The FIBA World Cup means different things to different nations. For Team USA, whose best players are already load managing for the 2024 Paris Olympics, it’s simply a developmental proving ground for young talent. For Canada, it’s an opportunity to punch their ticket to the 2024 Games. For Cape Verde and South Sudan, making their first appearance on the international stage, it’s a huge victory just to qualify.
A similar dynamic plays out among players. On the international stage, Giannis Antetokounmpo is out with an injured knee, while Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are resting their championship-weathered legs. The titans of Team USA couldn’t be convinced to show up either, but there’s still plenty for NBA fans to get excited about. The future of the league is budding before our eyes under the tutelage of legendary coaches like Steve Kerr and Erik Spoelstra, whose mother grew up in San Pablo City, a two-hour drive from Manila, where Team USA will tip off against New Zealand on Saturday at 8:40 a.m. EST.
For the basketball-obsessed Philippines, who are cohosting the tournament alongside Japan and Indonesia, this will be manna from basketball heaven: 32 teams descending, one winner emerging. Here are our biggest questions leading into the 2023 event.
1. Is Anthony Edwards approaching superstardom?
The last time we saw Edwards in a Timberwolves uniform was in a short, frustrating five-game loss to the eventual champion Nuggets in the first round.
To see him come out of the gate ablaze in Team USA’s five exhibition games is the perfect palate cleanser for Minnesota, which has five players vying for the World Cup, and an explosive reminder that despite a disappointing postseason, Edwards is still one of the most promising young talents in the league.
In fact, his ability to bounce back (literally and figuratively) could be all the more reason to believe in him. Edwards has long possessed superstar-level charisma: the glimmering look-at-me stud earrings, the coy fuck-around-and-find-out smile, the audacity to take the shots that make others shrink, the willingness to carry the burden of the misses.
But plenty of irrational-confidence guys have walked in and out of the NBA without leaving a dent. Edwards, though, is showing he’s the kind of player who internalizes lessons before he moves on. Take his improvement on pull-up 2-pointers, a shot he has relied on through the course of the exhibition slate. Since his rookie season, his accuracy has improved from 27.6 percent to 32.5 to 36.8—the kind of incremental change that reveals the substance beneath his swagger and gives you hope that he’ll fill out his other weaknesses.
When all this is taken together, it’s no wonder that Spoelstra, a Team USA assistant and a singular authority who understands the weight of the comparison, sees “Dwyane Wade in him.” You can’t always tell just by looking at a guy, but the book on Edwards can be judged by its cover.
2. For Team USA, will cohesion beat talent?
The reason Edwards works on Team USA is that while he possesses the unmistakable glow of stardom, he’s not a usage vacuum. He has played alongside All-NBA talent like Karl-Anthony Towns, has shared ballhandling duties with point guards like D’Angelo Russell and Mike Conley, and shot 41.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season.
You’ll find the ability to toggle on and off the ball up and down the roster. Jalen Brunson cut his teeth nibbling on spare touches alongside Luka Doncic before becoming New York’s leading man. Tyrese Haliburton was second in the NBA in passes per game last season. Mikal Bridges spent half of last season spotting up beside Devin Booker before taking the reins in Brooklyn. Austin Reaves became a key creator for the Lakers only after Russell Westbrook was traded.
All this is rounded out by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr.’s patrol of the paint. Team USA is filled to the brim with players who can both take over and shift seamlessly into complementary roles if that’s what the game dictates.
The strategy has shown plenty of merit so far, allowing the U.S. to jell quickly and play a fun, unpredictable style replete with Kerrian handoffs. However, talent-wise, Team USA is on surprisingly equal footing with some of its competition …
3. Can Team Canada usurp Team USA?
Canada doesn’t need to outrank the U.S. to qualify for the Olympics, as the two best teams in the Americas region will both make it. But a first-place finish would vindicate the years of sweat equity and resources that have been poured into the program.
Nick Nurse helped usher in an era of stability and accountability for a Canadian team with a history of inconsistent player commitments. He stepped down after being fired from the Raptors and accepting the Sixers job, but Team Canada—unlike its U.S. counterpart—has mostly retained the benefits of the continuity created by the three-year commitment rule Nurse instituted in 2021.
These are players that have racked up enough reps to understand one another and the rules of international play. According to general manager Rowan Barrett, Jordi Fernández, Nurse’s replacement, is “steeped in FIBA.” The Kings’ associate head coach was born and raised in Spain, and he coached on the international stage for Spain and Nigeria before replacing Nurse.
