The tournament is over. It was a great basketball experience, and I leave Belgrade feeling eager to get back there as soon as possible.
Still, I was a bit surprised, or perhaps not that much, about the fact that theres apparently not as huge of a basketball fan base here as you could think considering the amount of great players produced in the area. Pionir pavilion was packed for the final (about 7000 people), but Serbia was playing and there wasnt too much attendance when the hosts werent in action. As a curious note, I looked for a basketball jersey from a local basketball team, and nothing appeared, not even in a Partizan store, fully dedicated to soccer merchandising. As in almost all Europe, the soccer plague is too widespread to overcome.
Serbia and Montenegro, of course
As the hosts of the championship and featuring arguably the most talented roster, to see them winning was a logical outcome.
Serbia and Montenegro recovered the European Junior crown after several years of drought, in an exhibition of superior play displayed without their biggest star of this generation, Nemanja Aleksandrov, and with guard Nenad Mijatovic, a quick and offensive point guard who excels in transition and had some nice showings early in the tourney, sitting out in the last games due to injury. But the 1987 class is that talented and deep.
They have a great playmaker in Milos Teodosic, who combines excellent court vision with a good stroke from anywhere on court. While Teodosic is not a bad penetrator, the teams official slasher had another name: Milenko Tepic, a knife to any rivals defense. Athleticism, an effective first step and the footwork to drive in traffic are the weapons of this 6-7 wing.
However, the heart of this team is no other than Dragan Labovic, the most skilled big man in the Championship. Perhaps he shows a little less versatility than he had promised in previous competitions, forgetting most of his perimeter game and some of his passing, while focusing on his fantastic low post skills or his effective mid-range jumper.
Nenad Zivcevic is another interesting piece, a 6-7 athletic wing with a nice slashing game and some shooting ability, although hes perhaps one of the least consistent players in this squad. We could go on and on, but lets put the end in this Serbian list with Marko Durkovic. This 6-9 power forward probably doesnt look like NBA material at this point, but his maturity and solid skills terrified the rivals defenses. He could very well turn out to be an excellent European player.
And the MVP goes to
Naturally, Dragan Labovic. He was the best player of the best team. NBA wise, hes limited by his average athleticism, while not enjoying great size at 6-9 (perhaps near 6-10). Nevertheless, its really hard to match his talent level.
However, our personal pick (not taking into account which team got the title) has to be Cenk Akyol. Despite not delivering his most glamorous and impressive games in the last two days, he was the most influential player in the tournament, leading Turkey to the silver medal. By the way, this is the third consecutive time Akyol and the Turks fell one step short of the championship, after Rivas in the cadet stage and last year in Zaragoza, already playing in the junior category.
Serbia in the final, and particularly Spain in the semifinal, focused their most intense defensive efforts on stopping Cenk, but still he managed to have a big impact on the game by taking advantage of this situation for his teammates to assume a bigger offensive role with less defensive pressure.
A mere statistical approach would terrify anyone, considering Akyols horrible field goal percentages, but they dont actually reflect his shooting ability, nor his decision making on the court. His enormous role in his team seems like the most accurate explanation for that lousy accuracy.
The Real Deal
Thats how Ante Tomic kept looking. Beyond his all around game, he particularly shines in a couple of departments that are especially important when talking about a big man. Despite the fact that he's weaker than the average paint player here, being outmuscled in many situations, it's just a beauty to see how he bangs in the post, using fakes to destabilize his rival using that exact moment to bang and gain space, while having the ability to finish with half hooks and a decent touch. Furthermore, he's a very nice passer that perfectly uses his size to see the court.
I think he's a couple of years away from being a good enough player to consider entering the draft. He's not physically prepared at all, not even to play at a really good level in Europe, being way too skinny and not used to dealing with veteran guys. His frame, while not horrible, doesn't look too "center friendly," although he should be able to develop and gain enough strength down the road. But the way it works nowadays, I wouldn't be surprised to hear his name being called already next year.
In case we werent deep enough in love with the way Danilo Gallinari plays the game (athleticism aside), he took care of helping his case with a very good semifinal against Turkey. It was futile in the end, but especially with his awesome game for the bronze medal, where he excelled in defense (Jose Angel Antelo must be having nightmares featuring him) and marveled showing his offensive skills.
He shot the ball with accuracy, was aggressive slashing to the basket, shared the ball whenever it was necessary, and in general, made the right decision virtually every time, of course, always displaying his unique style of finesse basketball. He impressively took over the game down the stretch, proving also to enjoy a winning character.
I have to pick Aleksandar Ugrinoski as the best passer of the tournament even if he finished second with 4.9 dishes per game. The guy is incredible driving to the basket, forcing rotations and waiting for the precise moment to deliver the pass. But he also looks great in the open court, and he has performed some excellent assists in the static offense feeding a cutter behind the three-point line. Milos Teodosic and Yogev Ohayon were just one step behind, though.
Yaroslav Korolev looked a bit better over these last two days. Not forgetting a fair degree of inconsistency, he delivered several glimpses of his terrific skill set. A three pointer here, an amazing drive there, sometimes a huge block or a great pass. He looks perhaps a bit stronger than he did at LHospitalet, in whats anyway already a god-gifted body. Even if his performance wasnt on par with that of a twelfth pick is supposed to deliver, Korolev definitely looked better than in Zaragoza. Possibly only Ante Tomic came close in terms of potential among the players seen in Belgrade. Apparently coach Ettore Messina wants to have him on CSKAs roster for the next season, but its not clear if the Clippers and the player himself are willing to do that.
An interesting big guy that we didn't mention in the previous report is Tim Ohlbrecht. An inch short of seven feet, he shows some signs of good potential, displaying nice athleticism and some skills, like a good stroke with range, being capable not only of hitting jumpers, but also to use half hook shots. The downside is that he's a very cold player, not looking intense at all. His teammates doesn't look for him too much, so he goes more unnoticed than he should, although we have to take into account that he's still a 1988 born kid.
The dumbest play of the tourney was delivered by Nicolas Batum, who fouled Korolev in the last second of the shot clock with three seconds to go in the game, frustrating the French chances to come back from a two point deficit in the game for fifth place. Of course, its not a big deal, but it serves me to bring our attention on this kid. Born in December 1988, he was the youngest cat in Belgrade, and you otherwise wouldnt think of looking at him, as he has a totally childish appearance to him. Hes a 6-7 wing with a very promising frame and the athleticism to go along with it, while already showing some skills shooting the ball or slashing. Hes very raw, but a guy to seriously keep on the radar.
Not everything was about winning. With the new competition system that includes A and B divisions, the two worst teams in the tournament were relegated to the next category, and they turned out to be Belgium and Poland. It's interesting to note that in the Division B tourney, played parallel to this one, Iceland, led by Pavel Ermolinski (who averaged 17.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.9 steals), clinched one of the two spots to promote to the Division A. This is quite a significant achievement for such a small country and the Unicaja Malaga player.
Its over, isnt it?
The 2005 European Junior Championship is history, but DraftExpress.com will still deliver a more in-depth look into the best prospects seen in Belgrade during the following days, once Luis well earned vacation is complete. Stay tuned.