Traditional powerhouses such as Serbia (the clear-cut favorite to win the gold this upcoming summer at the U-18 European Championships) or Lithuania (featuring Donatas Motiejunas, the most promising international junior not named Ricky Rubio) did not come or were not invited (some rumors point to the latter option), while many other National Teams showed up heavily depleted.
For example, the US Team was unable to collect its best possible players due the tournament colliding with the McDonald's All-American game, and came with an assortment of second-string prospects at best. Russia, a silver-medalist with this very same generation at the U-16 level in the European championship, had some of its best players visiting other junior tournaments with their clubs. Most of the absences on the other teams were due injuries or obligations with pro competition, and combined, looked like a plague.
As a result, the level seen in Mannheim was very underwhelming to say the least. However, we could still get to know some new names for us, check the development stage of others, see a few quality and competitive teams, witness two excellent semifinals, and enjoy the very special atmosphere of an event that is running for 50 years now.
Organized by both the German Federation and the US Army, the most important venue is located right inside the Mannheim U.S. military base. You feel suddenly transported to a piece of American soil, with its fast food-food restaurants, bowling alleys, American accents all around, the smell of hot dogs, and a high-school type gym. It's cozy, but small, lovely and old-school, yet very uncomfortable, but still an unavoidable and integral part of the tournament's mystique.
Greece Triumphs, Pappas Dominates
The competition was keen enough to result in the clear-cut four best teams making the semifinals: USA, Australia, Turkey and Greece. The Americans didn't convince with their game, Australia made a terrific effort with the limited talent level they displayed, while the Turkish and Greeks provided the most quality basketball seen in Mannheim and rightfully clinched the final.
In a tournament that lacked inside dominance, the outstanding level of the Greek backcourt led them to the final triumph. Sloukas and Pappas, important pieces escorting Kosta Koufos in last summer's silver medal at the U-18 European Championship, built a terrific duo that generated a huge load of offense for the team and for themselves.
Showing very solid ball-handling skills, a decent first step and great footwork, Pappas could attack both ways, being especially prolific from the left side, while his rivals rarely figured out how to stop him. Primarily looking for the basket, he loves to create contact with his opponents and hang in the air until he enjoys enough room to release a layup or a short-range shot (a la Papaloukas). If he didn't find the scoring option, he would never panic, and instead would look for his teammates. Pappas showed nice court vision to feed his mates, not only off the drive, but also from the perimeter. He also punished the defense with his long-range shot whenever his match-up or the pair defending the pick and roll- didn't stay honest, showcasing a nice touch, still accurate off the dribble.
But it wasn't everything a matter of ball domination. Pappas often stayed away from the ball, letting his teammates take over the offense, almost as if he didn't care, but would unexpectedly appear in the right moment with a cut, or offensive rebound, showing a terrific sense of timing moving without the ball. He showed a bit of the same stuff on defense, where he sometimes showed some apathy (his limited lateral quickness also backs this impression) but could come up with some steals.
Regardless of his skills and outstanding basketball IQ, it's hard to picture Pappas as a top prospect given his relative lack of athletic potential, but his performance alone made the trip to Mannheim well worthy. His performance in the semifinal was for the ages, scoring 24 points in the first half, sitting out for most of the third quarter due to foul trouble, staying away from the ball in the fourth, and taking over in overtime to score 11 consecutive points that rounded up a massive 39-point outburst.
It's becoming increasingly rare to see the USA winning at any stage and any level of male international basketball. Mannheim wasn't the exception and, taking into account the team that showed up here, it doesn't seem to be concerning anybody.
Beyond suffering a massive desertion of top junior players, the US Team especially lacked size, inside power and heavily depended on the disrupting abilities of Irving Walker. Of course, that's not to forget the tactical holes you usually find in these American squads, such as poor defensive rotations, poor defensive transitions, poor off-the-ball movement, and more.
In the end, Walker himself, the team's athleticism, and a refreshing ability to hit the perimeter shot easily elevated them over most teams here, not a particularly remarkable achievement given the mediocre level displayed by most teams. They failed to overcome the top squads in the tournament, though, (which were far from outstanding anyway), and left the team out of the tournament's top-3.
Before going on, we have to make a disclaimer: the official sizes provided on the rosters for the American team look ridiculously inflated. An initial estimation would make us cut a couple of inches for every guy in order to start getting closer at their apparent size.
Extremely small (he looks way shorter than the 5-10 he's listed), Walker relies on his impressive quickness and great ball-handling. Like a devil set on fire, he would drive past anyone, sneak between defenses, to find layups that he netted with both hands- or force defensive rotations that would leave his teammates open, especially behind the three-point line, where they would receive his kick-out passes. He's a tough guy, really strong, ready to bump into any opponent and able to play even off contact while maintaining nice control of his body.
Still Walker showed a very nice shooting ability to compliment his slashing efforts. Almost money in the bank when left open, he showcased three-point range and off-the-dribble mechanics, even from deep positions, with a nicely quick release, although he often forced too much, which ended up affecting his percentages.
On the negative side, besides his obvious lack of size, Walker shows limitations running a team It basically comes down to the point that he needs to first beat his match-up off the dribble in order to get anything going, that is, unless he can find space to shoot from the perimeter.
Anyway, expect him to emerge as an important point guard in college basketball with the Florida Gators, with some chances to make it to the NBA as a sparkplug guy in someone's rotation after four years.
Top International Prospects
The Albert Schweitzer Tournament was really scarce in major potential. Just a handful of guys put on the table the kind of intrigue that envisions a possible development into high draft prospects down the road, and none of them seems anywhere close to a sure thing.
