If we consider Russia and Serbia heirs to the legacy of both the USSR and Yugoslavia (which is reasonable to discuss), the ranking of total medals won in EuroBasket is the following:
1. USSR / Russia - 25
2. Yugoslavia / Serbia - 18
3. Spain - 12
Coincidence or not, these three countries are in the semifinals of the 40th EuroBasket, together with Slovenia, the only team among the four with no medals so far, but only since its independence in 1991. However, Slovenia has always been at EuroBasket with many great players. Even if it never reached the podium, Slovenia is also a part of the basketball heritage of the old Yugoslavia. It belongs to the same school and with a similar way of working; plus it had many great players of old such as Ivo Daneu, Borut Basin and Aljosa Zorga or later with Peter Vilfan and Jure Zdovc. More recently it has been Marko Milic, Primoz Brezec, Beno Udrih, Matjaz Smodis and Erazem Lorbek who took us to the current era of Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic.
I'll talk about Slovenia again later, but the three legends deserve some lines for several reasons. Russia is back after failures in the two previous tournaments: a 17th-place finish in Lille 2015 and, even worse, 24th place in Slovenia 2013. Now, the team has won six of its seven games, including a 101-78 defeat of Croatia in the eighthfinals and 69-74 over Greece in quarterfinals, after a great comeback in the second half: the mark of the great teams with character. With several coaching changes and also money problems, it was impossible to go very far. However, the election of former EuroLeague and NBA star Andrei Kirilenko as president of the federation was crucial for the recovery and consolidation of the team. Now, Russia is back at the top with 11 players that star in the EuroLeague and the EuroCup, led by Alexey Shved, the EuroCup MVP last season.
Spain never really left. This team is always there and is now playing its 10th straight semifinal in the big competitions. Sergio Llull, the Real Madrid star and EuroLeague MVP last season, is missing, but there are others who are more than filling in. Many of my friends ask me about Joan Sastre or where did that Pierre Oriola come from... Sergio Scariolo, a true EuroLeague veteran, has done a great job, not only with the results, but also with the always delicate and difficult transition between generations. OK, Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro are still on the team, but Willy and Juancho Hernangomez, Marc Gasol (what a game against Germany!), new CSKA signing Sergio Rodriguez plus Ricky Rubio, Sastre, Oriola... Rudy Fernandez will probably be back also. Spain has great players in store for the foreseeable future.
Serbia, with FC Bayern Munich coach Sasha Djordjevic at the helm, has been showing good stability. It has reached the semis for the fourth time in as many participations, including two finals. Comparing this team to the one that won the Olympic silver, there are seven missing players for several reasons, but before the EuroBasket, Djordjevic said that the goal remained the same. That's the ambition of a natural-born winner. It was probably assumed that Bogdan Bogdanovic, a recent EuroLeague champ with Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul and two-time winner of the Rising Star award, would be the leader of Serbia, but I am thinking few people expected such big contributions from Bayern players Milan Macvan and Vladimir Lucic. Big men Boban Marjanovic and Ognjen Kuzmic are some of the best we have seen in this EuroBasket, together with the Gasol brothers and Timofey Mozgov (that's considering Kristaps Porzingis more a forward than a center.) Serbia showed a lot of character, patience and self-confidence against Italy. Bogdanovic started with 0 of 7 shooting from dowtown, but he got his rhythm back when his team most needed him, and finished the game with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
And one common aspect: Jorge Garbajosa is in charge of the Spanish national federation, Predrag Danilovic has the same role in Serbia, just like Andrei Kirilenko in Russia. Three great former players. Slovenia does not have a former star as a president, but it has one as a general secretary, Radoslav "Rasho" Nesterovic.
We will see two very good semifinals, with around 30 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and 7DAYS EuroCup players. Some of the NBA players are stars in this tournament, such as Pau and Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, the Hernangomez brothers, Timofey Mozgov and Goran Dragic, but players like Alexey Shved, Luka Doncic, Andrey Vorontsevich, Milan Macvan, Stefan Jovic and Ognjen Kuzmic, plus some others who are playing in Europe or returned like Sergio Rodriguez, are their opponents when it comes to choosing the All-tournament team and the MVP.
The opening two quarterfinal games on Tuesday saw great performances from some players. In the game between Spain and Germany, Marc Gasol was his team's hero with 28 points and 10 rebounds. He incredibly scored 14 points in the final three minutes of the third quarter, but other players claimed attention, too. For instance, Joan Sastre of Valencia Basket, the Spanish League champion that returns to the EuroLeague next month. He was solid on defense and did well on offense, scoring 8 points, missing just one shot, plus getting 2 rebounds and 2 assists for a performance index rating of 15. Rodriguez, who signed for CSKA Moscow this summer, had 14 points, 2 rebounds and 8 assists. Pierre Oriola, a new player with FC Barcelona Lassa, had 6 points and 3 rebounds in just six minutes. On the other hand, the German team, featuring six EuroLeague players, put out a good game and led 47-43 after 26 minutes. The Spanish side, the reigning champs, had to give their best to win and make it to the semifinals.
Slovenia and Latvia played a huge game, a run-and-gun showdown in which a lot of players did well. It was a battle between the two great Slovenian point guards, Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic, and a world-class player in Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis. Dragic and Doncic combined for 63 points and Porzingis had 34. Dragic has played in the NBA for almost 10 years and everyone was aware of his talent, but not everyone expected Doncic, who just turned 18, to be so mature, spectacular and effective - despite his unbelievable talent. Dragic and Doncic are roommates and are very close despite a 13-year age difference. Dragic said it is his last EuroBasket with Slovenia and Doncic is making his debut in the competition. A lethal duo is born, one that it won't last long unless Dragic changes his mind. The Dragic-Doncic combination is in fashion, switching between both guard spots. Dragic's experience makes him the on-court leader, but he welcomed Doncic with open arms and not an inch of envy. Dragic is his mentor, his guide, like his older brother. He says Luka is a "still a kid that sleeps a lot and watches cartoons on TV" but on the court, the kid becomes a lion, ready to fight and do anything to win.
Peter Vilfan, who played for the Yugoslavian national team and helped it win the FIBA World Cup in 1978 in Manila, the Philippines, is one of the best Slovenian players of all-time. He is now a color commentator working for the Slovenian TV. He told me this - "I can be accused of favoring him, but I know what I am talking about. Luka Doncic is a better player than Drazen Petrovic at his age. I played with and against Drazen and I am sure Luka can do more things on the court. I am not saying he is a better player in general, just comparing what Drazen did at age 18 and what Luka does now. They talk about Porzingis, but he is 22. Let's see what Luka is able to do at age 22...".
The EuroLeague is fortunate to have a player like Luka Doncic, despite his young age. He will play the 2017-18 EuroLeague with Real Madrid alongside Anthony Randolph, an American player with Slovenian passport. Randolph had a good game against Latvia with 16 points and nine rebounds, but other players did well, such as Gasper Vidmar of Banvit, who had 9 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks, Edo Muric, who just signed with Anadolu Efes Istanbul, or Klemen Prepelic of EuroCup side Levallois Metropolitans, who had 17 points.
And the best is yet to come!