Today, at long last, we begin the long slog to #1. The back half of the Top 20 is presented today, and the Top 10 will be revealed tomorrow. Read about the selection criteria in Part 1 and who didn't make the cut in Part 2.
20. Tiago Splitter (BRA)
Before anybody says anything, let's all just take a minute to remember that he's the starting center on one of the best teams of the past 20 years. There are plenty of arguments to make in favor of some of the people in the previous column, but there's no denying the vast improvements in Splitter's game over the past three seasons. I've deferred to Popovich's better judgment in the past, so check out the minutes from this year's Finals:
It was clear to everyone that Splitter was a liability when the small-ball Heat's offensive motion started clicking last year, and his minutes dropped off precipitously as the 2013 Finals wore on. This year, however, as the Spurs assiduously deconstructed LeBron and Co.'s plan of attack, Popovich kept expanding Splitter's role. And Splitter, importantly, knows his role on that team. And not for nothing, the Spurs don't overpay for anybody, but they overpaid for Splitter. That's evidence enough for me that his pedestrian offensive numbers don't tell the entire story of a player surrounded by the greatest collection of talent in the NBA.
Also, LeBron has credited the recently made-up region of Northeast Ohio as being the main reason he's returning to the Cavaliers, but you can't tell me this had nothing to do with it:
Watch LeBron in the bottom of that video. Those are the slumped shoulders of a man who'd rather be in Cleveland.
19. Ricky Rubio (ESP)
Ah, Poor Ricky... I stated earlier that there was going to be a premium on 1s and 5s for the purposes of this discussion and by God I meant it. He slides into this spot by virtue of the fact that all of the best PGs in the world are either above him on this list or opted out of the tournament (or got cut... lookin' at you, John Wall). Here's what's not up for debate: Rubio is still one of the most talented pure passers alive. His incredible court vision, speed, and skills measure up against anybody in the game at his position; even if his is a career that often feels like a promise unfulfilled. Nevertheless - and regardless of the past few disappointing years in Minnesota - Ricky knows that this tournament is one of the best chances he's going to have to reinvigorate his image. Plus, never discount the F-U factor that the whole Kevin Love trade circus has created: he's out to show the world that
Love chose the wrong teammate he needs Love as much as his neighbor Prince needs Appolonia.
18. Marcelinho Huertas (BRA)
AKA: The Token Non-NBA Player in the Top 20.
I know what you're thinking... My mind is blown. I can't believe the author is courageous enough to thumb his nose at the powers that be in the NBA like that. Well BELIEVE IT. And sure, I'll never be the darling of the so-called "City Fathers" who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards, and talk about "What's to be done with this C. Grrrrrbrrr?" But I digress...
Huertas, a 31-year-old point guard who plays for FC Barcelona, has been the unquestioned leader of the Brazilian National Team for over a decade (a decade in which the team has been flush with NBA talent). In that time he's shown as much interest in the NBA as Johnny Manziel has in settling down with a nice girl. He's just happy stacking Euro ‘ships for FC Barcelona and occasionally popping his head up to drop 13 dimes against the US in the Olympics (more than Chris Paul and the rest of the US team combined). Watch these clips, CP3's on his ass within 3 seconds:
He's got Rubio's flair with veteran savvy and as much success internationally as anybody on this list with the exception of the Spaniards, which easily places him among the Top 20. He's also been known to turn Tiago Splitter into a scoring machine, which might make him a witch.
You want to know something else? I would have had TWO non-NBA players on this list if Vassilis Spanoulis (GRE) hadn't opted out of the tournament. Dude's nickname is Kill Bill, and HIS NAME ISN'T EVEN BILL. He also put 22 on the U.S. when the Greeks beat the Americans in 2006 before losing to Spain.
17. Omer Asik (TUR)
Asik is the ultimate What If? All Star. In three of his four seasons in the NBA, he's backed up two of the three best centers in the world. In his lone starting season in Houston, he showed tremendous potential; but then, as he always does, Dwight Howard showed up and ruined everything. OHMYGOD HE IS THE WORST EVER. Watching what Asik does with Anthony Davis next year for the Pelicans is going to be one of the most interesting storylines in the league next year; and as a Grizzlies fan, I'm slightly terrified. All the same, he's never been an especially compelling player. Fairly or not, I think of Asik as a lunch pale kind of guy who knows his assignments and causes no harm; the yin to JaVale McGee's yang. To wit: I wouldn't be surprised if Asik and Kosta Koufos are battling for the same types of contracts in a few seasons. I also wouldn't be surprised if Asik plays the arguably-over-the-hill-but-still-awesome David Robinson role to Davis' Tim Duncan next year. There's a lot of breathing room there, but the floor is very high.
