All pictures courtesy of the official website: FIBAEurope.com
The semi-finals, Italy vs Serbia & Montenegro and Turkey vs Spain will be available online for all to see at fibaeurope.com on Saturday evening. The final will be available on Sunday evening.
What a wonderful place to celebrate a tournament like this! The city of Belgrade is one of the most prolific talent pools in the world, a perfect example of the magnificent Balkan basketball school. Furthermore, it's a beautiful city, surprisingly luminous, with trees everywhere and plenty of green areas. Not to mention how friendly the people are.
Anyway, basketball is what has brought us here, and the Junior European Championship for 1987 players and under has resulted in a very interesting competition for talent seekers. Keep in mind that five players that took part in last year's edition in Zaragoza heard their name called this June in the draft (while a sixth one, Ersan Ilyasova, didnt play because of an injury).
Three teams were heavy favorites entering the competition. Two of them have filled the bill qualifying for the semifinals. Serbia and Montenegro, with it's usual large collection of talented players, is also taking advantage of hosting the Championship, and has gone undefeated so far. While Turkey, despite not being able to count on Ilyasova in its squad, has looked quite powerful regardless. The third one, Russia, despite having an excellent roster based on the CSKA Moscow junior team that amazed during the last season (in L'Hospitalet, for example), failed just like last season against the same team, Spain. In both letdowns the coach was Igor Korolev (father of you know who), and from the stands, it hasn't looked good at all. For the Spanish team and for Italy it's already an accomplishment to reach the next stage considering that they aren't on the same level of those other powerful three teams, who even a fourth place finish would be considered a big disappointment.
THE BRIGHTEST STARS
One player is emerging as the most dominating presence in the tournament. With Turkey missing Ilyasova, Cenk Akyol has taken control of his National Team from the combo guard position, showing an extremely fundamentally sound game, displayed with enormous finesse and class in every action, as well as great decision making to go along with a winning character.
He had already done a fine job in Zaragoza last year, but Cenk has evolved into an awesome player now for his age. His highlights include a 29 point opening game against Croatia, a 17 point exhibition in the first half against France where he showed every possible offensive skill you would like a guard to feature, and an impressive closing run against Latvia, where he single-handedly changed the destiny of a game that was looking lost for the Turks.
He's currently averaging over 20 points per game, while it honestly looks like he can play and score at will. When he really wants to get something done, there's no player here capable of controlling his array of fundamentals and skills. Dribbling, driving, shooting, passing and understanding the game; it's that simple. If you're drooling about the possibility of adding Akyol to your favorite NBA team, you should already know that he was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the last draft, in a move that now looks like a total steal, even if his average athleticism is still a matter of concern about his real potential in the NBA game.
Among the players that have yet to be drafted, the hottest name here is Ante Tomic. The Croatian big man has astonished the audience so far with his all around game at the size of 7-1.
He can shoot, pass, dribble, play in the low post, facing the basket, or run the floor, even taking the ball in transition. An impressive set of skills considering the combination of size and solid athleticism he brings to the table. Yes, he's skinny (how could it be any other way?), but his frame looks decent. Just to help to get a approximate picture regarding what's this guy about, I think it's fair to say that Tomic is potentially the closest thing to the actual Pau Gasol seen lately. Unfortunately for him, bad luck and inconsistent play kept his team out of the quarterfinal round.
A player who is enjoying a better outcome so far is Luigi Datome, the clear leader of the Italian team and a big offensive force with his 19.5 point average. He's a kid that plays with passion, enjoying every minute of action. The 6-8 small forward combines shooting and slashing, featuring a good stroke and athleticism. Although not quite as impressively as Akyol, Datome is another much improved player from last year's European Junior Championship.
It's also a matter of having a bigger role on his own team as he's now in the second and final year of the junior stage. It's a similar story for Vasily Zavoruev, arguably the best shooter seen in Belgrade (ok, there's of course a Lithuanian player, Martynas Gecevicius, a ridiculous long-range bomber himself, but Zavoruev is flat-out better firing off the dribble). Zavoruev was the best player for the underachieving Russians, who include Clipper lottery pick Yasolav Korolev, but still wasn't capable of coming up big in the most decisive games.
THE BIGGEST LETDOWNS
The clear-cut top disappointment (personally speaking) has a name: Victor Claver. Is he really the same guy that amazed with his performance in the last L'Hospitalet Tournament? How is it possible that a player who earned MVP honors with the very same Spanish squad in an international tournament just a few months ago can look so dreadful right now? It seems that Victor has a confidence problem, lacking somewhat in the competitiveness and character departments, and having trouble dealing with the pressure of the games at stake. His presence on the floor has usually been a succession of doubts, bad decisions and a soft game. Nevertheless, his coach is still giving him some playing time (after all, Spain has a thin frontcourt), but it doesn't look like Claver will come back to his old self here in Belgrade. Hopefully, he can eventually get over these problems; it would be a pity to see such a promising guy going to waste.
