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Breaking down Australia's group at the FIBA 2023 World Cup
The Australia Boomers have been drawn into one of the toughest groups at this year's World Cup, with three capable teams awaiting them in Okinawa.
The week of warmup games are over, and the Boomers are finally heading into the tournament proper.
What can we expect from Finland, Germany, and Japan in the games ahead?
Australia’s FIBA 2023 World Cup group stage game schedule
FIBA World Ranking: 24
vs Boomers: Friday August 25, 6:00 PM AEST
Finland will be at just their second FIBA Men’s World Cup in 2023, with their lone appearance to date coming back in 2014. While they missed the cut for the 2019 event, they have bounced back strongly in the time since, with a youthful squad sealing qualification this time around with two windows to spare and pushing Spain all the way in the EuroBasket 2022 quarter-finals.
The Susijengi opened their preparation for the tournament with some promising results, splitting a pair of games against fellow qualifiers Lithuania and beating Estonia. Some of that good work was undone in their most recent outing, a blowout 27-point loss to Latvia, although that did come with some key players missing as they rested ahead of the tournament proper.
In a group stacked with veteran teams, a lack of experience and familiarity could be Finland’s biggest weakness. While most players have returned from that EuroBasket run, Sasu Salin is the only one remaining from the 2014 World Cup, while half of the squad are aged 25 or under. Compare that to an Australian squad with a core that has been together for more than a decade and a well-documented culture, and it’s chalk and cheese. Can Finland find their feet on the world stage in time to challenge some of the game’s traditional powers?
Player to watch: Lauri Markkanen
Could it be anyone else? The man known as “The Finnisher” is the face of this national program, and he is their unquestioned star. He will give every team he faces fits, even an Australian squad with plenty of talented defenders to throw at him.
Finland’s entire offence revolves around Markkanen, and for good reason – he was the NBA’s Most Improved Player and a first-time All-Star last season on the back of his prolific scoring ability. With the size of a centre and the skills of a guard, he has quickly become one of the toughest players in the league to defend, and he is near-impossible to keep quiet for a full game. In his short career for the national team, he has been even more prolific, pouring in 27.9 points per game at EuroBasket 2022 to trail only Giannis Antetokounmpo among all players.
The problem? Only one other Finn at that tournament had an average in double digits, with Salin adding 12 points per outing. That’s an enormous burden for one player to shoulder, and it may not be sustainable for a long run in tournament play. Finland’s warm-up games to date illustrate their dilemma perfectly – the team went 2-1 with Markkanen in the lineup as he averaged 28.3 points per game, then were blown out by 37 against Latvia in the game that he missed. This team will go as far as Markkanen can take them, and that could be a long way or a group stage exit depending on his form.
Key matchup: Miro Little vs Danté Exum
It’s unlikely that either will start throughout the World Cup, but both Miro Little and Danté Exum are difference makers off the bench. Australian fans have long seen what Exum can do, and he was huge in the Boomers’ bronze medal run at the Tokyo Olympics. Little may be a lesser-known name Down Under, but he shapes as an equally important piece for a Finnish team that needs to step up around Markkanen.
At just 19 years of age, Little is already the youngest player to appear for Finland’s senior side after debuting at EuroBasket 2022. The point guard is heading into his freshman season with Baylor in the NCAA, and he will arrive in Texas a highly-regarded prospect, having dominated high school ball in the US as well as underage tournaments in FIBA play.
Another big point guard at six-foot-four, Little is a genuine bucket-getter, able to break down defenders and score from all three levels. His highlight reel has it all – powerful dunks, jumpers off the dribble, and plenty of confidence. It’s a similar skillset to Exum, who has shown his ability to get hot in a hurry for the Boomers in recent years, while also acting as a defensive stopper at the point of attack. While Australia don’t rely on one player like Finland, they have struggled to score the ball for long stretches in warm-up play, making Exum’s creation even more important.
Despite his age, Little looks set to play a big role at this tournament, logging 25 minutes in their warmup game against Lithuania, the most of any bench player. He and Exum could well be the first players off the bench for their respective squads, an important role as they look to either maintain the team's flow or spark a game-changing run. If the two go head-to-head, there could be plenty of fireworks for fans to enjoy.
FIBA World Ranking: 11
vs Boomers: Sunday August 27, 6:30 PM AEST
The most obvious threat to Australia in this group will be Germany, who are stacked with NBA talent and experienced FIBA players. Even without Dallas forward Maxi Kleber, who dramatically stepped aside after comments made by teammate Dennis Schröder, they will run out a starting lineup featuring four NBA players, all of whom are well suited to the international game.
