Freshness encompassed the three-day period, with dozens of teenage rollerbladers inside and out of the court providing the visitors and the fans with flyers, game statistics and information about ULEB and its products (t-Shirts, balls, hats), while every security guard was friendly and for the most part spoke English fluently enough to communicate with.
The Arena itself is one of the most amazing in the continent and the beauty of Prague, as well as its positioning in a very central point of Europe, made the tournament approachable for fans from 37 different countries. ULEBs international broadcast deal with ESPN was one more step ahead for the products expansion, while David Stern, who was sitting next to Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu, was excited about the results and the extensive co-operation between the Euroleague and the NBA over the following years, starting this fall, with games of four NBA teams in six different European cities, as well as the first NBA-Europe Live edition to be released in October.
It was the perfect Final Four for ULEB to prove itself as a world-class organization, after only six years of attempting to completely transform the image of European basketball. It was helped by a marvelously close final game, which was the most exciting and competitive one of the past four years, adding more to the interest for the summer signings in the top European teams, in order to prepare for an ever hotter next season.
The only part that ULEB should have taken better care of was indeed the Junior Tournament. The names of the teams are good enough for the senior level, but not for the Junior one, which resulted in a somewhat watered down tournament. Maybe it would have been more competitive if some non-ULEB teams were invited in the tournament too, because seven of the eight participants were the Junior versions of Euroleague clubs, which may not necessarily be the best to depend on at the junior level. As a result, we didnt see the amount of intriguing prospects we could have, while the tournament could have been more exciting if there were more than two really strong and talented teams, despite the already known ones in CSKA Moscow and Zalgiris Kaunas.
This year, the winner was again CSKA, accomplishing the threepeat, despite presenting a relatively weak team in comparison to the recently remembered ones. Balanced at every position and having one superstar in PG Alxey Shved and many good role players ready to step up, CSKA managed to beat the slightly more talented, but at the end less patient and experienced Zalgiris in an ugly and nervous final game by 59-55. This was a game that featured most of the interesting prospects of this tournament, however their nervousness and the games tightness didnt allow them to show off their skills, due to the tremendous pressure for the win and their young age.
ALEXEY SHVED, 1988, 6-5, Point Guard, CSKA Moscow
27.5 mpg, 14.0 ppg, 19/57 FG, 10/28 3pt, 8/15 ft, 6.0 rpg, 7.3 apg, 1.5 spg, 2.8 topg, 1.0 bpg
Already the MVP in last Januarys LHospitalet Tournament in Barcelona, Shved was known to most NBA scouts due to his length, strong body, splendid footwork, athletic ability, excellent court vision and determination. What he added in our notebook in the two games we watched over this weekend was the feeling of offensive superiority over any single opponent and the excellent use of his size to pull defenses up and come up with amazing assists at any given opportunity. Alexeys athleticism was by far the most obvious aspect of his game, even from first sight. His quickness was also not compared to any other PG in Prague, making him literally unguardable by man to man defenses for any team CSKA faced. His game was mostly dependant on patiently spreading his teammates and organizing the team on the offensive end, looking for the best possible shot selection.
His court vision looks excellent at the moment, not losing contact with his teammates and predicting empty spaces to take advantage of. His ability to come up with a nice offensive conclusion, either by finishing himself or by adding assists to his stat-line was admirable and looked like cake for him. His shooting touch is a bit questionable and this is why he comes with some poor stats line pretty often, but his mechanics seem better than the result. He has a steady jump shot and excellent slashing skills, which end up with nice finishes, impressive dunks or smart assists. Alexey has acquired the confidence to carry his team over any moment of the game and at least twice in the tournament slashed towards the opposing basket in order to get a foul and earn easy points when his team was stuck offensively. On defense, he presented impressive leaping ability, coming up with three amazing blocks, all over taller players, making him a factor on the defensive end especially when it comes to help defense. His defensive rebounding is very good thanks to his splendid leaping ability and as a result, he came up with more rebounds that some teams starting centers this weekend.
When mentioning his offensive confidence, which was obvious, as he could understand himself that he was by far superior in more aspects of the game than any other European point guard of his age group, we should mention that this could have some impact towards his enthusiasm. It seems as Alexey thinks pretty highly of himself, because his shot selection appeared to be poor at some specific moments of both of his last games, showing that he believes he can beat a 5-player team himself. Of course, this doesnt mean that he is a shoot-first PG, but his team became predictable offensively with Shveds exaggerating attempts, especially in the final game versus Zalgiris. This might be a matter of his age, but also a mental issue, as he seemed to underestimate his teammates in some cases, limiting his fine contributing ability and also harming his team game potential.
