Group D consists of Italy, Slovenia, Puerto Rico, Senegal, China, and the USA, and is headlined by no less than 15 current and a number of future NBA players competing in just one group.
Games will be conducted in Sapporo, Japan from August 19th to 24th.
Read more about the 2006 FIBA World Championship tournament at the informative official website Fiba2006.com
LeBron James, 6-8, Small Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers, 21 years old
The golden boy of American basketball over the past 4-5 years, LeBron James has never ceased to amaze with his ability to build up incredibly high expectations and then consistently live up to them. James was the most hyped high school prospect in history and has followed that up by becoming an NBA superstar from day one at age 18. Now comes a new challenge for this basketball prodigy, restoring the fear and respect that his country once garnered in the eyes of International basketball.
James will be expected to do a little bit of everything for his team. Whether its playing anywhere from the 1-4 positions for the US, being an outstanding scorer, defender, playmaker and role model and taking the responsibility of team leader on his shoulders, hell be scrutinized greatly by every basketball fan in the world for every minute hes on the court.
Despite the gigantic expectations, James has the natural talent and tools to once again live up to them. Were talking about one of the most gifted athletes in the world, showing incredible explosiveness, a body of a 25 year old NFL linebacker, exquisite fluidity, coordination and body control and one of the deadliest first steps in professional basketball.
Hes more than just an outstanding athlete, though, being possibly the most skill all-around wing player in the world at the moment. LeBron would be Clevelands starting point guard if his natural unselfishness didnt take away so much from his scoring at the position, not to mention the defensive problems it causes when considering the type of minutes he plays. Hes a fantastic ball-handler who is nearly unstoppable in terms of creating his own shot at getting to the basket, as his 10+ free throw attempts per game would attest. If, as often happens, the defense collapses on him as he penetrates the lane, hell use every bit of his 6 feet, 8 inches to survey the floor and find the open man unselfishly with his excellent court vision.
Despite the fact that he already averaged over 31 points per game in the NBA last season, James could still become an even better offensive player. Whats unfortunate for the US is that his biggest weaknesses are all exactly the type of problems that have plagued the team in the past. Hes an incredibly streaky outside shooter who is particularly average (37.3%) in the area from 17-23 feet. When forced to the right side of the floor, he becomes quite a bit more mortal, which is a weakness that many NBA teams have attempted to exploit. Although he cant be expected to drive to the basket on 100% of his possessions, his pull-up jump-shot off the dribble is still inconsistent, particularly when going right.
Because he is so incredibly talentedand also in no small part due to what Clevelands coaching staff has encouraged him to do--James has a tendency at times to try and do too much on the floor. This could be an issue for Team USA if his jumper isnt falling for him at times, something that isnt the rarest occurrence in the world. It will be interesting to see just how much offensive responsibility James decides to take on his shoulders in terms of how dominant he is with the ball in his hands, as there is a fine line between him being too trigger happy with the type of tough, contested shots he takes (which often fall), and being too passive in terms of creating for others.
LeBron is most productive in one on one/isolation situations in which he is able to use his athleticism, ball-handling skills and outstanding instincts to get his man off balance and either pull-up off the dribble or make his way to the basket, but so are the other mainstays on Team USAs perimeter, particularly Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony. James has been asked to be more of a natural leader for the Americans despite his tender age, and it will be fascinating to see how this evolves on the floor, since this isnt known as his biggest strongpoint at this stage of his career. There is no doubt that the US will be in great hands, but well only know how hell handle himself on this foreign stage when the crucial elimination games kick off.
Carmelo Anthony, 6-8, Small Forward, Denver Nuggets, 22 years old
Although we initially planned on writing about the bigger NBA star Dwyane Wade for this portion, Carmelo Anthonys increasingly important role in the preparation games and the fact that he led the US in scoring in those matches has changed our mind going in. Anthony has built up quite a rapport with Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has repeatedly praised him in the media for his perimeter shooting, defense, attitude and work ethic. Hes ran plays for him accordingly, and there seems to be a pretty good chance that Anthony will end up being Team USAs leading scorer when its all said and done.