However, the consensus top disappointment is Yaroslav Korolev. But it just so happens that we warned about this a month ago. Anyway, being a lottery pick is a heavy load to carry, expectations-wise, and the Russian doesnt look like the same Korolev we watched throughout the last season.
Of course, these aren't the same crappy teams he faced in the last few months, even if this is still a junior competition. With his team struggling in some games, he isn't focused enough, committing mistakes and silly fouls, sometimes looking frustrated and out of the rhythm of the games. In the end, it's a valid sample of his team's performance. His fathers presence as the Russian head coach sure isn't helping his case, as Yaroslav looks to be under too much pressure playing the game. Still, we have to say that the talent and potential is there, its quite obvious in every second he spends on court. Perhaps only Ante Tomic is on the same level of upside.
The best scorer in Belgrade, with almost 25 point per game, is for the moment the Latvian wing Ernests Kalve. Listed at 6-8 (he could be a bit smaller, as it's hard to be sure about the sizes given here; by the way, it could be really informative to have all the players measured in these tournaments) he's a guy with nice athleticism and a natural aggressiveness.
He's not the most orthodox player, but he's really effective shooting and slashing. Latvia has been one of the most pleasant surprises here so far, advancing to the quarterfinal round, and Kalve deserves credit. The word in Belgrade is that Real Madrid could be trying to sign him this summer already.
If we're talking about stats, we have to mention Mr. Statline, who is no other than Spanish forward Jose Angel Antelo. Currently second in points (21.5 per game) and dominating in rebounds (14.2 per game, the second is under 10), he's a player that always draws mixed comments. Yes, he's a natural born producer; yes, he has an amazing instinct for rebounding; yes, Spain has advanced to the semifinals; but as surprising as it might sound, I'm not liking his performance at all. He's too selfish on the offensive end, and virtually every time he touches a ball he looks to score himself. It wouldn't be that concerning if he weren't suffering that much to get the job done, continuously forcing every situation. Not to speak about his defensive effort, which has been non-existent.
Anyway, I have to admire his character on the offensive end, he is always trying no matter what. In the crucial game against Russia, where Spain got its ticket for the semifinals, he was the best player with the game on the line.
Another possible Real Madrid signing is Vladimir Dasic. He's one of the most promising 1988 guys in the tournament, a 6-9 forward with an incredibly well built body taking into account his young age and the fact that he's a European prospect. He has great shoulders while already being rather strong, showing very nice athleticism to boot. He can shoot, he's really quick in slashing situations and has some decent post moves as well. He's not shining too much, but the tools are there.
Out of the 1988 crop, there was a lot of buzz about one Italian player before the tournament, Danilo Gallinari. I was really surprised the first time I saw him. I'd heard about a point guard, and I didn't expect a guy that is 6-9 with rather poor athleticism.
However, he's an extremely talented kid, one of the most fundamentally sound players of the Championship, whose game is all finesse, but also a surprisingly accurate defender for the small forward spot (his logical position at this point), as his lateral mobility is way better than his quickness might suggest. His athleticism hurts his potential big time, but he's the kind of guy you would love to see succeeding.
One of the most curious "freak players" here is the Belgian Yannick Driesen. He's 7-1 and has really interesting mobility, but apparently the only thing he can do is to shoot the ball. It's a real task to watch him posting up or putting the ball on the floor. He's a good gunner, though, with three-point range and quick mechanics, but it's rather frustrating to see that kind of player with such a limited skill set. Well, there's another thing he does pretty well: feeding the post. He shares the spotlight with Frenchman Alexis Ajinca, another seven footer, but if Driesen is skinny, this guy is thin as a rail. He's probably the most physically underdeveloped player in the tournament and has been getting outmuscled by every player to the point that he barely can play in the paint. However, he will surprise you with his skills, including shooting, a soft touch, and some passing and dribbling. Both are 1988 players, the type of guys to keep on the radar just in case.
This year weve seen some really nice point guards, real playmakers with the skills and the brains to lead a basketball team. Both Serbian Milos Teodosic and Israeli Yogev Ohayon are doing a fine job distributing the ball for their teams. The have the skills, athleticism, court vision, decision making and poise to effectively take that kind of responsibility. With the lack of true distributing point guards, it's refreshing to see good material in the new generations. A third guy, the Croatian Aleksandar Ugrinoski, shares most of those characteristics with them, but his play has been very inconsistent so far. He's one year younger, though, and he should improve quickly.
THAT'S NOT ALL
There are more players deserving to be mentioned here, but this isn't an exhaustive list. There's still two days left off the tournament, and after it's finished it will be the time to take a look at them.