Additionally, he was constantly overrating his shooting abilities, as he often takes jump-shots or three pointers without weighing his shot and without seeming to have made a clear decision. As a result, his shots often came short, leaving the impression that he would shoot much better if his shot selection would improve. In the final game versus Zalgiris, he was surprisingly used mostly at shooting guard and failed miserably to present any significant scoring and especially shooting abilities. It seems wiser for his coach to keep him at the PG spot for most of the time, as his game is much more effective when he has the opportunity to also create.
On defense, despite his quick legs, strong and big body, he isnt half as determined as on offense. He is still learning that following smaller opponents might not be easy and he cannot organize his teammates that well. Of course, he often comes up with steals and impressive rebounds and blocks, but this happens when the ball is loose, because he has the ability to predict where the ball is heading and usually this doesnt happen when his team is playing man-to-man defense. Also, despite his nice leaping ability, all his blocks came from help defense on other players than the ones he was supposed to guard. Even though he is quick, he lacks the smarts to understand the exact timing that the opponent will be shooting at and in spite of his size and athleticism; he doesnt do as much as he could to prevent a jump shot.
MAMADOU SAMB, 1989, 6-10, Power Forward/Center, Barcelona
26.0 mpg, 20.0 ppg, 22/48 fg, 1/8 3pt, 15/22 ft, 8.0 rebs, 2.7 tpg, 4.0 bpg
Already expected to be the most interesting NBA prospect of the ones participating in Pragues tournament due to his athleticism and ability to play on the perimeter, Samb looked dominant in the paint and was unstoppable with one-on-one defenses. Although his frame is thin and definitely needs to be improved to survive inside, Samb surprisingly already presents the physical attributes, lateral quickness and shooting abilities to succeed in this new position, as before he was more delicate and perimeter-oriented. Sambs perimeter skills were not needed that much, as his team was asking for him to defend the paint, as a strong big man and not play the way he used to. They wanted him to be as close to the paint as possible, so he could use his size and athleticism to come up with easy baskets, and most of the time Samb found it extremely easy to do so.
Playing center for some stretches, he could just grab the ball and finish, usually with a dunk, or shoot from mid-range with fine results. His footwork is much better than your average big man as his thin body is lanky, allowing him to slide and avoid opponents wisely. On some occasions, he tried to move to the perimeter in order to spread the defense, but his coach was looking for him to achieve easy baskets, so his was again back in the paint making it difficult for the opposing team. On defense, Samb was an extremely dominant presence, the only true defensive big man this weekend. His defensive timing was really good, achieving consecutive blocks on some occasions and being alert most of the time. His leaping ability is far better than average and he also showed that he can cover the paint alone. Help-defense also seemed fine thanks to his well appreciated footwork and his long hands, while he also came up with a couple of smart steals over the weekend. His rebounding mechanics were phenomenally good for a guy of his age, as once again, he didnt need much help of teammates. He was the best defensive rebounder in Prague and the one who could position himself better than anyone else.
Despite all the goods, Samb underachieved over the weekend. Not only did Barcelona use him at center for more than they probably should, he also looked passive for longer stretches than expected. Given his defensive tools and athletic superiority, one would expect dominant performances by him, but he seemed mentally down on some occasions. While he was often asking for the ball to become more creative than a post scorer, his teammates were either not passing or he was unable to take advantage of his abilities. At times he was non-existent on the court, even getting blocked by smaller opponents in the high post or even in the paint. Suffering a bit from Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hide syndrome, Samb needed consecutive baskets or blocks to boost his mentality and this seems that is the real case for him, since he moved from the perimeter to the post. When he attempted three-point shots he did it in a clumsy way and on consecutive possessions, not only making it easy for the opposing defenses to guard him, but also helping them to achieve easy baskets. This happened versus Zalgiris when he attempted three straight treys, with the third one being a desperate airball before he was ordered back to the paint. In order to succeed in the post, he has to prioritize the needs of this new role of his. It was obvious that he wanted people to see his skills, his nice passing ability, his three point mechanics, his creativity, but nobody saw all that without also seeing a moody and unstable athlete trying to prove things that his team wouldnt let him do. Samb is a power forward/center now and when he plays like one, he is very good. He has to first learn to create in the paint and then on the perimeter before he can step out to shoot on specific occasions, and only when following his teams system. His mental improvement will allow him to learn all that, because he doesnt lack the skills to succeed at either the power forward or the center position.
