2019 FIBA World Cup will have international star power

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The reigning NBA MVP is headed to the basketball World Cup. So are three other members of this past season’s All-NBA squad, and so is the starting center from the team that won the NBA championship a couple months ago.

Most of those guys won’t be playing for the United States.

The majority of America’s best players are sitting out the World Cup, while many of the best international players are not. NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, fellow All-NBA players Nikola Jokic of Serbia and Rudy Gobert of France, and Marc Gasol of Spain – a significant part of Toronto’s run to the NBA title – are among the headliners who won’t be in U.S. colors when the tournament starts Saturday in China.

“We’re going to China with the goal of a medal,” Jokic said.

The Denver star isn’t just looking for any medal. He’s seeking gold.

And the Serbians would seem to have as good a chance as anyone in a tournament that suddenly looks wide open.

France and Australia – which is coming off a 98-94 victory over the United States on Saturday that ended the Americans’ 78-game winning streak in international play – are expected to have five NBA players on their rosters for the World Cup, and Serbia is likely to bring four. In all, more than 60 players with NBA experience are likely to participate in the tournament and only 12 of them are playing for the U.S.

“A lot of teams can be in the medal spots and it’s going to be intense, very hard for every team to be in those spots,” said France’s Nicolas Batum – the only player from the last World Cup All-Tournament team in 2014 who is expected to compete in this year’s event. “But every team, including ours, is going to fight for it, to play at its best level to try to come back home with a medal.”

The only U.S. World Cup player who was an All-NBA pick this past season is Kemba Walker, then of the Charlotte Hornets and now of the Boston Celtics. Look at the NBA stats from last season for World Cup-bound players and the leading scorer, the top three in assists per game and the top seven rebounders all are on international rosters.

The world is getting better.

That means the U.S. is no lock in this tournament.

“There are a lot of contenders out there,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said.

The Americans are the only team with a roster composed entirely of NBA players, but that isn’t stopping some from scoffing at the notion that the U.S. is vulnerable heading into this tournament because its World Cup roster doesn’t have anything close to a Dream Team-esque level of star-studded names.

Spain coach Sergio Scariolo bluntly dismisses that notion.

Scariolo, a Toronto assistant coach when he’s not leading Spain, is quick to point out that a glance at the NBA salaries of the U.S. players dwarfs the combined salaries of every other World Cup roster. When the Americans played Spain in an exhibition earlier this month, the U.S. sent out a starting five that will make roughly $105 million this season.

So yes, in terms of earning power, no other team in the world comes close to the roster that the Americans are bringing to China this week.

But as evidenced by how Australia battled the U.S. twice in a pair of exhibitions in Melbourne, and beat the Americans there on Saturday, at least some of the world’s best teams aren’t exactly fearful of the two-time defending World Cup champions.

“Let’s let them play their basketball and we will play ours,” Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic now-famously said earlier this month. “And if we meet, may God help them.”

Clearly, the tournament means quite a bit to Serbia. It means plenty to other nations as well.

Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee star who won NBA MVP this past season, even said earlier this month that he would give back the award if it could be exchanged for a World Cup gold medal for Greece.

“I believe him,” U.S. center and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks teammate Brook Lopez said. “That’s how much he wants this.”

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”