With two rounds underneath our belts, half the field is eliminated and the stage is set for the quarterfinals. Its win, or go home now. Lets take a look back at what weve learned so far and think about things to look for over the next few days leading up to the finals.
Lithuania Still Unbeaten
The lone undefeated team at 6-0 is Lithuania, having passed two major tests over the last three days in France and Slovenia with flying colors. Featuring a terrific frontcourt with great size, athleticism, toughness and quite a bit of skill even, the Lithuanians look like the team to beat despite their relatively shallow backcourt and the minor injury suffered by their point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius.
With Jasikevicius out for the entire second half against Slovenia, the playmaking duties fell onto the shoulders of Ramunas Siskauskas, who has quietly emerged as a sleeper to take away MVP honors when its all said and done. Playing a point forward role, Siskauskas has done everything humanly possible to help his team, whether its with his outstanding distribution skills, poised ball-handling ability, terrific perimeter shooting, and clutch play when his team needs a basket the most. Siskauskas can create his own shot despite not having a great first step, and is a master of utilizing crafty ball-handling and unbelievable footwork to keep his man off-balance and constantly guessing what his next move will be. He isnt a herky jerky type, but has incredible smarts and timing, being able to knock down shots both with his feet set or pulling up off the dribble, which makes him extremely difficult to guard. Its pretty clear after watching him look infinitely better than almost every NBA player in attendance that he could carve out a role for himself in the league in the right situation. The problem is he just signed a massive contract with CSKA Moscow, making the NBA a tough sell after seeing how his fellow Lithuanians Sarunas Jasikevicius and Arvydas Macijauskas struggled to make the transition.
Also deserving of some praise are the Lavrinovic twinsKsystof and Darjusso identical both in looks and style of play that they cannot be discussed separately. Big, athletic, and skilled enough to knock down mid-range jumpers off screens, static 3-pointers from behind the arc or put the ball on the floor and create their own shotthe twins arent the most naturally talented guys in the world in terms of fundamentals or basketball IQ, but they are good finishers around the hoop and very useful guys considering their size and versatility.
Lithuania plays Croatia on Friday, a dangerous game for them considering that they tend to struggle at times when playing teams with outstanding perimeter shooters.
Despite having lost their first game last night against Lithuania, this has still been a terrific tournament for Sloveniamissing five NBA players (Beno Udrih, Sasha Vujacic, Boki Nachbar, Rasho Nesterovic and Primoz Brezec) and forced to rely heavily on two youngsters in Goran Dragic and Domen Lorbek.
Dragic is the lone NBA draft prospect seeing significant playing time in this tournament, and he seems to have helped himself from the scouts and executives weve spoken with. Hes impressed with his combination of size and athleticism at the point guard position, but especially with the defense hes played on nearly everyone he matched up with. Dragic is a very tough kid--evidenced by him playing with a mask the entire tournament and then taking it off midway through the Lithuania gameand hes not afraid to stick his nose in and get dirty to make a big play for his team. His ability to anticipate steals and get in the passing lane has been nothing short of phenomenal from what weve seen so far. Offensively hes played both the 1 and the 2 spots alternating with Jaka Lakovic, and has done a solid job executing his teams offense and picking his spots unselfishly. His team might need him to use his athleticism even more to create his own shot from the perimeter and get to the basket, as theyve become somewhat predictable pounding the ball inside on every possession and could really use another shot-creating threat to emerge in the elimination rounds. Dragic has looked pretty good finishing around the hoop in transition and getting to the basket a few occasions, even if he clearly needs to improve his ball-handling skills and especially his perimeter shooting ability.
Most of the offensive load has fallen on Slovenias two stars Jaka Lakovic and Matjaz Smodis--both outstanding-- going a long ways in helping erase the soft and not-clutch stigma that has been chasing the Slovenians for years. Smodis has been particularly impressive when considering the players hes matched up with and gotten the better ofDirk Nowitzki comes to mind especially here. His ability to score equally well both facing and with his back to the basket combined with his toughness and basketball IQ makes him one of the toughest players to defend at this level. Watching him completely outplay Nowitzki in an embarrassing blowout win over Germany really makes you wonder if the NBA is missing the boat on him According to people with knowledge of the situation, Smodis has never really been seriously approached by an NBA team. Even though hes not a prototypical NBA athlete, the way he played here has to have raised some eyebrows amongst people in the league.
Featuring two of the brightest young stars in the international game in Andrea Bargnani and Marco Belinelli, it has to be pretty disappointing for Italian fans to see their team continue to fade by not making the quarterfinals. Poor point guard play has really been their Achilles heel, and it doesnt seem like there is real room for optimism with the type of players that are coming up through the junior ranks the next few years. Andrea Bargnani clearly has all the talent in the world, but he really struggles to make his presence felt on the court on a consistent basis. Hell make one or two nice plays in a row and then go into a shell for long stretches, not quite knowing how to utilize his talent either creating weakly for himself in the post or going outside and settling for bad shots. Marco Belinelli showed both the good and the bad of his game, sometimes on consecutive possessions with his shot-selection, and at the end of the day it seems like bad chemistry between the young blood and the old killed any chance this team had of finding success.
One of the few bright spots was the play of Angelo Gigli, who seems to be coming along nicely and impressed a few NBA scouts we spoke with. His body is slowly filling out and hes still the same smart and fairly athletic 7-footer with a nice basketball IQ and intriguing sparks of potential facing the basket. He did a good job knocking down mid-range jumpers and finding Bargnani in the post with smart passes throughout the tournament, and did a very good job defending Dirk Nowitzki in his teams last game. If he can follow up this tournament with a big year in the Italian league with Benetton Treviso, look for him to get some looks from NBA teams next summer.