FIBA 2023 World Cup: Analysing The Latvia Roster

With the 19th edition of the FIBA Basketball World Cup beginning on August 25th, there follows a look at the rosters for each of the 32 teams taking part. This instalment looks at the team from Latvia, who came within one jump shot away from the semi-finals in what was their first ever World Cup appearance.

Artūrs Kurucs

  • PG/SG – 6’4 – Born 19th January 2000
  • Promitheas Patras, Greece

Until this summer, when the eight-year contract he signed in 2015 finally expired, Kurucs had – a couple of loan periods to get experience excepted – been with Baskonia in Spain. But while Baskonia play in the EuroLeague, Kurucs, for the most part, did not. And when he did, he struggled with the physicality and size of it all quite markedly. Last year, though, he did at least bring his patented jumper with him, and shot 45.5% from three-point range in EuroLeague play to partner his 42.3% in the ACB. Shooting is by far and away the money-making aspect of Kurucs’s play, and when his feet are set on open looks, he does not miss. Off the dribble, things are less certain, but the speed of his release means that small slithers of space will usually do, and the speed of his feet helps as well. When on the ball, Kurucs struggles to get separation against high-level defenders, yet he has some quickness that should see him get better at this over time; when not on the ball, there is plenty of movement to find a shooting opportunity. Defensively, Kurucs again struggled against EuroLeaguers, but even if he only ever makes it as a shooter in this game, he is nonetheless a very good one.

Artūrs Žagars

  • PG – 6’3 – Born 21st April 2000
  • Free agent

Indelibly linked to Kurucs on account of being in the same age group, the foundational pieces of the national youth teams at their age group and their shared first name, Zagars has also been a prospect seemingly forever, never quite kicking it into top gear. That is, until last year. Moving to Lithuania to play for Nevezis in Lithuania after five years in Spain with Joventut Badalona, Zagars had a break-out campaign, averaging 15.6 points and 4.4 assists per game in LKL play. It was enough to get him a spot on the Washington Wizards’ summer league team. and to entrust him fully with the keys to the national team here in the World Cup, where he emphatically broke out for the second time in a year.

Zagars is an excellent ball-handler, and plays accordingly. He has decent speed, but more importantly, he has an excellent change of speed, which he uses along with balance, footwork, tenacity and never losing the handle to get into the lane even against superior athletes. From there, he can float, contort, pull up, kick to the corners, dump the ball off to the dunk possessions or hit the roller, a player with all the weapons when in motion and with the control over which to go for. And when he is not in motion – just acting as an off-ball shooter and/or a decoy – he is good at that too.

As a defender, while no turnstile, Zagars has been less impressive, and does not project well at the very top level. But as he has shown here in international play, the potential and the long slow incubation period thereof has come good. Zagars only signed with Nevezis for one year, and thus enters free agency after the best run of play in his life. The EuroLeague will surely come calling.

Kristers Zoriks

  • PG/SG – 6’3 – Born 25th May 1998
  • Petkim, Turkey

Zoriks completes the trinity along with Kurucs and Zagars of young guards who have tantalised at every junior level that are now leading the seniors. He too broke out at club level last season, averaging 16.7 points and 5.0 assists per game in VEF Riga’s admittedly rather brief Champions League campaign, numbers he near-enough mirrored in the Estonian/Latvian league (the two countries share a league, or at least a top division). Zoriks lands somewhere between his two running mates; the former Saint Mary’s guard is a good shooter like Kurucs (not as efficient but with a higher volume of contested looks) with a more point-guard mentality like Zagars, and might have the upside of the latter if he had the same levels of quickness. As it is, Zoriks creates, probes and finds his way into the lane off the pick-and-roll with changes of speed and hesitations rather than a first step, and finishes with an arsenal of runners, floaters and bankers. There is a lot of craft in what he does. He was clearly raised right. Defensively, Zoriks gets busy, has some good upper-body strength and thus can cover both guard positions, so long as said guards are not track stars. He therefore brings a solid two-way game; between him, Arturs Kurucs and Arturs Zagars, the long-teased backcourt trio all came through. Exciting news for the next decade of Latvian basketball.

