While it’s not our Timberwolves, and not even the NBA, the FIBA World Cup brings basketball back in the the forefront. At least for some of us.

Of course the FIBA World Cup isn’t as high profile as the FIFA World Cup, however, international basketball teams have become far more competitive over the years. Having followed last years EuroBasket, and watching CSKA Moscow come in and play quite well at Target Center, I’ve developed a greater respect for the international game.

Because the teams of many of the Twolves’ international players did not qualify, (Nikola Pekovic’s Montenegro, Andrew Wiggins’ Canada, and Alexey Shved’s Russia) the Twolves assumed 2014-15 roster is not as well represented as it might have been. I would suggest that even if those teams would have qualified, only Shved would have suited up this year. The health of Wiggin’s is paramount, making it hard to see his agent allowing him to play for his country, and considering Nikola Pekovic has been working so very hard to limit injury, him playing for Montenegro seems just as unlikely.

Even though less players from the projected 2014-15 Twolves roster are involved in the cup than there may have been, there still are plenty of players worth following. Starting with the most obvious…

Ricky Rubio:

To the Timberwolves’ organization and all Timberwolves fans world wide, the development of Ricky Rubio is of major interest. Much has been made about Ricky this offseason. His efforts to try to talk Kevin Love down from his “I’m-ditching-Minnesota” cliff, have been unsuccessful. His value has been debated with regard to his resigning. Is he worth a max deal?

Most Twolves fans will agree that it was pretty silly when David Kahn decided NOT give Kevin Love a five year max deal because he thought Rubio could be more deserving of being  a “designated player” in the future. While I believe it’s true that Rubio certainly hasn’t proven he is worth the max at this point, he is a player worth locking up for the long term. From what we the fans have heard in various interviews, we can conclude that Rubio is both very frustrated and highly driven. He called out Kevin Love for not being leader and he has voiced the desire, at least a some level, to take up a leadership role himself.

Ricky Rubio is in a unique position in his career as a player. In fact, I’m not sure there has ever been anyone in the same situation in NBA history. Ricky has played professional basketball for nearly a decade now at various levels. He’s played at a high level for a long time. The skills he has been gifted with have carried him thus far. Not only that, but though he’s now a “veteran”, both as a Twolf and a Spanish national player, he has always been “the kid”.

From the eyes of an American observer, it seems European teams have a greater respect for the seasoned veteran than the young buck. That’s not to say that the NBA does not value veteran players on their teams, however you rarely see a young star even START on a European team. Even players like the highly touted Nikola Mirotic didn’t get big minutes. Frankly, it seems nobody gets big minutes in European Basketball because the only play forty minute games. That being said, there is a structure in which European coaches appear less willing to give their young players much responsibility.

This to me creates a tricky situation for Ricky Rubio. He has been a kind of side show off the bench. He’s played behind, and deferred to Juan Carlos Navarro and Jose Calderon. He has, in absolutely no way, been expected to take on a leadership role on any international team. Can we fault Rubio for this? I don’t think so! But it does come into play now. He has deferred to Kevin Love ever since entering the league. Now that he’s criticized Kevin Love for his lack of leadership, can Ricky Rubio take that mantle and be a leader for the Timberwolves? Even in that same interview, he mentioned Kevin Martin as a potential “Alpha Wolf” of the pack. This to me is very interesting. Hopefully Ricky can continue to grow as a player and be that leader.

Unfortunately, none of this can really be answered watching Rubio compete for Spain. The frame work is set for Navarro and Calderon to play “big” minutes (at least in the european sense) and for Ricky to come off the bench. What we will be able to see, is how much his game has changed or stayed the same over this offseason. It appears that he has, once again, noticeably, bulked up this offseason. Will we see a Ricky who is stronger, and therefore better able draw fouls and finish at the rim? Might we see a more confident jump shot?

No matter what, it will be fun to watch “La Pistola” (a nickname that seems to have totally disappeared) play again. It could also be completely maddening if he continues to not assert himself and clank mid-range jumpers … but that’s just the way it is.

Second on the Twolves fan’s World Basketball Cup outlook … is …

Gorgui Dieng:

Playing for his home country, Senegal, Gorgui Dieng will be given big minutes. This will be interesting to watch. Even in the recent “friendly”, between Spain and Senegal, Dieng played pretty well. He lead his team in points and rebounds, while having to deal with the always formidable Gasol brothers inside, and … Serge “the shot blocka” Ibaka.

While his team doesn’t seem to stand much of a chance, Dieng will be giving every opportunity to showcase his skills. I expect to see plenty of Gorgui swats, steals, dunks and fade-aways. I also expect them to be quite effective. I believe that Gorgui is Senegal’s greatest asset and his unique combination of size, athleticism, quickness and touch should make him a tough guard for most international teams.

Now we move on to far less critical viewing … with … the “oh-lord-please-don’t-be-a-Twolf-any-longer” …

J.J. Barea:

For now … whether we like it or not … Mr. Barea remains on the Twolves roster. I still hope and trust that he will be moved before training camp. With the Wolves addition of Mo Williams and the drafting of Zach LaVine, Barea becomes totally redundant and worthless.

That all being said, at his best he is still fun to watch and in the Basketball World Cup, J.J. Barea can truly be at his best. With the reality that many international teams start bigger, taller and slower guards, J.J. Barea can absolutely torch them. Barea’s ability to beat bigger and slower players off the dribble is quite remarkable. So is his ability to make crazy contorting layups. In this regard he is also benefited from playing against international competition. The bigs on many international teams are basically just that … big. J.J. can scoop lay ups over, under and around players like that all day long. There’s also the fact that the international three point line is shorter than the NBA line. This makes his outside shot that more valuable.

