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New Format for Basketball’s World Cup Has Very Good Players Feeling Very Frustrated

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Luka Doncic, a leading contender for N.B.A. Rookie of the Year, was unhappy on Friday, and for good reason. His Slovenian national team was not granted automatic entry into next year’s FIBA World Cup as the reigning EuroBasket winners and now won’t be going at all.

“I’m so disappointed,” Doncic said in an interview after Friday’s practice with the Dallas Mavericks. “We’re the European champions. We should be playing.”

Doncic, 19, is averaging 18.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists for the surprising Mavericks, quickly affirming Dallas’s belief that one of Europe’s best young players had instant N.B.A. star potential.

But without Doncic playing, Slovenia is 2-8 in World Cup qualifying with two games to go. Under the previous system, the country would automatically have made the World Cup, which will be played in several cities across China next summer.

A controversial format change for the World Cup instituted by FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, has forced 80 countries to compete for the 31 open slots in the field alongside the tournament host, China, via regional qualifying. It is similar to how the soccer World Cup entrants are decided.

Two-thirds of the qualifying games, however, clash with the N.B.A. schedule. Unlike their soccer counterparts around the world, who are released to their national teams for qualifying matches via what are known as “international breaks,” N.B.A. players and the majority of Euroleague players are not allowed to leave their teams during the season to represent their respective countries.

In Slovenia’s case, that has meant no Doncic, no Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat and the need for a new coach. Phoenix Suns Coach Igor Kokoskov had to surrender his Slovenia post once he took the Suns’ job.

The United States also did not receive an automatic berth for the 2019 World Cup as part of the new format — not even as the defending World Cup champion and reigning Olympic champion. But the Americans clinched a spot with a victory Sunday in Uruguay under Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who has posted an 8-2 record in qualifying, relying mostly on players from the N.B.A.’s developmental G League.

Thanks to the efforts of Van Gundy and the 46 players he has used in qualifying thus far, USA Basketball will be able to send its usual squad of N.B.A. All-Stars to China under San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who has replaced Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski as the full-time national team coach.

Led by Doncic, Dragic and Kokoskov, Slovenia made a Cinderella run to the title at the EuroBasket tournament in 2017 — something Doncic described as “more amazing than anything in my life.”

“To be European champions and not be in the World Cup, it’s tough,” Doncic said Friday. “I don’t know why they changed it.”

Asked how his countrymen were taking it, Doncic referred to the fan support Slovenia received during its EuroBasket run and said: “You saw the final in Istanbul. They live for us.”

FIBA instituted the soccer-style regional qualifying structure largely with the hope that bringing meaningful home games to every country in the competition — as opposed to summer qualifying tournaments at a centralized location — would help increase interest in the sport. It did so, however, knowing that the best players for numerous countries would not be available to participate.

For Slovenia and any other nation that fails to qualify for China, earning a spot in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be challenging. It will require an invitation to one of four last-chance qualifying tournaments shortly before the Olympics start in 2020. Only the four bracket winners in those tournaments will advance to Tokyo.

Doncic acknowledged that leading Slovenia to its first-ever Olympic berth in basketball is one of his major career goals.

“Olympics, next EuroBasket, next World Cup — I want to play for the national team whenever I’m available,” Doncic said. “If I don’t have injuries, I’ll play.”


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