Aigars Šķēle

  • PG – 6’4 – Born 4th December 1992
  • Stal Ostrów, Poland

Offsetting the young trio in this tournament was the veteran Skele, who has the best pure assist numbers of any of them. Last season for Stal, he averaged 14.9 points and 7.1 assists per game in Polish league play, third in the league in the latter category behind only veteran Americans Courtney Fortson and Earl Rowland, and while Poland is an assists-friendly league, it speaks to the way he plays. Latvia played some beautiful stuff in this tournament, and what made it beautiful was the frequency and speed with which the ball zipped around; Skele was as responsible as anyone for that happening. A fine passer and excellent ball-handler, he has incredibly slick moves with the ball in his hands and dances his way to the spot, zipping passes and with great offensive instincts to seek out and expose opportunities. The shooting is decent rather than great, the defensive imprint is not huge and the lateral speed could be better, yet as he showed in this tournament, Skele can make even the best opponents march to his tune.

Dairis Bertāns

  • SG – 6’4 – Born 9th September 1989
  • VEF Riga, Latvia

All that passing needs some shooting, and just like his younger and much taller brother Davis below, Dairis provides plenty of that. Not last season, admittedly; in his fifth season in Spain’s ACB with Real Betis, Bertans had by far his worst campaign, averaging 6.5 points per game on only 29.7% three-point shooting. The old man is slowing down a little bit. Yet this mark is also the aberration in a long career of excellent marksmanship that also saw him gain NBA interest at one point with a midseason contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. At that time, I wrote this about his performance:

  • There was a time that Bertans did more driving. There was a time that he took more turns handling the ball rather than purely casting up the jumpers; he was always aggressive with them, but he did at least do a little more than just take them, including play defence. Over the years, better jump shot selection has led to better outside shooting efficiency, but at the cost of much variation in his game. And when it came to the NBA level, the defences were just too big and quick for him to be effective.

For both Betis and Latvia, that is all still true; truer, even, as he enters the last stages of his fine career. Yet let it not be forgotten that Bertans is still a heady veteran with an excellent shooting stroke and some craft for getting open. He was a wise choice for the veteran complimentary piece, who was there on the bench in this tournament to hand the baton to Arturs Kurucs.

Artūrs Strautiņš

  • SF – 6’7 – Born 23rd October 1998
  • Reggio Emilia, Italy

Strautins has had his basketball education in Italy, where he has now got a near-decade of high-level work, A Eurocup player from as young as 15, he is well-seasoned at high levels, and broke out in the 2021/22 season as a Serie A starter. Accommodating Lithuania’s Osvaldas Olisevicius tempered his production last season, yet Strautins still averaged 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 0.5 steals in 15.3 minutes per game, making solid defensive contributions through his hands and positioning to offset the inconsistent offence. Always guilty of taking too many jumpers, Strautins nevertheless hits a few shots, ones that are hard to contest given his good size for the wing, and he throws in some high-dribble drives from the perimeter at well. There can be another big leap forward if he ever deploys his offensive impulses more consistently.

Dāvis Bertāns

  • SF/PF – 6’10 – Born 12th November 1992
  • Oklahoma City Thunder, NBA

As explored in a piece partway through the season, Bertans’s NBA career has been on a fairly sharp slide, and since that time, he was traded once again as a negative asset, Dallas moving his contract to Oklahoma City to trade down in the draft. Having never diversified the offering beyond the catch-and-shoot jump shot, while also making the mistake of sliding onto the other side of 30, his allure is not what it was and will never be again. Nevertheless, the shot will not leave him, and nor will the 6’10 frame. If you give Bertans minutes and devise plays to get him open for looks, he will get you three points at a time on minimal (if any) dribbles). Latvia did this, because despite the good forwards around him, no one else shoots this well. Perhaps there is a spark in the fire that the Thunder can throw a log on.

Rodions Kurucs

  • SF/PF – 6’10 – Born 5th February 1998
  • Murcia, Spain

Arturs’s brother – seems fair to call him that just as often as Arturs is called Rodions’s brother – has been rebuilding his career after his time in the NBA ended due to stagnation. To do so, he has moved around a lot; just between 2021 and 2023, he has played for Partizan Belgrade, Real Betis and Strasbourg, and is now signed with Murcia for 2023/24, after also being passed around three different NBA teams in 2020/21. None of this is conducive for a player who, obvious talent level notwithstanding, could benefit from some stability to properly hone it. Still, all the moving around has not suppressed Rodions’s core abilities, as evidenced by the 10.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game that he averaged in French league play last season. He is still not as good of a shooter as his playing style suggests – nor as good of one as Arturs – yet being 6’10, athletic, versatile and face-up is still an extremely rare package. Maybe there is still a path back to the NBA for him yet.

