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International Scene: Turning Points

International Scene: Turning Points
Jan 22, 2006, 07:10 pm
It’s not rare to see youngsters struggling in the season after they start making some noise. Expectations, pressure, over-exposure, perhaps even some complacency, as it’s hard to stay focused on improving every day. However, it usually happens that at some point of the season, these players manage to return to their best form.

Two of the most heralded international prospects coming into the year, Tiago Splitter and Uros Tripkovic, somehow disappointed with their poor playing during the first few months of the season, damaging their draft stock as we told you here at DraftExpress. Nevertheless, both might have passed their season’s turning points through a much more consistent and productive game.

UROS TRIPKOVIC, MAKING THE TRANSITION TO THE POINT?

Uros Tripkovic was meant to have a very prominent role in Partizan this season. With guards Vule Avdalovic and Blake Stepp out of the picture, he was expected to take over the go-to role in his team’s backcourt. It didn’t work out as planned, though, as Uros failed to provide the offensive power that his team needed out of him. His shot wasn’t falling and his confidence was faltering. Besides, some nagging injury problems were bothering him, causing him to miss a few games in the process.

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However, since returning from the last injury about a month ago, Tripkovic looks like a completely different player. He is averaging 15.2 points and 2.4 assists in the last 8 games he has played in both the Adriatic League and Euroleague. His shooting touch is back, even exhibiting his excellent skills netting complicated jumpers lately. He’s firing against opposition in difficult situations, fading away or with a man in his face off the dribble, while always looking very reliable whenever he’s open for the catch and shoot. It’s clear that his confidence is back.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is due to his new role in the team. With the departure of point guard Gerald Brown, he’s not only the main guy in the backcourt, but also he’s spending heavy minutes at the point guard position.

Tripkovic belongs to an excellent European shooting guard crop that also includes Rudy Fernández and Marco Belinelli, characterized by being slightly undersized both bulk and size wise as far as the NBA is concerned, with nice athleticism, a good shooting touch, remarkable passing abilities and a high basketball IQ. Many NBA people would probably like to see these guys become point guards, and indeed they are sometimes listed this way regardless of how are they looking right now, as they likely feature the basics to be able to make that transition with some chances of success.

While Marco Belinelli and Rudy Fernández developed strictly at the off-guard position, where they still feature excellent potential, Uros Tripkovic might be going in a different direction. He had previously flirted with the playmaking spot whenever his team needed him to, but currently he’s the main point guard of the team.

It remains to be seen whether this is a temporary situation (perhaps until Partizan signs another PG) or a real bet on Tripkovic’s future at that position. Right now, he’s learning the ropes of playmaking. For example, he still looks uncomfortable taking the ball up-court even against minimal defensive pressure from his match-up, making it difficult for him to keep good sight of the entire court. Still, he doesn’t lose the ball too often in these situations, but he tends to act hastily as soon as he get rids of that pressure, committing unnecessary mistakes. Also, he sometimes picks up his dribble without having established a clear passing angle, which can get him and his team in trouble. Being a nice ball-handler for a shooting guard, he could use some improvement for the point guard position. He certainly lacks that rhythm and feel of having everything under control that the good playmakers display.

This is why despite the possibility of delivering an excellent scoring run from now until the end of the season, it could be really interesting for Uros to wait another season before declaring for the draft if Partizan is serious about playing and developing him at the point. If he manages to properly learn how to play there (he will obviously need more than half a season), and he certainly has some nice skills to do it, he could see his draft stock skyrocketing.


TIAGO SPLITTER, STARTING ROLE

Unlike Tripkovic’s case, the summer market was not as kind for Tiago Splitter. Tau lured Peja Drobnjak from the NBA to complete a tremendous frontcourt that already featured Kornel David, Luis Scola and the young Brazilian. With new coach Pedro Martínez taking control, he saw himself losing ground in the team’s rotation and even barely seeing the floor in some games, despite coming off a spectacular performance in the Tournament of the Americas during the summer.

