8th appearance after a single tournament absence
For Italy, a summer of transition
Bargnani and Belinelli should have been the rising stars in the Land of the Rising Sun for an Italian National Team that has made a transition from its "old" stars to a new group of very talented youngsters. But the new Number 1 of the 2006 NBA Draft, Andrea Bargnani, will finally not be in Japan…
At the right time, at the right place. In the Land of the Raising Sun, Italy want to show the world that a new era is now beginning for the National Team - better known as the Azzurri. It's a turning point for the team led by Coach Carlo Recalcati. Coming off the disappointing 2005 EuroBasket in Serbia & Montenegro, where the Italians were stopped at the cross elimination stage by Croatia and finished an unsatisfactory ninth place, the FIBA World Championship 2006 in Japan are not only a chance for revenge but also a tough challenge for the rising stars of Italian basketball. For them, the negative outcome at the last EuroBasket meant that their time to replace the veterans had arrived. A large part of the new project is to be ready for the next EuroBasket, held in Spain in 2007, where there'll be a tremendous fight for the two Olympic spots. But the event in Japan is the best way to test the quality of the young and promising players of the Italian league. Most of them are dreaming about a career in the NBA, and for this reason they already are under pressure from NBA scouts. Andrea Bargnani should have made his debut with the National Team after being drafted as the Number One pick by the Toronto Raptors. But on July 15th, because of the pressure the Canadian franchise put on Bargnani, the Italian federation decided not to call its new "Golden Boy" for this summer's competition.
For Marco Belinelli, the NBA is just a matter of time. Neither of them has played with the National Team at the top level before, despite experience at the European Championships for Young Men. But after the last Euroleague season, where Bargnani was a factor in many games with Benetton Treviso and Belinelli was the best scorer of Climamio Bologna at the age of 20, these two guys seem ready to play at the highest level.
Bargnani was seen as the best international power forward ahead of the 2006 NBA draft. He was compared to Dirk Nowitzki because of his height (7-0) and all-around style of play, as a perimeter-oriented forward with a terrific first step and an excellent outside shot. He still needs to work on his rebounding and back-to-the-basket game. But he has rare offensive talent, and he is an excellent shot-blocker.
Marco Belinelli wasn't only the top scorer for Climamio Bologna. Being ranked in the top 20 scorers in Euroleague with 14 points a game is not bad for a guy who turned 20 years just last March. In addition, Belinelli finished as 12th-best three-point shooter with 45%. At 1.96 metres, he has decent size for an NBA shooting guard, especially considering his athleticism and long arms which allow him to play bigger than his height. He runs the floor well, has good overall speed and quickness and is an explosive leaper. But his favourite weapon is his outside shot thanks to his quick release, which reaches well beyond the NBA three-point line. Plus, don't underestimate his fade-away jump shot.
Two players, two rising stars. But they are not the team. The key to the four medals won by Italy in the last eight years (one gold, silver and bronze each at the EuroBaskets plus the silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens) was teamwork. No NBA players meant no stars with their one-on-one style of play. Defence was number one, then sacrifice for the team-mates. Italy also controlled the tempo, allowing them to stay within the game plan for 40 minutes. With the addition of extremely talented players like Bargnani and Belinelli, the quality of the offence should have change, using more fast breaks and a more effective transition offence. But nothing must change in the team's defensive attitude. At least half of the team will be comprised of rookies or "sophomores" at this level of competition: Stefano Mancinelli (an athletic small forward able to play as power forward who has improved his range of shot) and Angelo Gigli (a power forward who can play both the small forward and centre positions) made their debuts at senior level only at the last EuroBasket. That was also the case for Marco Mordente, a shooting guard who also is a warrior.
If the final decisions are still yet to be determined, coach Carlo Recalcati's desire is to show at the FIBA World Championships the best mix of young and experienced players. For this reason, a backcourt with Marco Belinelli and Gianluca Basile will be an insurance against the inexperience. In addition, the backcourt features Massimo Bulleri as the starter at the point and Matteo Soragna, a silent killer on both sides of the ball. There'll be youngsters, like Gigli, in the power forward position as well as possibly Luca Garri (back in the team after the 2004 Olympic Games and a slip in 2005) But, like with Basile in the backcourt, Denis Marconato will probably play the same role among the guys in the paint.
Italy will be a team that has to show many things. The main one will be pride for their history and tradition of winning medals in European Championships and Olympic Games. But they are still without a single top-three finish at the World Championships. In addition, Italy will also want to show that they can duplicate its history with young guys like Belinelli, and in the shape of upcoming Luigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari. They hope the future is already there but in a new style and with guys who finally can play on top level.
At last, Italy has to show that FIBA made the right decision in granting the Azzurri a wild card for the World Championships, ahead of Russia. The goal in Japan is initially to reach the eighth-finals of the tournament from Group D which includes the United States, Slovenia, China, Puerto Rico and Senegal. But making the quarter-finals is more than a wish…