16. Jonas Valanciunas (LIT)
All due respect to the previous entries, but with Valanciunas, we're really starting to get into the cream of the crop in this tournament. Young and hungry and tough and a little scary, Valanciunas is somewhat inhibited on a weirdly talented Raptors roster (especially since the departure of you-know-who). Early last season, he looked primed to possibly make a run at a spot on the All-Star team, and he's shown himself to be more than capable as an offensive focal point. The Raptors often call his number early in games until Dwane Casey looks down at his signed copy of The Scottie Brooks Guide to Basketball Plays and then tells everyone to get the hell out of the way of DeRozan and Lowry. By the lofty Lithuanian standards of excellence in international play, this is a relatively green squad, and it's expected that the offense will flow through the post. As "The Man" squaring up against some of the best in the world, Valanciunas has an opportunity in this tournament to insert his name into the great center conversation.
15. Klay Thompson (USA)
USA! USA! USA!
Started from the bottom now we here. I know it's taken a minute and about 3,000 words, but we've finally arrived at the first American deemed worthy enough for inclusion on this, the most prestigious player ranker on the Internet: The Grizzly Bear Blues FIBA World Cup Preview Top 20. I'm a little low on Klay (more on why later), and that might be partly because HOLY SHIT ARE THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS INSANE? Not only could they have gotten Kevin Love in exchange Klay Thompson, but they could've gotten rid of David Lee! THAT'S LIKE DISCOVERING PLUTONIUM BY ACCIDENT!
*Actually, this calls for an entire Seinfeld clip, not just a quote. Substitute the word "orgy" with "championship," and this is exactly how my conversation would've gone with Bob Myers had I been in the room with him when he declined to put Klay Thompson in the deal for Kevin Love. (I'm George, Bob Myers is Jerry):
OK, that's enough about how I don't think he's that great; he's actually really great. It's possible his defensive skills have been overrated by the Warriors brass (probably because he plays next to David Lee... BOOM! You just got GOT twice, David Lee!), but he's undoubtedly a star in the making. His shooting percentage is absurd, but my only reservation is that his fellow Splash Brother is so great that everything around him gets distorted. Defenses get so keyed in on Curry that Thompson's allowed to operate in space that other players have never dreamed of. I mean, we all remember how James Harden's offense suffered once Kevin Durant was removed from the equation... Wait.
14. Nicolas Batum (FRA)
Started from the Batum now we here!
I'll stop, I promise.*
I really like Batum's game, I don't even mind that he's getting $12 million a year as a defensive specialist, but I'm going to be honest, his placement on this list was juiced pretty significantly by some of the best international trash-talking I've ever heard. In the waning moments of a loss to my boys from Spain in the 2012 Olympics, Batum just up and did this:
After the game, when asked by a reporter about what the hell he was thinking, Batum explained, "I wanted to give [Juan-Carlos Navarro] a reason to flop." WHAT?! OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH! ONE! MORE! TIME!
Did you see Marc about to tear his head off? He gave him a reason to flop alright. That's the least French shit ever. I haven't seen someone that cold-blooded since Chris Paul checked Julius Hodge's credentials back in college.
The bigger question for some people might be "How is Batum rated over Parsons/Hayward?" Well, normally I wouldn't dignify that with an answer, but I'm feeling generous, so let's check the numbers:
Now consider that player C is a really good defensive player, and Players A and B are both sub par. Player A is Gordon Hayward. Player B is Chandler Parsons. Player C is Batum.
13. Pau Gasol (ESP)
Much like Asik, Pau's past few seasons put him squarely on the What If? All-Star roster. I don't know if there's a more unfortunate situation than playing next to Dwight Howard and being coached by Mike D'Antoni to play out of position and against one's strengths. The unmitigated disaster that was the past two seasons in LA plus the 2012 2nd Round sweep to the Mavs when Andrew Bynum flipped the switch from "idiot" to "Cartoon Villain" shouldn't take away from the fact that Pau remains one of the best post players on the planet. His numbers last year were pretty good!*
*Oh, I'm fully aware that there was nobody else on that team. But I'm adopting the philosophy that everything was so pathetic and depressing that to keep one's head above water in that situation is actually pretty admirable. He went from playing beside three sure-fire hall-of-famers to these guys: Jodie Meeks, Swaggy P, Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall, *VOMITS* Seriously, these were the Lakers last year.