In terms of skills, there is very little doubt that he has the natural talent to do that on any team he plays for. Offensively, Anthony is an absolute load to matchup with. He is equally good at creating his own shot from the perimeter and bulldozing his way through the lane as he is setting up shop on the block and punishing players down low. He has an excellent combination of size, strength, footwork and outstanding touch, and has some of the best pure basketball instincts for putting the ball in the net that youll find here in Japan. Melo is terrific at using his body to punish his matchup and draw fouls, and will regularly get to the free throw line and finish as his 709 attempts from the charity stripe and 81% accuracy from there will attest. Take away his angle to the basket and hell calmly step back and pull up from a mid-range jumper, send a shot-blocker his way and drop a gorgeous tear drop softly off the rim.
Anthonys weaknesses are just as clear as his strengths are, but thankfully for the US they can all be minimized depending on how willing he is put in the proper effort and mesh with his teammates. As the Denver Nuggets clear-cut go-to guy offensively, on a team that boasts terrific role players who arent known as great scorers (Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, Greg Buckner, etc) entire defenses will revolve their entire game plan to stopping him. This causes Anthony to take way too many tough, contested shots that kill his shooting percentages, but on an abundantly talented Team USA this shouldnt be the case if Coach K has his way.
Still, there are plenty of reasons for concern regarding Anthonys perimeter shooting ability, beyond his tendency to repeatedly take off-balance contested shots that would get most NBA players benched. After reviewing the same advanced scouting statistics from the 2005-2006 season that NBA teams use, we see many head scratching figures that make us wonder whether hes suited to be Team USAs #1 option. Anthony hits only 41% of his catch and shoot jump-shots when left unguarded, as well as 41% of his total shots from 17-23 feet out. From beyond the NBA 3-point line anyone can see that he only hit 37 of his 152 attempts, or 24%. When being contested, his jumper surprisingly stays stable at 39% on all of his total shots from the perimeter. Looking at his mechanics, its a bit difficult to figure out why, as he has a very pretty release and follow through with a nice high arch and plenty of elevation off the floor.
Beyond his perimeter shooting woes, there are also concerns about his ability or willingness to stay in front of his man. Anthony has never been known as a defensive stopper, but has actually put in quite a bit more effort than we can remember from him in the past during the exhibition games the US played so far. If he maintains that same level of intensity the team will be in good shape, but it remains to be seen whether or not that will happen since we never saw that part of his game consistently even when the Nuggets were fighting for their lives in the playoffs. It goes without saying that a player with his natural gifts should pull down more than the 4.9 rebounds he averaged per game.
Anthony has developed a reputation for being at best a selfish player, and at worse a head case. Coach K, George Karl and his former head coach at Syracuse and current assistant on Team USA Jim Boeheim have all disputed that notion in the past. Much of it has to do with the way he carries himself on the basketball court, showing concerning body language, complaining incessantly to referees, taunting his opponents and pouting when things dont go his way. He clashed with Larry Brown at the Olympics in 2004 and was involved in a number of embarrassing off the court incidents which he should have known to stay clear of.
Team USA and Coach K are taking a big risk by not only inviting him to the team (hes still yet to make an allstar game), but by giving him what appears to be a very prominent role. This is a great chance for Anthony to prove them right and truly join his 2003 NBA Draft counterparts LeBron James and Dwyane Wade amongst the NBAs elite. This World Championship should also tell us quite a bit about the maturing process hes obviously been going through over the past three years since being drafted. If it works, were talking about a player that is nearly impossible to match up with considering his talent and the caliber of teammates surrounding him. If it doesnt, Anthony will continue to attract a legion of doubters about his place as a bonafide star in the NBA.
Chris Paul, 6-0, Point Guard, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, 21 years old
With well known NBA names all over the US Team roster, it's hard to decide who's your typical upside player. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony looking like the "faces" of Mike Krzyzewskis team, Chris Paul is a guy that can emerge as a surprising leader during the World Championships. He comes off a sensational rookie season with New Orleans Hornets, averaging 16.1 ppg, 7.8 apg, 5.1 rpg and 2.24 spg and leading his new team to a 38-44 record, which was a 20 win improvement compared with the 2004-2005 season. Paul's efforts were rewarded with the Rookie of The Year Award, with CP3 coming only one vote short of being an unanimous pick.