As a quick remainder, Zubcic showcased his long-range stroke (still a bit inconsistent), his very solid ball-handling skills for his size, but still improvable if he wants to become a slashing force, a nice first step, his tendency to pass the ball off the drive instead of taking it to the rim, his nice court vision from the high post and the three-point line, his very poor use of the left hand around the rim, and some softness that we could partially attribute to his underdeveloped long body.
Probably nobody seen in Mannheim enjoys the kind of potential Tomislav displays, and indeed the Croatian forward ended up being featured on the All-Tournament Team. His combination of size, skills and athleticism is truly remarkable. But somehow you miss some slightly more character playing the game, which invites us to remain moderately skeptical just to stress the relative uncertainty of his future- and very alert to his development.
Standing 6-9, Kanter enjoys a strong frame that, combined with his toughness, allowed him to battle in the paint at this level, but that still leaves room to envision significant physical development. Playing purely as a center, he made an offensive living off his low-post game. The Turkish prodigy showed nice ability to gain position down low, solid but unspectacular footwork, and still almost always got it done just by evaluating the timing of his efforts, so he regularly caught his opponents off guard. His credo seems to be waiting until the opportunity arises, showing an inappropriate calmness for such a young kid.
However, for the moment his offensive game looks a bit limited, with an underwhelming use of his left hand to finish around the rim, inconsistency in his short-to-mid-range jumper and no off-the-dribble game unless he's in the low post.
On the other hand, he emerged as one of the best rebounders in the tournament, using his strong body, and fearlessly throwing his arms up in the air looking for the ball. It's also a matter of good positioning, just as he shows in defensive duties, where he became a very solid piece for the Turkish squad.
Kanter looks pretty promising, but will need to expand his skills and/or keep growing in order to become a top act. Anyway, he's so young that we can't do anything but remain extremely cautious about his future.
While Fuenlabrada is developing him at the small forward spot, the lack of size on the Spanish squad pushed him to inside positions full time. Not active at all putting the ball on the floor, perhaps given the team schemes up to a certain extent, we couldn't properly evaluate his ball-handling development, an extremely important area of the game for him if he wants to become a top perimeter prospect (we've been told he's making some strides in this department). Instead, he would usually settle for spot-up three-pointers from the corner with average consistency- or share the ball with his teammates showing nice decision making.
It was in other duties where he became a crucial piece in the Spanish puzzle. Defense, intimidation, rebounding, Jodar was a permanent presence to provide some consistency to a limited frontcourt thanks to his 6-9 body, long arms, nice athleticism, and good positioning. The guy is a very serious player, but needs to take a step ahead in order to become a go-to guy.
Still physically underdeveloped, a bit thin-framed (still pretty decent for a small forward) and enjoying long arms, he's also nicely athletic for his size, and pretty active using his light feet. His game resulted as poorly consistent as his team's, but he left drops of some ability shooting, passing and even slashing, everything in a very early stage of development.
Valiev didn't shy away from shooting the ball, regardless of his poor accuracy, but still showcased good range out to the three-point line, off-the-dribble skills from mid-range distances and some decent mechanics that need to gain consistency. Facing the basket from behind the three-point line, he found his teammates regularly, as he can nicely see the court. He would eventually try to cash in off his size in the low post, but he wouldn't show refined low-post footwork, instead trying to use his quickness to beat his opponents. Valiev indeed shows a decent first step to attack his match-ups off the dribble, but he suffers a blatant lack of ball-handling skills with his left hand, greatly limiting his options on the court.
Active on defense, he looks for rejections on defensive rotations, moves his feet pretty fast, and should be able to match-up against wings when everything is said and done. Besides, he crashes the boards searching for rebounds on both ends of the court.
Anyway, Valiev has such a long way to go that we shouldn't consider him anything else than an intriguing youngster with long-term potential. But at least he shows some nice attitude and solid basketball instincts.
Besides all the aforementioned players, there was a nice bunch of mid-level guys. Let's take a look at those with the most apparent potential.
Person can find open teammates, especially off slashing plays, but he didn't look like much of a distributor. Indeed he would often just take the ball up-court, pass it to a wing player and forget about the play. From time to time he would also over-dribble with no clear purpose in his actions. Actually, his decision making looks questionable, and you would like to see more leadership out of him while playing the game. He doesn't seem to care about defense at all, and ended up raising flags about his character and competitiveness.
New Zealand came with a young big man answering by the name of Robert Loe, born in 1991, at least 6-10, skinny and very raw. He showcased some decent spot-up shooting ability up to the three-point line even if inconsistent, he eventually put the ball on the floor although with poor results, and seemed to enjoy some soft touch around the rim but lacks the strength and toughness to finish off contact. Anyway, a great immaturity is the dominating pattern in his game.
A quick summary Shane Harris-Tunks provided inside power for Australia; he's a 6-10 strong low-post bruiser but not particularly skilled and without range in his game. His countryman Matthew Dellavedova showed great aggressiveness from the backcourt, regularly hitting his perimeter shots, emerging incisive in his game and finding his teammates off the dribble, but he's not particularly creative and doesn't look like a real point guard at this point while measuring around 6-2. The Swedish Alexander Lindqvist, born in 1991, showed some promise as a 6-8 forward with decent athleticism and a solid skill set that included shooting ability, good coordination and some nice handles. Mangisto Arop was a rebounding beast for Canada despite being only a 6-6 small forward; his superior physical set greatly helped him; however, he doesn't look particularly talented and his skill repertoire is limited, with a very poor off-the-dribble game and only a decent three-point shot to speak of. The German Femi Oladipo was a more refined version in a similar physical/athletic set; more elegant, a better ball-handler and slasher, with great footwork and control of his body, ability to finish with both hands and also a decent jumper, indeed a very nice player but quite mature already.