For Gilas Pilipinas’ campaign in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, GMA News Online connected with Milos Jovanovic, a veteran Serbian sportswriter, to help break things down from an outside perspective.
When Team Serbia last gathered at this very place with the Olympic qualification on their mind, it might as well been in another universe.
Five years ago, in the early summer of 2016, the Serbian national team breezed through the qualification tournament hosted by their nation’s capital of Belgrade – Angola, Czech Republic and Puerto Rico were no match for the Serbian Eagles, who later flew all the way to the finals in Rio before being outmatched by the Kevin Durant-led Americans.
Now, it is 2021 and the world has changed enough for that to be nothing but a distant memory. Some links to the past are still there – the crafty point guard Milos Teodosic and his trusted understudy Stefan Jovic, for one – but plenty is different. Belgrade, the two million strong city on the banks of the river Danube, has finally emerged from a lengthy battle with COVID-19 – the Arena, a 25-000 capacity venue which will host this year’s OQT, in fact served as a makeshift hospital for the less fortunate who fought the respiratory illness and couldn’t handle it on their own, a situation not unlike plenty on this planet at this point in time.
But right now, it is time to put all of that in the rear-view mirror and place the magic of basketball again in the spotlight. For Serbians, basketball has been a long-time reprieve from the rigours of daily life ever since the early ’70s, when the old Yugoslavia won their first World Cup in Ljubljana. Four more world titles followed – with the one in Manila in 1978 counting amongst the most memorable ones – as well as countless Eurobasket ones, with a solitary Olympic gold coming in Moscow 41 years ago. A comfortable strut through the 2021 Belgrade OQT is something that every Serbian is hoping for right now – it will be a more than a welcome distraction from the grim recent events.
The most obvious change from the last big tournament Serbia participated in – the ill-fated World Championship in China, where they ended fifth despite sky-high hopes – will be the one on the bench.
Following the disappointments of the campaign, the talismanic coach Aleksandar Djordjevic, the former point guard who once poured in 41 points in a Eurobasket final game and one of the most beloved basketball figures in national history, decided to call it quits. Under Djordjevic, Serbia re-emerged as the premium European basketball superpower after a decade on the sidelines – he stewarded the Eagles towards three silver medals in a five-year span (2014 Worlds, 2016 Olympics and the 2017 Euros) and is justly credited for the upturn in team Serbia’s international fortunes.
Djordjevic has been succeeded by Igor Kokoskov, a name not unfamiliar to the NBA fans around the globe. Kokoskov broke through into the NBA mainstream in 2018 by becoming the first-ever international head coach in the American professional basketball system, but that was hardly an overnight sensation. The former Phoenix Suns coach and current chief of staff of the Turkish Fenerbahce has meticulously built his resume over the years, with asisstant coaching posts at numerous NBA franchises. In parallel, he was also working as the national team coach for Georgia, and after that Slovenia, whom he steered to the 2017 Eurobasket title alongside Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic – at the expense of his native Serbia, no less.
For Kokoskov, the Belgrade OQT is the first real test. He has successfully – albeit not without strife – completed the 2022 Eurobasket qualifying campaign, but the stakes are far higher here. Yet, everyone seems to be confident about Serbia’s chances. The mild-mannered Kokoskov, one of the first “new age” Serbian national team coaches to break the ancient reputation of hard taskmasters, has both the mettle and clout to make all of this work.
The rigours of the past (or, in case of the NBA, still ongoing) professional season, which can be best described as “shortened-but-really-long”, have taken its toll on plenty teams, and Serbia is no exception. This is most notable in the case of Nikola Jokic, the reigning NBA MVP, who cancelled his national team obligations this summer due to extreme fatigue – Jokic has logged a staggering 109 games since the NBA resumed in the Orlando bubble last August, and his body is in a dire need of rest. While his decision wasn’t taken lightly by the local populace, with the odd outburst of anger very much visible on the social networks, the media and his teammates have been largely supportive.
(Nikola Jokic at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Photo: FIBA)
But Jokic isn’t the only high-profile absence within the Serbian team. The mercurial shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was ever-present in the national campaigns for the past decade, will also have to pass by virtue of playing in the Eastern Conference Finals with his Atlanta Hawks. The sweet-shooting Bogdanovic, one of the top scorers of the 2019 World Cup, might yet make it to Tokyo in case Serbia qualifies – but should Atlanta advance past the Bucks into the NBA Finals, the schedule might yet throw a wrench into the proceedings.