So now, after 2 successful years at Wake Forest and an impressive rookie campaign in NBA, Paul is ready for another challenge. US National Team will need his explosiveness, ability to beat opponents off the dribble and heady decision making with the ball. With NBA level defenders struggling to keep Paul from driving to the basket, it's hard to imagine that somebody could succeed and stop him from doing so in Japan.
There are many players on the USA roster who will benefit greatly from playing with Paul - guys like Bosh, Howard or Brand will have a lot of opportunities to finish drive and dish plays created by him, while Brad Miller and Antawn Jamison should convert most of the pick and pop situations. This was a key play for the Hornets this past NBA season, with David West and PJ Brown nailing plenty of jumpers off the CP3 passes. It will be interesting to see how much Coach K decides to take advantage of this facet of his team.
Just like 2 years ago during the Olympic Games in Athens, many opposing teams will try to bother USA team with various types of zone defense. Since there is no Ray Allen type pure shooter on the team, Paul and his teammates will rely more on beating the first line of the zone, finishing from mid-range if defense won't react, or making defense collapse, kicking out the ball and keeping the opposing defense in constant movement.
Another way to score against zone-minded opposition will be of course in offensive transition. In both cases Paul will be an important factor for his team, with his court vision and creativity, as well as his good nose to finish around the rim.
On the defensive end he should be very useful if Mike Krzyzewski will continue to apply full court pressure or any other type of extended defense, where the athleticism and length of US players will be tough to overcome for their opponents. Paul's ability to disrupt the passing lanes with his quick hands and impressive quickness should lead to plenty of steals and easy points in transition. Defense is still currently the weakest point of his game, so nobody should be surprised if opposing point guards will look for their chances to go straight at him.
But even with all Paul's recent success and awards, there are still a few questions about his game translating to a FIBA competition. Skip Prosser's Wake Forrest and Byron Scott's Hornets played a lot of up-tempo basketball, and they struggled from time to time when opponents were able to slow them down. Top teams like Greece or Spain will frequently try to change the pace of the game, as well as make plenty of defensive adjustments, so it will be interesting to see how Paul will response and if he will be able to adjust to a different type of game than he played over the last 3 years.
He will also have to adjust to a different role, no longer can he be a top star on his team, with LeBron, Wade and Carmelo hell be much more of role-player rather an offensive catalyst, so the question is can he be effective in this role too? We'll see soon, but we wont be too surprised if it will be Paul who emerges as a leader for this US Team. During the last minutes of the USA - Brazil friendly game it seemed that he was the one who motivated his teammates and kept them focused, so it's clear that his leadership skills can be seen in Japan too.
Yao Ming, 7-5, Center, Houston Rockets, 25 years old
Despite the immense criticism he receives here in the States as a 22 point, 10 rebound per game former #1 pick who, according to some, is yet to live up to expectations, there is little doubt in this writers mind that Yao Ming is one of the most important players in the NBA.
Unfortunately for Yao, how well him and his team perform has more to do with his conditioning and supporting cast rather than his natural talent. Coming off a serious injury after breaking his foot in mid-April, Yao has barely played leading in preparation games leading up to the World Championship in Japan. He has expressed his frustration already about the pace of his rehabilitation process, but regardless will have to carry his team as they prepare for hosting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Yaos strengths as a player are quite obvious, starting with the fact that hes the tallest player in the NBA. Advanced scouting statistics tell us that Yao is the most efficient player in the NBA in finishing around the basket on non-post up situations (flashing off cuts, in transition, off offensive rebounds, etc) at 72%. That is largely due to his amazing fluidity and coordination for a player his size, as well as his excellent hands, reflexes and super soft touch around the hoop.
Once Yao gets the ball in the paint within five feet of the basket its almost futile to try and stop him. He maneuvers around the post gracefully with nice footwork to finish with a pretty jump-hook, a devastating drop-step or to turn to his baseline shoulder or towards the middle of the paint for a turnaround jump-shot. His touch is so soft that he can usually just put the ball up on the rim and it will usually drop him. He uses the glass nicely for reverse layups and such, a rarity for a player this big.
