FIBA World Championship Preview: Group C, Part One

FIBA World Championship Preview: Group C, Part One
Aug 15, 2006, 01:21 am
DraftExpress’ FIBA World Championship coverage kicks off by breaking down the top players participating at the upcoming tournament in Japan beginning August 19th. The teams are analyzed individually from a player perspective, exploring who the leaders and top stars are on each squad, and which intriguing players with NBA upside are lurking on every roster.

Group C consists of Brazil, Lithuania, Turkey, Greece, Australia and Qatar, and is headlined by a slew of promising young NBA players including Leandro Barbosa, Andrew Bogut and Anderson Varejao.

Group C, Part One

Games will be conducted in Hamamatsu, Japan from August 19th to 24th.

Read more about the 2006 FIBA World Championship tournament at the informative official website


The Stars:

Anderson Varejao, 6-11, PF/C, Cleveland Cavaliers, 23 years old


Jonathan Givony

Coming off an NBA season that was more impressive than his 4.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in 16 minutes per game would indicate, Anderson Varejao will now be thrust into a much more prominent role on an athletic and talented Brazilian squad that many have pegged as dark horses to crash the advanced stages of the World Championships.

Already considered a huge steal relative to where he was drafted (early in the 2nd round of the 2004 draft), Varejao was an important rotation player for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. He only got better and better as the season moved along after missing the first two months of the NBA calendar with an injury he picked up with the Brazilian national team over the summer. His averages in April of 8 points and 8.5 rebounds in 25 minutes per game more accurately reflect his value once he really got into peak form following the 30 or so games he missed early on.

In the NBA, Varejao is your consummate hustling role player who gets few touches and even fewer plays actually called for him. He makes his living by feeding off scraps, crashing the glass exceptionally hard, cutting to the basket, running the floor in transition and outquicking and outworking other players around the hoop.

He’s not the most skilled player you’ll find, showing an underdeveloped post game with his back to the basket and fairly poor touch around the rim. Most of his points in the half-court come in unconventional fashion; awkward spin-moves, quick and aggressive drives to draw fouls and an unpolished jump-hook shot that is bound to drop on the 2nd try if you don’t put a body on him on the offensive glass. He’s simply a bundle of energy that is very tough to contain due to the ferociousness he plays with, showing great toughness, outstanding size, excellent length and plenty of athleticism to get the job done.

With that said, there is a certain sense that Varejao might have more in his arsenal than he is usually allowed to show with the Cavs as their 5th option when he is on the floor. His flair for the unexpected has shown us that he has some intriguing ball-handling and passing skills in the open court, although he is sometimes just as prone to throw a Jason Kidd style no-look pass into the 3rd row as he is to make a highlight reel caliber assist.

Brazil will need Varejao’s creativity and tenacity, not to mention his excellent physical attributes, throughout the tournament to provide them with an added dimension that few teams in Japan can match up with. Staying out of foul trouble—something that has been an issue for him at times—will be imperative to Brazil’s chances of success. Varejao’s length and quickness coupled with his toughness make him an excellent defensive presence in the NBA, but averaging nearly 4 fouls per game in 18 minutes--like he did in the playoffs this year—is not going to cut it for them. It will be interesting to see whether he’ll be able to temper his enthusiasm a bit without taking too much away from the things he does best.

If Varejao can continue the excellent form he’s brought to the Brazilian preparation games into the actual tournament, he might give the Cavs enough food for thought to potentially expand his role next year as heavy footed 31 year old Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ steady decline inevitably continues.

Leandro Barbosa, 6-3, PG/SG, Phoenix Suns, 23 years old

Jonathan Givony

Another role-playing NBA youngster who will be asked to be anything but that in Japan, Leandro Barbosa’s virtues are well known to fans who enjoyed watching the most entertaining team in the league this past season.

Possibly the quickest player from one end of the floor to the other in this Championship, no one will ever question the incredibly physical attributes of this gifted athlete. Barbosa is as explosive as they come, dynamite in the open court and capable of blowing by players in the half-court in the blink of an eye. It’s not rare at all to see Barbosa establish himself as a one man fast break after a medium range in-bounds pass and completely beat the opposing team down the court, even with the ball in his hands. Pushing tempo and getting out in the open floor is where he is at his absolute best.

