Saitama, Japan -- Greetings on Day 10 of the FIBA World Championship (whew, only four more to go!). Things are now getting serious after a few weeks of watching blowouts and skipping around Nippon. It has become very clear that this tournament is all about three teams: USA, Spain and Argentina. I will be writing a lot about them in the next few days. I really expect the semifinals and the third place and championship games to be great basketball worthy of attention from every fan.
Before that, though, I've seen most of the teams here and been talking with a lot of basketball junkies from around the world who are more versed in the international game than I am. The combination of both has left me with the following thoughts:
The Orlando Magic are a budding force
Building on a strong finish to the NBA season, Darko Milicic looked great here in Japan. We all know he can shoot from the outside but here he showed off a pretty impressive left-handed hook shot. He was also aggressive going to the glass. In getting eliminated by powerful Spain, he banged with Pau Gasol all night and looked like he wanted to and got 15 rebounds.
Meanwhile, Dwight Howard's athleticism continues to blow me away. Watching him outplay Yao Ming last week in Sapporo by constantly getting in better position for rebounds re-enforced my belief he'll be the NBA's best rebounder for the next decade. Then again Carlos Arroyo looked great for Puerto Rico. Obviously the guy has angered a few coaches, but his talent is unquestioned.
I expect those three guys to have huge seasons this year.
Linas Kleiza has a future
Even though the once-mighty Lithuanians are rebuilding and didn't make the semis, I was pretty impressed with Kleiza. The former Mizzou star worked to get some minutes for the Nuggets last year. He didn't have great stats here, but he is really learning to be a bruiser and he's already talented offensively. I don't think he'll ever be a star, but he's one of those international guys who looks like he could be a valuable role player.
Remember the name Ekene Ibekwe The Nigerians were impressive here, almost upsetting Germany in the quarterfinals. They are starting a lineage and NBA teams are noticing, of course the Cavs drafted Ejike Ugboaja in the second round this year. He wasn't here but Ibekwe was. A junior to be at Maryland, he's athletic and big (6-foot-9) with a nice touch that I think some GMs were impressed with. The book on him is that he isn't always a hard worker, but he looked strong here and some think he's a first-round pick next year.
Marco Belinelli can shoot I wrote about him before when the Italians played Team USA. The Italian guard has a pure, quick shooting stroke that reminds me of Brent Barry and he can do it falling away. He's also tall (6-5) and pretty athletic. He isn't sure how soon he wants to come to the NBA, but he's only 20 and he's got major upside. He was terrible when the Italians got eliminated by the Lituanians, but he will probably be a first round pick in the near future.
Eye the young Greeks Spain (Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and now Jorge Garbajosa) and Argentina (Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, Carlos Delfino and now Walter Hermann) all have players well known to NBA fans. But both Vasileious Spanoulis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis have a chance to make a name for Greece. Spanoulis is a shooting guard who will play for the Rockets this year. Schortsanitis is a massive low post player who has to weigh close to 300 pounds that the L.A. Clippers own the rights to. He looks like Robert Traylor but he's taller and appears to have more offensive skills. Again, I'm not predicting stardom here, but they are players who have a future in the league Americans really care about.