European Roundup: Dominant Donatas?

European Roundup: Dominant Donatas?
Feb 06, 2009, 12:03 am
This week we take a look at five different prospects in various stages of their development curve, including Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas, Czech Jan Vesely, Australian Joe Ingles, Slovenian Mirza Sarajlija and French Bangaly Fofana.

Past European Roundups:
-Double-Double Jonas Jerebko
-Vladimir Dasic providing intrigue
-VIctor Claver showing his stuff
-Brandon Jennings Managing Expectations
-Milenko Tepic the Man for Partizan
-Sergio Llull Sparks Real Madrid

Donatas Motiejunas, 7-0, PF/C, Aisciai Kaunas, 1990

Luis Fernandez

Not every day do you find an 18-year-old kid leading a first-division European league in scoring. Well, Donatas Motiejunas just happens to be doing that in Lithuania this season. His 21.2 points per game are good for that top position, while an average of 7.4 boards leaves him second in the rebounding ranking. Of course Motiejunas is a super-talented player oozing with potential, perhaps the most promising big man in Europe in the last few years, but nobody should be misled by those whopping numbers.

What’s the trick? Well, Motiejunas is playing for a modest team, Aisciai Kaunas, where he virtually gets all the touches he wants, while the level of the Lithuanian league is very weak whenever you go beyond Lietuvos Rytas and Zalgiris Kaunas (which anyway aren’t in their best shape this season). Actually, against these two teams Donatas averages only 14 points and 5.6 rebounds, and his field-goal accuracy dramatically drops from 49.2% to 24%. It’s like playing in a whole different category.

We’ve precisely had the chance to watch him against Zalgiris, in a Cup game played a few days ago, where he reproduced his statistical struggles (6 points, 27% from the field, and 4 rebounds). Instead of the typical short and/or soft frontcourts Donatas usually faces in Lithuania, Zalgiris has some meat inside willing to play physical on their opponents, and that’s where a young kid still with significant physical development ahead of him struggles. Motiejunas causes the most damage right now around the basket, taking advantage of his size, soft touch with both hands and sneaky moves, but Zalgiris’ bigs never allow him to play comfortably from there. It’s no big deal at this point, as he’s pretty aggressive on the offensive end and will gain effectiveness as he becomes stronger.

It’s refreshing to see that Motiejunas is making half of his three-point attempts, even if his shot looked pretty off in this Cup game. His court vision is also there, being able to pass the ball out of double teams, and recognizing opportunities pretty quickly. However, his scoring role isn’t helping him to stockpile assists.

Perhaps the most negative aspect of his game is his defense. Never known as a good defender, he isn’t surprising anyone at the senior level with his play on that end. Unlike what he shows on the offensive end, he tends to avoid contact on defense, being regularly outhustled and (logically) overpowered, while he doesn’t look particularly focused on his work there. A more demanding environment (perhaps next season in Zalgiris?) will surely help him. Zalgiris does not own any rights over him, so theoretically, he could play anywhere in Europe next season.

Jan Vesely, 6-11, Center, Partizan Belgrade, 1991

Jonathan Givony

The European basketball player “factory” known as Partizan Belgrade continues to churn out quality prospects, continuing to be the best team in Europe at mixing winning with player development. The latest stud to come out of their ranks is 18-year old Czech big man Jan Vesely, a player they acquired via Slovenian-based Geoplin Slovan, who has produced quite a few players (Goran Dragic, Emir Preldzic, Mirza Begic, Gasper Vidmar) themselves.

Vesely immediately stands out thanks to his physical attributes. He’s listed at 6-11, and sports a well proportioned frame that should easily fill out. He’s also very athletic by European standards, running the court extremely well and being very reactive getting off his feet for powerful dunks.

In terms of skill, Vesely is far from a finished product, but already shows a nice framework to build off of. He’s pretty raw with his back to the basket, but has decent ball-handling skills which he’ll put on display from time to time, sometimes grabbing a rebound and taking the ball coast to coast himself. He can also face-up and take his man off the dribble a little bit—nothing extraordinarily, but certainly enough to keep you intrigued considering that he’s just 18-years old. Vesely looks a little bit out of control on occasion, making some unforced errors and generally being somewhat turnover prone, as his feel for the game doesn’t appear to be off the charts, and he’s obviously extremely young.

