When Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari finally joined the team this summer, the additions felt natural and refreshing at the same time. Both long-established NBA veterans, their respective seasons ended with an early playoff elimination and, for Gallo, also in an unexpected, overnight move from California to Oklahoma. The FIBA basketball World Cup in China, where they will lead Italy along with Captain Datome, provides them with a chance to leave their mark on the azzurri’s legacy, a tough task that could be the highlight of their already impressive careers.
To advance past the quarterfinals, a threshold Italy hasn’t been able to cross since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the azzurri will need Belinelli’s shooting to be both prolific and efficient. The Spurs’ guard, arguably the best shooter in the modern history of Italian basketball, has proven to be more than capable of raising the bar when called upon in FIBA competitions. A 37,5% three-point shooter in his NBA tenure, he has averaged a stunning 44,6% from deep at the 2017 Eurobasket. In Meo Sacchetti’s system, Belinelli will have the green light to shoot in high volumes and his shot selection, at times a little reckless, won’t be over-analyzed.
Gallinari’s contribution to the azzurri will be his much needed ability to make plays, a skill no other Italian big man shares, but also his ability to both shoot from distance or drive to the basket and get to the free-throw line. An undisputed offensive beast, in a team with a lack of other bigs available to Sacchetti, Gallo will also have to focus on rebounding way more than he’s grown accustomed to do in the NBA where he averages 4,9 rebounds per game throughout his career.
As for Datome, another veteran who has played on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, he will simply need to keep exercising his leadership, on and off the court, where Italy needs its Captain to be the heart and soul of the team.
In the aftermath of Ettore Messina’s resignation following the elimination at Eurobasket 2017, Italy’s near future looked hazy and challenging. The frustration for a decade of perpetual underachievement was tangible and the next World Cup Qualifying Games loomed over any potential successor. What newly appointed head-coach Meo Sacchetti could bring to the table was his relaxed, funny personality and his joyful, down-to-earth approach to the game. Nonetheless, all of that, along with the rapture provided by a bunch of players who barely had a chance to wear the national team’s jersey up to that point, proved to be just enough to start this new journey with the right footing. Italy then navigated through the 15 months of the qualifiers with relative calm, snatching up the final victory at home, in Varese, against Hungary.
Stripped of its NBA and Euroleague stars during qualifying, Italy’s roster found comfort and continuity in veterans such as Luca Vitali and Pietro Aradori and much needed efforts from rising leaders as Amedeo Della Valle, Paul Biligha and Awudu Abass. More than anything, the azzurri shaped their new collective identity: a cohesive idea of basketball where each player recognized his role and seemed at ease with it. That’s probably the most precious breakthrough of Italy’s latest campaign, and one Meo Sacchetti hopes to continue when the team boards the flight to China.
The Group & Matchups
Truly a man who never missed a chance to make a bold statement, Charles Barkley will always be remembered for the infamous line ‘I don’t know nothing about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble’. That was Barcelona ’92, of course, and The Dream Team’s forward owned all the bragging rights, but those unfortunately chosen words may still hold up today.
According to the pre-tournament odds at least, Angola’s in trouble and will face a uphill battle to qualify from Group D. Besides the passion of their incredible fans, neither of the two teams on the surface appears to have what it takes to be a real threat to Italy. The azzurri will make their World Cup debut on August 31st against the Philippines and, two days later, they will face Angola. Even if they’ll be hands-down favorites in both games, they’re also must-wins for Belinelli and his teammates.
In order to reach the knockout stage of the competition, they will have to face Serbia in the final game of the preliminary round. Italy’s dreams of glory have often been shattered by the Serbians, most recently at Eurobasket 2017, and the azzurri would rather not play against Djordjevic’s team with the qualification still in jeopardy. A couple of victories against the Philippines and Angola would secure at least second place in the group and therefore alleviate the pressure over the confrontation with Bogdanovic, who tore them apart, pick and roll after pick and roll in the aforementioned game two years ago.