Other high-profile absences in Serbian team include Vladimir Lucic, Bayern Munich’s forward notable for his high-energetic hustle play both ends, Marko Guduric, the former Memphis lefty who rediscovered his game in Turkey and Nemanja Nedovic, lightning quick once-Warrior with first step which earned him the “European D-Rose” moniker, who is recovering from COVID-19. Nikola Milutinov, the Spurs draftee who grew into one of the most formidable centers in the Euroleague, has been injured for the past six months, and is another one on the “might reappear at the Olympics” list. Miroslav Raduljica, who has manned the center position with great success in the past, and Ognjen Jaramaz, Partizan Belgrade’s athletic combo guard, are another pair of names to be featured there. The NBA youths Alen Smailagic (Golden State) and Aleksej Pokusevski (Oklahoma CIty) have passed on the opportunity earlier, citing the need for individual improvement in order to be ready for the following seasons.
(Milos Teodosic. Photo: FIBA)
Yet, despite all those cancellations, Serbia has a roster very much capable of repeating her 2016 stroll.
The order starts with Teodosic, who has been Serbia’s favorite floor general since emerging back in 2007. Teo, as he’s casually known among the fan ranks, will suit up for the Eagles after a lengthy layoff caused by numerous injuries – he is coming off a very good season in Italy, where he led Virtus Bologna (coached by Djordjevic, mind) to the scudetto, beating the much fancied Armani Milano in the finals. Teodosic, who once featured for the LA Clippers, is well renowned across the world for his backcourt wizardry and a generational passing touch, and while his quickness might be fading with the years, his legendary court vision certainly isn’t.
Teodosic isn’t the only point jack up Kokoskov’s sleeve. Vasilije Micic, the reigning Euroleague MVP, is also expected to participate, even if he missed the tuneup games in Athens and Belgrade. Micic, a 6-foot-5 combo guard, can either play off Teodosic or sub for him at the organizer spot. He is coming off a fantastic season with the Turkish outfit Anadolu Efes, where, alongside Shane Larkin in the backcourt, he successfully participated in the Final Four tournament and brought the title to Istanbul.
(Vasilije Micic at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Photo: FIBA)
Jovic, a defensive stalwart who spent the last two years in Moscow, is another option – Jovic has been with the national team for the past eight years and his experience and stability will be well-received.
For Gilas, containing the Serbian point package is one of the key parts of the forthcoming game. The three-headed monster that Serbia flaunts is a daunting challenge for even the best of worldly teams, and with either of the three playmakers featuring a different set of skills, planning around their “weaknesses” will be crucial. Considering all three have a significant height advantage over the smaller Gilas guards, quickness could be one aspect of the game coach Tab Baldwin might want to consider. However, do expect all three to incur serious damage in transition when it happens, so keeping possession could prove crucial for Gilas guards.
With Bogdanovic and Guduric, nominally first and second option at the shooter spot, both missing, Serbia’s options on the perimeter seem limited. This is until you consider that their shoes will be filled by Ognjen Dobric and Danilo Andjusic, who both had breakout seasons with their respective clubs. Dobric, known as the Cobra with Red Star Belgrade fans, is a slashing southpaw who built up some handles this year to go along with his lethal spot-up three-point ability. Dobric, an aggressive defender, will be inflitrating the passing lines and looking for easy breakaway dunks – he’s definitely one to look at this tournament.
Andjusic, who had on-and-off stints in the national team, as well as on the club circuit, has found his home in French Bourg-en-Bresse and is thriving there. With his lethal precision from the three-point line, he makes himself an elite catch-and-shoot option in Serbia’s sets. Aleksa Avramovic of Spanish Estudiantes (who averaged more than 15 points in last year’s edition of the ACB league, one of the top European national competitions), adds further versatility as a combo guard – if he manages to suit up due to recent injury woes, that is.
Red Star skipper and record appearances holder Branko Lazic is a veteran defensive specialist who can drain the odd three if left alone – expect to see him on court should Dwight Ramos light up for the Philippines. Vanja Marinkovic, a former Partizan player now with Valencia who specializes in three-point shooting, will likely see limited minutes.