Vesely is mostly a hustle player for this very talented Partizan team. His offensive responsibilities generally involve running the floor, grabbing rebounds, cutting off the ball and finishing around the rim. He’ll take the occasional spot-up jumper, showing solid shooting mechanics and range out to the European 3-point line, but he’s not consistent at all from that range, hitting just 3/24 on the season, and 31/59 (53%) from the free throw line.

The fact that his coach (Dusko Vujosevic, considered arguably the top talent developer in European basketball) even allows him to shoot 3-pointers tells you a lot about the amount of freedom young players are given at Partizan. This is not just another European team mind you—they are currently playing (competitively) in the Top 16 of the Euroleague, and are in 1st place in the Adriatic League. Vesely is gaining an unbelievable amount of experience as a starter for them—which is incredibly rare at this level relative to his age.

Defensively, Vesely does a pretty solid job—if he didn’t, there is no way he would see minutes. He plays hard, moves his feet well on defense, and gets his hands on a lot of balls thanks to his activity level. He’s a pretty solid rebounder (better offensively than defensively) and is capable of blocking shots and getting in the passing lanes. He needs to get stronger, smarter and more experienced, but there is a lot to work with here.

All things considered, Vesely is one of the more intriguing prospects to emerge on the European scene this season, both in terms of his current high-level production and particularly his long-term upside. If he continues to work and develop, he has a chance to emerge as a serious NBA prospect in the next few years.

Joe Ingles, 6-8, Small Forward, South Dragons, 1987

Luis Fernandez

Perhaps the most disappointing player among those with realistic draft chances from the automatically eligible class of 1987, Joe Ingles hasn’t progressed as expected this season, not exploiting his intriguing physical and athletic characteristics. Indeed he has regressed in most statistical categories from last year, even from two seasons ago in some of them, which is not a good sign for a player of his age.

The most frustrating part of his game, and likely the biggest reason why he’s not emerging particularly efficient on the offensive end, is that he looks pretty soft when it comes to scoring. Despite his quickness and decent ball-handling skills (still strictly with his left hand), Ingles rarely goes all the way to the rim when attacking the basket, struggling to finish with contact and tending to prefer looking for space to release the ball, which leads to unbalanced shots and usual misses. It’s true that he doesn’t enjoy great strength or leaping ability, but it’s still a waste of his size. Instead he likes to settle for jumpers, but his shot is looking highly inconsistent, enjoying poor accuracy and not enough balance on his release. 55% of his field goal attempts come from beyond the arc this season, compared with just 40% last season, and he’s making just 36% of those, compared with 38% last year. His free throw attempts are also down, from 3.9 per game last season to 3.

Defensively, Ingles plays very upright and seems to have very little lateral quickness, which makes it very difficult to imagine him defending perimeter players in the NBA. In a league that will never be known for the quality of defense teams here display, Ingles isn’t doing much to change that reputation.

On the positive side, for some stretches he looks like an excellent passer, finding his teammates and even playing some casual point forward. However, if we were expecting a catalyst and team leader at this point, Ingles looks like a complimentary player out there, which is not particularly exciting if we talk about the Australian NBL. We should mention that he does play for a much better team this year (currently 20-7, and ranked first) than he did last year (where they finished last). He’s still yet to have the type of breakout season that many expected from him when he was named Australian League rookie of the year two seasons ago, though. Many of the weaknesses he displayed back then are still very evident, and his strengths have not quite materialized well enough to really compensate at this point.

Summarizing, unless he makes an impression in the pre-draft process, he’s a bubble guy at this point, with enough potential to get looks late in the second round, but also perfectly capable of ending up undrafted. His best bet might be to take his English passport and find a good team in Europe where he can develop his all-around game against a higher level of competition.

Mirza Sarajlija, 6-1, PG/SG, Olimpija Lublijana, 1991

Luis Fernandez

One of the biggest surprises in this year’s Euroleague was the (unexpected) emergence of this Slovenian guard. Born in 1991, Sarajlija has taken advantage of the departures of Jonathan Wallace and Vlado Ilievski to prove himself able to perform at decent level in the Euroleague (enough to average 6.5 points per game despite his logical inconsistency). Meanwhile, he had time to join Olimpija’s junior squad and lead the Citta di Roma tournament in scoring.

