A crowd of agents, NBA scouts, NCAA coaches and European general managers gathered a few weeks ago at the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Mannheim, considered the Unofficial World Junior Championships for U-18 players. The quality of the players featured here makes this competition a wonderful showcase for the next seasons fashion, meaning the stars well see making a name for themselves in the years to come.
For the basketball fan, this is the most appealing part: to find who will be the next standout players. This hobby of guessing about this or that player we like might result into prominent players in a few years or guys forgotten in the city of the lost players.
On the other hand, other players that go completely unnoticed now, in some years might surprise us with unexpected meteoric progressions.
Anyway, the players I liked the most, and that excelled in this tournament, are the following ones:
Antonio Rodríguez is a basketball analyst for the Spanish Digital Television channel Digital+. This article was originally published on ACB.com (the NBA.com equivalent of the Spanish league) and was translated to English by Luis Fernández with Antonio Rodríguezs blessing.
All photos courtesy of FIBA Europe.
Alexis Ajinca (France)
Center, 7-0; 1988. INSEP
Physical and Mental Characteristics:
Physically, hes a player who is still extremely skinny, although he has gained quite a bit of weight in the last two years; he seems to be going in the right direction. His wingspan is just extraordinary. He enjoys tremendously long arms, and whats more difficult to see around, he has good hands. Hes a long player and very coordinated for his size. But because of his lack of weight hes limited in many situations. However, it would be a pity if he lost some quickness by bulking up excessively.
Mentally, although he seemed not to play as hard as he should in some games, in the semifinals and the finals he was very focused and managed to stay motivated. He knows his limitations, and because of his lack of weight he sometimes avoids direct contact. But he knows how to contribute in other situations.
His great intimidation ability. Hes quite a smart player, who knows where hes dangerous and where hes beatable. Hes a great shot-blocker, knowing how to place his hand to stop his matchups shot, and especially, he has a great instinct blocking on defensive rotations. It doesnt matter if hes on the balls side or comes from the weak side; he almost always arrives on time. His array of low post moves is still scarce, because of not being able to handle physicality, but he does stand out for his soft touch executing jumpers, which he regularly knocks down. He has soft mechanics, being a good free-throw shooter, which for his size is really important. Hes very fast on transitions, whether defensive or offensive, and quite coordinated. Hes smart enough to visualize the entire game.
All come as a result of his lack of weight. He gives up space against very physical players when it comes to defending them, and he rarely dares to finish with his back to the basket in the low post, in order to not lose his balance by being bumped. He sometimes lacks a bit of aggressiveness when it comes to defending the pick and roll, and because of his youth, his intensity doesnt stay consistent all along the game. But all the mentioned flaws, with time and physical work, seem like they will be addressed.
He usually plays very open to create spaces for his teammates, who are great slashers and very versatile. His best weapon is the jump shot, although he did dare a few times to deliver a jump-hook in the low post, which looked effective. Hes not a good offensive rebounder, among other things because of how open he plays.
I insist about his intimidation ability. He can become one of the great, great intimidators world-wide in the next years. He has been extremely well taught in INSEP. With his quickness, and through receiving some vocal motivation or as a result of a games own importance- hes a good pick-and-roll defender. Hes not exactly a foul-prone type of player.
A clear NBA future. He needs a few more years, so he can improve his body. But he should bulk up proportionally. He would lose a lot of quickness if hes forced to gain a lot of weight in little time. It shouldnt be forgotten to work on his legs, which are extremely skinny. He will be an important player on any team.
Nicolas Batum (France)
SG/SF, 6-7; 1988, Le Mans
Physical and Mental Characteristics:
Physically, the best player of the tournament. His athletic conditions are amazing. His vertical, his hang time, his extraordinary quickness, his explosive first step; all make him a player who is athletically almost unparalleled. He has quite long arms and displays great coordination in all his moves.
