The festivities have come to a close out in China at the FIBA World Cup, and lo and behold a member of the Denver Nuggets is bringing home the gold. Many pegged generational center Nikola Jokic as the likely candidate to win FIBA’s top prize, but ultimately it was Juancho Hernangomez and his fellow Spaniards who emerged victorious. Juancho became a vital part of his team’s rotation and showed promise that hasn’t been seen since he was last fully healthy at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. Meanwhile, for Jokic it is obviously a disappointment to finish in fifth place, but the tournament was still another display of his superior ability on the court. Only Mason Plumlee had a truly disappointing World Cup. Not only did Team USA have its worst result since professional players have been playing for the national team, but Mase himself barely logged any minutes, only seeing time after the Americans were eliminated from gold medal contention.
Juancho’s career has had the general feel of a roller coaster ride the past couple of years. His rookie season was very promising. Despite averaging a little more than 13 minutes a game, Juancho had an undeniably smooth shooting stroke, and when he received the opportunity, he put it on display. Ultimately he shot 40% from three and punctuated his season with an incredible performance against the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, it has been fairly downhill for the Nuggets forward since that time. With Danilo Gallinari moving on, Juancho looked primed to take over as Denver’s combo forward of the future, but a bout with mono, followed up by a season dealing with a core injury has kept him relatively on the sideline. This World Cup served as a reclamation project of sorts for Juancho. Now fully healthy, he flashed that same sharp shooting ability, this time going 43.5% from three and giving Spain another dimension on offense with his constant energy. Hopefully this performance launches him into a chance to find a concrete role in the Nuggets rotation. With Juancho entering the final year of his contract, both he and the Nuggets will be anxious to see if he can turn those flashes into consistent production at the NBA level.
For Nikola the success was clearly more muted. Serbia came in with gold medal expectations and at many points looked like the best team in the tournament. Jokic also dazzled on several occasions. Joker was clearly head and shoulders above most of the competition he saw which led to several spectacular passes and a very healthy stat line considering his limited minutes (just over 22 a game). Despite often coming off the bench, something that has been common place for Nikola on the national team, it was clear he was a major cog of Serbia’s entire offense, just as he is with Denver. Though he may have been overshadowed a bit by teammate Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jokic’s individual performance was no doubt special.
Unfortunately, there were some warts along the way. Jokic let emotion get the best of him and found himself ejected from a game against Spain in the second round and despite his solid performance in the quarterfinals, Serbia crumbled down the stretch against Argentina. For Nuggets fans, Nikola’s world cup should be viewed as a success. He gained recognition on a national and international platform which ultimately will bring more recognition to Denver as well. Most importantly, Joker wasn’t overworked and comes back from China healthy, which is the best thing Denver fans can ask for.
For Plumlee and the US, the World Cup was a major disappointment. Undoubtedly, the Americans were vulnerable given the number of players who chose not to participate in the tournament; however, as the only team with NBA players from top to bottom on the roster, USA still brought the deepest and most talented squad to China. The Americans succumbed too often to their Achilles heel in international play: relying too much on individual talent rather than team cohesion. They also struggled to contain talented bigs. While Plumlee was clearly the last man on the roster, coach Gregg Popovich didn’t utilize his other bigs heavily throughout the tournament. The international game certainly can work favorably in small ball but when the Americans ran up against strong bigs like Rudy Gobert or Jokic, they were unable to match up effectively. Hopefully, this World Cup serves as motivation for the next generation of players for the US national team. The days of the redeem team are long gone and even that next generation, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc, has done their part in international competition. Donovan Mitchell was clearly the best player on this version of team USA, but he’s going to need more of the young stars in the states to step up next to him for the Americans to regain their international dominance.
Now that the World Cup is wrapped up, Nuggets fans can all breathe a sigh of relief that none of the members competing got hurt, and we should all cheer their efforts playing for their country. Now these guys hopefully can get a couple weeks rest before the kick off of training camp. It wouldn’t be shocking to see coach Malone ease these guys back into the NBA regiment, Juancho and Jokic in particular. In the past coach has been sympathetic to getting guys who competed over the summer some extra rest. Hopefully Juancho, Joker and Mase can recuperate in time for tip off on opening night against the Portland Trail Blazers. This extra basketball over the summer should sharpen their play and have them coming out of the gate with all cylinders firing.