The Knicks are well-represented at FIBA and have been showing out across the board during group play, but only one country can win it all.
While some are wasting their time debating the merits of what qualifies a “World Championship,” others are actually trying to win one. There are five Knicks players in the FIBA World Cup, not to mention a few other former legends of Madison Square Garden. The basketball version of the World Cup has had 36 teams competing in arenas in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan. Now that group play has ended, it is time to check in on how the various members of the Knicks organization are performing for their home countries.
The five Knickerbockers are representing four different countries in this tournament, three of whom have moved on. The one Knick to be eliminated is the leading scorer from the Knicks and one of the top five scorers in group play. That, of course, is every fan’s favorite $73 million man: Evan Fournier.
The jokes write themselves about FIBA Evan Fournier, who is an absolute bucket when not wearing his Knicks uniform. Whether it is the more open style of play in FIBA tournaments or the fact that France can hide him a little more defensively, something clearly changes when Fournier suits up for his home country. His scoring barrages for France drew a lot of attention and made Twitter go aflame, but did not help them win any games.
Most points in the FIBA World Cup so far:
72 — Jordan Clarkson
71 — Luka Doncic
70 — Joshua Hawkinson
66 — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
65 — Evan Fournier
Luka has played in one less game than the others. pic.twitter.com/FpeUo3L8n4
— StatMuse (@statmuse) August 29, 2023
France was the first team eliminated from the 2023 World Cup, which was wildly disappointing for the runner-up from last Summer’s EuroBasket competition. Even with a 19-point, single-half scoring outburst for his home country, Fournier and France could not help themselves from choking against Latvia. That game was a heartbreaking loss to eliminate them after already being crushed at the hands of Canada.
Evan Fournier with 15 points in the first quarter pic.twitter.com/b0OTQsuQyW
— New York Basketball (@NBA_NewYork) August 27, 2023
Knicks fans across the globe lamented that the Fournier who can be an absolute flame-thrower and put up 15 points in a given quarter couldn’t get off the bench for the Knicks last year. It is a fair and valid gripe, one that I am sure he would agree with as well. He has continued airing his grievances about the lack of opportunity under Tom Thibodeau, as he believes he can still help someone in the NBA. His FIBA performance certainly backs up that idea and makes it seem as if he can still contribute.
With France out of the competition early, there is less Fournier to fixate on. The toxicity from the Knicks fandom will probably subside a little bit in that case, at least when Canada is not playing.
It would be quite hypocritical for me to say people should not overreact to FIBA games when it is quite literally what I do. However, I already wrote about what was important to see from Team Canada RJ, and he is doing all of it. He has historically had a slow start at the beginning of every season, but this off-season makes it seem like it may be different. There have always been valid reasons to believe in RJ Barrett, and the FIBA World Cup is bringing them to the forefront.
In three games for Team Canada, RJ has looked like a star in two of them. The opening game against France said more about the French than it did about Barrett and his team, but the latter two games showed what RJ is capable of. A comeback win against Latvia and a blowout against Lebanon have helped Canada look like top contenders in this tournament.
Efficiency has been the name of the game for the Maple Mamba representing the Great North. Coach Jordi Fernandez is unlocking something in the 23-year-old with the tempo that they are playing with. Playing next to SGA has not hurt either as RJ has shot the ball well off the catch, and been able to get in good rhythm getting to the rim and pushing in transition.
RJ Barrett's highlights vs Lebanon
Nice to see the 3pt shot go down in today's game pic.twitter.com/Et9udrt3qN
— Julieanne Gilchrist (@JulieanneGilch1) August 27, 2023
In the latter two games for Team Canada, RJ Barrett is 16-26 from the field at 61% and more importantly 7-12 from beyond the arc. 58% from deep is not realistic, and it is obviously a small sample size. However, shooting 6 threes a game with efficiency off the catch is a massive sign of growth for RJ and what needs to improve for that mythical leap that has been projected for the last two years.
The three-point shooting is a huge positive, but the downhill finishing is far more sustainable. Watching what Barrett is capable of in a fast-paced offense that runs and guns, with a guard that can find him, is nearly mesmerizing. If Canada is going to contend with the United States, it is going to be because RJ Barrett can carry some of the load and take the weight off the shoulders of SGA.
Another impressive effort from RJ Barrett’s in Canada’s victory today:
22 points on 9-of-14 shooting
4 made three-pointers (4-of-6)
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) August 29, 2023
Knicks fans should be watching Canada with bated breath to see if RJ can continue this hot stretch and lead Canada to the promised land. Or at least, closer to the promised land than they have ever been before.
The most predictable yet intriguing part of the early FIBA stages is the Team USA dominance while working through the kinks. There have been some lineup adjustments, some struggles with Brandon Ingram, and a Filipino love fest for Austin Reaves. They have done what they are supposed to do, but it has not always been pretty.
The stars have not necessarily played as stars, and the second unit has been the difference maker through group play. The lineup change was warranted but it leaves a lot of questions for the crunch time lineups and who Kerr will call on in big moments. With Haliburton and Reaves making waves from the bench, it does call into question what the role will be of Captain Jalen Brunson in the important games.
