Nikola Jokic was voted MVP of the 2020/2021 NBA season, Vasilije Micic was the MVP of the Euroleague, Milos Teodosic of the Eurocup, and Filip Petrusev of the Adriatic league. This is an incredible feat for Serbian basketball.
Aside from the above players, Serbia has an additional five players in the NBA, of which Bogdan Bogdanovic (Atlanta Hawks) is the biggest star. Some say that this is the best generation of players in Serbian history. Consequently, whenever the Serbian National team participates in a FIBA competition, they are always a medal contender.
Mismatch between ambitions and results
However, the ambitions don’t match the results. Last weekend the Serbian national team lost to Italy (95-102) in the Olympic qualifying tournament. Serbia lost that game at home in Belgrade, and it was the first loss ever to Italy! As a result, Serbia won’t play at the Tokyo Olympics.
Sure, Serbia played without several star players, but that doesn’t matter because the problem of the Serbian national team is structural. Not incidental. The past couple of FIBA tournaments prove that.
In 2019 Serbia went to the 2019 World Cup in China as the biggest challenger to the “invincible” Team USA. Indeed, these two teams played each other. Not in the final, but for the places five to eight!
For team USA that was a huge disappointment, but in all honesty, they left their best players at home and went to China with their third choice.
For the Serbian National Team, the disappointment had a much bigger dimension. Their hopes were sky-high. They thought that they actually had a chance to win the gold medal. After all, they had Nikola Jokic in their team (already one of the best European players of all time). They also had fellow NBA star Bogdan Bogdanovic, plus a supporting cast of three more NBA players (Marjanovic, Bjelica, and Guduric). They all failed miserably and got their butt whopped three times at the World Cup.
The defeats at the 2019 World Cup produced some interesting facts. In the game against Spain, the Spaniards trailed by 13-20 in the second half but turned that around to a 45-37 lead by making 6 out of 10 three-pointers in just nine minutes. After that, they cruise controlled to an easy victory.
In the next game vs. Argentina, we saw a similar trend. In the 1st quarter, the Argentinians made 3 out of 4 three-point shots in less than seven minutes, and in the 2nd quarter, they made 4 out of 4 between the 5th and 8th minute.
Where have we seen this type of three-point bombardment before? Well, how about EVERY time when the Serbian National team loses!
In a 2019 World Cup qualifying game, Serbia lost against Israel with 74-83. Except for two lay-ups, ALL shot attempts by the Israeli’s in the fourth quarter were three-point shots (at 50%)!
In the 2016 Olympic final, Team USA made 8 out of 11 three-pointers in de 2nd quarter, and that was the end of that game. Team USA also beat Serbia in the final of the 2014 World Cup and shot 15 from 30 from the three-point line in that game. But when it really mattered, in the 1st and 2nd quarter, team USA hardly missed anything. By halftime, they had already scored 67 points.
In yesterday’s Olympic qualifying game, Italy converted 11 three-pointers out of 18 attempts (61%) in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Their maximum lead was 24 points in the 3rd quarter.
Serbian basketball fans were shocked, but they shouldn’t be. In the first qualifying game, Serbia almost lost to the Philippines!! It is a miracle that their national team even advanced to the final game of the qualifications.
In the European Championship qualifying games, Serbia lost against outsiders Switzerland and Georgia. The Swiss team drained 3-pointers against a 57% shooting percentage.
A structural problem
The most shocking thing is the reaction of the Serbian fans, media, and coaches to all the above disappointments. None of them seem to understand what the structural problem is.
Serbia has produced some of the most brilliant minds in European basketball like Ivkovic, Maljkovic, Vujosevic, and Obradovic. But where are their insights? Where is their deeper analysis of the structural flaw in Serbian basketball? Stand up and say something! How is it possible that they can’t see what the rest of the world sees? Or, as the Serbs may say, “what’s visible from an airplane.”
First of all, it is not the fault of the national team coach. Nevertheless, Aleksandar Djordjevic was fired after the disappointing performance at the 2019 World Championship. Igor Kokoskov replaced him.
If anybody should know what the structural problem is of Serbian basketball, it is Kokoskov. After all, he was the coach of Slovenia that beat Serbia in the 2017 final of the European Championship. Later, he coached Georgia that beat Serbia in the qualifying games of the 2021 European championship. With both teams, Kokoskov exploited the Serbian Achilles heel. This time around, as the head coach of that same Serbian team, he had to mask that fundamental weakness, but he failed. It is not his fault because he has to work within the limitations of his players.
