Four teams are in the semifinals; arguably the four strongest considering what we have seen, although the Serbs really belong here.
Spain keeps astonishing everybody game by game. Still undefeated, they beat Turkey (another semifinalist) by over 20 points, won over a favorite for the title in Serbia and Montenegro and crushed Bulgaria by 40 points with their deep bench. Its not anymore only about guys like Claver, Forcada, Colom and Aguilar having superb showings, but an extremely well-coached group comprised of effort and a winning spirit where everybody seems to be in a state of grace.
Lithuania is the other undefeated team. Led by the incisive point guard Zygimantas Janavicius, the impressive shooter Martynas Gecevicius, and the restless do-it-all forward Marius Valukonis, no team has kept up their offensive power, while they stay extremely solid in the defensive area.
Turkey is always a competitive squad in youth tournaments lately, and despite showing some serious inconsistency, its a rival to fear. They have lost clearly against both Spain and Lithuania, but their victory over Serbia and Montenegro isnt anything else but impressive, and a warning call for its rivals.
Even more inconsistent than Turkey, France has just proved to be capable of the best and the worst. Not even in our wildest dreams could we have thought of the Mannheim champions losing against Iceland, but they are in the semifinals, and as talented as always. Lets start our report with them.
FRANCE FIGHTS BACK
The loss against Spain and the debacle versus Iceland, continued with a clear defeat facing Lithuania. But there is nothing like a win over the home team Greece to recover their self confidence.
Finally Antoine Diot is back in the starting five (he didn't play against Iceland and came off the bench against Lithuania due to a minor ankle injury) providing that aggressiveness and court leadership that France had missed so badly in the previous games.
Diot is the ultimate floor general; he's a vocal leader but also leads by example on the court. For an extremely athletic team that maximizes its potential running the floor, he's almost indispensable for France to compete at maximum level, as he's a superb player pushing the ball up court, while he also contributes in rebounding, helping his team to run off productive defenses.
His importance on a top team while being a first year guy is truly remarkable. He's reproducing pretty well the role he had in the cadet team last year, although with a logical bigger share of the spotlight given the talent that this French squad enjoys. Still, some of his weaknesses are there, like a poor left hand or improvable game-creation in the set offense.
If Diot's brilliant display is predictable, as he's a extremely steady guy, the same can't be said about Nicolas Batum. Anyway, it's really difficult that such a talented player goes unnoticed for so many days, and not only has he showed up in this quarterfinal round, he has delivered some of his most impressive stuff in the entire tournament. Especially in the game against Greece, Batum scored at will showcasing his extensive array of weapons and impressive athleticism.
Reliable shooting from the perimeter, unguardable off the dribble, deadly attacking the basket, spectacular dunking the ball against opposition, smart dishing the ball while slashing, aggressive looking for the offensive rebound, active on defense, Batum is the real blue chip when we talk about NBA potential and odds to fulfill it, even taking into account the blackouts he suffers from too often.
Anyway, considering how skinny he is, it's remarkable to see how he mixes it up inside against much stronger players, not backing off from contact. He's looking to score in the post, showing some nice, although unpolished moves. However, it doesn't help him that he's not dunking the ball too much around the basket, having troubles sometimes to score down low. His perimeter game, not only hasn't evolved, but looks less intriguing that it did last summer. He can shoot with range out to the three-point line, still very inconsistently, but he rarely puts the ball on the floor. He's rebounding very well on the offensive end thanks to his ridiculous physical gifts and nice timing, but he suffers securing the defensive rebound given his body weakness. He has improved on defense, showing much better footwork, although he still gets faked and allows smaller players to score around the basket. Anyway, intimidation-wise, his potential is scary.
All in all, he's looking a bit frustrated most of the time. He's enjoying limited action but he's clearly not getting the most of it.
Finally, we also have Ludovic Vaty, an awfully strong and quite athletic inside player who is struggling to get the job done on most occasions. He's more of a physical presence than a skilled guy. He basically looks to score in the low post, but he's not a highly polished guy there, trying first to outmuscle his rivals or shoot turnaround jumpers. We're certainly a bit disappointed with him.
CHAVDAR KOSTOV, SCORING MACHINE
It's really not that much a matter of physical or athletic dominance. At 6-5, Kostov has just decent size and average athleticism for a wing. What makes him a unique player is his unbelievable array of skills to put the ball in the basket. Shooting, slashing, even posting up his defender, he plays all over the court. He can release his jumper from any place, in any sort of fashion. He finishes around the hoop with both hands and a great variety of layups.
You name it, he has it. Truly an amazing display.
Kostov doesn't care if he has a defender in his face; he will fake, change directions or just unexpectedly go up for the jumper. There seems to be a special connection between him and the net, to the point that most of his perimeter shots gently swish through the basket.
Still, Kostov has slowed down in the last two games. Turkey and Spain delivered special defensive attention on him, and while he did a good job passing the ball off the dribble against Turkey, he stubbornly and unsuccessfully looked for points versus the very strong Spanish defense.