Andrejs Gražulis

  • SF/PF/C – 6’8 – Born 21st July 1993
  • Trento, Italy

If it is not too strange of a thing to say of a man in his 30s, Grazulis was one of the breakout players of the entire tournament. It is not that he was hitherto unknown – four years in Italy after outgrowing the Latvian domestic league had proven that he could cut it against quality competition. Rather, he just hit a different level. Grazulis averaged 14.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks on a piping-hot .711 true shooting percentage, combining the defence he has long been known for with a stand-out offensive display, taking advantage of the gravity of all the quality around him. The key to the defensive scheme, Grazulis can guard all across the frontcourt and hold his own when switched onto guards, using his timing and footwork to get to the spots identified by his great hands, and his good hands work on offence as well in how he catches and finishes on the pick-and-roll. A player without a high level of athleticism should not be able to impact the game to such a degree against the world’s best oppositions like Grazulis did here. But he did, because an excellently-run Latvian offence got him the ball where he could roll, shoot the jumper or drop a soft floater in the lane, and he got them into the right spots on defence. A star turn from a veteran role player.

Rolands Smits

  • PF – 6’10 – Born 25th June 1995
  • Zalgiris, Lithuania

Smits has fashioned a long and distinguished career, and after leaving Barcelona in the summer of 2022 after four years there, he stayed in the EuroLeague with Zalgiris. Even when he changes team, he merits a spot in the top competition. Last season, Smits averaged 9.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 38.3% three-point shooting in 23.4 minutes per game in EuroLeague play, playing better defence than his low stocks numbers suggest. Competitive on switches, always contesting and strong enough in his base to guard the five spot, Smits has offensive versatility through his smarts, shooting and scoring on the move. He is not an isolation scorer nor an isolation defender. But this is basketball, it is not meant to be an isolation game. Keep ball and man moving, as Latvia did in this tournament, and Smits will be a big contributor on both ends.

Klāvs Čavars

  • C – 6’10 – Born 11th February 1996
  • Yokohama Excellence, Japan

You almost never see Latvian players in the Japanese league, but this is where Cavars will play next year, after a season with Start Lublin in Poland for whom he averaged 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.2 blocks per game. There is nothing remarkable on the surface about what he does or how he moves; a below-the-rim player with decent but not exceptional size for the paint, Cavars does not immediately draw the eye. He is, however, almost always in the right spot. Be it on the roll or the offensive glass, if the ball is moving around him, he will find some space, as well as taking deep catches and post touches for his favoured righty hooks. Cavars does not have the three-point range everyone looks for these days, topping out at just beyond the free throw line, yet with soft touch, softer hands, positional sense and enough size to be an obstacle, he makes consistent lowlight contributions whenever he is in the game.

Anžejs Pasečņiks

  • C – 7’1 – Born 20th December 1995
  • Real Betis, Spain

Pascenicks was drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers on account of the offensive potential he was thought to have, in a rare 7’1 frame. But despite six years in Spain’s ACB, he just has not kicked on, and the idea that he might be a floor-stretcher just has not come to pass. In fact, over the entirety of last season split between Betis and Levallois in France, he did not hit a single three. Despite being bigger than almost everyone else when he takes the court, Pasecniks still struggles to impose himself on it – there is some screen-and-roll play and some post catches, yet Pasecniks is neither hugely strong nor hugely athletic, and if there is anyone between him and the rim, he cannot do much to create space. If he tries to shoot over them, the defence will not mind. And going the other way, while 7’1 is a defensive presence by fault and Pasecniks does block some shots in the paint, it comes with a perpetually enormous foul rate attached. Some long-armed dunks tease as to his potential, but at this point, Pasecniks has plateaued as a role player. Perhaps he can still grow as a defensive anchor as he enters the prime of his career, but he is not what the 76ers thought they were drafting.

Group A: Italy, Angola, Philippines, Dominican Republic

Group B: China, Serbia, Puerto Rico, South Sudan

Group C: USA, Greece, Jordan, New Zealand

Group D: Egypt, Mexico, Lithuania, Montenegro

Group E: Germany, Finland, Australia, Japan

Group F: Slovenia, Cape Verde, Georgia, Venezuela

Group G: Iran, Spain, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire

Group H: Canada, Latvia, France, Lebanon

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