Considering his timing and instincts, as well as his improving strength, hes also become quite a force as a rebounder. He has soft enough hands to just tip the ball to himself around the basket and then go after it, which if coming on the offensive end will result in the easy slam for two points and occasionally a foul. Speaking of which, Yao draws nearly 7 attempts from the free throw line, and converts at an incredible 85% rate, good for 14th in the entire NBA. If double-teamed, Yao is smart enough to keep his composure and use his size to find the open man cutting towards the basket or spotting up on the wing.
In terms of weaknesses, they are becoming less noticeable with each NBA season that goes by, but are very much still in the picture. Yao has added a great deal of bulk to his frame, but still has more work to do in this area. He still struggles at times to establish and hold position deep in the post, which forces him to settle for lower percentage jump-hooks and one-handed turnaround jumpers from just outside the paint. He also isnt always as aggressive as youd like to see him be, seeming hesitant at times and not aggressive enough to call for the ball and take it strong at the hoop, although he has progressively getting better in this regard. Being such a great passer and teammate also means that hes often too unselfish in passing up scoring opportunities that the Rockets and Chinese national team will absolutely need him to convert.
The month of March in which he averaged 27 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks on 53% shooting shortly before going down for the season really gave us a glimpse of the type of devastating force he can be in the NBA if he applies him mentally to the task and just as importantly gets the cooperation he needs from his teammates.
It remains to be seen if the traditionally weak backcourt the Chinese national team bring to Japan will be able to properly compliment Yao in terms of knowing how to get him the ball in a position to score as well as be able to shoulder some of the offensive load with their perimeter shooting. It all depends on what type of shape Yao has managed to get himself in over the past few weeks after not having played any basketball for nearly four months. Yao promised Chinese basketball fans that this team will finish in the top four of their group and make it to the quarterfinal round.
Yi Jianlian 7-0, PF/C, Guangdong Tigers, 19 (?) years old
Yao Ming's recent counterpart in the Chinese frontline is what has lately been advertised as the next big NBA prospect from the Chinese market, Yi Jianlian. Given the billion plus Chinese population and the immense success that the NBA has met among Chinese consumers, basketball is coming close to potentially becoming the top team sport in the country. Yi will be a big part of this bright future that the sport may be reaching, particularly with an eye on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Yi, an outstanding athlete for his size, is not your run of the mill Chinese big man. His natural position skill-wise is at power forward, and he already has many tools in order to succeed there. He is long, athletic and incredibly smooth, with a constantly improving offensive game. Yi moves well without the ball and can be a threat either from mid-range or with his slashing game, using his ball-handling skills to finish nicely with his right hand. He has a decent feel for the game, good offensive instincts and the potential to be a contributor at the International level fairly soon, thanks to his good court vision, nice positioning and creativity. It wouldnt be a stretch to say that his game compliments Yao Mings very well.
However, Yi's game is still mainly about potential. Despite being a good athlete and having excellent height, he doesn't particularly excel defensively. He is raw, inexperienced, extremely weak, and probably not as good of a rebounder as he should be considering his height. His positioning is good, but his lack of strength--particularly in the upper body-- and activity level are enough to limit his defensive stability, which hurts his NBA potential to a certain extent.
In addition, while he is very skilled facing the basket, his low-post game is entirely predicated on his quickness and leaping ability rather than footwork or toughness, something that will cause him trouble once he leaves the cozy confines of the weak Chinese Basketball Association. He isnt being challenged enough here on a nightly basis, and really hasnt made the type of improvement you might expect him to over the past few years, which again raises concerns over his always controversial listed age of 19 years old, widely believed to be closer to 22 in actuality amongst inside Chinese basketball circles.
With the level of competition Yi will face here, it is difficult to predict how hell fare in this tournament, as he will have to play against stronger opponents, starting even from the group stage. Being outmuscled in every possession by more experienced players and trying to defend smaller power forwards while playing alongside Yao Ming wont be an easy task.
Of course, this tournament could be a really nice opportunity to notice how Yi will fare against some pretty strong frontcourts in the group stage. In order for China to beat two of its opponents and make it in the top-16 round, Yi needs to show enough hustle, and determination to overcome some of the stronger opponents he will face. If he focuses on his offensive duties, becomes more creative and shows some fire with his defensive rebounding, he will help both himself as far as his draft stock goes, as well as his team. With both Yao and Wang Zhizhi coming off injuries, the playing time should certainly be there for him.