Jalen Brunson in 44 minutes through his first two FIBA games:
Extremely solid start for Jalen 👀🔥 pic.twitter.com/HTWoxnyMj3
— BrunsonMuse (@BrunsonMuse) August 28, 2023
For right now, Brunson is taking what the defenses give to him and it is coming pretty easy to him. He has shown the same ability to manipulate defenses and create his own offense that he did all year for the Knicks. The step up in competition for Team USA will make things interesting as they do not have a clear-cut star that they have had in years past. Anthony Edwards seems to be the self-prescribed man for those moments, but nobody would question it if Jalen Brunson had the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
The new “Captain America” has some pressure on him to see this through, but the ball is literally and metaphorically in his hands.
Josh Hart, however, has had a different start to his FIBA experience. He has quickly become the heart and soul of this team, similar to how he impacted the Knicks after the deadline. The ultimate role player, Josh Hart is still doing the little things at a high level, just now with the flag on his jersey. He was added to the starting lineup to replace a struggling Brandon Ingram and looks to remain there as they progress through the tournament.
josh hart is currently averaging 18.0 rebounds per 36 minutes in the 2023 FIBA World Cup lol
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) August 31, 2023
Steve Kerr has talked about the tenacity that Hart brings to the team but also how his strength presents a mismatch. He started at the 4 and led the team in rebounding at 6’4. It can almost feel unquantifiable, what he brings to the table; however, if you look at the box score, some of his impact is extremely quantifiable. He does a little of everything and impacts the game in nearly every way possible. There is a reason he was added to the roster, and there was a reason Kerr went to him as soon as he needed to bring some energy into the starting lineup.
The focus is on Rokas. You are welcome I have a wonderful editor that wanted me to discuss all five Knicks in the World Cup because if I had my way, this article would have been a Lithuanian special. The Lithuanian Lefty has been lighting up for his home country and giving us believers reason to hold out hope for what he can be if he ever comes over to join the team. Rokas is not the only Lithuanian with a connection to the Knicks as former Knicks legends Iggy Brazdeikis and Mindougas Kuzminskas both don the green and gold as well.
Rokas had a good game in the blowout win against Mexico as Lithuania did what they were supposed to do. The Mexico game was a nice performance for Rokas, but their first two games were blowouts against lesser competition.
Former Knicks second round pick Rokas Jokubaitis in a win versus Mexico:
5/10 from the floor
3/4 from downtown
2/2 from the charity stripe
Lithuania beats Mexico 96-66 👀 pic.twitter.com/XTsAVnZMWF
— Let’s Talk Knicks (LTK) (@LetsTalkKnicks_) August 27, 2023
Against Montenegro, however, there was a competitive matchup against another talented team. The difference in that game was that Lithuania had a point guard who controlled the game, and that is exactly what Rokas did. An absolutely masterful performance, he was near perfect on both sides of the court. He controlled the pace of the game and was able to manipulate and control the defense with the utmost efficiency.
Terrific all-around game for Rokas Jokubaitis in Lithuania’s victory over Montenegro today.
Rokas finished with:
19pts (on 9-for-12 shooting)
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) August 29, 2023
On Sunday, Lithuania will match up with the United States and Rokas will get to face off against his Lefty Knicks Point Guard counterpart: Jalen Brunson. The rest of this tournament will go a long way in showing how ready Rokas is to play at the next level. Lithuania is without a doubt talented, but without Domantas Sabonis, they are going to have their work cut out for them deeper into the tournament. If Jokubaitis is able to control these games and continue to show that level of mastery as a floor general, they can be really dangerous.
With two player-of-the-game performances under his belt and all the momentum in the world right now, he is somebody to watch going forward. Rokas Hive should be at an all-time buzz and if he can keep this up and maybe even beat Team USA, Rokas Jokubaitis will become a household name.
“We all know what the situation is. They have 2 Knicks players, Hart & Brunson. It will be a fun matchup to play against the US…great challenge”
— Knicks draft pick Rokas Jokubaitis on Lithuania’s 2d round World Cup game vs the US
— New York Basketball (@NBA_NewYork) August 29, 2023
What To Watch For
The next round of group play should add an additional level of competitiveness with the step up in competition. Team USA is in a group with Lithuania, as well as Montenegro and Greece, so both teams are favored to advance again. Meanwhile, Team Canada is in a group with Brazil, Latvia, and Spain. While they are still the heavy favorite to make it out, there is plenty of talent in their group and they cannot slip up.
The Lithuania/USA matchup on Sunday is well worth the wakeup for the 8:40 a.m. EST tip-off live from Manila. That is probably the matchup of the round, only followed up by the Canada/Spain game tipping off at 9:30 a.m. from Indonesia (I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Willy Hernangomez playing for Spain). Set your alarms for Sunday morning because those games will have major World Cup implications, and put these respective Knickerbockers on the main stage.
These matchups may tell us a lot, or may not, but they should be entertaining games at the very least. If this round doesn’t do it for you, the odds heavily favor a US/Canada finals matchup where RJ Barrett vs. Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart might be the main event. If that doesn’t get the blood rushing of every Knicks fan, nothing will.
So, while there is a long off-season with endless debate and bad-faith arguments about historical legacies and Damian Lillard, for now just enjoy some international basketball. While not everybody chose to play in the World Cup, there is still some high-level talent throughout the tournament. It is a great place for American fans to get introduced to players that may have great careers just in different countries, or guys that may be coming over in the future. Enjoy the beautiful game that is international basketball and watch the many Knicks run amok the World Cup until the regular season gets closer…