The forward department will miss Lucic dearly, however there are capable replacements lurking about here as well. The aforementioned Dobric will likely see serious wing minutes as well depending on the outlay, but much is expected from the returnee Nikola Kalinic, coming off a sterling season in Valencia. Kalinic, a hard-working hustle forward who can fill at both small and power spots, is coming back to the national team following a multi-year absence – with his ability to guard anyone from 1 to 5, his disruptive abilities will go a long way towards containing anyone who matches up against him.
Kalinic will likely be paired with Nemanja Bjelica, who most recently played with the Miami Heat. Bjelica, a six-season NBA veteran, has seen his game evolve into a rebounder and a stretch shooter from the four-spot in the USA. That said, he has serious experience playing point forward roles in Europe and with the national team, and is not afraid of dribbling it up and organizing things should his points get choked up. His shooting ability is well-prized within the NBA, and he will be an intriguing option on the free agent market should he opt to stay stateside.
Recovering Dragan Milosavljevic, a former mainstay who had serious misfortune with injuries in the past three seasons and has suited up for Mega at the close of the season, adds further grit and hustle on the swingman spot. He has shown in the tuneups that he can still be counted on despite his recent lack of playing time, and will knock down the odd three and steal a pass or two. Dejan Davidovac, another Red Star player, fills out at both the three and the four as another point forward alternative. Dalibor Ilic, an Igokea player with a good club season behind him, is another option at both forward positions.
(Boban Marjanovic shoots vs. Andray Blatche of Gilas Pilipinas at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Photo: FIBA)
With Jokic out and Milutinov on the mend, Serbian center line at this tournament will feature Boban Marjanovic and Filip Petrusev. Marjanovic, another six-year NBA vet, is hardly an unknown at this stage – the 7-foot-4 behemoth may lack traditional mobility (that said, he does move rather well for his size), but he’s an absolute tower of strength in the post and will use his physicality, as well as his soft hands, to gather buckets in the paint. Mega’s Petrusev, an up-and-coming big who is likely to be featured at this year’s NBA draft, is another scoring machine but with more versatile skill-set – his dancing footwork and midrange game complement Marjanovic’s strength well, but he is not to be forgotten as a low post operator where he can display a serious array of moves.
How Baldwin manages to work around those two will be another key facet of Wednesday’s game (Thursday, 02:15 a.m. in Manila). With Kai Sotto and Ange Kouame, Gilas has somewhat similar options in the paint, at least style-wise. Expect Sotto to try and wear down Marjanovic on the offensive end, while Kouame might be used more for a traditional grit and grind approach.
(Filip Petrusev. Photo: FIBA)
Petrusev, on the other hand, might be a bit more difficult to figure out due to his whirling mobility and aggressiveness on the offensive end – either can rack up points with relative ease, though, and avoiding early foul trouble is another thing to look out for. Should Gilas fall behind early, Serbia will look to maintain the lead by pushing the ball below to those two and exploiting holes on the perimeter when the defenders swarm them – especially Marjanovic is an underrated passer from the post who can easily palm off the ball to the corner wing.
Since breaking camp a few weeks ago, Serbia has breezed through the exhibition games, dispatching Puerto Rico, Mexico and Greece with relative ease en route to winning the Acropolis Cup in Athens, then repeating against Mexico in front of the eager home crowd at the Aleksandar Nikolic hall in Belgrade. The spirits are high and the team seems in good shape – despite all the injuries and absences, the Eagles are considered an absolute favourite for winning the Belgrade 2021 OQT. Whether this indeed happens is something that remains to be seen, but the superior former track record, as well as roster quality compared to the rest, are definitely things that count in their favour.
Milos Jovanovic is a veteran sportswriter based in Belgrade, Serbia, mostly writing about basketball. His past credits include VICE Serbia where he ran the weekly sports column. He also hosts a weekly hoops podcast to be found at the Serbian MONDO news outlet website, and has contributed to and directed several basketball-themed documentaries which were aired on TV nationally. He is fluent in Serbian, English and Dutch and prefers to be left alone when Red Star Belgrade are playing.
—JMB, GMA News