He is used mostly as instant offense off the bench for the Phoenix Suns, but will be expected to be do much more than that as the starting point guard for the Brazilian national team. With his team’s next two biggest stars (Splitter and Varejao) not really known for their offensive prowess, Barbosa will also have to do plenty of what he is most well known for—score.

Barbosa established himself as one of the most dangerous perimeter shooters in the NBA this past season despite his awkward shooting mechanics, bringing the ball up and releasing it from well under his chin. He is absolutely money when given a split second to set his feet and get his shot off, to the tune of an astounding 44% accuracy from behind the arc this past season.

He is also very much capable of creating his own shot in the half-court, although he doesn’t possess a very wide variety of crafty fakes and hesitation moves; instead relying on his explosive first step and strength to just power his way through the lane much like an NFL running back would. He has a great nose for finding the rim and is absolutely fearless attacking the basket, regularly finishing with contact--although his touch here can be lacking at times due to his tendency to over-improvise or get cute with the way he uses the glass. A new weapon we’ve seen more and more of is a very effective floater or runner he uses from 8-12 feet out.

Barbosa’s problems begin when his team asks him to do things that just aren’t in his repertoire, and therefore take away from what he does best. That is unfortunately exactly what Brazil will be forced to do with him designated as their floor general and the man expected to make everyone around him better. Barbosa’s decision making skills can be extremely questionable when he’s asked to do too much with the ball in his hands, showing average court vision, poor shot selection, and severely decreased effectiveness when forced to go to his left hand. He is a fantastic shooter with his feet set, but quite a bit less efficient off the dribble.

Barbosa generally isn’t the most technically skilled player in the world, but he is exceptional at the few things he does well. How much Brazil will be able to take advantage of his terrific strengths, while minimizing his glaring weaknesses--much like the Phoenix Suns do—will play a huge role in how far this team goes.

The Upside:

Tiago Splitter, 7-0, PF/C, Tau Vitoria, 21 years old


Dimitris Ritsonis

Already participating in his second World Championship, despite his young age, Tiago Splitter an example of a player who will not need a huge tournament to become better known in basketball circles. Most basketball fans around the globe should be familiar with his name by now, either through the constant success enjoyed by Tau Vitoria in the Euroleague, or when it comes to his excellent NBA potential, which has only been limited up until now by a non-existent buyout clause in his contract.

Splitter is a skilled big man, showing the type of fundamentals that only a few young centers can offer in International basketball at this point. He has great size and decent footwork, fine athletic ability, excellent rebound positioning, very good defensive technique and an excellent understanding of the pick and roll. He can play both frontcourt positions for the Brazilian national team and should compliment Anderson Varejao quite well, both in the half court and in transition, as he runs the floor particularly well. Defensively the two should be a menace; one a huge bundle of energy who uses his quickness and length tirelessly, and the other an incredibly intelligent and fundamentally sound defender who slides his feet as well as any big man around.

At Tau, playing alongside a superstar in Luis Scola, he is mostly a role player. Here in Japan with the National team of Brazil he has a chance to be more than that, though, and will probably be expected to shoulder some of the offensive load for a team that will cherish anything it can get out of him in the post.

This tournament should not present many surprises for Tiago, although it can be a significant sample of what we should be expecting from Brazil in the years to come, as they are a young and promising team. Splitter will be complementing Varejao in the post, focusing mainly on the defensive end, a well-known role for him, after his years in Tau. Therefore, Splitter, a player who has the ability to be a legit offensive option for them for some stretches, will be seeing a lot of playing time and will be asked to carry his share of offensive load and be a go-to player whenever asked.

A strong showing here in Japan in front of the many NBA scouts and executives who will be attending could really set the table for a high selection in next year’s draft.


The Star?

Lithuanian basketball has become well known as being one of the most team-oriented in the world these days. However, this is not the reason for missing a star report in our preview. With Sarunas Jasikevicius, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ramunas Siskauskas missing on the roster, the clear-cut candidate for the star spot would be now-former NBA player Arvydas Macijauskas. The deadly shooting guard hasn’t looked that deadly any more after spending the entire season on the bench with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. Macijauskas is notably thirsty for the game and while there is always a feeling in the air that Arvydas could start bombing from the outside at any given moment, he has yet to regain his old pre-NBA shape. Another two applicants for the star job are twin brothers Darjus and Ksystof Lavrinovic, but we can’t pull the trigger in this case because of the crowded frontline that Lithuania provides. NBA players Darius Songaila and Linas Kleiza could have a word here too, with the latter anyway finding a place in the presented upside part.

