Frank Ntilikina, Rudy Gobert
ESNY Graphic

Team France is poised for a deep run at the FIBA World Cup with Rudy Gobert as the anchor in the paint and plenty of NBA talent flanking him.

It’s rare when an international basketball competition like the FIBA World Cup is considered “wide open.” However, this could be the best chance for a nation to knock off USA Basketball in quite some time. Why not France?

Rudy Gobert is without a doubt one of the five best players playing in the event. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are one and two. After that, it’s Gobert, Kemba Walker, and Donovan Mitchell.

Names like Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum, and Frank Ntilikina don’t jump off the page as all that dangerous. But there’s no doubt that France has legitimate NBA talent.

Perhaps most importantly, the format of the World Cup is conducive to upsets. There are no seven-game series in which the more talented team can outlast a weaker roster. After the first two rounds of group play, which France is sure to advance out of, it becomes single elimination. Think NCAA Tournament except most of the teams speak a different language.

Their Competition is Vulnerable

With Team USA entering the 2019 FIBA World Cup weaker than usual, there’s a golden opportunity for another country. Of course, Gregg Popovich is the only head coach who will have a full roster of NBA players so no one is feeling sorry for Team USA.

It’s also worth noting that the Americans haven’t lost a game in international competition since 2006. In other words, Team USA is still the favorite to take gold.

However, the best of the best dropped out early and often. Whether it was the change in timing of the World Cup, the NBA’s free agency shakeup, or some other factor is irrelevant.

One thing is clear: Team USA is vulnerable.

Spain could be putting forth a lesser version of themselves this tournament. The Spanish aren’t in the same stratosphere of dominance as Team USA, but they are an international power in their own right.

It’s impossible to overlook Greece with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. Nick Calathes deserves a shoutout for being a former NBA player and a triple-double waiting to happen. Despite those two, Greece is light in the way of top-tier talent. Nonetheless, Antetokounmpo is the best player at the World Cup, making Greece dangerous.

Serbia is led by one of the breakout stars from the 2018-19 NBA season—Nikola Jokic. The unique big man looks like he’s wearing sandals when he plays, but he will dance circles around the defense no matter the footwear.

Furthermore, Jokic will have a solid supporting cast of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Boban Marjanovic, and Nemanja Bjelica. Serbia is the trendy pick to knock off the Americans.

Rudy Gobert as the Anchor

Gobert is the best defender in the entire world. Anyone who argues with that statement is bending over backward to do so. Gobert is the two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Not to mention, he finished second to Draymond Green in 2016-17.

Gobert’s strengths are magnified by FIBA rules. His elite rim protection plays even better in FIBA play where there are no restrictions on zone defense and there is no wonky rule about the basketball being above the cylinder. As soon as it hits the rim, the Stifle Tower can swat the ball away.

When Gobert is on the floor, France is a suffocating defensive unit that can stymie anyone. Ntilikina is as longer than a fifth-period math class and although his offense hasn’t clicked in his NBA career, he can guard anyone.

Batum, for all his baggage with the Charlotte Hornets, can still guard multiple positions and he’s one of the most experienced players on the French roster.

That is valuable on a team that will rely on cohesion and continuity on offense. Vincent Collet has been the head coach of France since 2009. The offense is fairly simple, but effective.

France will run a constant variety of pick-and-rolls for Gobert, but they rarely force the issue. Despite the simplicity, it can be enthralling to watch. They manage to lull the defense to sleep before dropping off a perfect pass for an easy bucket time and time again.

Look for France to sneak that guy into the dunker spot and punish teams when they inevitably lose track of him. After all, Gobert’s gravity as a roll man should free up his teammates often.

Of course, a deliberate offense is great in theory but can backfire once crunch time hits. Fortunately, France has a very capable wing scorer in Evan Fournier of the Orlando Magic.

I know, I know…Evan Fournier? He’s no superstar, but in terms of wing scorers at the World Cup, he’s no slouch. Over his last four seasons, Fournier is averaging 16.2 points on 44.9% shooting from the floor and 36.7% from three-point range.

In Closing

So where does this all leave France? They’re ranked third in FIBA rankings but are fifth in the betting odds for the World Cup behind Spain (+1600), Greece (+1000), Serbia (+350), and of course, USA (-225), per Oddsharks.

At +2800, France isn’t a bad play for the intrepid bettor. Again, think more NCAA Tournament not NBA Playoffs for this competition.

France is in Group G with the Dominican Republic, Germany, and Jordan. In other words, they are a lock to advance into the second group stage where they’ll likely face some combination of Australia, Canada, and Lithuania. Solid competition, but again, France should advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals.

At that point in time, anything can happen. Vive la France!

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.