MikeCheck: After answering national team calls, prideful Grizzlies thriving on FIBA World Cup stage

MikeCheck: After answering national team calls, prideful Grizzlies thriving on FIBA World Cup stage

MEMPHIS – Essentially at the ‘now-or-never’ stage of his fledgling NBA career, forward Bruno Caboclo simply doesn’t back down from many challenges.

So, it’s totally understandable that he’s embracing the daunting task that comes with his role as the versatile, defensive specialist on Brazil’s national team. That effectively puts Caboclo on a collision course to face arguably the best current player in the world when Brazil takes on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece Tuesday at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

The Buoyed Brazilian isn’t shying away from the assignment to help slow the Greek Freak in China. The way Caboclo sees it, only one of two things can happen – and either outcome is personally productive.

Bruno Caboclo

Bruno Caboclo #5 of the Memphis Grizzlies contests the shot of Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half at FedExForum on March 23, 2019 in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy via Getty Images.

“If I get my (expletive) beat, I’m going to learn a lot,” Caboclo told Grind City Media through a self-deprecating laugh of his potential matchup with Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s reigning MVP. “Or, I’m going to stop him and show what kind of player I can be. So, the way I feel, it’ll be fun. I’m very focused. I don’t know how it’s going to be. I’ve never played against him, but I will give it my best and it will be fun competing.”

Several of Caboclo’s teammates on the Grizzlies’ roster share that sense of purpose as they spend the next two weeks on the other side of the globe to represent their national teams. Caboclo joins Serbia guard Marko Guduric, Lithuania center Jonas Valanciunas and Japan forward Yuta Watanabe in China. Collectively, they are off to a strong start as their respective national teams posted a 4-1 record through the first weekend of competition.

Outside of the Team USA roster, the Grizzlies’ contingent of four players is the largest of any NBA team that has roster members playing on foreign national teams in the World Cup. This FIBA tournament in China is the largest remaining international qualifier prior to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.

So, the stakes and intensity are heightened to epic proportions, with the 32-nation field representing the largest in FIBA World Cup history. With 92 games spread over 16 days across eight cities in China, the World Cup will qualify the top seven teams directly for the 2020 Olympics. Several other Grizzlies’ players have contributed to the preparation of their national teams leading into the tournament. Second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. spent part of July in Las Vegas with the Select Team of young NBA players that practiced and scrimmaged against the USA National Team. Third-year forward Dillon Brooks and rookie first-round pick Brandon Clarke were both on Canada’s national roster but elected not to play.

The FIBA World Cup wraps up two weeks before the start of Grizzlies training camp, which continues a rapid and relentless offseason of roster development as new coach Taylor Jenkins enters his first season.

…Or, I’m going to stop [Antetokounmpo] and show what kind of player I can be. I’ve never played against him, but I will give it my best and it will be fun competing.

Bruno Caboclo

“It’s exactly what you like to see, as a coach, as you try to come in and build a foundation of work, establish our principles, build meaningful connections and relationships,” Jenkins said. “All of our guys have stayed in the gym, whether it’s been Jaren working with Team USA or our young guys working on their own or other guys playing key roles on their national teams across the world, it’s been a working summer. And the next step in that is to bring it all together, carry a lot of that into camp and build for our season.”

For the next two weeks, the priority is displaying national pride.

Despite missing marquee stars such as LeBron James, Steph Curry and James Harden, the two-time defending World Cup champion Team USA is again favored to win and capture an unprecedented third straight title. But the field of competition is considered stronger than ever, and there is international belief the USA is as vulnerable as its ever been at this level.

The group of Grizzlies in China are competing for some of the strongest threats in the FIBA field.

Marko Guduric

Marko Guduric #23 of the Serbia National Team drives against the Italy National Team during the International Men’s Basketball Super Tournament 2019 match between Serbia and Italy at Shenyang Olympic Sports Center on August 23, 2019 in Shenyang, China.

Guduric, a sharpshooting 6-6 guard, is among five NBA players on a Serbia roster highlighted by Denver’s All-NBA First Team center Nikola Jokic and Sacramento’s promising swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic. Guduric signed a two-year deal to join the Grizzlies this summer after ranking among the EuroLeague’s top 30 players last season. Now, he’s on a Serbia squad that saw all of the country’s current NBA players answer the call for national team duty.

As a result, Serbia is 2-0 at the World Cup after blowout victories over Angola and the Philippines. Serbia appears to be as strong as it’s been since NBA legends Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac anchored the national team for medal-winning success.

Guduric senses the opportunity Serbia has to seize the World Cup stage before he comes over to make his NBA debut.

“It’s a great group of guys and every year we’re going to either the Olympic Games, European Championships or the World Cup to win one of the medals,” said the 24-year-old Guduric, who is averaging 10.5 points on 44.4 percent shooting on threes through two games. “It’s a winning mentality and a great team, and I can use that to get some experience with the NBA players we have on the team. I think we’re going to be really good. If everyone stays healthy, I think we have a chance to do something really special again in this World Cup.”