As much as Andray Blatche and Yanick Moreira will keep the azzurri busy near the rim, things will get tougher against Serbia and its endless reserve of muscle and height. Dealing with Jokic, Marjanovic or Raduljica, not to mention suitable substitutes Milutinov or Kuzmic, might result into another mission impossible. Resistance in the paint would have been feasible with Nicolò Melli on the floor, but the injury occurred to the brand new Pelicans’ big man will take away Italy’s most solid rim protector, leaving under-sized centers Biligha and Burns at the mercy of the Serbian juggernauts.
Super-small line ups with Gallinari or playing the jack-of-all-trades forward Jeff Brooks at center will be an option for Sacchetti, although the subsequent disadvantage in terms of physicality and rebounding presence could jeopardize Italy’s chances to come away with a victory. On the other hand, the azzurri’s defense on the perimeter will need to border on perfection, meaning that Hackett, Abass and Cinciarini will literally have to shadow Bogdanovic and Teodosic for the entire game. And yet again, all of that might just not be enough to get over Serbia, that’s why the first two games, which are more than winnable on paper, will be crucial for the azzurri.
It’s no secret at all: Italy is a country of great singers and musicians. From tenors to movie score composers to old and new pop icons, Italians know how to write and sing a song. It came as little surprise, then, that the azzurri, through Sacchetti’s tenure so far, has sounded like the feel-good hit of the summer: cheeky, enjoyable and easy going. The problem however is that, come World Cup time, the summer will almost be over.
Usually, most of those hits tend to vanish well before the trees start losing their leaves, and Italy’s at serious risk of drifting into the same direction. To escape instant oblivion, the azzurri will have to fight against two legacies: one of the World Cup and their own. Built around the vision of coach Meo Sacchetti and his score-first, run-fast and shoot-if-you’re-open mentality, the azzurri will likely have to outscore their opponents if they wish to advance in the tournament.
The good news is that the roster is packed with talented offensive players, from established staples Belinelli, Datome and Gallinari to Amedeo Della Valle, Italy’s top scorer in the qualifying rounds with 17.8 points per game, and Alessandro Gentile. The bad news, though, is that the history of FIBA competitions proves that low-scoring outcomes are common, especially in win-or-go-home games, and that a tough defense is often the deadliest weapon in those occasions. Plus Italy’s own legacy of victories and medals relies on defense-oriented teams of limited scoring talent but filled with players willing to dive for loose balls and put their bodies on the line.
Throughout the qualifying games, the azzurri held the second lowest percentage of points in the paint (32,7%) of all European contenders and it’s easy to predict that this tendency will continue in the forthcoming World Cup. Given the lack of big men available, it also looks like a very logical approach but it’s a very tricky one nonetheless. Italy will be the epitome of the hit-or-miss team, with much of its eventual success decided by the overall three point percentage. The azzurri will likely need to do better than the 37,6% overall recorded in the qualifying games, and a good chunk of Italy’s hopes will be in Gallinari’s hands. He shot a remarkable 44,6% last season with the Clippers, but dropped to an excruciating 30,2% in the six games played against Golden State in the first round of the playoffs, and is expected to take Italy’s offense on his shoulders. Gallo, who hasn’t played in any FIBA competition since 2016, will probably share the burden with Belinelli during crunch time.
Back on the World Cup stage after 13 long years, the azzurri will land in China with a shot at being the dark horse of the tournament. Italian supporters, who haven’t had a chance to celebrate in a fairly long time are more than ready.
To revist our musical metaphor. The finest masterpieces often come from a place of doubt. With recent history seemingly against this team and with a probable size disadvantage in every big game, the odds may indeed look doubtful for the azzurri past the group stage. But Coach Sachetti and his team will also be aware that this tournament provides an opportunity to forge a new history and identity for Italian basketball at the top level.
If those three-pointers do go in.
If the team builds the right kind of chemistry.
If the stars of this team can raise their game.
And if Coach Sachetti can act as the maestro for this team composing its own beautiful masterpiece…
Then the Italian fans will sing a chorus like nobody else in the world.