Team USA still has the talent advantage, but the Canadians are no joke, even after Murray announced he’d be sitting out. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a top-five player in the tournament. RJ Barrett put up 31 points on 13 shots in a victory against Germany. Lu Dort and Dillon Brooks are quick-sliding brick walls on defense, while Kelly Olynyk and Dwight Powell offer a perfect yin and yang in the frontcourt.
But the early sledding will be tough for the Canadians, who begin their World Cup journey against the talented France team.
4. Who’s teaming up after this experience?
Team USA is an infamous breeding ground for eventual star partnerships. The 2008 Olympics were the fulcrum that led to LeBron James, Wade, and Chris Bosh joining forces in Miami, while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving connected on the team in 2016. This group doesn’t necessarily have the ingredients to produce a Big Three–level bang, but there are potential partnerships that could still make some serious noise.
Could Bridges be a magnet to attract players to the Nets, who have the allure of a big market, an owner with a bottomless wallet, and the draft picks and cap flexibility to accommodate multiple stars?
Reaves played coy on recruitment with The Athletic’s Jovan Buha: “I can’t speak on that. But I like some of the guys we’re playing with. So … yeah.” Could he be a front office asset for the perpetually star-hungry Lakers when they plan for a post-LeBron world? Or will Kerr’s freewheeling style be the stealth attraction that draws players to the Warriors?
It’s certainly worth noting that the best player on this roster, Edwards, plays for the most dysfunctional team represented. This summer he signed a five-year extension that will lock him up until the end of the 2028-29 season, but these partnerships are usually the root of long-term plays.
5. Can Luka Doncic push Slovenia into the Olympics?
Team Slovenia is basically last season’s Mavs: They both lost their point guards (Goran Dragic and Brunson, respectively), making them even more Luka-centric, a.k.a. more 3-point dependent, a.k.a. simultaneously more dangerous and more vulnerable. An exhibition against Spain, the defending champs, featured the full range of the Slovenia experience. Summer Body Doncic made quick work of all of Spain’s best-laid plans, foiling their traps with pinpoint passes and mincing single coverage with patient stepbacks.
Just look at this pass:
Doncic played a part in 21 of Slovenia’s first 23 points, which featured five triples. Then he tweaked his left knee on a closeout and missed the next four minutes of the game, which was all it took for Spain to regain full control. By the time he reentered the exhibition, Slovenia had lost its rhythm from beyond the arc and struggled to find other ways to score.
The group stage for Slovenia (against Venezuela, Georgia, and Cape Verde) should be peaches and cream. The competition will get stiffer from there, though. But if Luka and Slovenia can catch a heater at the right moment, they could beat anyone.
6. Who else can punch their ticket to the Olympics?
Seven teams in this tournament—two each from the Europe and Americas regions, as well as each top finisher from the Asia, Africa, and Oceanic regions—will earn a trip to the Olympics.
Four years ago, Iran clinched an appearance at the 2020 Olympics thanks to a first-place finish among the Asian countries. But the team is facing Spain and Brazil in the group stage this go-around, so a repeat will be difficult. China, with Kyle Anderson in tow this year, may have an easier path against Serbia, Puerto Rico, and South Sudan.
Angola, once a regular at the Olympics, hasn’t qualified since 2008. But an 8-2 record at the African qualifiers could mean the team’s fates are shifting.
Could the Dominican Republic, armed with the FIBA-friendly stretchability and speed of Towns, take advantage of Canada’s difficult opening schedule and sneak into second place among the Americas? The tourney could be ripe for upsets.
7. Who will host in 2031?
Admittedly, we probably won’t find this one out for a little while, but it’s an interesting question. Hosting the World Cup could be a force multiplier in countries where the game is already rapidly growing.
This will be the first World Cup in which games are hosted by multiple nations, opening the door for the nations of former Yugoslavia, once a huge player on the international hoops stage, to host the games. Imagine Doncic playing host in Slovenia one day, with Jokic riding into an arena in Sombor on Dream Catcher the next.
France has been funneling resources into the game on a local and professional level in the lead-up to the Olympics, and if Victor Wembanyama is even a fraction of the player he’s supposed to be, a future generation of French kids will have a basketball star to look up to.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Canada as a potential host. The spoils of the Vince Carter generation are apparent in the current Olympic crop. AAU hoops has exploded, and the Raptors’ championship run in 2019 should usher in the next wave of talent.
Then again, maybe every major sporting event will be held in Saudi Arabia by then.