We aren’t scared. We have nothing to lose, to be honest, and have the ambition to show the world that we can compete at this level and make life hard for our opponents.

Yuta Watanabe

While Guduric and Serbia are expected to relatively cruise through the preliminary round, Valanciunas and Lithuania are positioned in what international analysts and scouts consider the World Cup’s ‘Group of Death.’ Ranked sixth overall by FIBA, Lithuania is joined in Group H by Senegal, Canada and Australia – each peppered with NBA talent.

But Lithuania is leaning heavily on one of the most impressive frontcourts in the tournament, with Valanciunas showcased alongside forward Domantas Sabonis, who is coming off a career season for the Indiana Pacers. Valanciunas has recovered from an ankle injury that sidelined him late last season after a dominant stretch saw the 7-footer average 19.9 points and 10.7 rebounds with the Grizzlies. After the season, he signed a three-year, $45 million contract during July free agency to stay with Memphis.

Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas #14 of the Lithuania Basketball Men’s National Team reacts during 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup quarter-final match between Lithuania and Turkey at Palau Sant Jordi on September 9, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images.

It’s been a year of continuous change for Valanciunas, who was acquired by the Grizzlies in the February trade that sent Marc Gasol to Toronto. But one constant has been the stability Valanciunas has provided his national team, with Lithuania having made each Olympics since the early 1990s. More recently, Lithuania advanced to the semifinals in the past two FIBA World Cups and went 11-1 in its past 12 international qualifying games. Valanciunas had 13 points and a team-high 11 rebounds in Lithuania’s 101-47 opening win over Senegal.

“Every time I step on a court wearing the national team jersey, I get goosebumps,” Valanciunas, 27, recently told FIBA.net in preparation for the World Cup. “It was always like that, and I hope it will stay like this. Playing for the national team is the highest accolade for me, as a player and as a person. I’m a patriot, and having a chance to play for my country gives some kind of meaning to my life.”

Meanwhile, Watanabe has approached the FIBA stage as a breakout opportunity after spending last season splitting time between the Grizzlies and the G League’s Memphis Hustle.  Although Japan lost its opener to Turkey over the weekend and is a huge underdog in the China field, it is locked into the 2020 Olympics as the host country’s national team next summer.

In other words, Watanabe and his teammates are basically playing with house money, and have in turn packed the house with arena sellouts for all of their exhibitions in Japan in recent weeks. Another potential confidence boost for Japan is that it’s also in Group E with Team USA, with the two matching up in this week’s final preliminary round game.

Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe

Rui Hachimura #23 and Yuta Watanabe #12 of Japan celebrate after defeating Iran 70-56 in the FIBA Men’s World Cup Asian Qualifier 2nd Round Group F match between Japan and Iran at Ota City General Gymnasium on September 17, 2018 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images.

That makes this World Cup all about gaining exposure and experience for Japan’s rising young NBA icons in Watanabe, 24, and NBA rookie lottery pick Rui Hachimura, who are larger than rock stars in their native country. The duo combined for 26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in their World Cup debut.

“We are one year away from the Olympics, and we are about to start a very competitive tournament, so having the feeling and the love of the country is good for us,” Watanabe told reporters. “We can tell that basketball is growing a lot in Japan, and to see all the stands packed during our games was such a blessing. We aren’t scared. We have nothing to lose, to be honest, and have the ambition to show the world that we can compete at this level and make life hard for our opponents.”

And that sentiment brings this all back to Caboclo, who wants to make life at the FIBA World Cup as difficult for Brazil’s opponents as possible with his wiry 6-foot-9 frame, two-way game and freakish 7-foot-7 wingspan. It was all on display when Caboclo finished with nine points, three rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 22 minutes during the 102-94 win over New Zealand.

That versatility will come in handy again when standing up to Giannis and Greece. When he was drafted four years ago by Toronto, Caboclo was declared by a prominent NBA analyst as being “two years away from being two years away” from having a significant impact at the peak professional level.

Well, after flashing enough potential in Memphis last season to convert a pair of 10-day contracts into a deal that carries him through next season, Caboclo has another shot on the world stage to show he’s arrived.

“Just play free,” Caboclo said of his mission in China. “The most it will do is give me the experience of playing against a lot of really good guys I see in the NBA. I can learn so much stuff right now and bring it back to my NBA career. It’s the special experience of playing against people all over the world.”

Then, that globetrotting group of Grizzlies can carry their momentum right into Memphis for training camp.

Country (Player) Game 1 Game 2 Game 3
Brazil (Caboclo) in Group F Sept. 1 vs New Zealand Sept. 3 vs Greece Sept. 5 vs Montenegro
Serbia (Guduric) in Group D Aug. 31 vs Angola Sept. 2 vs Philippines Sept. 4 vs Italy
Lithuania (Valanciunas) in Group H Sept. 1 vs Senegal Sept. 3 vs Canada Sept. 5 vs Australia
Japan (Watanabe) in Group E Sept. 1 vs Turkey Sept. 3 vs Czech Republic Sept. 5 vs USA

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