U-18 European Championship: The Bigs
|by: Luis FernŠndez - Director of International Scouting
|September 5, 2007
|All photos courtesy of FIBA Europe.
We continue our player-by-player recap of the U-18 European Championship played in Madrid with the big men. It was quite an interesting competition regarding the paint players, and among others, the list includes the two great dominators of the tournament, MVP Kosta Koufos and the best player of the champion team Milan Macvan, while also the extremely intriguing Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas.
1989, C, 7-1, Greece; 26.5 ppg, 13 rpg, 3.5 bpg
With just a few days to practice with the team before the tournament started, Koufos made a sudden impact both on the Greek squad and the Championship, emerging as the most dominant player in the competition, a true colossus. He just delivered an unmatched combination of physical superiority and skills, taking an average group of players (not bad players, but neither remarkable) to the final, only to lose against Milan Macvan and the omnipresent Serbians.
Koufos shows an impressive build. He had reportedly been working very hard this summer, losing weight while gaining bulk, in order to show up at Ohio State this upcoming fall in the best possible shape, and you can tell heís done a fine job. He looks very strong, particularly in his upper body, while there doesnít seem to be much fat left and, therefore, barely any room to keep losing weight. As a result, he has showcased significantly better athleticism than advertised in advance. For a 7-1 guy with a great wingspan, he enjoys a very solid athletic profile, with nice leaping ability and footspeed.
The shooting reputation Koufos brought from Ohio was pretty much confirmed here. His jumper looks very solid from the mid-range area, out to 18 feet from the basket, but he seriously struggled throughout the tournament with the three-point shot (2/22 overall). Perhaps the further three-point line compared to the HS/college courts and the little time he had to adapt his game were the reasons, especially since virtually all his three-point attempts fell short.
Regardless, inside the arc he left plenty to drool about. Koufos' mid-range stroke looked particularly intriguing: shooting in turnaround fashion off post positions and going for the bank shot after a hesitation, almost a la Duncan. Heís not much of an off-the-dribble shooter unless heís trying from short distances. Indeed heís neither much of an off-the-dribble player, even if he can put the ball on the floor with both hands and attack his match-ups. Still, he struggles to completely beat his opponents off the dribble, as his first step is average and so is his quickness with the ball in his hands, so those are usually approximation drives that allow him to shoot from shorter distances, often using the glass or trying in hook fashion.
Anyway, if weíre talking about a 7-1 dominating center, itís pretty clear he has to display a very solid low post game, precisely what Koufos shows. He wouldnít likely be a top prospect otherwise. How comfortable and confident he feels down low, and how physical he can be there, quickly jumps to your eyes. It was a piece of cake for him to establish good position against his match-ups at this level, only suffering when the opposing team employed various pieces to float around him so he couldnít receive the ball. Once he receives, he loves to draw contact in his moves; actually he was virtually unstoppable spinning off his opponentsí bodies, which ended up sealed and unable to contest his layups. Showing extremely solid footwork, his very nice footspeed allows him to do the rest. He also likes to spin towards the baseline and quickly gain his opponentís back and go for the dunk or the reverse layup. But he doesnít need to completely beat his match-up in order to score; he enjoys a nice right-handed hook that he can deliver over opponents. In other situations, being close enough to the basket, he would just project himself over his opponent looking for a layup, but this is something he will likely not be allowed to perform at a top level. Still, the biggest weakness Koufos faces when trying to score near the basket is his absolute lack of a left hand. He never uses it, which wasnít a problem in this championship playing against kids, but will hamper his effectiveness in the low post down the road. We also have to mention his strong finishes of alley-oop passes. He can easily get off his feet to go for a powerful dunk.
All in all, the big fella shows nice poise and feel for the game on the court. He knows how to attack his opponents, which way to go, he nicely combines his different offensive weapons. As example, he was very smart taking Macvan out of the lane in the final and attacking him off the dribble to exploit his lack of quickness. And despite his huge point production, he passed the ball every time he wasnít in good situation to score, often when opposing defenses collapsed on him, then showing a nice ability to take the ball out of the low post, even using the weak side to find an open teammate, but also delivering some nice dishes from the high post.