Chen Jianghua, 6-2, PG, Guangdong Tigers, 17 years old
Chinas struggles at the point guard position have resulted in the surprising call of Chen Jianghua, the youngest player to take part in these World Championships, assuming his real birth year is 1989, something that isnt clear at all. Were talking about a guy who didnt even play in the CBA last season, instead sticking with the Guangdong junior team. His experience at the senior level is therefore almost nonexistent. Still, he could bring some positive things to his team, as hes by far the most talented natural point guard of the squad.
Chen is a very quick playmaker, a guy who loves to play in transition and slash towards the basket. He enjoys remarkable ball-handling skills that allow him to drive, even in traffic, at excellent speed. A streaky shooter, he has three-point range and particularly likes to release his jumper off the dribble from the mid-range area, being able to eventually knock down some complicated shots. He has strong legs that allow him to hang in the air in these situations, as well as help him finish around the rim.
Still not a consistent distributor, Chen is a good passer, particularly in transition, but also in the set offense, especially in pick and roll plays and slashing moves. He shows a quick mind to take decisions and enjoys good court vision. All in all, hes arguably the biggest creative force on the Chinese perimeter, also a flashy guy who loves to take the spotlight.
A fearless player, Chen has a different character from your regular Chinese player. Hes extremely aggressive on the court, never afraid of trying new things, which really helps him in order to draw his coachs attention, but also hurts him as his decision making is not the best, sometimes abusing looking for his own plays. Indeed, hes reportedly a bit of a head case, a player who doesnt always understand team discipline. Besides, hes a skinny kid who will likely struggle defensively because of his lack of strength. Otherwise, he has some nice tools, as his quick feet should allow him to stay in front of his opponent whenever he delivers the right effort.
Chen has shown in the preparation that theres room for him on this team, although his presence on court came with Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi still recovering from injuries. They will require players to give them the ball and hit their open shots. Still, if injury troubles arise again, or whenever China falls in some scoring collapse, Chen is an option to spark the offensive game of his team off the bench.
Malek Ait-Kaci, Luis Fernandez
Babacar Cissé , 6-2, Point Guard, Le Havre, 30 years old
Babacar Cissé isnt the biggest name on the Senegal national team, but hes clearly the leader here, being one of the most experienced as well as the floor general. Cissés playmaking skills allow him to do a good job setting tempo, organizing his team and finding the man. Hes also capable of making plays for himself, being a reliable mid-range shooter and using his footwork to often find an easy way to the basket.
He doesnt have Tony Parker or Dwayne Wades quickness, but hes really creative with the ball in his hands, showing the ability to push the ball up the floor and change directions quickly when needed thanks to his excellent footwork. He has a nice off the dribble shot, and hes even capable of knocking it down in wild fashion. He's quite reliable from the three-point land if he gets open looks. A good slasher, he shows nice ability finishing around the basket, especially with his right hand. He needs the confidence of his coach to produce, and thrive with it.
However, he's more of a distributor than a scorer. He nicely looks for advantages for his team: here with an entry pass, there moving the ball in the perimeter, perhaps a slashing move to dish the ball to a teammate... He might eventually force things a little bit, but it's not his style. His biggest weakness is his defense, where he doesn't show any effort.
The past year, Cissé was a key piece for Le Havre, a playoff team in the French Pro A League. It was his first season playing for a big club after four years with less successful Vichy. He did well in this new environment and met the higher expectations of this ball club. He finished the season averaging, 11.2 ppg, 5.4 apg and an interesting 1.3 steals.
Despite already being 30 years old, Cissés prime is clearly still ahead of him. Being a 60% free shooter for his entire career until last season where he jumped to a remarkable 81%. Cissé works hard and is constantly trying to improve . The next step for him will be an even more dangerous from the three point line.
With NBA players Boniface NDong, Pape Sow, Saer Sene and DeSanaga Diop missing for different reasons, Senegal will have a hard time getting to the elimination round. However Cissé, along with paint players Mamadou NDiaye, Malick Badiane and forwards Maleye NDoye and Sitapha Savane will try to upset some teams in the underdog role.