Team USA, Finally a Real Team
Probably the most pleasant surprise in this tournament is USA. Not really because of the talent level they are showing. Actually, thats what you would expect from the perennial single-most productive pool in the world, and regardless the fact that the very best players of this age group, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, arent here (just the thought of having them in this setting is scary). No, it has much more to do with attitude, cohesiveness, commitment and playing style.
What were seeing these days in Novi Sad is a group of players thinking of the team first, playing serious basketball and working hard on the court. Its very refreshing to watch the way they share the ball on the offensive end, move off the ball, knock down their open shots on a regular basis, and still not give up on the advantages they can generate with their one-on-one skills. On the other end of the floor, we can finally see some quality defense, with a bunch of guys exceeding their individual assignments with team rotations and nice zone defenses. They are committed for the whole 24 seconds of the shot clock-- not your typical USA squad only able to put pressure on the ball early in the possession, basing their offense in the transition game off the opponents turnovers.
As usual, the American players have the edge in terms of physical tools and athleticism. Almost every guy here is a good athlete on his own, and only France emerges as a serious competitor in this area.
Beasley is doing his biggest damage in the paint, working off the ball, often continuing moves from the elbow or the baseline to finish with acrobatic layups. Hes a flat-out impressive finisher around the rim. He perfectly uses both hands, and his ability to hang in the air with the balance he shows there allows him to work to avoid almost every opponents attempt to challenge him. Hes just a majestic player evolving off the ground. Although not prolific in this area, hes eventually putting the ball on the floor and taking advantage of his quickness and coordination to beat his matchups, often using very quick reverse moves and showing excellent footwork in the process. He can also hit his left-handed jumper with range out to the three-point line, although hes struggling from the perimeter. Still, he shows a notable ability to create separation in turnaround fashion and shoot over his opponent.
Its not only about scoring points. Beasley is not forcing his plays either. He shares the ball reasonably, doing nice defensive work while cleaning the boards, particularly on the offensive glass. Considering his star status at this level, hes a pretty nice example of how things are working out for the US team.
Beware of France. Dont put too much trust on how they have fared so far in the tournament (defeated by both USA and Serbia), because we wont know their real level until the elimination games come. Just as what happened last year at the U-18 European Championships, they have not been playing at full intensity. Actually, team effort is something that doesnt come naturally with this group of players, globally considered. Also, they seem to feel comfortable with an underdog status to face the decisive games. All in all, you get the feeling that they didnt care that much in those losses; the real championship begins now.
On the other hand, some of the stuff he displays from time to time is ridiculously impressive. Were especially taking about the intimidation he delivers around the basket and his ability to block shots. Hes so freaking long, while also nicely athletic, that he can reject a shot from virtually at the roof, right where he sometimes comes up with some impressive rebounds. Hes gaining defensive awareness, better following his match-ups, and recognizing where and when to execute a team rotation. To summarize: still raw, still promising.
Serbia, the Host Candidate
Serbia presented its credentials for the title with strong performances so far in the tournament, particularly its brilliant victory over the French squad, but also a promising close loss against USA. The support of the local fans here in Novi Sad is strengthening what already was a very nice squad.
As opposed to the Macvan weve seen this season with the FMP juniors, virtually an orchestra conductor (a role he will likely reassume on the U-18 national team later this summer), Milan is evolving as a much more clear-cut inside guy, primarily looking for the low post to take advantage of his strength, moves and intelligence.
Ogilvy Inheriting Bogut
Still, we feel cheated: we had seen Ogilvy a month ago in the first two days of the Douai Tournament, and although he looked nice, it was nothing compared to what he's showcasing here. He's the centerpiece of the Australian game, a very skilled 6-11 player who makes the most out of his limited athleticism. He usually looks for the surroundings of the basket, either with his low post game or attacking his match-ups off the dribble from the mid or high post. Actually, he sometimes overdoes himself looking for the way to the rim, but it basically shows how aggressive he is. Down low, he enjoys nice footwork, loves contact (he's a very strong guy at this level) and can finish with both hands around the rim showing a nice touch, even getting up pretty fast for the dunk. Not a bad shooter from the mid-range area, he's not particularly active there.
Defensively, Oglilvy is doing a decent job, particularly coming away with a number of blocked shots (second in the tournament), where he shows great timing and an excellent control of his efforts, so he rarely risks his defensive position. That very same timing plus nice positioning help him out in the rebounding department. He's a naturally smart guy playing the game, also visible through his extremely solid passing game, feeding the weak side from the low post or rewarding cutters from the mid-range area.
However, the competition Ogilvy has found so far in this championship is average at best. He's yet to face the best teams, which happen to enjoy the most powerful frontcourts. We'll see if he lives up to the task.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the tournament came when South Korea defeated Turkey. We don't remember the last time a Korean team had a victory against a European squad, if ever. It was extremely fun to watch, with the Asians making up for their glaring lack of size (they got to put on court four guys under 6-3 at the same time) with restless intensity, a very quick game style, very nice ball movement (the expression "extra pass" reached a new degree here), perimeter accuracy, a bit of luck (they netted a number of extremely wild layups) and surprising character on court.
Reporting to the Championship
While we all would desire to have the very best kids from this age group in this tournament, reality strikes to show again that therere always very important players missing the party.
The list has to be headed by two apparently soon-to-be NBA superstars, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, busy these days with Summer Leagues. The question is, would it be so difficult to convince the players and NBA teams to skip these settings and play a fairly prestigious competition as the Junior Worlds that the US Team hasnt won since 1991?
Probably the team suffering the most from absences is Spain. As the U-18 European Championship will be hosted in Madrid in August, the Spanish Federation has preferred to secure the success of this event with a strong Spanish squad, cutting the wings of the U-19 team. Its not far-fetched to think that with the likes of Ricky Rubio, Pablo Aguilar and Pere Tomas on the team, Spain would even opt to the gold medal.
Theres no doubt that the most disappointing squad here has been Lithuania, easily a top-4 contender in advance and now out of the quarterfinals. While the team is very similar to the one that advanced to the Final in last summers U-18 European Championship, its hard to understand why a nice playmaker such as Sarunas Vasiliauskas is not here to replace Zygimantas Janavicius every time he visits the bench, as theres not even a single reliable point guard to give him a rest. Even such a talented big man as Donatas Motiejunas wouldve come in handy, regardless of his youth.
France could have presented a stronger squad had they managed to add Rodrigue Beaubois to the mix, but apparently the athletic point guard was too busy with the draft process to earn himself a spot on the final roster. Meanwhile, Turkey lost a foundation piece in Baris Hersek. The forward from Efes Pilsen was included on the U-20 Turkish squad, but was apparently kicked out due to some disciplinary measures, and didnt make the U-19 team either.
China has come to the tournament with a strange roster where you can miss some very promising guys, starting with Chen Jianghua, and following with the likes of Zhou Peng, Liu Xiaoyu, Han Shuo or Ding Jinhui. Finally, one of the very top prospects of the 1988 generation, Vitor Faverani, didnt make the Brazilian team.