Carrying a reputation of a mediocre defender, he made a good case to pretty much erase it, emerging as the defensive anchor for Greece in the paint. For many stretches during the game, particularly when he was fresh, he looked almost unbeatable, a huge wall that any opponent would crash into if he dared to come close to the basket. He showed very nice positioning on the court, always keeping the team defense in mind, with excellent timing and decision making going for blocks, and of course, completely taking advantage of his long and strong body. He was a real intimidator. Still, itís a pity that he never uses his left hand to block shots, which limits his effectiveness, especially once he faces tougher opposition. Anyway, heís a physical guy with enough lateral quickness for a center and a smart use of his athleticism. He was also a force in the rebounding area, using his length and strength to clean the boards. Still, he often wasnít that aggressive and physical to collect boards that werenít falling in his area.
Greece not winning the title was basically because they didnít enjoy a fresh Koufos for the whole game. Actually that was a pretty big problem. Averaging almost 35 minutes, with only 7 minutes of combined rest in the last four games (all against tough teams), he eventually looked completely exhausted. Particularly painful was in the semifinal against Lithuania, where he didnít sit for even a second, and ended up totally burned out and pretty much ineffective on both ends of the court for the last minutes. On a lesser extent (the coach granted him some rest), it also happened in the final. It was pretty usual that his first halves were significantly better than the second ones, greatly affecting the teamís result. Actually, his stamina might not be the best around. He was pretty conscious of this situation, and always saved efforts on fast breaks, using slowly jogging or even walking up to the offensive end. But it speaks volumes that in the meantime, his defensive transitions were always excellent. They guy seemed really committed to the game, a very serious player, a hard worker, and just a fine teammate to play with.
1989, PF/C, 6-9, Serbia; 19.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg
Becoming almost an inevitable routine in youth competitions for the last year (only altered in the Euroleague Junior Tournament back in May), Macvan has led his team to the title, and even if he wasnít given MVP honors, he was the clear-cut best player on the best team. A dominant body, more in terms of width and strength than length, at the service of a privileged mind, resulted in another exhibition of basketball efficiency.
Nobody could keep up with a guy who is just built like a house. And when he faced the only player with the physical presence to limit his physical dominance, Kosta Koufos, he gave a clinic on basketball IQ and skills, to still remain productive. Standing 6-9, an showing an excellent wingspan, he enjoys very broad shoulders, while his body line just goes down with no intention of drawing a waist. He is indeed overweight, showing noticeable fat whenever he takes off his jersey. Heís not fat, obviously, but thereís a lot of room to improve his physical condition. That would likely help his athleticism, his biggest shortcoming, although everything suggests that he will never be what we would call an athletic guy. Right now, heís just slow and heavy footed.
No problem at all. That extra weight came very handy to overpower his opponents. Macvan just gains position in the lane at will, actually moving very intelligently to receive the ball in the best possible situation. Not a low-post dancer, he shows nice moves, even if his first option is to bang his opponent and spin for the layup, or go for a simple right-handed hook shot from as close range as possible. He can use both hands near the rim with consistency, a pattern with most Serbian big men. Still, Macvan often settles for a turnaround jumper, or a step-back shot. He gains enough space in the process to enjoy a comfortable release, and sometimes even delivers a slight fade away move. However, he looks streakier in these kind of shots. Macvanís shot enjoys range out to the three point line, but not with consistency, particularly in this championship.
One of the best assets of Macvanís game is his passing ability. They guy sees the floor really well, and heís equally effective in any part of the court. From the low post, to the high post, the arc or in transition, double-teamed or off the dribble, to his fellow post-mate, finding the open man on the three-point line, feeding cutters, from the weak sideÖheís very smart getting his teammates involved, even if his first option is usually to score himself. Anyway, heís not obsessed with the definitive pass, but just looks for the offense to flow properly.
Milan was a rebounding force in this championship. Showing good positioning and cashing in off his width, strength and excellent hands, he put on a true exhibition, although itís true that his teammates always conceded the rebound to him if he was near. On defense he often came with mixed results. Heís a slow player, particularly concerning the power forward position, and occasionally opposing teams exploited that flaw. Also, whenever he collected fouls he virtually gave up any kind of defensive risk to not to get into foul trouble, which greatly affected his effectiveness there. Still, heís a player who knows how to position himself, while he uses his wingspan and relies on his strength to get the job done.
