U-18 European Championship: The Playmakers

U-18 European Championship: The Playmakers
Sep 08, 2007, 07:49 am
All photos courtesy of FIBA Europe

We close our extensive coverage of the U-18 European Championship with what likely was the deepest position in the tournament, point guard. It wasn’t unexpected, as the 1989 generation looks pretty deep at this spot. Still, it was a 1990-class player stealing the show: Ricky Rubio, of course, the best pure basketball talent seen during the tournament in Madrid.

1990, PG, 6-4, Spain; 19.1 ppg, 5 rpg, 4.8 apg, 4 spg


This time Rubio wasn’t able to top the headlines. Spain didn’t get past the qualifying round, and the super-talented guard himself didn’t deliver any of those unbelievable stat-lines he gifted us with last summer at the U-16 stage. Obviously, the competition he faced here was stronger, and also he wasn’t forced to assume as much responsibility considering the teammates surrounding him, even if he again was in charge of catalyzing an enormous amount of his team’s offensive flow. Anyway, if we focus on his development as a player, we can’t feel anything but intrigued about what he showcased in Madrid, particularly regarding the evolution of his shooting stroke.

There’s no need for a descriptive introduction with Rubio. You know, incredible feel for the game, amazing talent, a point guard with good size for his position, a terrific wingspan, excellent court vision and decision making, great defensive potential, an incredible ball thief, an almost unstoppable slasher, we all know the drill by now.

Still we can focus on a few departments of the game worthy to talk deeper about. Rubio has proved again that he’s not only a drive-and-dish passer. He sees cutters extremely well and throws passes across the paint with outstanding accuracy. He also looked steadier running the point, looking much like a natural point guard than he did a couple of years ago, better controlling the game’s rhythm and involving his teammates, even if he’s still mostly about definitive passes and gaining advantages for him and his teammates through one-on-one play. Actually, we’re yet to see the regular playmaking version that should arise between the do-it-all offensive performances he delivers in youth categories and the deferring role he plays with DKV Joventut in the ACB and the Euroleague, although we might have the answer as soon as this upcoming season.

Focusing on the most intriguing part of his performance, his much improved shooting ability, we have to stress that for some time now Rubio is not shying away when it comes to shooting the ball if he’s fully open. And that includes his last months of the past season with Joventut. Even more aggressively this time, sometimes he dared to go for timidly contested shots, also in off-the-dribble mode, although it takes him time to come off the drive and balance to release his jumper effectively. Although his final stat-line sounds terrific in terms of accuracy (50% inside the arc, 48.3% outside of it), he still was pretty streaky. Besides, as often happens with players that are not really natural shooters, when Rubio misses a shot he’s often not even close to making it. Anyway, his mechanics look everyday more fluid and natural, and I don’t think he left any doubt about his future ability to keep defenses honest through his shooting stroke.

One of the best strengths in Rubio’s game in youth categories is still his ability to beat his opponents off the dribble. However, his ball-handling ability with his left hand is still a flaw in his game, looking really far from what he shows with his right. He displayed multiple impressive direction changes that left his defenders virtually on the floor, but it was mostly using his better hand. You could often see him with his electric behind the back dribbles in transition from right to left, not contested by any opponent, but as soon as he advanced a couple of steps and dribbled once or twice, he just avidly looked for his right-hand dribble again. Anyway, he’s yet to consistently display the ability to split defenses against veterans the way he does at this level, although he’s obviously a lot less aggressive trying things in the Euroleague or the ACB..

Continuing with his slashing skills, Rubio has showcased an improved ability to score with complicated lay-ups. He’s particularly effective when shooting lay-ups high off the glass or above the rim. He often seems to be in a dead-end situation right underneath the basket, against heavy opposition and virtually no angle for the release, but somehow manages to sneak his right arm out to get the lay-up off. He’s also more effective finishing with his left, and in general shows a nice ability to give finish under control. even if he’s moving pretty fast. He still needs to work on his floaters.

There isn’t much to say about his defense. He was awful against Germany, being beaten time after time, but he was suffering a couple of minor injuries that slowed him down. Anyway, he has again shown his terrific ability to come up with steals. He has continued exerting his leadership role in the team, and despite being over a year younger than most of his teammates, he was the one doing the talking, often gathering his teammates before the tip-off and the third quarter to give them a chat. He certainly shows some noticeable qualities in this area.

All in all, despite the final outcome (everything was set for Ricky to lead Spain to the gold and further enhance his reputation, so finishing fifth was a huge disappointment at home), Rubio showed very positive stuff that only provides more optimism regarding his future as a basketball player.

1989, PG, 6-4, Serbia; 13.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3 apg, 2.6 spg


Out of the three Serbians doubling up on youth tournaments this summer, Katnic was the one taking the largest step up from what he had shown at the U-19 World Championship, indeed emerging as one of the most intriguing players seen in the whole competition. He is a solid playmaker who shows a nice feel for the game and notable coolness running the point. He’s a patient guy who doesn’t rush things and shows good decision making, recognizing the opportunities that arise within the offense. He’s pretty big at 6-4, displaying a nice long body that still has room to physically develop, while enjoying unspectacular, but solid athleticism.