Mentally, he looks a fragile player. Occasionally cold, when hes not comfortable or simply angry, he seems to disconnect from the game. But its also true that, being such a spectacular player, any of his actions that manage to get the audience up off their feet, motivates him and brings him back to the competition.
Of course, his athletic ability. With that body he can compete quickness-wise with the best of them in the NBA. But hes not only an athlete. Hes a player who has worked a lot on his individual skills. He enjoys a very good perimeter shot, also very well selected almost every time. He understands the game pretty well, fitting perfectly in the National Teams discipline. Hes an athlete who knows what hes doing in every moment. Defensively, hes very hard to beat if hes motivated enough.
Perhaps, the coolness and mental fragility mentioned already. Technically, its difficult to find flaws. Hes almost perfectly well rounded. But that coolness makes him not so tough, and perhaps just when his team might need him the most. He lacks aggressiveness, and his physical gifts sometimes get diluted because of that lack of tension. But that happens only on a handful occasions. We shouldnt forget that were talking about the best player of the tournament.
He displays endless weapons. Hes extraordinary slashing towards the basket. Not only he enjoys a great first step; his second step is also tremendously long, beating, not only his defender (which he usually does with his first), but the defensive help, as he surprises with such an advance in just two impulses. He loves to use the alley-oop, taking advantage of a blinding screen or cutting to the baseline coming from the corner. His hang time above the rim is well over any normal players. His perimeter shot is very good; its one of those shots that seems corrected and then programmed and practiced, but its rather effective. He took over several games with perimeter shooting streaks.
Has a very good defensive mentality. He follows his man in case he penetrates until under the rim, and has the patience and timing to know when to block him, even if he gets called in these situations for more personal fouls that he should. Hes aggressive going for the trap, which his National Team frequently used, and has very quick hands to get steals, even while his rival is dribbling.
Hes an almost perfect player when hes motivated enough. Im convinced that he will become a starter for any NBA team.
Antoine Diot (France)
PG, 6-3; 1989. INSEP
Physical and Mental Characteristics:
Physically, hes a developed player. It looks incredible that this point guard, with the size he enjoys, being 17 years old, is already developed and has the necessary bulk to play elite basketball. He has powerful legs, and an upper-body that has been worked on by lifting weights. A big point guard, but strong and really coordinated. Mentally, hes extremely tough. He enjoys the most clear leadership ability seen in Mannheim. A player with a lot of character, he looks also very developed mental-wise, because he cheered when it was needed to raise spirits, and he didnt shy away from demanding more aggressiveness from his teammates. A natural-born leader.
Hes a pure point guard, a floor-general type who knows how to give orders. He enjoys very good ball-handling skills with either hand, and hes a good perimeter shooter. He can also penetrate with confidence and energy, using both hands to finish near the basket, not forcing his shot or losing his balance. But above all, his ability leading and carrying his teammates with his enthusiasm.
A very glaring one, and that will give him headaches: his inconsistency passing the ball. It could be more a lack of concentration rather than a skill issue, but sometimes more than he would like-, he surprises us by passing into the stands. It usually happens when he delivers one-handed passes. But again, it looks more a matter of concentration. His assist/turnover ratio, as it stands today, is very low, as they almost go hand by hand.
Tremendously complete player, he directs pretty well, has good perimeter shot and hes a good pick-and-roll player. On the break, he feels very comfortable, just as almost all his teammates. He has good court vision and vision of the play, being so big-, and hes quite reliable with the entry pass to the big men; not quite like when it comes to feeding the cutting wings going outside, which is the usual aforementioned situation when he does not complete his passes.
Very aggressive. With the character he has, he never gives up and plays tremendously hard. A very intense and dangerous player in two-on-one situations; even if he doesnt use his hands looking for the steal when trapping a rival, he does get almost every single loose ball when there are bad passes, or simply, when the rival loses the ball. He was seen yelling at the big men to be more aggressive defending the pick-and-roll without switching.
