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4th appearance after a 4 tournament absence
Trying to exist
Finishing a surprising fifth at last year’s FIBA Americas Championship, Panama will make its comeback to the world stage this summer, 20 years after finishing 13th at the 1986 World Championship.
Let’s make it clear from the start, Panama is not in Japan to make it big. Even new Argentinean coach of the Panama National Team, Guillermo Vecchio, publicly said a tenth place should be considered a reasonable goal for the squad. In the last 20 years, Panama hasn’t even earned a berth to a FIBA world competition, whether the Olympics or the FIBA World Championship. Now is the time to see if things can slowly turn around.
During the 2005 summer, Panama showed some promise by hedging usual powerhouses Puerto Rico and Canada. Even though both of them were missing their best player (Carlos Arroyo and Steve Nash, respectively), the country mostly known for its strategic canal had to fight its heart out to qualify. Things didn’t really start out the best way as Panama lost three of their first four games in the tournament. With their back against the wall, Panama had a turn-around game against eventual finalists Argentina. Trailing by five at halftime and facing elimination, the former Spanish and Colombian colony came back from nowhere to win by five points.
Driven by former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, Panama found a new identity and never looked back. They would go on to win their last four games, finishing a surprising fifth, the last qualifying spot. What seemed really interesting about that team was its defense, as well as the fact that many players were able to take turns with scoring duties. Last but not least, as the tournament progressed, young stud Danilo “J.R.” Pinnock was assuming more and more leadership at only 21 years of age. He would average 16.7 points per game on 55.3 percent shooting during those last four games. Since then, Pinnock had a noticeable junior season which prompted him to declare early for the NBA Draft. Dallas selected him with the 58th pick and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Probably one of the few true all-around players on the team, Pinnock brings a lot to Panama, a nation which lacks a true superstar while every other country in the FIBA World Championship has at least one. The Mavericks thought of Pinnock as a shorter version of Josh Howard who was a key factor in this year’s playoffs for Dallas. At 22, Pinnock still has a lot to learn and will probably be in a discovering mode in Japan, knowing very little about FIBA basketball at its highest level. Aside from a global lack of experience, Panama is facing another challenge. Even though he’s not necessarily a better coach than Vecchio, Nolan Richardson was the main man behind Panama’s qualification for the FIBA World Championship. Now that Richardson is gone, the team will have to rebuild some kind of momentum.
Fortunately, Panama were drawn into Group B, not exactly the strongest of groups, And the Central American squad has a real opportunity to make it to the Round of 16. The biggest challenge will be finding a way to balance the offense, since Panama is almost exclusively built on short athletic guards and offensively-challenged power forwards. No frontline player seems to possess a go-to move with his back to the basket. They usually score on put-backs, short hooks, lay-ups or dunks. In an international landscape where so many inside players are now able to shoot from the three-point line, Panama seems old school in an odd kind of way. To make things worse, no player on the team stands taller than 6-9, which would be a good enough reason to use agile and good-shooting paint players. And even worse, none of the perimeter scorers is a real threat from behind the three-point line, which makes for a very predictable offense.
Therefore they will have to be very disciplined on both ends of the court and use their physical strength, especially against nations like Japan or Angola, who are also in Group B. Panama's numerous excellent rebounders should be able to block out the paint and wait for the ball to bounce on the rim. Even though he’s new to the team, Coach Vecchio knows a thing or two about winning and has already coached on the world stage, with Argentina at the 1996 Olympics. Although he wasn’t the one who really brought the Ginobili generation to the top, Vecchio clearly laid the foundation for what came into being. He seems able to use his players to the best of their ability, not asking them to do things they can't do. Vecchio will try to run a pass-first offense and change the Panama mentality. And the coach will be helped tremendously by newcomer Ed Cota, a true playmaker who can really control the tempo on offense. With Ruben Garces also back, Vecchio will probably have at hand the best Panama national team ever assembled. He will try to make the best of it and the small country of 3.2 million people proud.