After a dismal 18th-place finish at the last World Cup in 2019, Germany have bounced back well in the years since. A quarter-final berth at the Tokyo Olympics was a promising start, and at last year’s EuroBasket tournament, they stormed all the way to the semi finals, finishing with a bronze medal and their first podium finish since 2005. They will look to continue that rise in Okinawa after qualifying out of Europe with a full window to spare.
Die Mannschaft play a fast-paced game, looking to blow past opposing defences with decisive movement in the half court and easy scores in transition. With Schröder leading the way, that should come as no surprise – the point guard is a blur on the court, able to make decisions on the move and punish any lapses. A high dose of pick and rolls help him to get a step on his defender, and from there, it’s almost impossible to get back in front of him, with defences forced to scramble and leave someone open. The likes of the Wagner brothers and Daniel Theis are more than capable of punishing that, and they also bring a tenacity on defence that will make Germany hard to score on.
That game plan has served them well in the lead-in to the World Cup, sending a warning to their Group E opponents with some impressive results. They notched up wins over Sweden, Canada, China and Greece, with their only two losses coming to the Canadians in overtime and to Team USA by just eight points.
Player to watch: Franz Wagner
In recent years, the NBA has been taken over by jumbo-sized players, with the younger Wagner one such player. He has the size of a centre at six-foot-ten with the skills and mobility of a guard, making him a walking mismatch at any position.
Already seen as a rising star in the NBA, earning All-Rookie First Team honours with Orlando, he started his senior national team career with a bang at last year’s EuroBasket. Helping Germany to a third-place finish in a star-studded field, he averaged 15.1 points to trail only Schröder as the team’s leader. That form has continued in the lead-in to the World Cup, as he has scored at least 14 points in all six of their warmup games, including a team-high 20 in a big win over China.
The once-vaunted “unicorn” tag seems to have been retired, but Wagner is a rare player that can truly do it all. After averaging 18.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists for the Magic last season, he can now be a Swiss army knife for this German team, filling whatever role is needed at any time. His length becomes even more valuable in the FIBA game, with the shorter three-point line condensing offensive sets; it would be no surprise to see him start racking up blocks and steals as he clogs up lanes defensively.
It will be interesting to see how the Boomers handle him, given their overall lack of size. Wings Josh Green and Matisse Thybulle are lockdown defenders, but they will give up plenty of height to him. That shapes as an intriguing battle in Australia’s second game in Okinawa.
Key matchup: Daniel Theis vs Nick Kay
Australia’s lack of size has been well-documented by now, particularly in the aftermath of Jock Landale’s injury. The likes of Jack White, Xavier Cooks and Nick Kay have allayed some of those fears with their ability to scrap and claw against bigger opponents, which was on full display on Sunday when the Boomers beat France and held star centre Rudy Gobert to just nine points.
Germany too have plenty of size, with Johannes Voigtmann, Moritz Wagner and Franz Wagner all standing at six-foot-ten or above. They may actually be at their best when playing smaller, though, with Schroder pushing the tempo and looking for shooters on the perimeter. The Boomers could look to match that out of necessity – after all, any lineup without Duop Reath, the team’s only legitimate centre, could be considered “small ball”.
In those minutes, the battle between Daniel Theis and Kay becomes even more crucial. Despite being an undersized big at six-foot-eight, Theis has carved out an NBA career for himself through his ability to play bigger. Over that span, he has played more than 80% of his NBA minutes at centre, and that has continued with the national team – despite lining up alongside Voigtmann and Wagner in the frontcourt, he was still listed as Germany’s starting centre in their win over Greece.
With the ability to wall up around the basket and crash the glass against much bigger opponents, Theis’ game is very reminiscent of the six-foot-seven Kay. Like Kay, he is also deceptively skilful, able to score inside with a soft touch, shoot from the perimeter, and find the open man when the defence collapses. The two have long been asked to punch above their weight in international play; a head-to-head matchup would give both a level playing field, and whoever can take the points would greatly help their team in a matchup that could well decide the group winner.
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FIBA World Ranking: 36
vs Boomers: Tuesday August 29, 9:10 PM AEST
They automatically qualified for the World Cup as a host nation, but Japan did more than enough to earn their own spot through the Asian Qualifiers regardless. They finished with a 7-5 record, good for third in their group behind only Australia and China, with a run to the quarter-finals of the Asia Cup also coming in the midst of that campaign.