For Tiago, the turning point probably started right when Pedro Martínez was fired in late November and Velimir Perasovic took over the coaching job. The Croatian coach soon increased Splitter’s minutes on court, but most importantly, made them consistent. However, it wasn’t until last month when the effects became more visible, right when coach Perasovic decided to give him a starting spot in the paint alongside Luis Scola. In the last four games he played, whether in the Euroleague or ACB League competition, the Brazilian has averaged 14.5 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals.

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Now we’re seeing the best version of the Splitter that shined with Tau Vitoria last season. It’s important to stress that, because Splitter’s game has significant differences depending on whether he plays for Tau or for the Brazilian National Team. Defensively, he’s equally effective, but much like what happened with Anderson Varejao at Barcelona when he was playing in the ACB League, Splitter has less freedom in Europe to show his entire offensive repertoire, especially concerning his face-up game. The adjustment for Brazilian players to the European style is not always easy, as they tend to display a rather wild offensive game that rarely fits with the tactical approach that reigns in the Old Continent.

What is clear is that Splitter looks more comfortable now, easily scoring thanks to his very good off the ball movement and improved ability to finish around the basket. He also displays better intensity chasing offensive rebounds, getting as a result a few put-backs and in general, more second-chance points. These improved performances are coinciding with what is likely the best playing level shown by Tau Vitoria this season. We’ve said it from day one: the defensive intensity and reliability that he brings to the floor, combined with his solid offensive skills make it very hard for anyone to keep him out of the game.

As always, we’re missing a bit of one on one scoring and above the rim play from him. Besides, the teams he faced during this good run are rather weak, which is his specialty when it comes to increasing his scoring production. Nevertheless, there are good enough reasons for him being Tau’s starting center, leapfrogging Kornel David in the rotation and relegating Predrag Drobnjak to the depths of the bench. We’ll have to wait and see if it lasts. For now he’s continuing to solidify his lottery status.


ANOTHER ASIAN SENSATION?

As much as the brightest lights of international scouting point towards Europe, we shouldn’t forget other places where basketball is quickly growing in popularity and quality. For example China, where there’s life beyond Yi Jianlian, even if he’s the clear-cut best NBA prospect in this emerging country (should he declare for this upcoming draft, he would likely be a first round pick). A generation mate of his (assuming that Yi Jianlian was actually born in 1987), Yi Li is one of the CBA youngsters that shows the best potential right now.

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Yi plays for the Jiangsu Dragons, a rather strong team that made it to the CBA finals last season. He enjoys meaningful and consistent playing time there, averaging around 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game. Standing 6-9, Yi looks like a legit small forward even if he’s usually forced to play power forward. His decent athleticism, nice skill set and basketball instincts make him a rather intriguing package. He enjoys quite an effective jumper featuring 3-point range and can easily put the ball on the floor with either hand to attack the hoop. Li is also capable of changing directions impressively while showing some quickness, footwork and good ability to finish around the rim. He’s still learning to take advantage of his size near the basket, but already shows some willingness to post-up smaller match-ups, usually to finish with a turnaround jumper. Not a bad passer at all, he shows very nice basketball IQ making decisions on the court.

There’s a huge knock on him, though. Yi is extremely skinny, thin as a rail. If Chinese players usually lack strength, Yi’s case is off the charts, looking a bit like a starving kid. Of course his body is completely underdeveloped, but to get over this flaw will be a very difficult task considering his very poor frame. Right now he’s outmuscled every time he touches a rival, often becoming a defensive liability for his team. That’s why it’s rather surprising to see him placed at the power forward spot and many times having to defend paint players. This is at least a good way for him to add some toughness while battling against the bigs.

Therefore, take this just as a small introduction to someone who might develop into something interesting down the road, but is still light-years away from being considered a real NBA prospect.

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