Granted, Pau clearly isn't comfortable being the #1 option on a team, but outside of Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis, I can't think of a better traditional, back-to-the-basket power forward in the game.*
*I know he's listed as a 5, but if Duncan's a 4, so is Pau. Also, I hear all the Grizzlies fans asking about Z-Bo from that last proclamation, but Z-Bo's a face-up player. His and Blake Griffin's games, despite the disparity in athleticism, have a lot in common. And just so we're not splitting hairs, I don't really know how to classify what Kevin Love does because he does everything really well and also shoots like freakin' Dirk Nowitzki, so he wouldn't fall into this category either. OK, everybody clear? Let's move on.
One of the biggest reasons for Pau's high ranking is the depth of his experience in international competition. This is probably his last go-round, and with his little brother hitting his athletic peak, they're going to be out for blood. No, he's not as good as the guy he's going to start in front of on the Spanish team, but their coach isn't playing Pau for sentimental reasons: Pau, maybe more so than anybody else on this list, knows exactly what's at stake and how best to achieve the ultimate goal.
12. Nene (BRA)
There's no two ways about it (even if SB Nation's own Coach Nick would rather explain it away with scheme): Nene put it on the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Wizards' Round 1 expulsion of Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls. If it's not clear already, I'm a big fan of great interior defensive play, and Noah is an all-timer in that category. Then these things
I haven't seen an individual player's stock jump so much after a single playoff series since Zach Randolph almost single-handedly laid waste to a 61-win, top-seeded Spurs squad. The comparisons are pretty spot-on: a big man with a less than sterling reputation realizes his vast potential in the playoffs against one of his conference's major heavyweights, puts the team on his shoulders, and carries them to victory. And while Z-Bo never truly reached those heights again, he's been spectacular for the Grizzlies ever since. Most importantly, he's become a true team leader. I'm not saying that Nene has definitely made that transition, but a playoff series like that one against the Bulls can do that for a guy.
11. DeMar DeRozan (USA)
I love DeRozan's game, so I'm comfortable making this semi-trollish statement about him in order to rile everyone up who's read this far: DeMar DeRozan is the best small forward in the World Cup.*
*A couple of things: first, I know that position doesn't really matter anymore and has arguably been an outmoded concept since Magic Johnson started at center for the Lakers Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. But we're not in the middle of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, that's why you keep glancing up at that hilarious GIF of the Raptors mascot eating it on roller skates. So yea, James Harden's been starting at the 3 for the U.S. and he's better than DeRozan, but Harden's a pure shooting guard. I'm also aware that DeRozan starts at the 2 and plays as much there as he does at the 3, but we can agree he would never be misclassified as a "small forward," so that's what we're going with.
In fact, this list is nearly bereft of small forwards save a certain dick-punching Frenchman. Obviously, that's due in large part to disinterest (LeBron), exhaustion (KD), and stomach-churning injury.* DeRozan is all we've got left, but if he can operate like he did last year for Toronto, that should be plenty.
*OK, you can't really write a FIBA preview without talking about Paul George and what went down in Vegas. Full disclosure: I haven't watched the video. I don't watch videos like that for the same reason that I never rented Faces of Death even though it was always on the Clerk's Choice rack at whatever video store you went to growing up that wasn't Blockbuster. (Note: Video stores were places that people used to go to rent movies on large video cassette tapes that had to be rewound. They were either called Blockbuster or staffed by people who recommended movies like Faces of Death to little kids.) First of all, Paul George is being a freakin' champ right now. I'm really bummed out that I won't get to watch him in this tournament because he's incredible. As much as I'd like to blame Coach K for this tragedy, we all know that it was just a freak accident, and I'm thankful that PG-13 (which is what we're DEFINITELY calling him now because it's about the most badass nickname I can remember) has come out so strongly in support of the national team. I may be rooting for Spain, but most of all, I'm rooting for basketball's eventual ascendance to soccer's throne of "Most Popular Sport in the World." Without NBA players' involvement in international competition starting with the Dream Team, basketball would never have achieved the global popularity it now enjoys. I think George understands the Americans' role in the sport's success, and we should all be grateful for his amazing attitude and positivity, and for his willingness to continue to act as an ambassador for the sport during this difficult time.