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Where does the danger lie in Belgrade for the Opals?
With so many intriguing battles to look forward to, let’s take a look at where the danger lies at the World Cup Qualifying event for the Australian Opals.
Starting from the 10th February, four pools of four different teams will be doing battle around the world, vying for a spot at the Sydney World Cup later this year. The Opals have landed in the Belgrade, Serbia pool, and are currently in training camp in preparation for the event.
While the final Opals roster of 12 has not yet been finalised, much is already known about the opponents they will face in Belgrade. Australia will come up against the reigning European champions in Serbia, along with a pair of dangerous squads in Brazil and Korea. Despite having already qualified for the World Cup due to their status as host nation, the Opals will have their eyes firmly set on finishing atop their pool, hoping to gain much-needed momentum in the build up to Sydney.
This is far from a sure-thing, however. Serbia, who fell in the bronze medal game against France at the Olympics, will fancy their chances against the Aussie team, especially on home soil, and will enter the encounter as favourites. Korea and Brazil, who both possess dominant players who can take over games, will be firing from the get-go, desperate to punch their ticket to the NSW capital.
With so many intriguing battles to look forward to, let’s take a look at where the danger lies on each team.
All eyes will be on the host nation in Belgrade as they look to secure their place in the World Cup later this year. After failing to qualify for the 2018 edition in Spain, Serbia will be hungrier than ever to cement their position as a force on the world stage. However, they will have to do so without national team legend, Sonja Vasic, and the experienced and dependable power forward, Jelena Brooks, who both retired following the Tokyo Olympics.
In the absence of these greats, the reigning European champions will be ushering in a new era of Serbian basketball, but just how good can this squad be without two of their most instrumental players?
There’s no question that Serbia’s top-end talent and depth have taken a hit, particularly at the forward positions. Vasic and Brooks were the team’s top two minute-getters at EuroBasket and the Tokyo Olympics last year and ranked in the top three for their team in points per game at both events. Replacing the entirety of their production will be impossible, however Serbia still possesses plenty of talent from some of the most formidable clubs across Europe, including Galatasaray, USK Praha, Sopron Basket and Lyon.
Of the players capable of taking on an even greater load for their team, Aleksandra Crvendakic stands out as the most likely candidate to step up. The 25-year-old-forward has been a fixture on the national team for some time now, however playing behind both Vasic and Brooks has significantly hindered the court time available to the up-and-coming star. Despite the limited minutes, Crvendakic projects as one of the most important pieces for the Serbian side heading into their new era.
Having suited up for both Sopron Basket and Lyon since the age of 19, two powerhouse clubs in Europe, she has been competing in the upper echelons of the continent for the majority of her career. Crvendakic has been impressive for her French club this season. Averaging 15 points per game on 59.2% true shooting, along with 3.2 assists in Eurocup competition, she is blossoming into a dynamic offensive weapon. Standing at 6’2, she plays most of her minutes for Serbia at the 4-spot but offers the ability to slide over to small forward (which is perhaps her more natural position) if the team needs a taller line-up.
Capable of putting the ball on the floor and attacking off the dribble, she can pull up in the midrange or take it to the rim. She also has the ability to knock down the three-ball, making her a three-level scoring option, and is particularly dangerous in pick-and-pop actions. The Opals will need to pay close attention to her when they meet in Belgrade.
Serbia has lot more talent than just Crvendakic, however. Veteran centre, Tina Krajisnik, is the captain of this team and provides a dependable option in the paint on both ends of the floor. They also have an experienced and classy starting backcourt duo in Yvonne Anderson and Ana Dabovic. The former has become one of Serbia’s most important offensive players in recent years and was the team’s leading scorer at the Olympics with 14 points per outing.
The core group of this squad has been playing together for a long time now, which bodes well for team cohesion despite the loss of Vasic and Brooks. While they might have lost some star power, they still have a slew of dangerous players who can provide a big impact on the court. Serbia is a well-balanced team that shares the ball very well. They should enter the tournament as favourites to finish top of the pool, especially on home soil.
While the Opals might have demolished Korea in their most recent outing at the Asia Cup, claiming victory by a margin of 30 points, the matchup in Belgrade has the potential to be a very different encounter.
Firstly, Korea’s undisputed superstar in Ji-Su Park was absent from the tournament. Without their 6’5 centre, Korea was at a great disadvantage in the paint (their tallest player in Jordan was just 6’1), allowing Australia’s frontcourt to have a field day.