The Upside:

Linas Kleiza, 6-8, SF/PF, Denver Nuggets, 21 years old


Almantas Kiveris

After tasting rookie bread in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, Linas Kleiza makes his debut on the Lithuanian National team this summer. A few early friendly games seen of Lithuania before the World Championship even created the wild thought of putting Kleiza into the star section of our preview. The other contests settled down the hype around the 21 year old forward, though. Anyhow, one fact remains set in stone – Kleiza was the leading scorer with 13.5 points per game in all tallied friendlies for Lithuania.

Known mostly as a tweener in NBA circles, Kleiza has to directly fill the small forward position for his homeland team. This is a matter of the exceptionally strong front line Lithuania presents this time, already having five solid big men on the roster. Because of that Linas doesn’t always feel at home having to lurk around the perimeter most of the time and having much less opportunities to bang under the basket. On the other hand, he can shoot and slash respectably well in that sense, still remaining a big threat for the opponents.

Kleiza, a previous leader of various Lithuanian Junior teams, has always been a go-to guy there. That experience comes in handy now playing for the senior team, as in his first professional season Linas was more of a garbage man in the NBA. He is a very tough and smart player, a good rebounder for his size with a soft mid-range shot. On offense, Kleiza is versatile and can beat his defender in different ways, either by facing up or by showing a decent back to the basket game. The skills he brings to the table should help him in the fundamentally sound international competition.

Defensively, Linas is facing new tasks in the international game, as most small forwards here cause their biggest damage from the perimeter. His rather poor lateral quickness makes a concern as Kleiza will have to be fast enough going through screens or switching players to catch the shooters of opposing teams.

Overall, Kleiza should show that he can be a star in the international game. He will surely have enough playing time for that. Lithuania brings only four natural guards to Japan, with three of them being point guards. Wing Simas Jasaitis will have to cover both backup spots for Macijauskas and Kleiza, leaving Linas in an ideal position to show and prove his talent to the world.

Mantas Kalnietis, 6-5, PG, Zalgiris Kaunas, 19 years old

Almantas Kiveris

From the second division Lithuanian league to the World Championship in 5 months – such an unbelievable storyline has come true for the 19 year old Mantas Kalnietis. The young point guard made the National team selection even after missing the majority of the preparation camp. The reason for avoiding the final cut is more than obvious – a lack of floor generals in Lithuania after Sarunas Jasikevicius decided to skip his second major tournament in a row (after the European Championships last year).

Kalnietis still has a long way to go to be called a real floor general, but the progress he made last season can’t go unnoticed. Mantas started the season with Zalgiris’ Junior team and after playing brilliantly against sub-par competition was invited to Zalgiris’ main team (by coach Sireika) to make his debut in the Euroleague.

Sireika wanted to have Kalnietis early in the National team camp, but the youngster was prioritized to play for the Under-20 squad in the European Junior championships first. Being Lithuania’s captain there, Mantas finished third in assists with 4.8 per game and averaged 11.5 points. The 6-5 point guard didn’t have any rest this summer as he and his fellow teammate Martynas Pocius (Duke) had to join the senior team’s practices. His debut friendly game vs. Israel was enough for coach Sireika to admit publicly that Kalnietis had secured his place in the National team.

The first attributes which immediately reveal themselves after watching Kalnietis play is definitely his speed, quickness and spectacular leaping ability. Adding nice height for a point guard, and you have an intriguing prospect. Mantas is a down to earth kid, who is willing to work and has a passion for the game. However, his passion and enthusiasm on court sometimes evolve into rushed and “very optimistic” decisions, which either turn heads or result in a turnover.

Another field needing improvement is his shooting. Kalnietis can hit shots occasionally, but is yet to find a stable stroke from outside. Most of his points come from lay-ups or breathtaking dunks, which made Mantas a crowd favorite in Lithuania rather easily.

In Japan, he is expected to be backup for the more experienced Giedrius Gustas, but considering the turmoil in which the point guard position is in, there will be enough work for Kalnietis to do as well. The main duties for him should revolve in bringing the ball up-court, setting half court plays and providing open looks for his teammates, who are more experienced and better scorers than Mantas is. You shouldn’t anticipate big numbers from Kalnietis, but his appearance on the court should be important for a Jasikevicius-less Lithuania.

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