… And anyway … in a competition like this, who can honestly say the don’t like an underdog? Puerto Rico is a proverbial underdog.

Next is a guy who the Twolves still hold the draft rights too.

Nemaja Bjelica:

Playing for Serbia, twenty six year old PF/SF Bejlica has grown into a formidable presence in the European game. He’s even being called a Serbian Superstar (whatever that means). Earlier in his career he played on the perimeter like a 6’10” point guard. While his ball handling is crisp, he now lack the foot speed of lateral quickness to truly play anything else than PF, at least at an NBA level. Against international competition, Bejlica’s athleticism is more than formidable. There was talk about him joining the Wolves a few years ago, but he recently signed a contracted with a team in Istanbul, Fenerbahce Ulker. Last year he played solidly for them, sometimes looking flat out spectacular as can be seen in this highlight reel. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTDOTDoan6I (skip to 1:30 for game play) 

He’s not by any means going to be a NBA star, and I have no idea what the buy out situation is with him and Fenerbahce Ulker, but considering the Timberwolves current PF situation, I can’t see them not atleast keeping an eye on this guy. Watching the highlight reel, we can see some explosiveness and burst that’s pretty impressive for a guy his size. He also displays a silky catch and shoot jump shot that looks practically unblockable. This video also mixes in some of his tenacity as a rebounder, which is always good to see from a hustle and effort stand point.

Could you see Bjelica splashing catch and shoot threes assisted by Ricky? I think I could.  

This basically wraps up the list of players that are directly connected to the Timberwolves but below is a list of players of interest that can be watched for.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: The greek freak, as he is called, should genuinely be able to thrive in this World Cup. He had a remarkably good year with the Milwaukee Bucks considering he came straight out of the Greek B league, which looked, in his pre-draft highlight reels, like a YMCA league. But anyway, this guy reportedly has grown almost two inches this offseason making him a 6’11” wing player with guard skills. The Bucks summer league squad actually had him running some point guard for them. Considering his NBA.com highlight stream from last season is really fun to watch, I can only imagine what kind of highlights he’s due to produce during this world cup.

Jonas Valanciunas: He played great for Toronto last year and should stand out for Lithuania, a team that constantly surprises me with their size, skill and athleticism. Valenciunas will be able to dominate just about every center in the field physically, outside of Marc Gasol and should be a big part of Lithuania’s offensive game plan.

Donatas Montiejunas: Montiejunas, another Lithuanian big man and Houston Rockets forward-center, should be a force this year’s cup. Also, considering some of the Rockets roster changes, I would think Montiejunas could be in line to get some extended minutes at PF next to Dwight Howard. In this World Cup, I expect D-Mo to display his unique combination of ball handling, size, agility, passing skills and outside shooting touch. He is practically a rich mans version of Nemanja Bjelica who I mentioned above and was … at one time drafted in the second round by *good old* David Kahn.

Dante Exum: Drafted highly in this last NBA draft, Australia’s Dante Exum is a great talent. It will be fantastic to watch this young kid compete against “world class” competition, before he competes against the real world class competition of the NBA. Mr. Exum is in line to be a primary option for Australia’s squad and should get every opportunity to show case his skills as a scorer and facilitator.

Nemanja Nedovic: The young Golden State Warriors guard is a solid over all back court player who should be given good opportunity to log minutes for the Serbian’s. At only 23 years old he still has plenty of time to develop his skills and contribute at the NBA level. But for now, he’s stuck behind the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the Warriors depth chart.

Milos Teodosic: The Serbian veteran came in into Target Center a few years ago with CSKA Moscow and absolutely lit it up with his shooting. I think he led all scorers in that pre-season affair. He, not the Nemanjas, Nedovic and Bjelica, is the one in line to be the leader of the Serbian team. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended the tournament as one of its top five leading scorers.

Kostas Papanikolaou: The young greek SF was drafted last year in the second round by the New York Knicks and has displayed some good shooting and athleticism that suggest that he could be a solid NBA role player in the near future. Papanikolaou is currently under contract with F.C. Barcelona, ABC, I believe that contract has a buy out clause for after this season.

and… last but not least

Nick Calathes: The Memphis Grizzly’s point guard, and former Twolves draft pick (in the draft of PGs), had a great season last year in NBA. He should have an extended role with the Greeks this year as experienced guard Vassilis Spanoulis does not appear to be on this years Greek roster.

So, there you go. We are approximately ten days away from the first tip at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain. Along with these Twolves-centric areas of focus for the viewing of the Tournament and the more under the radar players I mentioned below, there is still team USA. While much of the flash and flare of Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and Kobe Bryant will not be present, it will be interesting to watch the likes of Derrick Rose, Damien Lillard and Anthony Davis take the reigns. While not as high powered as they could possibly be, there are still have to be the favorites to come out victorious. There is a significant chance that Spain, with their talent and home court advantage, could simply be too much for a young USA team that only has a month and a half of playing together under their belt. Could an upset be in the works?

Other than Spain and the U.S.A. teams to watch are Lithuania, France, Brazil and Argentina. Each team have solidly skilled players and international experience. My sleeper teams are Greece and Mexico. Mexico absolutely shocked everyone by winning the FIBA Americas tournament last year on their home soil. While that home court advantage will certainly not be present, I believe it may have given them the confidence to surprise some people.

I’ll confess to my Hellenic homerism, due to my Greek American heritage, in picking Greece as a sleeper, but I do think they have built a roster with enough skill to surprise some people. Anyway, ten day until there is highly competitive basketball to follow. So, I hope you feel more interested and ready now.