Somehow a cross between a distributing and a scoring point, at this point, he’s a bit more of a slasher than a shooter. He enjoys very solid ball-handling skills, knowing how to properly protect the dribble, while he displays a good first step to attack the basket, especially going right, and excellent footwork. Besides, he’s smart finding good options to split defenses. He’s a high-percentage type player who will pass the ball if he doesn’t find a clear scoring option, so it’s very usual to see him driving all the way to the basket, attracting the opposing defense, and dishing the ball to an open teammate. Still, he can also finish himself with layups even against opposition, knowing how to protect the ball. He’s also pretty effective in pick-and-roll plays, as he always represents a slashing menace and does a good job feeding the rolling big man. If not a great shooter, he keeps the defenses honest with a very consistent perimeter stroke out to the three-point line and even delivered off the dribble, although his percentages suffer if he’s contested.

A solid defender, Katnic displays nice lateral quickness and takes advantage of his length to keep his opponents under control and come up with regular steals. All in all, the adjective solid comes up again and again when talking about his game. He’s a heady and steady guy, surely talented, not too much in love with his own abilities, not very spectacular, but who usually delivers and with the makings of a very good point guard for Europe, if he keeps working hard, but also enough potential to keep both eyes on him as far as the draft is concerned.

1989, PG, 6-3, France; 14.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.5 spg


Pretty much in the line with what he had shown in the U-19 Worlds, although perhaps a bit more tired, Diot stayed pretty consistent with his virtues and flaws. He was again the same old aggressive playmaker to speed-up the game’s tempo, a very active guy in many departments of the game, able to slash, shoot, defend and even rebound. At the same time, he failed again to emerge as a heady organizer, struggling in the set offense despite his ability to eventually come up with excellent passes, still showing a very average left hand and remaining inconsistent with his perimeter stroke.

In the end, Diot couldn’t reproduce the go-to mentality he offered two years ago playing with and against the same generation at the U-16 stage. Enjoying a much lesser degree of physical dominance, his flaws were more difficult to overcome, and neither the lack of reliable team players around him helped the French and his case.

1989, PG, 6-3, Lithuania; 10.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.1 spg


Whenever a player goes from being a clear-cut all-championship player as a first-year junior to going home without any awards in his second year, you know something is probably not going in the right direction. He didn’t play a bad tournament, probably even better than what he showed a few weeks earlier at the U-19 Worlds, but he pretty much confirmed that he hasn’t evolved much this past season.

As usual, he was a high-tempo playmaker for Lithuania, a kind of wild player that sometimes gets too out of control. Very incisive as always, the pick-and-roll play was often his first option, usually setting for one-on-one plays deeper in the shot-clock, always trying to split defenses and feed his teammates (he ended up third in assists in the championship) or finish himself with his left-handed layups. He’s certainly an aggressive guy, and even sometimes goes too far and commits offensive fouls in the process. Although pretty erratic in all his actions ending up with very low percentages, he looked a bit better with his mid-range jumper off the dribble, but still showing awful accuracy from behind the arc. If there’s something he will have to work hard on this following season, it’s his shooting stroke. It’s probably the biggest difference with the brighter Janavicius we saw last summer. On defense, he was solid, using his quickness and showing that aggressiveness that drives his entire game.

Anyway, despite this small step back, he’s a guy who transmits good vibrations regarding his future development. He looks passionate and just seems to love this game, while there’s no reason why he can’t sort out his biggest flaws with maturity and proper work.

1989, PG, 6-0, Turkey; 17.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, 3 spg


Turkey couldn’t repeat the 2005 miracle winning the U-16 category. Actually, this summer they were far from contenders. The team wasn’t that greatly talented then and it lacked some comparable potential to other squads. Balbay was the most important guy in 2005, but inserted in a well-oiled engine where many guys stepped up, his prominence on the team even grew for this championship.

Balbay was probably too much of a scoring point guard in this championship. He was the clear-cut go-to player, splitting defenses at will with his superb quickness and terrific footwork, and attacking the rim with aggressiveness, an outstanding leaping ability and great balance that allows him to hang in the air and execute creative layups with both hands and off contact. Besides some drive and dish stuff, we missed more distribution, more of a team-oriented game direction. As expected, he kept struggling with his perimeter shot. He can knock down short jumpers off the dribble, but his accuracy suffers as he gets closer to the three-point line.

As usual, his rebounding numbers are flat-out impressive for a six-foot player. He’s such an active and fearless player, with great athleticism and reactivity when it comes to getting off his feet, that he’s very often the one coming away with the rebound. He’s equally intense on defense, showing excellent lateral quickness and aggressiveness attacking the passing lanes.

Headed to Texas, it will be interesting to see how they work on his flaws, as his strengths look rather American friendly.