Despite his youth, he will probably have a chance to play in the NBA. Considering how complete he is in almost all the departments of the game, he could have a place in the American League.
Omri Casspi (Israel)
SF, 6-8; 1988. Maccabi Tel Aviv
Physical and Mental Characteristics:
From not having a ripped body at all just one year ago, hes evolved into a very explosive player physically speaking. Theres no baby fat left in his body and he has outstanding explosiveness in his legs. An excellent vertical leaper, he gets up really high. He has very long arms. Mentally, hes tough. He almost always stays focused, although occasionally he loses some concentration when he has bad shooting streaks; nothing that wont be able to fix with experience, though. Very coachable, just as all his teammates, he never makes a bad gesture to anybody. He doesnt seem to be a primadonna, even if hes clearly the teams star. Hes the kind of hungry player that never avoids responsibility when it comes to deciding games.
Hes one of the players that offensively will make the difference whenever he plays. Very good perimeter shooter, he could develop into an extraordinary one in the future, or thats the impression he draws, because of his self-improving ability. He drives really well by the baseline. But especially, considering the height he enjoys, hes an extremely quick player. He reads the passing lanes really well on defense, getting a lot of steals that he usually finishes himself thanks to his explosiveness, his great handle on the run and, particularly, an unusual balance while in the air. As fast as he might be running the break, he will always catch the pass if hes bound to receive it, and will almost never lose the ball because of a bad dribble if hes driving. He almost always transforms the fastbreak into two points because he never loses balance. And if theres somebody standing in front of him, he will just eat him alive, literally. He also knows how to pass the ball in transition, enjoying a very accurate bounce pass. I insist: he can become one of the great European perimeter shooters in the future.
Like many of the great scorers weve known, hes not a devoted defender. He has problems on the strong side, while showing much more ability in the weak side, thanks to his intelligence. He has neither a great rebounding mentality, particularly on the offensive glass, among other reasons, because he plays very open.
One of the best players in this tournament, he dominates almost all departments. He prefers to shoot rather than slash. His shooting range is very deep, showing accuracy from long distance. Hes more of a finisher in one-on-one plays rather than a pick-and-roll player, although he feels comfortable there too. He barely put in practice the entry pass, because the Israeli big men werent a serious threat, so therere doubts about his ability there. Hes skilled slashing towards the basket, and dominates the short-range jumper off the penetration as well as attacking the basket and forcing fouls, which he usually does.
Hes a player that stays away from his man. First, because with his size and long arms he can contest his matchups shot. And second, because hes not a very dedicated player; being beaten by quicker opponents, precisely because he lets them start moving. He feels much more comfortable in the weak side. There, to stay away from his man is justified. But hes always on the alert, being difficult to beat with a back-door cut. Since he feels very well the passes coming from the strong side, he usually reacts explosively getting the steal, which he transforms in two points almost always.
He will probably have the chance to play in the NBA because of his great talent, although I dont predict a great future for him there, if he tries. But he can be a star in European basketball. Theres only one problem: the next 2-3 years will be decisive on his career, and he will need playing time to develop. Maccabi Tel Aviv might not be the team that guarantees him those minutes. A future European star might get struck down mid-way precisely for that reason.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
Dogus Balbay (Turkey)
PG, 6-0; 1989. Fenerbahçe
Baris Hersek (Turkey)
SF, 6-9; 1988. Efes Pilsen
Ante Delas (Croatia)
SG, 6-7; 1988. Split
Bojan Bogdanovic (Croatia)
SF, 6-8; 1989. Zjrinski
Josué Soto (USA)
PG, 6-2; 1988. Arlington County Day, Jacksonville
Vaidas Cepukaitis (Lithuania)
C, 6-9; 1989. Alytus
Miroslav Raduljica (Serbia and Montenegro)
C, 6-11; 1988. Zeleznik
Andrew Ogilvy (Australia)
C, 6-10; 1988. AIS