FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) Tony Parker is back and France will be looking to retain the title at the European Basketball Championship that starts over the weekend in four cities across the continent.
Originally scheduled to be held in Ukraine, the competition was moved because of the unrest in the east European country and will be spread around before the medal round in France.
Group stages will be held in Montpellier, France; Berlin; Zagreb, Croatia; and Riga, Latvia, with the opening round on Saturday.
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Four teams from each of the six-team groups will advance to the knockout stage in Lille, France, which will host the final on Sept. 20. The finalists will qualify for next year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Parker sat out last year’s World Cup, but the San Antonio Spurs guard has returned to lead a France team loaded with NBA players that will be hard to beat.
France won its first title two years ago in Slovenia, when Parker inspired his team to victory over Spain in the semifinal and over Lithuania in the final. Spain had won the previous two titles and is expected again to be among title contenders.
Parker is not the only National Basketball Associated star headlining the tournament.
Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks is back to lead Germany and Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls hopes to restore Spain’s supremacy, to mention just a couple of them.
Here is a look at the four groups:
Group A, in Montpellier:
While France is the overwhelming favorite, it will be a close battle for the other teams in the group – Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, Poland and Israel.
France can also count on the NBA experience of Nicolas Batum, Nando de Colo, Boris Diaw and Mickael Gelabale. Russia is rebuilding, while Bosnia is without its Phoenix Suns shooter Mirza Teletovic and Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic.
Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings leads a balanced Israeli team. Veteran Petteri Koponen and shooter Sasu Salin pace Finland, while center Marcit Gortan of the Washington Wizards is the key player for Poland.
Group B, in Berlin:
Easily the toughest group, with the exception of underdog Iceland. Nowitzki is 37 and wants to go to Rio. Dennis Schroeder of the Atlanta Hawks may be the playmaker Germany has been looking for.
Gasol leads an experienced Spain team that opens its campaign against unpredictable Serbia, which unexpectedly finished as runner-up to the United States at the World Cup last year. The versatile Nemanja Bjelica, newly signed by Minnesota Timberwolves, is the player to watch. Pau Gasol’s brother Mark and Ricky Rubio are absent.
Danilo Gallinari of the Denver Nuggets, Brooklyn Nets center Andrea Bargnani and Marco Belinelli of the Sacramento Kings, plus former Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics player Luigi Datome, headline a powerful Italy squad.
Forward Ersan Ilyasova of the Milwaukee Bucks may not be enough to get Turkey into the knockout stage.
Group C, in Zagreb:
Greece guard Vassilis Spanoulis is considered as one of the top players in Europe despite a quiet stint in the NBA. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks should guarantee Greece a place in the top four of the group.
Croatia has one of the most talented teams in years. Dario Saric, drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, and Mario Hezonja, headed to the Orlando Magic, plus Bojan Bogdanovic of the Brooklyn Nets, make Croatia a medal contender.
Without its American-born guard Bo McCalebb, Macedonia will find it hard to advance. Georgia relies on the Dallas Mavericks center Zaza Pachulia, while the Netherlands is an unknown quantity.
Slovenia could run into problems without Miami Heat shooter Goran Dragic.
Group D, in Riga:
The Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas is the star of Lithuania, which has a well-balanced squad that could be another medal contender. The group is also a contest for Baltic bragging rights since Latvia and Estonia are in the same bracket. But they don’t have Lithuania’s depth.
Ukraine’s biggest worry, apart from the situation at home, could be the loss of American coach Mike Fratello and the bulk of the team that reached the quarterfinals two years ago. Recently naturalized American-born point guard Jerome Randle will be leading the youngest team in the tournament.
The Czech Republic features former NBA center-forward Jan Vesely and Barcelona point guard Tomas Satoransky, while Belgium will be hoping for an upset.