Sarajlija is much more of a scoring playmaker than a pure distributor. Relying on a very nice shooting touch, he shows excellent ability to pull up the ball off the dribble in a variety of ranges and modes (at the junior category he can even fire off post-up situations). A solid ball-handler, he can attack his match-ups with both hands, although he feels particularly comfortable going left, and sometimes pulls a nice crossover move to make things easier for him, as he’s not quite explosive enough to beat his opponents at will. Although he usually settles for the mid-range jumper, he might eventually go all the way to the basket, showcasing some decent athleticism and interesting ability to finish around the rim with his right hand (he rarely uses his left). Indeed, he doesn’t look like a soft player, just a little bit in love with his jumper.

Considering he’s strictly a point guard size-wise, his passing is not precisely the most intriguing characteristic of his game. He can do the basics (feed decently continuations in the pick and roll, dish the ball out of penetrations, or find the open man on the perimeter in clear situations), but he will rarely come up with truly creative solutions.

Anyway, we have to point out that Sarajlija doesn’t look like a top prospect in the making. He’s a bit undersized at 6-1, not greatly athletic, and doesn’t appear to be incredibly talented, but rather a nice youngster for the European scene.

Bangaly Fofana, 6’11, Center, ASVEL Villerbaune, 1989

Matt Williams

One of our contacts in France mentioned Fofana as a prospect worth taking a look at, so we took the liberty of tracking down some footage of the young French prospect. Despite having only a handful of undistinguished performances for Tony Parker’s ASVEL team in the French League and the Eurocup, the Paris native has played extensively in France’s junior league, the Espoirs. His team, Lyon-Villerbaune, has compiled a 10-6 record, thanks in large part to his play down low. While Espoirs is by no means a great level of competition, Fofana routinely displays enough upside to warrant another look down the road if he makes the jump to the LNB next season .

Listed anywhere from 6’10 to 7’1, Fofana looks and plays like a legitimate 7-footer. He possesses a huge wingspan, but like most players his age, his frame is still a major work in progress. While his size is his biggest asset at this point, Fofana shows better than average foot speed, but lacks the explosiveness that will only come from added lower-body strength. He elevates well to block shots and finish at the rim, but is by no means quick off the floor.

On the offensive end, Fofana shows some nice tools. He looks pretty comfortable scoring inside –showing a nice right hand, an effective up-and-under move, and pretty good touch, but he doesn’t have much polish on his left hand, overall back-to-the-basket game, or midrange jumper. In Espoirs play, Fofana is a dominant interior presence who makes an absolute killing on the offensive glass. In the same competition two years again he was essentially a non-factor, so it is obvious that he’s getting better.
The qualities that make Fofana worth taking a second look at are the glimpses of floor-game that he shows. Despite spending the vast majority of his time posting up on the block, he seems capable of putting the ball on the floor, even displaying a decent cross-over in the few opportunities we got to see him go one-on-one. His ability to pass out of the post, and swing the ball on the perimeter show that he has a decent basketball IQ as well.

Unfortunately, this awareness doesn’t manifest itself on the defensive end consistently. His size and length make him an effective shot blocker and rebounder, but he’ll often lose the ball when he drops into help-side, hurting his ability to contest as many shots as he is capable of. He’s also prone to lunging at shooters rather than closing them out, but appears to have solid lateral quickness when he stays disciplined.

At this point, Fofana is nothing more than a project considering how raw his skills are, the level of competition he plays at, and the fact that he’s not even one of the top-20 scorers in that league. He has the tools to develop into a legitimate prospect down the road, but he desperately needs to show that he can compete consistently at a higher level. With Tony Parker joining ASVEL’s ownership team, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the club attract a few higher-level free agents, which could relegate Fofana to Espoirs once again next season. However, if he makes the strides necessary to earn playing time in Head Coach Vincent Collet’s rotation, his exposure-level could certainly increase, as Villerbaune appears to be the most ambitious club in France at the moment. While Fofana’s NBA potential looks questionable at best right now, he’s certainly a player to keep an eye on thanks to his physical attributes.

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