With the 2015 FIBA Asia Men’s Championship just a day away, and the time is ripe to preview each of the sixteen teams who will vie for the lone outright Asian slot in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Teams are divided into four groups and will play each other team in a single round-robin format in the first round. The top three teams in each group move on to round two, where they join another group’s top three for another single round-robin set of games. The top four in each second round group qualify for the single-elimination quarterfinals. The winners move on to the semifinals and then the final two teams standing battle each other for the slot in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Let’s begin with the lightest group in the whole tournament, Group B, where we have the Andray Blatche-powered Philippines, first-timer Palestine, comebacking Kuwait, and low-ranking Hong Kong.
(This is adapted from the FIBA Asia previews I wrote for FIBA.com)
There are only five holdovers from the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship on this squad, and 6’9 Duncan Reid is the one expected to be the team’s anchor. Reid averaged around 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists for Hong Kong in 2013, and with no other player taller than 6’7 on the squad, Reid will be certainly be the team’s best option to man the slot. He will have his work cut out for him, though, as he is sure to go up against the likes of Sani Sakakini, Asi Taulava, and, gulp, Andray Blatche.
As usual, shooting and speed are the expected strengths of Hong Kong. Guards Lee Ki and Chan Siu-Wing are both fleet-footed and deadly from long range, while undersized frontliner Wong Chun-Wai can spread the floor with his three-point shooting prowess (he hit 4 triples against Japan in 2013). Size, inexperience, and lack of depth will be their weaknesses, though. Outside of Reid, nobody can really match up well with the big men of the Philippines and Palestine, while not having reliable veterans like Lo Yi-Ting and Fong Shing-Yee will surely hurt their chances.
Kuwait didn’t make much noise in terms of its preparations for the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, but the team that placed second in the Gulf sub-zone qualifying tournament was still able to hold a couple of tune-up games in Manila against quality competition. 28-year-old Hussein Al-Khabbaz was among this team’s leading scorers in the 2014 Asian Games, putting up around 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 steal per game. He also connected on 44% of his three-point attempts. With erstwhile leading scorer Ahmad Al-Baloushi not on Kuwait’s final 12-man roster, the onus will be on Al-Khabbaz to try and lead this team to the second round.
Much like Hong Kong, Kuwait won’t list size among their strengths. At 198cm/6ft 6in, Mohammad Marzouq is already the tallest player on coach Khaled Yousef’s team, and that’s certainly going to work against them. The Kuwaitis, therefore, are expected to rely on their perimeter game and defense against much deeper and more seasoned competition. Aside from Al-Khabbaz, only Abdulaziz Al-Hamidi, Mohammad Ashkanani, and Mashari Abu Dhom are the holdovers from the 2014 Asian Games team, and it’s reasonable to expect them to play major roles for Kuwait.
It’s the first time in its history that Palestine is joining the FIBA Asia Championship, so the Palestinians made sure to prepare for it as well as they could. The most notable thing they’ve done is to play in a 4-nation pocket tournament in China recently, where they finished in third place behind hosts China and Jordan. Of course, they also impressed earlier in the year by placing third in the West Asia Basketball Association (WABA) Championship, beating Syria and Iraq to join Iran, Lebanon, and Jordan as the sub-zone’s representatives.
Finally, the continent will get to see Sani Sakakini play at the FIBA Asia Championship! Sakakini has been plying his trade as an import in Jordan, China, and Lebanon for the past decade, and he has slowly built a reputation for being a very reliable big man. Most recently, he played for Hoops Club in Lebanon’s pro league, registering averages of 20.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game. If he can even just approximate those number sin Changsha, Hunan, he will certainly be a force to reckon with. Sani, together with his brother Salim Sakakini, Shadi Khatib, and Hamza Yousef, should form a formidable frontline for coach Jerry Steele. This, in turn, should be balanced out by a dangerous wing combo composed of Ahmed Haroon, Jamal Abu Shamala, and Central Arkansas product Imad Qahwash, who last played as an import in the Iranian Superleague. It’s a shame that they weren’t able to bring more talented guys in like Omar Krayem or Nicola Fadayel, both of whom could’ve made their backcourt even more menacing. Perhaps the one true barrier for this team is the fact that they’ve never played at this level before. It will be very interesting to see how they will adjust.
The Philippines started very late in naming its national pool and starting its training camp. If things get derailed in Changsha, Hunan, they can look back on a protracted professional league calendar as one of the contributing factors. Having said that, gaining experience battling Estonia, Iceland, and the Netherlands in a trip to Europe was vital. The same can be used to describe the Filipinos improved showing in the 2015 Jones Cup and their title-clinching stint in the MVP Cup. Just recently, coach Tab Baldwin took his team to Cebu City to get away from the maddening Manila atmosphere and to further improve team chemistry.
Andray Blatche was a beast in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, finishing second in scoring (21.2ppg) and topping the tournament in rebounding (13.8rpg). He is surely an upgrade over Marcus Douthit, and, especially after coming off a great season in the CBA, he should be a cut above the rest of the field this year. The only knocks on Blatche have been his fitness (let’s just say he isn’t as trim as he was in 2014) and his inconsistency. If the former NBA stalwart can put up numbers similar to what he did in 2014, the Philippines may just win the whole thing.
With Blatche and veterans Ranidel de Ocampo, Marc Pingris, and Asi Taulava patrolling the paint, and guys like Jayson Castro, Gabe Norwood, and Terrence Romeo manning the perimeter, the Filipinos definitely have a good balance of size, speed, and shooting. And even without marquee PBA players June Mar Fajardo, Japeth Aguilar, Marcio Lassiter, and Paul Lee, this is a team with considerable depth. It remains to be seen, however, if the Philippines (the oldest team of the lot, mind you) can match up well with bigger teams like Iran and China, and if they channel the trademark Filipino flair into productive gains instead of frustrating setbacks.
Prediction: The Philippines, Palestine, and Kuwait advance, while Hong Kong is knocked out.