Even if Macvan is stubbornly proving that he can keep up his production as the competition grows older (and stronger), I still have serious concerns about his real potential. Of course he will at least be a very nice player in Europe, probably a very good one. But he just doesnít enjoy a NBA-friendly profile. His poor combination of athleticism and size will likely hurt him in the long run. Indeed, I don't expect draft-wise anything more than a second round call down the road, if anything.
1990, PF, 6-11, Lithuania; 13.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg
After Rubio and Koufos, thereís not a single player from this championship who comes remotely close to Donatas Motiejunas in terms of potential. He displays an impressive combination of size, skills, athleticism and room to keep improving. Getting really close to seven feet, Motiejunas is a very versatile big, rather fundamentally sound, who can face the basket, play in the low post and run like a wing.
As we discussed last May during the Euroleague Junior Tournament, Motiejunas has greatly developed physically from the super-skinny kid that showed up last year at the U-16 European Championship. He has gained some strength that allows him to play near the basket, but still heís a slim guy with work to do. Still, his frame looks very solid, and he shouldnít have problems to develop a terrific body for a power forward, not the bulky type, but strong enough.
Motiejunas looked almost unguardable at times during the championship. Either taking advantage of his superior length or superior quickness, he was regularly a nightmare match-up. Heís a player who can step out to the perimeter, showing range in his shot out to the three-point line. Still, this time he barely tried from deep distances, sticking to mid-range attempts, from where he can even display pull-up jumpers. Itís not his most consistent skill, as he still struggles to regularly hit his shots, particularly the further he tries from the basket, but his mechanics look fairly nice. He was more prolific putting the ball on the floor to attack his opponent. His first step and quickness can be impressive for a guy of his size, being able to go both ways, and having the ability to eventually come up with a directional change during the drive. Still from the perimeter, heís a very useful pick-and-roll guy, given how quick he can roll towards the basket and his excellent size to catch the ball high and finish with a dunk.
If we come closer to the basket, it was pretty usual to see him asking for the ball in the mid post, in order to again use his quickness turning towards the basket looking for a layup extension with either hand. Down low, even if Donatas doesnít show the most orthodox and polished post moves, his footspeed and ability to knock down hooks, again with both hands (although a bit low released with his right), paves the way for him. Itís pretty interesting to stress the relatively very skilled right hand Donatas enjoys, letís remember, a left-handed player.
The concerns arise when talking about his character and attitude on court, as he sometimes looks like a bit of a cocky guy. He showed a tendency to get in foul trouble, which comes to reflect his struggles controlling his own emotions and reactions. Heís a very expressive guy, quite hot-blooded, who easily falls into provocations, and who might like to provoke himself. He got into a verbal fight with the Spanish audience during the game against Spain that he could have perfectly avoided. On defense, heís not the hardest working player, and sometimes neither physical enough. Still, with his wingspan and superb mobility, he shouldnít have troubles to get the job done once he gains enough strength. He did a pretty good job rebounding the ball, cashing in off his length and athleticism.
If Motiejunas keeps seriously working on his game, thereís no reason why he shouldnít become a great player. We could even say, the sky is the limit for him.
1989, PF/C, 6-10, Lithuania; 11.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg
Although we were growing a bit skeptical about a player who was showing the very same stuff since the first time we saw him a couple of years ago at the U-16 European Championship, Cepukaitis has delivered signs of real skill development in Madrid. Still a rebounding and shot-blocking specialist, with his mid-range jumpers as an offensive complement, he was more active trying some other things.
However, an important part of the intrigue comes with his physical development. Having grown a bit (he looks at least 6-10, and perhaps even taller) and enjoying great wingspan, heís slowly but constantly getting stronger, starting to fill out his excellent frame. Heís also a nicely athletic player, with solid leaping ability and interesting reactivity. Terrific tools to rebound the ball and block shots indeed. 9.1 captures and 2.9 rejections in less than 23 minutes per game sounds like outstanding production. The guy has a great sense of timing, shows very good position and, very important, the willingness to get it done. But heís not only about amassing stats; Cepukaitis is a very solid defender, physical in the low post, quick enough for a big guy, rather smart not to get easily cheated with fakes and pretty intense generally speaking.
Moving to the scoring department, he still primarily relies on his mid-range jumper, pretty solid and with a high-release point, both because of his mechanics and his leaping effort. But this time he showed a bit more ball-handling in order to gain an advantage in certain situations. Nothing really remarkable, but a couple of dribbles here or there, looking more aggressive than in the past, and also more active in the game. Indeed we could see him igniting the fastbreak by putting the ball on the floor without any hesitation. He even tried to play in the low post a few times, which is refreshing for a guy who almost refused any physical contact in the offensive end in the past (probably due to his lack of strength). He still looks rather unpolished there, anyway. Besides his mid-range stroke, he was quite productive in second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds, showing nice touch in short shots.
