France’s hopes rest on big man Gobert

SHENYANG, China (AFP) - France hope a team filled with NBA players and led by the league’s towering two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert have a good shot at winning the World Cup in China.

Gobert, the 7ft 1in (2.16-metre) Utah Jazz centre, has taken over the mantle of France’s leading star from the now-retired Tony Parker, the four-time NBA champion who took French basketball into a new dimension.

At guard, Evan Fournier of the Orlando Magic is capable of posting 30 points on any given night as well as feeding the ammunition to the big men.

The veteran Nicolas Batum of the Charlotte Hornets brings a decade of NBA experience, and the New York Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina and the battle-hardened Europe-based guard Nando de Colo provide ample backup for Fournier at point guard.

The return of Gobert to the international side after he and Batum sat out the 2017 European championships means France, in contrast to rivals the United States, Spain, Serbia and Canada, have the strongest possible team at their disposal.

It is the presence of Gobert that really gives France a chance of going further than the 2014 worlds when they were beaten by Serbia in the semi-finals and finished third.

Gobert has NBA career averages of 10.5 rebounds and 11.1 points per game, not to mention shot-blocking ability that will intimidate many of France’s opponents.

France completed their buildup with a 61-56 defeat to Serbia in Shenyang on Tuesday, but both nations left their big guns on the bench.

With so much NBA know-how, Fournier says there is no reason why France can’t topple the Americans, who are shorn of their biggest stars.

“We’re coming to win. Who dreams of finishing second? The USA are the most talented team and they’re the strongest. But in a single match, who can say 100 percent that it’s impossible to beat them?” Fournier said in an interview on the FIBA website.

Before getting a crack at Kemba Walker and his US teammates, France’s path is fraught with danger.

Their opening group game on Sunday pits them against Germany and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroeder in Shenzhen.

If France lose to the Germans, their second-round opponents could be Australia, another team with deep NBA experience who beat the Americans in a warmup last week.

Batum said France would show a different mentality once the World Cup begins.

“On Sunday we’ll have to double our efforts. It will be a new era, a new team and a new style of play. We know what we have to do so we can avoid the disappointments of 2016 and 2017,” he told L’Equipe.