July 2004. Zaragoza, Spain. European Junior Championships. Nemanja walks off the court again, but this time no applause rewards his game. The love story has ended. The expectations were logically very high, and he has not been able to live up to them. The future god of Euro ball is now seen as a mortal who is still a long way from success, as the legions of doubters grow and gain ammo.
What has happened to Nemanja's immense talent? Has he played so badly to warrant such doubt? Why hasn't he been able to shine?
Throughout the year, we had been hearing reports of a season far from the brilliance that the Cadet Championships in 2003 seemed to promise. Averages of barely 10 pointsâincluding a painful 19% from three-point rangeâand 4.5 rebounds per game in the Serbian 1B league (a second division there), numbers that were exceeded by his buddy Dragan Labovic, didn't sound impressive at all. As significantly, he never enjoyed the substantial playing time the Reflex first team expected to give him. A minor injury might have slowed him early in the season, and as Reflex had one of the best Serbian teams in the country (eventually winning the Adriatic League), Nemanja was limited to a couple brief appearances.
It was not the statistical drop that disappointed fans at the European Junior Championships; such a drop was expected as Nemanja battled mostly players a year or more his senior. Rather, it was the feeling of a lost brilliance that hurt him. The once amazing no longer amazed. Most of the audience was considering a repeat of last year's performance a given, and was expecting even more. He failed to match it.
The perception of disappointment should not hide the reality about Aleksandrov. He is the same ultra-skilled and physically very gifted player. But that account of his gifts, as positive as it sounds, carries a negative fact: Nemanja has hardly improved over the last year. He is almost the same player, but a year older, and with almost no professional experience under his belt.
I said âalmost' because there is one aspect where he has actually regressed badly: his perimeter shooting. That 62% from behind the arc he achieved last summer in Rivas looks far away right now. His struggle throughout this season culminated in the 22% he shot on three-point attempts in Zaragoza.
His poor shooting has affected his entire game. His confidence seems lost, and he cannot find a way to score consistently. Serbia focuses on playing a team system, and they did so during the tournament. Unlike other teams' offenses, theirs offers little facilitation for the star to shine. Under those circumstances, one of the best options for Aleksandrov to score is to try from the perimeter. When his shot is not falling, life becomes much more difficult, as the spaces to penetrate get smaller and the confidence to try different things disappears.
Aleksandrov looked frustrated and uncomfortable in Zaragoza. For example, last year you could see him leading the Serbian fast break very often, but not so this year. The joy we saw in his game before seems absent. He is a player who refuses to force situations to get good scoring numbers, and that can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, he rarely makes bad decisions and is not selfish on the court. On the other hand, he can disappear and not take enough responsibilities when his team needs him. He does not have the makeup of a go-to guy right now. He can excel while playing in the flow of a team's offense, but he cannot take the weight of it on his back.
Compounding matters, he struggled playing in the paint. This is older competition than he faced last year, and playing in the post has been tougher for him. To score under the basket is not as simple as it used to be, nor to intimidate opponents so easily. His post moves are there, but the physical difference between this competition and last year's represents a greater gap than his level of growth. He was not very aggressive last year in the first place, and he was not this year, either. His defense, at least, was as good as always. I disagree with reports that claim he lacks attitude. If he lacked attitude this year, he lacked it last year, too. No, that is not the problem. The circumstances around him have hurt his game and highlighted that problem. It is true that he is not the kind of player with a strong enough character to keep trying offensively no matter what happens.
Nevertheless, we cannot forget how great a prospect Aleksandrov remains. For instance, he looks quicker than ever, capable of beating small forwards with his great first step. Unfortunately, he had few chances at the tournament to show that, as his team's offense does not afford him the space he needs to work. In fact, I had always thought his future would be at power forward, but his quickness is so impressive that I think he could end up being a full-time small forward. He played both forward positions in Zaragoza, and although he was not stunning in either of them, he looked more comfortable and took better advantage of his skills while playing on the wing. His shot is as picture perfect as ever, released so quickly and high that it is almost impossible to stop. He even tried shooting off the dribble a bit, which is an ability he had not shown last year. I think that sooner or later he will be nailing them again.
He left more hints of his fabulous skills: a great pass here, a complicated dribbling sequence there, even a surprising post move in the mix. He is always smooth, giving us glimpses of the great player he can become. We should not call him a sure-fire number one pick anymore, but the talent is there. Indeed, the buzz about him being the top pick next year might have affected him. That is a heavy load to carry. At any rate, he needs to work hard, to focus on improving his game. I do not think already declaring for next year's draft was a good idea. His goal should be to earn a spot in Reflex's rotation and play some consistent minutes against a higher competition level next season.
He undoubtedly remains one of the most promising young players in the world, but he should try to strengthen and impose his character, to make more decisions on the court. The NBA is a wild jungle where nothing is free. He is a special player, to be sure, and a different one. Whether he will succeed or not remains to be seen. Just don't count him out yet.