Do y’all even realize how abnormal this is?
Luka Dončić is already in many top 10’s, some top fives, and is a future MVP in the eyes of many. In fact, he was one of the favorites to win the award prior to last season, just his third in the NBA. He settled for 27.7 points, 8.6 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game, elevating to 35.7 points, 10.3 assists, and 7.9 rebounds per contest in a memorable first-round exit to the Los Angeles Clippers in a seven-game thriller. Now, he’s doing improbable things on the most prominent international stage the basketball world has to offer.
Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia until the country disintegrated in the early 1990s. Since then, Serbia and Croatia have developed two of the world’s consistently best and most relevant basketball programs. Slovenia’s become a solid program in their own right over time, but not nearly as successful as Serbia or Croatia until now.
Slovenia started significantly gaining ground in the mid-2000s in EuroBasket competition. Eurobasket is a tournament that was held once every two years from 1935 until 2017, save for a couple of distinct instances, like World War II. The most recent EuroBasket tournament took place in 2017, with a scheduled return for 2022. It will now be once every four years, but with the Olympics being pushed back due to COVID, EuroBasket will be in 2022.
EuroBasket consists of 24 teams, and until 2005, Slovenia never finished higher than tenth, earning a sixth-place finish. In 2009, they reached fourth, and after falling to 12th place in 2015, they won the entire tournament for the first time in 2017, thanks to tournament MVP Goran Dragić, as well as Dončić, who made All-Tournament Team as an 18-year-old. Slovenia had qualified for the FIBA World Cup in 2006, 2010, and 2014, finishing in the top-10 each time out of then-24 teams, but didn’t qualify in 2019, even as the tournament grew to 32. And, until now, they’ve never made it to the Olympics.
Firstly: It’s extremely challenging to qualify for the Olympics in basketball (and in general). There currently are 168 ranked men’s basketball programs, 124 on the women’s side, and only 12 make it to the Olympics from each. Slovenia didn’t even get all that close to qualifying for the 2016 games after a 3-3 showing in EuroBasket. All of which is to highlight how unusual this 2021 performance is.
Argentina, who were the FIBA World Cup runner-ups in 2019, entered the Olympics as the No. 4 ranked best team in the world. Slovenia not only defeated, and not only dropped 118 on them in four 10-minute quarters of a more physical brand of basketball, but he scored 48 points. In his Olympic debut.
Slovenia is 17-0 in games that Dončić has played with them internationally, so yes, that includes the 2017 EuroBasket, where they finished a perfect 9-0. In these Olympics, they went undefeated in group play. The 118-100 win over Argentina, a 116-81 ass-whooping over host Japan, and a 95-87 outlasting of Spain. Slovenia went headfirst into the knockout stage and blew out Germany 94-70, and they now await France in the semifinals, guaranteeing them at least one more game left in Tokyo. A victory will give them a shot at the gold medal against the winner of Team USA vs. Australia, and the two losers will play for the bronze.
You have to be unbelievably good to do what Slovenia is doing on the national stage, and while it’s led by Dončić, it’s really not all him and only him. Even with their 4-0 record in Japan, Dončić didn’t even lead the team in scoring twice. Denver Nuggets forward Vlatko Čančar paced Slovenia with 22 points in the win over Spain, and Zoran Dragić, Goran’s brother, had a game-high 27 points against Germany in the quarterfinals.
In the semifinals, USA will play Australia first on Thursday at 1:15 P.M. Japan Standard Time, which is 12:15 A.M. on the East Coast in America. Slovenia plays France at 20:00 Japan Standard Time, so that’s 7 a.m. on the East Coast out here. If Slovenia is the last team standing, well, that would mean they won the bronze medal, because the third place games are actually after the gold medal rounds. But, if Slovenia does win the gold, they’ll be the first men’s basketball team to win gold in their debut Olympics — outside of the very first games, of course.