The players should not be blamed either. They didn’t play bad, weren’t lazy, arrogant, or undisciplined, as the Serbian fans and media stated. Those were unfair accusations and utterly untrue. The reality was quite the opposite. They worked very hard and did what they could, but it wasn’t enough.
If the players and coaches are not to blame, who is?
The real culprits are the Serbian youth coaches.
At first glance, their basketball knowledge is undisputed. After all, the Serbian school is famous for producing fundamentally sound players with a solid basketball IQ. That is not the problem. The problem is the selection criteria. That’s where the Serbian youth coaches fail miserably. They get excited by players who show technical skills. They select those youngsters and invest in making them high-level players. That’s the wrong strategy because it is short-term.
Because all of these talented youngsters have one thing in common; they are non-athletes!
When somebody is as big and talented as Nikola Jokic, it may not matter that he is not athletic, but at the perimeter positions, it matters a lot. No guard can play at the highest level if he doesn’t have the physical abilities to play defense.
All Serbian guards lack explosiveness and quickness. As a result, they can’t guard the perimeter. Therefore, Serbian teams are always in trouble when facing opponents with quick guards who can shoot 3-pointers.
Outdated system of talent identification and scouting
Look, for example, at Milos Teodosic. What an incredible offensive talent! He is one of the best guards of his generation and has practically no weak spots in his offensive game. But what about his defense? Well, you can’t say it is bad because it simply doesn’t exist. Teodosic can’t guard anybody. His feet are too slow. He has no explosiveness and no quickness (by the way, those are two different things). There are many more examples like him.
In fact, the whole Serbian selection process and scouting is rotten to the core in ALL sports. Not just basketball.
Look at the football team and compare that to the Croatian team, which is one of the best in the world. The most significant difference between the two is that all Croatian players can run fast.
Also, look at Kylian Mbappé, who helped France win the 2018 Football World Championship, or at Arjen Robben, who reached the final in 2010 with the Dutch team. Both are very fast players. Their speed gave their teams a tactical advantage and offered their coaches numerous mismatch opportunities.
Maybe you can’t compare Mbappé and Robben to Pele, Maradona, or Messi on a technical skill level, but it doesn’t matter. At the very top of professional sports, athleticism is the determining factor. That’s one thing you can’t teach. You can’t turn a slow athlete into the next Usain Bolt, but you can teach everybody how to pass, shoot and dribble.
Therefore, the Serbian youth coaches are to blame for an outdated selection and scouting process. Instead of looking at the current skill level of young players, they should focus on their athletic potential.
Maybe they can take a look at how NBA teams preparer for the draft? They reserve a whole day for the physical examination of draft prospects. They measure explosiveness, speed, strength, agility, and many other things like wingspan, vertical leap, and hand length/width. That says something about the POTENTIAL of a player, and the draft is all about potential, not about current skill level!
Most developed countries have a similar selection system for various sports, and it is the most dominant factor in having success at the highest level.
To make a long story short, the Serbian scouting and selection system is outdated.
On the one hand, Serbian national youth teams are very successful because they are technically more skilled than their opponents. But by the time that these players reach adulthood, their opponents have closed the skills gap and surpassed the Serbians with superior athleticism. That’s the Serbian paradox. Winning at the youth level but failing at the senior level. It is because they have the wrong selection criteria when they identify young prospects. They look short-term (current skill level) instead of long-term (athletic potential).
Maybe it is too much to ask from grass-root youth coaches to understand all the above, but what about the coaches of top teams in the Serbian and Adriatic league? They could have stopped and reversed the selection procedure, but they didn’t.
At the next level, the Serbian Basketball Federation should have identified the selection problem and done something about it. But they didn’t.
That’s incompetence, and that should have consequences. The ones responsible for the disastrous selection procedure and scouting should be fired and replaced from top to bottom.
The future of Serbian basketball
Serbia’s Olympic dreams were shattered yesterday, and now they will shift their ambition to the next European Championship.
Serbia will play in Group D together with Finland, Netherlands, Poland, Israel, and the Czech Republic. Any one of those teams has an excellent chance to beat Serbia.
Serbia plays the first game against the Netherlands. In Serbian public opinion, that should be a walk-over, but the Dutch team has the most explosive backcourt in this group, and their guards can shoot. They are the worst nightmare of the slow Serbian squad.
In the near future, Serbia can forget about any gold medals in FIBA tournaments, regardless of which NBA stars play or not. They have to focus on changing the selection criteria at the youth level and recognize athleticism as a more dominant factor than skill level among youngsters. It is an investment in the future that requires patience because it may take a decade before the next generation produces results.