockout stage.
Serbia beat Hungary 86-78 in the Round of 16, when the twin towers of Kuzmic and Marjanovic combined for 31 points on 72 percent shooting. Italy, playing without the injured Danilo Gallinari, was easily outclassed by Serbia in the next round, setting up a semifinal rematch against Russia with the chance for gold on the line.
Needless to say, Bogdanovic took full advantage, scoring 24 points and doling out four assists in his team’s wire-to-wire win. The biggest difference between Serbia’s group play loss to Russia and its subsequent 87-79 victory? Points off turnovers. The Russians scored 25 points via 16 Serbian giveaways on September 2, but couldn’t manage half that many in the semifinal.
Serbia, with or without a player like Jokic, expects to compete for medals, but winning Eurobasket gold for the first time with a short-handed roster would still be one of this country’s proudest achievements. The significance of doing it against Slovenia adds an extra layer of intrigue, too. This won’t be the last time these teams meet with stakes so high, but it will be Serbia’s only chance to beat Slovenia before Doncic has a fuller grasp of his powers. Good thing Jokic is still finding his.
- What To Watch For
No team in the field can match Slovenia’s playmaking chops. Dragic is a former All-Star who nearly led the Miami Heat to the playoffs last season after an 11-30 start, and Doncic already reads the game like a seasoned NBA veteran. When those guys are knocking down jumpers, Slovenia is nearly unbeatable in this setting. The problem for Serbia is that Dragic and Doncic can still have a highly positive impact on the game even if their shots aren’t falling from the perimeter.
Serbia, by contrast, is a more one-headed attack. Bogdanovic is best known for his quick-trigger shooting ability, but has shown increased comfort putting the ball on the deck during EuroBasket. Why? Partly because his shot isn’t falling with its normal regularity: Bogdanovic has made only 31.1 percent of his nearly eight 3-point attempts per game. Even if he shakes off those struggles, Serbia will need typical production from Marjanovic to keep pace with Slovenia. He’s a matchup nightmare in this game, but also presents some issues on the other end given Randolph’s effectiveness as a shooter and driver from the perimeter.
Slovenia wants to push the pace; it can get bogged down in watching Dragic and Doncic trade high ball-screen opportunities when the game isn’t flowing. Serbia’s biggest advantage, meanwhile, comes on the interior, where Marjanovic and Kuzmic possess size Slovenia just can’t match.
In a track meet, the winner would be clear. Serbia will do all it can to control the number of possessions in this game; let’s see if Slovenia has the patience necessary to score in the halfcourt if its opponent is successful.
Who would be such a buzzkill to vote against Doncic? Slovenia will take home not only its first FIBA medal, but solid gold to show off to its adoring and growing stable of fans.