1989, PG, 6-3, Russia; 9.8 ppg, 2 rpg, 4.3 apg


Back to his underwhelming performances at the youth categories, Khvostov couldn’t elevate Russia from mediocrity, and didn’t look quite like the intriguing player that surprised this past season with some nice outings in the Euroleague. Obviously he didn’t dominate in this tournament, but he didn’t even try. The best thing we can say about him is that he looked happy enough keeping a relatively low profile, filling the role of a distributing guard while saving a big chunk of his scoring efforts.

Anyway, regardless of his attitude, he doesn’t need to shine much in order to showcase his talent on the court. He’s a player that feels the game, for whom basketball comes very easily. Feeling extremely comfortable with his dribbling, he’s a point guard, perhaps not greatly athletic, but with enough quickness and excellent footwork to beat his match-ups on a regular basis and create good opportunities for him and his teammates. Khvostov sees the court very well, finding his teammates with consistency. He doesn’t need to attack his opponents to make a good pass, and didn’t look obsessed with adding definitive passes to his stat-sheet. However, despite finishing among the top-5 in assists, he could have led the ranking as his teammates wasted too many of his passes by missing open shots served up by him. He certainly looked unselfish, but lacked the fire and passion to really involve his teammates in a winning dynamic.

We saw some of his mid-range jumpers off crossover dribbles, a trademark shot for him, but considerably less usual than in past occasions. He showed nice accuracy from the perimeter, in general again proving to enjoy a very solid stroke. Streaky on defense, often visibly disinterested, this is nothing new in his showings at youth categories. Anyway, he’s yet to grow physically, because he still displays a pretty skinny body.

Like many Russians, Khvostov is a question mark inside another question mark. You can see the talent there, but you can never assure that he will have the character, work ethic and mental strength to take advantage of his potential in the future.

1990, PG/SG, 6-5, Bulgaria; 14.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.8 apg

One of the few interesting players in Bulgaria was this tall point guard standing somewhere around 6-5. Well-built, actually with broader shoulders than you expect from a point guard, decently athletic, it’s surprising to see that he’s still a 1990 born playmaker. Standing out due to his passing game, Avramov is actually too in love with his court vision and regularly goes for flashy assists, in no-look fashion, behind the back or doing similar stuff. It’s not always effective, but it’s true that the kid can really see the floor. However, he’s yet to become a solid distributor, as he needs to improve his ball-handling and, at the same time, his ability to dribble under pressure and also take his opponents off the dribble. Otherwise, he will hardly be able to execute his distribution duties properly. Meanwhile, he already shows a decent perimeter stroke, eventually even in off-the-dribble fashion.

Considering that Bulgaria managed stay in Division A and the intriguing crop of players born in 1990 they enjoy, it will be extremely interesting to watch them competing next year at this level, but with significantly higher expectations. Avramov will surely have to step up to answer the challenge.


Sarunas Vasiliauskas was finally able to provide quality back up minutes for Janavicius in this European Championship, after being left off the Lithuanian U-19 squad. And just as he did a couple of years ago at the U-16 stage and this past season with Zalgiris, he proved once again to be an excellent player to bring off the bench, not as creative as his countryman, but more under control and with better perimeter shooting ability. Still, he was pretty erratic in this championship (particularly in the two final and decisive games), but he’s a decent gunner out to the three-point line while enjoying off the dribble skills on his release. Also a nice ball-handler, he can attack both ways and finish with floaters near the basket in order to overcome his limited size. The Lithuanian point guard stands only 6-2, he’s not a great leaper and he’s physically underdeveloped.

Carl Ona-Embo showed a few interesting skills backing up Diot on the French team. First of all, he’s a small (just slightly over six feet) but very athletic and pretty strong playmaker, enjoying an excellent frame and a very ripped body. A very solid ball-handler, Embo can attack his opponents off the dribble and easily step into the lane, either to finish himself or to dish the ball off. He can also shoot with decent accuracy out to the three-point line. Still, he’s yet to mature in terms of directing and distributing the ball. He fails to involve his teammates and control the rhythm of the game, while he relies too much on his ball-handling ability. Still, he’s a guy with nice potential who could emerge as a very solid prospect as long as he can spice up his excellent physical profile with better playmaking ability.

Maurice Stuckey was probably the fastest player in the tournament. Living on his quickness and relying on his very solid ball-handling skills, Stuckey is a 6-1 point guard who loves to slash, shoot mid-range jumpers off-the-dribble and play in transition. He’s an electric guy, very active and pretty aggressive. On the downfall, he doesn’t seem like a bright playmaker, he repeatedly tends to overdribble the ball and he’s a very poor distributor. It takes him forever to find a decent passing option and therefore only came away with a few assists off the drive. Anyway, he’s still an interesting guy, very young as he was born in 1990, very well built, very athletic (he rewarded the audience with some spectacular plays such as blocks or dunks), and with a nice stroke from the mid-range area, even if still very inconsistent from the perimeter. Certainly a guy to follow in next year’s edition of the U-18 European Championship.

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