Secondly, the Opals roster that heads to Serbia, while not yet finalised, will undoubtedly look a lot different to the one that took to the court at the Asia Cup. They were also led by a different coach in Paul Gorris. With these factors in mind, it’s hard to make any definitive statements about the matchup in Jordan
Despite being without their centrepiece in Amman, there were a lot of positives that Korea can take away from the Asia Cup. They had several good wins during the week, most notably an 85-69 victory against an impressive New Zealand outfit. They also pushed the eventual champions and Olympic Silver Medallists, Japan, right to the brink. After leading at the final break, they were mowed down in the final quarter to fall short by 5 points.
The absence of Park, while hindering them during the continental event, will put them in good stead for the future. Without her, new head coach Sun-Min Jung was forced to find scoring options in players that hadn’t played a significant role in past events. One of the biggest standouts was Isaem Choi, who was thrust into the starting line-up. The power forward was lighting it up from deep for the entire tournament, most notably against New Zealand where she went 5/7 from downtown on her way to 29 points.
Hye-Jin Park was another standout in Amman and, along with the flashy Lee-Seul Kang, is one of Korea’s most dangerous perimeter threats. Like Choi, Hye-Jin Park was on fire from the three-point line, finishing the tournament with an average of 48.8% from deep on 7 attempts per game.
As you’ve probably gleaned, the Korean team has the potential to knock down a lot of three-balls in a hurry, making them a dangerous team to come up against when they’re hitting their straps. Bringing the WNBA talent of Ji-Su Park back into the fold, who provides them with an intimidating presence down low, will only bolster the ceiling of this team. If Korea can find good synergy between Park and their threatening perimeter players, they will be a challenging opponent for the Opals.
Brazil will have vengeance on their mind when they come up against the Opals in Belgrade. Having lost a hard-fought encounter against Australia at the Olympic qualifying event in France, a result that saw their Tokyo dreams dashed, they will be filled with motivation to ensure that they don’t miss out on two consecutive major tournaments.
The Brazilian frontcourt has the potential to pack a potent punch. With three generations of star ‘bigs’ on their roster in Erika De Souza (40), Damiris Dantas (29) and Kamilla Cardosa (20), they will be an intriguing team to watch.
Damiris Dantas is the crown jewel of this South American squad. The Minnesota Lynx power forward has developed into a high-calibre WNBA player over the last few years, with her best season coming in 2020 when she averaged 12.9 points on 58.1% true shooting, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists. She’s a versatile player, comfortably being able to slot into the power forward and centre positions. With a powerful 6’3 frame, Dantas is a strong post-up presence in the paint. The Opals will need to be especially mindful of her fadeaway jump shot, which she uses to great effect to get good separation from her opponent.
Perhaps her most dangerous asset, however, is her ability to stretch the floor. In the 2019 and 2020 WNBA seasons she connected at clips of 39.3% and 43.3% from deep respectively, both on 4.1 attempts per game. On a Brazilian team which features some towering presences down low, Dantas’ ability to knock down spot-up shots is especially valuable.
Those towering presences come in the form of 6’6 Erika De Sousa and 6’7 Kamilla Cardosa. De Souza is a battle-hardened veteran and is the passionate heart of the Brazilian squad. Opals fans will remember the dramatic battle she had with a prime Liz Cambage at the Olympic qualifying event in 2020. In what will likely be her last opportunity to play in a major tournament, she will no doubt leave everything on the court.
Kamila Cardosa is at the opposite end of her career arc. The towering 20-year-old caught the attention of the basketball community in her freshman season in the NCAA. Before transferring to the #1 ranked team in South Carolina, Cardosa suited up for Syracuse and averaged 13.6 points, 8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, earning her Freshman of the Year honours in the ACC along with a spot on the All-Conference Team. Between her, De Souza and Dantas, Brazil has a fascinating frontcourt rotation.
While there may not be as many weapons in the Brazilian backcourt, Taina Paixao possesses the skillset to cause the Opals some headaches. She’s a lively and creative guard who loves to attack open space. While her shooting can be streaky at times, she has the ability to put up big numbers and can thrive in pressure situations. Paixao loves to pull-up in the midrange, particularly in transition and coming off screens, and is a solid spot-up threat, so the Opals guards will need to stick tight to her.
Schedule for the Australian Opals in Belgrade, Serbia (AEDT):
Brazil: 10th February, 10pm.
Serbia: 13th February, 7am.
Korea: 14th February, 1am.