Their fortunes have been mixed in the lead-in to the tournament, splitting pairs of games against both South Korea and New Zealand before falling comfortably to France and Slovenia. While no one would be expecting the Aka-tsuki Faibu (暁ファイブ) to compete with the basketball powerhouses, they would surely have hoped to be more comprehensive against their Asian confederation rivals.
One reason for that patchy form is Japan’s style of play – they live and die by the three, jacking up a huge number of shots from behind the arc in every game. Of the 75 teams that took part in World Cup qualifying across all regions, none took more triples than Japan, who averaged 36.2 attempts per game from deep. When all was said and done, they shot a touch over 30% on those shots and ranked seventh in scoring in Asia; it was the same story at last year’s Asia Cup, where they took over 40 threes per game, but on that occasion made over 40% and topped the tournament in scoring.
With room for a lot of variance in a game plan built so heavily around shooting, it’s hard to predict how they could perform on any given night. The Boomers are better equipped than most to handle that, though, with the likes of Josh Green, Matisse Thybulle and Dante Exum providing a strong defensive presence on the perimeter. With Japan suffering the loss of six-foot-ten swingman Hugh Watanabe (also known as Hugh Hogland) —who was sidelined from an arm injury during a warmup game against Angola— this could become a rare matchup where Australia has a size advantage in the front court, with Josh Hawkinson the only Japanese player standing at six-foot-ten or above.
Player to watch: Keisei Tominaga
Yuta Watanabe will get most of the headlines for this Japanese team, and for good reason – Rui Hachimura’s withdrawal leaves the Phoenix Suns wing as the only NBA player in their squad. He will need plenty of help, though, if Japan want to challenge in their group, and Keisei Tominaga could be the one to step up and be their second scoring option.
The Boomers should be familiar with Tominaga’s game after he dropped 18 points on them in Melbourne during the World Cup qualifying campaign. That was one of just two games he played during qualifying, but he made an even bigger impression during Japan’s Asia Cup run, averaging over 15 points per game. Most impressively, he again shone against the Boomers, pouring in a ridiculous 33 points in the quarter-finals. That effort included eight triples and came in just 25 minutes, with some huge shots coming as Japan made a late run.
The lefty sharpshooter has a lightning-quick release on his shot, and he can knock down threes from NBA range. That ability is matched by even more confidence, with Tominaga one of the more trigger-happy players at this tournament, and he won’t take a backwards step even with Australia’s wealth of NBA guards defending him. He shouldn’t be intimidated by the bright lights or the raucous crowds of a home World Cup either, having spent the last two seasons playing in the Big10 with Nebraska and under former NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg. In Japan’s all-or-nothing plan of attack, they’ll need Tominaga to be more “all” than “nothing”.
Key matchup: Josh Giddey vs Yuki Togashi
This matchup might look comical at first glance, with Josh Giddey holding a height advantage of more than a foot over his opposing point guard. Make no mistake, though, Togashi is a star, and one of the best pound-for-pound players in basketball. Having made the B.League Best Five in each of the last six seasons, with a league MVP in 2019, he is one of Japan’s most accomplished players and a leader in their national team.
His playmaking could be the key to unlocking Japan’s high-powered offence against an elite Boomers defence. With a tight handle and a deep bag of tricks, he is able to wriggle into the heart of the defence and make the right decision from there, drawing extra players and kicking it out to an open teammate or scoring himself. It’s a very similar role to the one that Giddey looks set to play at his first major tournament – the rising star has been at the centre of everything for the Boomers in their warm-up games, showing off the same otherworldly passing ability that NBA fans have become used to.
It will be a tougher task for Togashi against Australia than in the B.League, with most of Australia’s perimeter players able to slide and stay in front of just about anyone. Despite the size discrepancy, his best matchup offensively may be against Giddey. Togashi would be able to use his size, or lack thereof, to his advantage, running Giddey off his feet and slipping under his defences. The same would be true for Giddey, though – any possession he is guarded by Togashi is a prime opportunity to get the ball on the block and go to work in the post.
For the reasons above, they may not actually match up on each other all that often. Even so, if one point guard or the other is able to break the shackles and find some freedom, it could go a long way to deciding the winner.
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Don’t miss all games of the FIBA 2023 Basketball World Cup, which will be broadcast by ESPN Australia. #FIBAWC