Still looking like a pure role player, even if a very good one, Cepukaitis might be able to develop into a very intriguing player down the road.
1989, PF, 6-8, Spain; 16.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg
One of the most solid pieces on the Spanish squad surrounding Rubio, Aguilar is a pretty energetic power forward with a deadly spot-up jumper that always helps his team open up the floor. Standing somewhere between 6-8 and 6-9, he enjoys a nice wingspan, while heís a fairly strong player despite not looking very bulky. Quick, nicely athletic, reactive, he plays bigger than his size on defense, although heís a bit one-dimensional on the offensive end.
Still an average ball-handler, itís not common to see him putting the ball on the floor, even if he was slightly more active in this department than in previous years. So even if he can eventually display a pull-up jumper from mid-range, heís mostly about static shots, enjoying range out to the three-point line. Heís a reliable guy from any distance when left open, showing quick mechanics, although he tends to lose balance on the release. Aguilar is still not a productive post player, lacking polished footwork and not showing particular ability to finish over his opponents unless he goes for the turnaround shot. A solid player off the ball, heís also a nice passer with a good understanding of the game.
Defensively, Aguilar is not always equally intense, but he gets the job done in the key games and minutes. He enjoys good lateral quickness, heís tough and physical, pretty competitive, and he can even get off the floor easily to block some shots if the proper opportunity arises. His reliability on the defensive end, plus his solid jumper, will help him make an easy transition to pro competition in Europe. Still, he will have to seriously expand his skill set to become a more intriguing player.
1989, PF, 6-10, France; 7.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg
Showing a pretty big contrast between potential and production, Louves displays some extremely intriguing characteristics that invite us to remain expectant of his development. Surprisingly fluid in some face-up moves, heís a long forward who easily stands 6-10. Heís also pretty athletic, still rather skinny, but with a decent frame even for the power forward spot.
Considering his length, heís a guy who stands out just by how easily he can put the ball on the floor and beat his opponents. He can go both ways using either hand with equal ease, always showing a nice first step, solid footwork and notable quickness approaching the basket, while he can finish with really stylish layups as he flies towards the basket. He can also shoot the ball out to the three point line, usually from static positions, with nice mechanics even if with inconsistent accuracy. Itís often the type small forward stuff that he can eventually deliver with surprising ease, although he wasnít particularly prolific taking offensive initiatives. Anyway, Louves did emerge as a solid rebounder taking advantage of his length and leaping ability.
On the downside, heís a pretty cold player when it comes to getting involved in the game, not being the most aggressive or tough guy on a basketball court. Heís not a constant guy, as he often floats around the court with no apparent purpose. Besides, his decision making and basketball IQ seem pretty average. In the end, he doesnít consistently take advantage of his skills and physical gifts to become a productive player. Therefore, how he deals with these mental flaws will be crucial for him to fulfill some of his intriguing potential.
1990, PF, 6-9, Croatia; 12.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg
A finesse power forward, Delas showcased an excellent skill repertoire, but also left some doubts about his athletic level and potential in general. The Croatian is a very fundamentally sound and coordinated player. He displays nice mobility, but his quickness is pretty much average and heís slightly heavy footed. Still physically weak, he shows a nice frame and a solid wingspan. All in all, heís still a 1990-born player with room to develop both physically and technically.
Delas is pretty versatile on the court, perhaps more of a face-up guy, but also capable of playing in the low post. He puts the ball on the floor easily, going both ways and displaying a solid first step and long strides to make up for his lack of extreme quickness. Often opting for passing off the drive (many times looking for his paint mate), when it came to scoring he would go all the way up for the lay-up, but also stop for the pull-up jumper, probably because he didnít look very effective netting the ball near the basket against opposition. Still, he wasnít very accurate with his off-the-dribble jumper; heís a player that feels more comfortable shooting in open spot up situations. Actually, he enjoys range out to the three-point line, from where he netted about half of his shots in the tournament. In the low post he shows good moves, but with inconsistency; sometimes he showcases notable footwork in a post move, but other times he canít find a proper way to beat his opponent, also because he often gets outmuscled.
