MANILA, Philippines -- Serbia may be without its best player in the upcoming FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, but they remain an elite team that are the odds-on favorite to win the ticket to the Tokyo Games.
This, according to Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin, whose squad will take on Serbia early morning Thursday in Belgrade.
"How do I see (Serbia) without Bogdan (Bogdanovic) and (Nikola) Jokic? I see them as world-class. I see them as elite," Baldwin told reporters ahead of the qualifiers.
Denver's Jokic, the newly-minted NBA Most Valuable Player, opted not to play in the OQT. Meanwhile, Bogdanovic and the Atlanta Hawks are still playing in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they trail the Milwaukee Bucks, 2-1, in their best-of-seven series.
Serbia will be bannered by Dallas center Boban Marjanovic and Miami forward Nemanja Bjelica, both of whom were in the lineup for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. The powerhouse squad had crushed Gilas Pilipinas, 126-67, in the group round in Foshan.
"I would think Serbia right now, arguably is in the Top 3 teams in the world," said Baldwin. "Obviously if they had Jokic and Bogdanovic, that would probably cement that thinking."
"But, this is a country that continuously produces great players and great teams, and as importantly, maybe the best coaches in the world," he added.
"So when you put all of that together, you should expect an extremely high caliber of basketball team."
Aside from Marjanovic and Bjelica, Serbia will also feature veteran point guard Milos Teodosic, who now plays for Segafredo Virtus Bologna following a stint with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The rest of the squad are: Filip Petrusev, Nikola Kalinic, Dragan Milosavljevic, Vasilije Micic, Stefan Jovic, Devan Davidovac, Aleksa Avramovic, Ognjen Dobric, and Danilo Andjusic.
Calling the shots for Serbia is Igor Kokoškov, the former head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
"Now that they're playing for a berth in the Olympics, and at home, you put all that together, and you have a formula for a great team," said Baldwin. "That's what we expect to run out on the court against in a couple of days."
While he knows that his young Gilas squad will be a massive underdog against Serbia, Baldwin is looking forward to the lessons that they will learn from the experience.
The Philippines has sent a team of amateur standouts to the FIBA OQT, with none of their players having seen action in the PBA.
"We come in here excited, feeling good, but understanding that this is a very, very big step up in level for our basketball team," said Baldwin. "But we expect to compete, we expect to take a lot of lessons out of this. So, very excited to be here."
Gilas plays Serbia at 2:15 a.m. on July 1, then take on the Dominican Republic at 2:30 a.m. on July 2.