The discussions surrounding the Serbia Men’s National Basketball team in recent weeks have centered on off-court developments rather than the actual basketball that is being played.
The decision of newly minted NBA champion and Finals Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic to sit out the FIBA World Cup dominated headlines leading up to the tournament and every milestone from Serbia has come with a reminder that he is not with this team.
Moreover, the unfortunate injury situation of forward Borisa Simanic who lost his kidney after it was hit by an inadvertent elbow during their game versus South Sudan further drew more attention from the team’s on-court exploits.
However, these developments seem to have inspired rather than distracted this Serbia team and they now find themselves just one win away from winning the gold medal in this World Cup.
Serbia, ranked number six in the FIBA World Rankings coming into this quadrennial meet, has epitomized team play throughout their stay in Manila which has more than made up for the absence of Jokic. Nine players on this team have put up at least 6.3 points per contest in the World Cup and 10 are averaging between 12 and 27 minutes a game.
Though their depth has been their biggest strength, the leadership provided by Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic has been just as crucial. The 31-year-old guard is third in total points in the World Cup, behind only current All-NBA First Team members Luka Doncic and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and is averaging 19.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists through seven games.
In Serbia’s 95-86 semifinal win over Canada, Bogdanovic set the tone for the team with 23 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a block. In addition, five of his teammates added at least eight points. They will need more of this in their upcoming gold medal match with a Germany team that is fresh off an impressive win over Team USA.
Serbia’s attack must remain balanced in the finale as Bogdanovic alone cannot go shot-for-shot with Germany’s talented side. Franz Wagner, Dennis Schroder, and Andreas Obst can all take over for long stretches so it will be crucial that Nikola Milutinov, Nikola Jovic, and Aleksa Avramovic provide Bogdanovic with enough support.
Physicality has also been one of their biggest advantages in this World Cup and though this is unlikely to bother Germany the way that it did Canada in the semifinal, it is essential that Serbia sets the tone for this early on.
While Germany is entering the final as the favored team, Serbia looks like they are peaking at the right time in this tournament which is particularly crucial in a tournament that is as short as this World Cup. Serbia has the tools to shoot the lights out as proven by their team average of 38.8% three-point shooting over their seven World Cup contests.
Given the circumstances surrounding this team, their narrative is shaping up to be a classic underdog story and this team is beginning to feel like one that has been kissed by destiny.
Serbia could very well end up winning the gold medal in this World Cup, setting up a scenario where they can win back-to-back major international basketball tournaments as they head into next year’s Paris Olympics with Jokic likely in tow.