Fresh off a silver medal finish during the 18th Asian Games in Indonesia, Iran's roster remains largely unchanged as it takes on the Philippines in a FIBA World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifier match on Thursday.
While initial reports said that veteran center Hamed Haddadi and budding power forward Arsalan Kazemi may not be available on Thursday night, a roster obtained by ESPN5 shows that only one player from the Asian Games will not play; Rasoul Mozarfarivanani replaces young guard Navid Rezaeifar.
Iran will look to continue its five-game winning streak during the qualifiers against a retooled Gilas Pilipinas squad.
With legendary playmaker Mahdi Khamrani, famed marksman Hamed Afagh and forward Oshin Sahakian having retired from national team duties, the Iranians return just four players from their last FIBA Asia Championship team in 2013. Haddadi, versatile forward Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, backup guard Aren Davoudi and reserve slot man Rouzbeh Arghavan are now the mentors on the Iran squad.
Haddadi is still the focus of this team. The former 7-foot-3 NBA starter is still quick and agile with added range (although he has yet to make a 3-pointer in the competition). Haddadi still leads the team and averages 16.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. He's only 33 years old, but the wear and tear of a life dedicated to playing basketball practically the whole year since he was fourteen years old is beginning to show.
Nikkhah is perhaps the one that has reinvented himself the most. Known as Iran's second option when defenses begin stifling Haddadi, the 6-6 former French league mainstay would charge to the hoop or take his leisurely mid-range shots to loosen up the interior for his center. Nikkhah still scores in bunches averaging 12.8 points with a decent 81.2 percent clip from the stripe. However, what makes him more dangerous now is that he has evolved into a facilitator as his 6.8 assists per game actually leads the entire tournament.
His usual targets, apart from Haddadi, have been the budding core of point guard Sajjad Mashayekhi (10.5 PPG with 2.3 SPG -- tied for fourth in the tournament), Benham Yakhchali (15.5 PPG with 45.5 percent from 3), 22-year-old backup forward Vahid Dalirzahan (10.0 PPG with 50 percent from 3), former NBA Draftee Arsalan Kazemi and former Meralco Bolts import Mohammad Jamshidi. Iran's offense still relies on quick ball movement and locating shooters on the weakside. They, of course, still go to Haddadi in the paint if the opposing defense is smaller.
Coach Yeng Guiao's first challenge is to figure out the right balance on defense. Going man-to-man gives Haddadi more opportunities while playing zone defense allows Iran's shooters to get involved. With the Philippines' tallest post defender being 45-year-old, 6-9 Asi Taulava -- followed by a phalanx of leaner 6-8 options -- Guiao and his staff will have to get creative when guarding Haddadi.
Nikkhah is also going to be another major concern as he may draw out additional big men to watch him in the long court. Mashayekhi is a swift and shifty ball handler while Yakhchali, Dalirzahan and Kazemi are dead shots from the perimeter.
This Gilas incarnation, however, has one advantage: It is almost impossible to scout.
New additions such as Alex Cabagnot, Scottie Thompson and Ian Sangalang have not been visible on the international stage. It's been years since Marcio Lassiter played for the program and Allein Maliksi has had very little exposure outside of the SEABA tournament.
The core of the Asian Games quintet (with the exception of Christian Standhardinger and Paul Lee) have flown under the radar but have been thriving under Guiao's tutelage. Under former Coach Tab Baldwin, Gilas defeated the Iranians in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship knockout stages with the Philippines employing a stingy defense.
While Iran has shown marked improvement in the competition, all it takes is for Haddadi to get into foul trouble, Nikkhah to get frustrated (he is their emotional leader) and the young shooters to get bothered by relentless ball hawking, for them to become vulnerable.