A new generation of German basketball are heading to China, for the FIBA Basketball World Cup of 2019 and it is time for them to find new heroes on international basketball’s biggest stage.
After they discovered their fate in the official draw, matching up with France, the Dominican Republic and Jordan, there has been little to stop optimism from growing within the camp like wild fire. Whilst France will provide formidable opposition, Germany will go to China confident of qualifying from the group. Their strong showing in qualification will only build on their confidence.
Legendary forward Dirk Notwitzki recently stated that he was ‘super excited’ by the potential of the current roster at the disposal of head coach Henrik Rödl. High-profile talent such as Dennis Schröder and Maxi Kleber are players that he feels confident handing the baton to, as he slowly creeps out of the back door of basketball with little fanfare. However, as is often the case with qualification, Germany have an all-for-one, sustained team effort with star cameos to thank for their place in the tournament.
It was fairly smooth sailing in the first round, as the Germans swept through a Group G that included Serbia, Georgia and Austria, without losing a game. The second round began in in September of 2018 and it presented more of a challenge to the team in Group L. Germany finished the round 3-3, as the competition intensified and difficulty of opposition heightened. As well as slipping up against Israel in Tel Aviv, Germany lost both of their games against a strong Greece side who topped the group as the teams forged an interesting rivalry that is worth monitoring, should they meet in the latter stages of the main competition. Momentum could be an issue, as Germany began to falter when qualification was virtually secured. At the close of qualification, they sit at 9-3 overall and finished second in their group, having scored 1017 points through both rounds – more than any other European outfit.
With Nowitzki retired from the national team since 2016, Germany’s most recognised figure is Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Dennis Schröder, who showed exactly why his name holds so much weight during the four games in which he featured. When available, Schröder was the team’s unequivocal focal point; the 25-year-old had the highest usage rate among all European players in qualification (37.9) and only one other player scored more total points than him for Germany, despite his small four-game sample size. He averaged 23.5 points, while handing out an impressive 7.5 assists per game and was active on the defensive end. It is expected that he will feature heavily as a leader when the World Cup begins in August and his performances in these games justify this.
In September, during the clinching overtime win against Israel, Schröder set a new assists record for the European Qualifiers, dishing out a total of 13, while scoring 30 points. “I think we can be a pretty tough team to beat,” he said just month after. “We will go to China with ambitions and we aren’t afraid of trying to have a good run next summer at the FIBA World Cup. We are not going to China for fun.”
It’s also worth noting that in an effort to demonstrate his skill and adaptability even further, Schröder took his game to streets, when he graced the 3×3 court in Hamburg during downtime from the NBA season, as part of the 2018 ING 3×3 German Championship.
The German team’s highest total scorer throughout the campaign was 30-year-old Besiktas forward Robin Benzing, who featured in eight games, logging 146 points at an average rate of 18.3 per game and 49% efficiency. Interestingly, in two of the team’s three losses, Benzing and his significant scoring punch were absent from the team sheet. When the team were missing Schröder, he was a huge component of the team’s success. Back in November, he articulated the challenges that present themselves when a team attempt to build consistency, while maintaining a certain level of quality through qualifying:
“It’s not easy to get new guys in the national team who weren’t there last summer all together on the same page and to get good games against good teams,” Benzing told basketball.de. “Every team in Europe and in the world is playing good basketball; there is no easy opponent anymore.”
“I think that we played really good in qualification. It was not easy for us but also for other teams.”
The most impactful mainstay for the German side was Ismet Akpinar, who – along with Karsten Tadda and Bastian Doreth – donned the uniform for all twelve games, averaging 7.2 points per game and 37.1% from beyond the arc. The play of the promising 23-year-old guard buoyed the team consistently as the roster rotated around him throughout both rounds.
One of the more romantic stories over the course of qualification is the performance and growth of 27-year-old forward Maxi Kleber, who reaped the rewards from the international platform to showcase what he can do at a high level, while earning himself a call up to the NBA. After going undrafted back in 2014, Kleber excelled for teams such as Bayern Munich in Germany and when he featured in the qualifiers, he continued that form during a period that aligned with his breakout for the Dallas Mavericks, where he has become a solid contributor. As the team battled for their place in the World Cup, he contributed with 6.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 11 points per contest. He impressed particularly when combining with Schröder, when the duo shared the court like they did in a tough battle against a strong Serbian side.
A potential x-factor for this German side could be Johannes Thiemann – an immensely athletic forward who brought a great deal of energy to the front court in the ten games that he played. In just 14.2 minutes per game, he logged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, from 57% field goal percentage. Some teams boast players that can create a spark from the bench with highlight plays that galvanise his teammates; Thiemann does exactly this for Germany, as he proved when he completed a contested baseline dunk against Greece in 2018 that caused a few ripples in the online basketball community.
While the team will be delighted by the positive displays shown from the personnel that have contributed so far, they will be ever more enthused by the potential to bolster the squad even further with players like Boston Celtics big Daniel Theis and small forward Paul Zipser. After spending most of his career representing various German teams, a 26-year-old Theis was picked up – seemingly out of nowhere – by Boston General Manager Danny Ainge to strengthen the NBA team’s frontcourt and has served the team effectively, which his national side hope will be the case for them too. He did not play a minute in in either qualifying round, but it would be safe to predict that he could play a part in the summer. Former Chicago Bulls forward Zipser played a single game in qualification and put up 15 points in only 16 minutes. Unfortunately however, he missed some key games due to a foot injury. It is expected that he will likely feature for the team going forward, offering skills and experience at the highest level when healthy.
“Right now, I feel pretty good,” Zipser told FIBA last month, making his intentions clear. “Every week of practice and games, I feel better and more comfortable on the court. I’m happy. My foot’s happy right now. I missed playing for the national team a lot. I just wanted to get back with the team, with the coaches and enjoy my time on the court, get as many minutes as possible”
Another potential development to look out for is the possible inclusion of physical centre Moritz Wagner and 19-year-old forward Isaac Bonga. As a by-product of a depleted Los Angeles Lakers roster, the developing Wagner – a Berlin native – has found an opportunity to start for the team on a few occasions and has recently become somewhat of a bright spot for them when called upon. Wagner did not take part in any qualification games, but has won gold with the German Under-18 FIBA Europe Championship in 2014 and led the team in scoring through the 2017 FIBA Europe Under-20 Championship. Similarly, Bonga has featured heavily in youth competition for the national side and has joined Wagner in trying to establish himself in Los Angeles, going back and forth from the G-League. In qualification, he was awarded only a handful of minutes of playing time.
Unlike many of the successful World Cup teams since the tournament’s formation, Germany don’t have a team of seasoned veterans with fully-defined roles, but they certainly have the talent. A strong showing would be seen as progress for this side but they have enough weapons to make some noise if they find their form early on. Success in this tournament and qualification for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 would be major steps for the team.
As Nowitzki told BIG magazine, “If everybody is healthy, then the DBB (German Basketball Federation) has assembled a great young group. It’s been fun observing the positive development”. There is a growing feeling of belief amongst this German side that on their day, they can compete with any other top-tier team in the world. Dirk is arguably the greatest European basketball player to lace them up and his crowning achievement for the national side was a bronze medal at the 2002 tournament. He is not alone in hoping that the group being ushered in to represent his country through this generational shift can surpass his triumphs.
The fondly-remembered Nowitzki legacy is now complete and a new one may be underway, with Schröder & co ready to take the mantle.