At the same time as Bojan Bogdanovic was averaging 17.8 points per game and shooting a scorching hot 47 percent from three on the Pacers’ recent trek through the great American West, the Croatian National Team star’s hopes of representing his home country in the 2019 World Cup were dimming overseas without him in the city of Vilnius.
After losing 79-62 to first-place Lithuania (9-1), Croatia’s talent-diluted roster dropped to fifth-place in Group J with a record of 4-6, which means they no longer control their own destiny.
In the second round of qualifying, only the top three teams from each group advance. In order to finish in third, Croatia will have to sweep both games in the third and final window taking place in February against third-place Poland (6-4) and fourth-place Hungary (5-5) while also relying on Poland to lose to the Netherlands (3-7), who are currently in last and have already been mathematically eliminated from contention.
A two-way or multi-team tie (depending on the outcome of Hungary’s match-up with Italy) would then be decided by win-loss in all games among the tied teams.
Put simply, it doesn’t look good.
And it gets worse: As of 2020, qualification for the Olympic Games goes through the World Cup. If Poland doesn’t cooperate in February, then being selected to take part in an Olympic qualifying tournament as one of two wildcard teams from Europe will be Croatia’s only possible path to Tokyo. This, just one cycle after Bogdanovic led all scorers at the 2016 Olympics in Rio with 25.3 points per game as his team advanced to the quarterfinal round.
Part of the blame belongs to FIBA’s calendar reform. Outside of the windows played in late-June and mid-September, Croatia was without Bogdanovic, Dario Saric, Ivica Zubac, and Ante Zizic due to scheduling, but they also squandered opportunities when the heavy-hitters were available.
The Croatians lost both games in September, first falling to Lithuania by a point without Jonas Valanciunas or Domantas Sabonis and then dropping a heart-breaker to Poland in which Bogdanovic poured in a team-high 22 points on 50 percent shooting despite having his leg stepped on early in the second quarter.
“It’s tough to talk after this kind of game,” Bogdanovic said at the time. “We did a little bit better job than the last game. We started very aggressive, but in the second half we didn’t play smart enough to keep them from scoring easy lay-ups and a couple of threes in transition and we had some unnecessary double teams that didn’t work. It’s tough for us, tough for our national team to be in this situation right now but we have to fight.”
Fight as they might, the prospective free agent who currently boasts the highest field goal percentage in the NBA on all shots from 10 feet and out (minimum 150 attempts) now appears destined to have a rare two summers off from wearing his national team’s jersey.
Over the last three seasons, despite having come off the bench for 26 games with the Wizards, Bogdanovic ranks second on the Pacers in minutes played (5,297), trailing only Thaddeus Young (5,517). However, tack on the minutes he’s logged in international competition since 2016’s Opening Ceremonies (not counting friendlies), and he’s played over 200 minutes more than any player on the roster.
Downtime might do his body good, but there’s no telling if the same will be able to be said for the spirit of the Croatian National Team.
“We’d practically skip two summers, which is around three years. It’s a long, long time to this European Championship and I do not know who will stay and who will not,” the sharpshooter told Nova TV of the possibility of missing the World Cup and Olympics, via Croatian News Daily.
Given that he’ll be 32 years old by EuroBasket 2021, Bogdanovic’s last, best chance to represent Croatia on an international stage under the brightest lights was likely just dealt a death knell while he was more than 5,000 miles away.