Kostov's potential seems limited by his physical shortcomings and maturity, so talking about a hypothetical NBA future is not reasonable at this point. However, he should become a very nice player for Europe.
FIRST-YEAR POINT-GUARD WAVE
Last summer, in our reports from the U-16 European Championships held in Leon, Spain, we deliberately omitted a fairly big group of guys who we thought might evolve into nice prospects, basically because we didn't consider too healthy for these young guys to be hyped so early. Still, it's time to bring some light to three of them from this tournament who are doing a great job showcasing their potential. It happens that they are all point guards, apparently a trend in the 1989 international generation that also includes Antoine Diot.
Balbay likely enjoys the most amazing legs in the tournament. He's athletic, reactive, electric we could say, but also very aggressive, making up for his limited size (he's listed at 6-0, although he could actually be an inch taller). Extremely quick and a very good ball-handler, he's a terrific slasher who breaks defenses down in restless fashion, being capable of finishing himself thanks to his excellent vertical leap as well as being a pretty good distributor for other teammates. However, he hasn't always taken good decisions, particularly in the blowout loss against Spain. Still not a reliable shooter, he's struggling behind the arc, and in general delivering a rather poor scoring effort.
On defense, he's the most active guy for Turkey, usually taking care of the best perimeter rival. Impressive lateral mobility, really quick hands, superb activity, he's all over the court, even chasing rebounds. He's a pretty significant thermometer for his team, and he will likely need to give his best in order to get the championship.
Moving to the next guy, we find Zygimantas Janavicius, one of the key pieces on a Lithuanian team that is completing an excellent tournament. In Leon, he had already led Lithuania to the semifinals, in an impressive performance by the Baltic team right until the fourth quarter of that stage, when they collapsed against Antoine Diot's France.
Back to the present, in a similar fashion to Balbay although more consistently, Janavicius is the main creator for his team, a specialist splitting defenses and creating off the dribble, whether for a very nice mid-range jumper or to dish the ball to a teammate, showing good court vision. He's quick, rather aggressive, and enjoys nice ball-handling skills.
The advantage of this left-handed playmaker over the little Turkish guard is obviously his size, much more accurate for high competition at 6-3.
While these two guys have led their respective National Teams to the semifinals, the enormous disappointment that has meant the elimination of a very talented squad such as Russia in the preliminary round actually reflects to some degree the performance of Dimitriy Khvostov.
However, and this is where the comparison with his team kicks in, Khvostov shows a rather questionable attitude. He's a cocky guy with poor leadership skills and limited effort on the court. He rarely gets his teammates mentally involved and his defensive display is just below average. Of course, the poor Russian coaching hasn't helped him a bit, nor any of his teammates, to take this tournament seriously.
DASIC AND RADULJICA, THE SERBIAN WALL
Much of the strength that Serbia and Montenegro has shown (despite the losses against Spain and Turkey) rests on the shoulders of its post game, an almost uncontested battery of big, solid and strong inside players. They are Miroslav Raduljica, Vladimir Dasic and Milan Macvan.
Macvan, a first-year player here at the U-18s, comes off the bench and actually doesn't share the potential of the other two, despite his nice skill set (including effective low post moves and a solid jumper), great strength and excellent basketball IQ.
Not really spectacular in any department of the game, he's a very solid guy who is effective on both ends of the court. On the offensive end he can score from the post, shoot from the mid-range area or even eventually put the ball on the floor to attack the basket. He's fairly athletic and can finish strong near the rim. He understands the game, and feeds his teammates from the post. On defense, he's a reliable presence down low, showing a very good sense of positioning and taking advantage of his strength, which makes him virtually immovable for his rivals.
CHECKING THE HYPE
Finally, were going to take a look at some familiar names that we still havent dealt with.
Nevertheless, hes showing some remarkable stuff, basically concerning his ability to beat his defender off the dribble with excellent ball-handling and quickness (an extremely intriguing ability considering that hes a 6-5 point guard with a huge wingspan), and his extremely solid perimeter shooting so far in the championships. Hes a guy to watch out for very carefully.
Joining both Russians in the Krestena exile (for teams not having advanced to the quarterfinal round), the Israeli Omri Casspi is generating intrigue and disappointment to a similar degree.
Intrigue because hes looking much more of a natural small forward this year than he did last summer in Belgrade. Casspi is showcasing remarkable ball-handling skills and the ability to beat his matchup using it. His crossovers are driving some defenders crazy and he looks aggressive attacking the rim. Besides, he is capable of releasing his jumper in a number of different ways that support that perimeter vocation.
Still disappointment, because contrary to what was expected in advance, his performances havent been consistent at all. He has combined impressive scoring efforts with average games where he disappeared for some long stretches. Israel has lacked some brains in the backcourt at certain moments, and it hasnt helped him to keep a steady showing. Also, he has been struggling with his long-range shooting, that likely still needs some work.