Pretty intense rebounding the ball, limited on defense because of his lack of strength, Delas seems to have nice foundations to eventually become a very good player on the European scene.
1989, PF/C, 6-10, Italy; 14.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg
We had already penciled Renzi in as one of the most interesting big men in the very weak European class of 1989, and even if he clearly stood out among the very disappointing Italian team, he probably failed to take that final step in order to lead his team into the qualifying round.
Renzi is a pretty skilled player in the low post, a guy who feels comfortable there, relying both on his nice physical set and solid moves. Heís a 6-10 player, with a very good wingspan, nice strength and broad shoulders to add as much weight as necessary. Showcasing pretty polished footwork, heís a reliable guy going one-on-one in the low post, also taking advantage of his right-handed hooks, where he shows a certain soft touch. Although decently athletic, Renzi is more of a solid leaper than a really quick guy. Thatís a reason why heís not a very productive slasher, besides the fact that his ball-handling skills are not out of this world. So even if he can put the ball on the floor, he rarely gets real advantages. In the end, he prefers to settle for his jumper, which is not particularly pretty in the release, but not that bad in terms of effectiveness and enjoying range out to the three point line. A decent rebounder, he produced in this tournament mostly relying on his wingspan and leaping ability.
Still, there are concerns about his game, basically two big ones. First, heís looking a bit soft these days, particularly on the defensive end. He doesnít work very intently and heís not physical guarding the lane, so he doesnít challenge his opponents that heavily. Heís neither overly aggressive on the offensive end and settles for too many jumpers instead of taking advantage of his low post game. The second big problem here is his position on court. His struggles playing off the dribble and his average quickness limits his potential as a power forward, while heís small for a center. Of course, this is a relative problem depending on which level he ends up reaching.
Tibor Pleiss was a rather unknown player coming into the championship, so this event ended up being a bit of a coming out party for him. Heís a legit seven-foot center, pretty skinny but with a decent frame. Heís somewhat athletic, but quite active, showing a very nice attitude and being decently aggressive, not backing down from contact. Pleiss is a raw player physically, but also in terms of skills. Although he didnít give up playing down low, his post moves looked very unpolished, and so did his shooting stroke. He doesnít seem to enjoy much of a left hand. On the other hand, he never looked out of place on the court, showing a decent understanding of the game, he did a nice job playing without the ball, he seems to enjoy pretty solid hands and he looks willing to finish strong around the rim with a dunk. On defense he got often outmuscled, but he should be able to sort that out once he gains strength, and his lateral quickness looked average, although probably enough for a center. Heís a long-term prospect anyway.
Johwe Casseus has evolved from the last man on Franceís bench last year to a raw but somehow useful center, which is in itself worthy of drawing some attention. Especially because heís a big guy at 6-11, very well built, already rather strong, nicely athletic for a center, and generally very interesting in terms of his physical profile. Heís still very mechanical playing the game, not the smartest guy around, but he showed some low post moves, being able to make pivot moves, some spins, and also use his right hand for an unpolished hook. On defense he gets outsmarted, but he just has excellent tools to work with. In the end, nothing much to talk about, but enough potential to keep an eye on.
Nikola Markovic was a nice complimentary player to Milan Macvan in Serbia thanks to his face-up skills and willingness to play on the perimeter. Standing around 6-9, this 1989-born power forward displays excellent mobility that allowed him to attack the basket on a regular basis. Heís a pretty skilled slasher, showing a nice first step and very intriguing footwork, although he needs to improve his finishing skills around the basket. Enjoying range out to the three-point line, he looked like an inconsistent shooter, although his mechanics should allow him to improve his accuracy. Very active on the court, he provided regular help for his team in various departments, although he might lack a bit of toughness down low.
Miro Bilan could barely get off the bench for most of the tournament, but enjoying the chance to play in the very last game, he delivered with an intriguing 16-point performance. To start with, heís a 6-10 forward, still skinny and physically underdeveloped, but showing a nice frame and good mobility. He made some nice moves off the ball, either in continuations towards the basket off pick-and-roll plays or looking for spaces in the lane. He also showcased a very decent mid-range jumper in spot-up fashion. However, he also looked pretty soft, barely visiting the low post and not being very effective on the defensive end. Heís a raw and unpolished player, thatís for sure.
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