FILIP KRUSLIN (1989, 6-6, Shooting Guard, Cibona Zagreb)
25.7 mpg 16.0 ppg 4.3 rpg 2.0 apg 1.7 spg 3.0 tpg FG 18/39 3FG 4/11 FT 8/13
Even though most players of his size and athleticism do not necessarily look to be creative, Kruslin seems to be different in this case. He came up with some nice assists, looking more and more confident with the ball with his hands. His outside shooting isnt that bad, although the stats would argue the opposite, even though the strongest part of his game is his slashing. He can take the ball to the basket particularly well, aided by his speed and athleticism. On defense, he is a fine man to man presence, thanks to his strong legs and big body, and also a good rebounder who can come up with some nice steals.
On the other hand, he lacks the necessary experience to be a steady factor throughout the game. He doesnt have stability on both ends of the court and is not necessarily something more than an average player for his team at this point, without necessarily excelling in many fields of the game. He is a pretty heavy player, in opposition to the more lighter shooting guards of the other teams and will need to improve his lateral quickness to become more agile and flexible. His all-around game looks potentially good, but not in order and as a result the only way for him to present it was against the much weaker Prague 2006 team. He probably needs to play more time against better competition to focus on the shooting guard fundamentals, in order to be judged accordingly. Therefore, there isnt much more to say for him in this incomplete weekend, competition-wise. His status should be improving over time and especially when he plays against stronger competition over the summers Junior European Championships.
IGOR TRELA (1989, Small Forward, 6-9, Prokom Trefl)
27.3 mpg, 10.0 ppg, 10-29 FG, 10-17 FT, 8.7 rpg, 0.3 apg, 1.3 spg, 2.0 tpg, 0.3 bpg
However, despite his upside, Igor is still learning the new position. He still hasnt worked on his three-point shot, looking puzzled when he needs to be creative and having a tough time following defensive small forwards. His shot selection is rather poor as is his ability to move on the perimeter for long stretches. Defending will continue being a hard task for him for a while and he will need to be patient, something that he didnt show here. Also, he seems to lack the necessary confidence and stability that will allow him to boost his morale and become more of a factor, especially in set offenses, as an outside player. He is still learning the position and not yet been able to play at small forward for long stretches. According to him, he has started focusing on his perimeter game only recently and has been constantly improving on his long range shot. The results are yet to be seen and if they arent productive enough, maybe he should become and inside-outside power forward to at least take advantage of his versatility.
ZYGIMANTAS JANAVICIUS (6-4, 1989, Point Guard, Zalgiris Kaunas)
30.3 mpg, 15.3 ppg, 19/45 fg, 2/10 3pt, 21/28 ft, 4.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 3.8 spg, 1.8 topg
The curly haired kid from Alytus had a dominant afternoon on Saturday against Barcelona, showing glimpses of brilliance when he was leading his team with an up-tempo rhythm. Running the floor pretty quickly, slashing also particularly well and definitely having a very good shooting touch, he was the best example of your typical Lithuanian point guard from the moment that Sarunas Jasikevicius appeared on court. Quick, athletic, with a good rhythm, pass-first-for the most part, team-oriented and terrific when it came to running set offenses, he was constantly providing his team with easy baskets and nice assists. He is also a steady shooter and a nice, patient ball handler, showing that he is a natural point guard talent. His court vision is above average and, although he was used at shooting guard for long stretches, especially against CSKA, he is definitely much more important as a playmaker than as a scorer. His alertness also makes him a nice defensive contributor. He can come up with many steals (leading the tournament in this category) due to his quick legs and hands, which he uses to overcome his relatively small size. Hell sometimes allow his opponent to start slashing, only in order to come up with a steal from behind, while he can be particularly effective in zone defenses, where he can cooperate with teammates.
However, his lack of size, leaping ability and physical strength limits his overall potential. Zygimantas has little moves except from the slashing and passing, while his use at shooting guard was like with Shved a move that cost his team a lot of creativity. Offensively, he may be patient and confident, but he is not the best player for creating easy shooting opportunities for his teammates. He prefers open defenses by passing the ball to the very creative Cepukaitis, with whom he been playing together with since childhood and knows very well. On defense, his frame is again too narrow, as most Lithuanian kids at this age seem to be. He is not big enough to prevent opponents from slashing towards the basket and is not good enough at defending spaces either. He may be a fine help defender, particularly in a zone defense (the reason Alexey Shved was shut down in the final), but he cannot prevent the opposing point guard from moving relatively easily through space, filling the stat-sheet, dishing out many assists and coming up with rebounds.