CSKA Moscow, featuring the closest thing to the Russian junior National Team you will find around, dominated the competition with unmatched size, athleticism and skills.
Anyway, prospects-wise, it has been the tournament of the big small forwards: up to four 6-9 guys showed very promising stuff from the wing forward position. Two of them, Yaroslav Korolev and Víctor Claver, displayed the biggest potential, and materialized their talent duel in a spectacular dunk contest that the Russian finally won. Meanwhile, another one, Sotiris Manolopoulos, came away with the MVP trophy.
Let's take a look at some of those guys we might be hearing about in the future as draft candidates. They are very young kids, born in 1987 and 1988, still physically underdeveloped in most cases; skinny, if you like. It's a circumstance I won't mention unless there's a special characteristic in any of them. And of course, none of them are ready to get drafted, let's make that clear.
(CSKA Moscow; 6-9; SF; 1987; 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.7 blocks)
There's just one word to describe this guy's skill set at 6-9: sick. He's more of a point forward than anything else; he thinks like a playmaker and his first objective is to create an easy scoring option for his team, usually through his teammates rather than finishing himself.
And of course he features the whole package and can play on the perimeter. Starting with his remarkable athleticism (that dunking title is no joke), nice quickness, great handles even to drive in traffic, magnificent court vision and decision making, a reliable shot up to three-point range, slashing skills to dish or finish (with the dunk, if possible) or the point guard role he loves to (successfully) play in transition. He was quite active on defense, even getting some spectacular blocks when helping out on other men. Indeed he has all the tools to be reliable here.
To summarize, he played smart ball. There were some stretches of the games where you couldn't believe such accumulation of skills and abilities (technical and physical) always displayed for the good of his team. I really think he deserved the MVP trophy. He was the best player on the best team.
Any matter of concern? Yes. This tournament was too easy for CSKA Moscow, and we have seen the good face of Yaroslav Korolev. He used to be an inconsistent player, not always focused enough, not always mentally strong in the games, with a troubled attitude. Has he cured those problems? It's difficult to know. I think he needs to feel important on the court, to enjoy a good share of his team's game running through him. He's not a role player at all. Last summer, he was playing with kids one year older than him, but this year he's much more important on his team.
(Pamesa Valencia; 6-9; SF; 1988; 17.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2 blocks)
From the moment the clock started to run in his first game, everyone in the pavillion felt like something special was going on. A red-haired boy, standing 6-9, was displaying the kind of performance from the wing that leaves your mouth open.
Claver is really long. You think about a power forward the first time you see him, but once you check his athleticism and skills, you know he belongs to the perimeter.
He enjoys a nice stroke from anywhere on the court. He's smooth, showing great mechanics. If necessary, he will make a delicate fade away movement. At this point he still needs some space to nail the long-range jumpers consistently, but with his size and quickness, it's not that difficult for him. He can put the ball on the floor using his very good handles and a long, quick first step, and take advantage of his match-up's unbalanced position to deliver the shot. Indeed he's a very nice slasher. Perhaps his best play was a crossover dribble mid-way towards the basket that killed his defender, finished with a powerful dunk. Unstoppable.
The low post is not a very familiar place for him. He's very perimeter-oriented right now, but I think he should work some post moves to take advantage of his size against smaller defenders.
But not everything is about scoring skills. Claver is a guy who understands the game and usually does the right thing, whether it's trying to score or passing the ball. His court vision is pretty good and he helps his team's ball movement to be more fluid, usually passing the ball to the right teammate, even when he's double-matched.
The biggest concern with those big perimeter guys is usually their defense, but Claver has enough lateral quickness to defend his position. Besides, his long wingspan makes him an intimidator with a nice blocking ability. On the other hand, he's not particulary agressive, and can eventually look a little bit static in team defense. Nothing to worry about, anyway.
With Víctor Claver, Spain gives continuity to an unprecedented (in Spain) series of very talented prospects that started with Pau Gasol and seems not to have a near end.
(PAOK Thessaloniki; SF; 1987; 6-9; 32.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2.7 blocks)
So although you may be getting tired by now of reading about 6-9 skilled small forwards, Manolopoulos fits the bill too. Besides, he's the most fundamentally sound of all of them when it comes to scoring.
Like Korolev and Claver, he's a nice gunner all over the court, with good mechanics although not particulary fast. He prefers the static approach, but can make shots off the dribble too. Like Korolev and Claver, he shows nice slashing skills, such as a good first step and sufficient handles, but he's not as explosive.
What makes him a more complete and versatile scorer is his post-up game. He perfectly combines it with his perimeter weapons, and uses it to deliver a turnaround jumper as well as to get past his defender thanks to his quite consistent footwork. Indeed he was the best scorer of the tournament, and although he was the absolute go-to guy in PAOK and the talent level there might have not been the best around, he played against stronger opponents each time, ending against CSKA, and looking better game after game.
Manolopoulos doesn't seem to be an outstanding passer. PAOK was the closest thing to a one-man show seen in L'Hospitalet, not strange if we consider the talent difference between Sotiris and his teammates. So it's somehow understandable that he played a kind of selfish game, rather than trying to feed his teammates. But perhaps he could have involved them a little bit more.
The Greek isn't the athlete Korolev and Claver are, and while his size and skills make the difference on the offensive end, his effectiveness on defense is not so clear. PAOK used a 2-3 zone most of the time, with its star placed in the middle, so it wasn't easy to evaluate his ability to guard opponent small forwards.
(Unicaja Málaga; 6-7; PG; 1987; 10.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.7 steals)
After watching his games, I have to guess that Pavel Ermolinski doesn't usually practice with the junior team. In the first one, he looked like a loner out there. There wasn't enough understanding between him and his teammates, but as games went by, he looked better and better, more comfortable in the team, more confident and more of a leader.
The final taste was really sweet; he sure is a talented kid. Despite his size, that can make you think otherwise, he's a legit point guard on the offensive end. He has the handles, the court vision, and some quite good decision-making skills both in the half-court offense and in transition.
He can score too. Although he isn't a shooter, his perimeter stroke is pretty solid when he's open enough. He's also a nice slasher, finding his teammates while driving, even when it looks really ugly for him. He still lacks a soft touch when he's finishing a penetration and needs to deliver a long layup or a short shot in motion. He enjoys a very nice ability when we talk about a big-sized guard: he can post up. It's nothing too fancy, just using simple but quite effective movements.
Pavel is a good rebounder too. He had to play power forward and even center on defense given the lack of size on his team, and he was very effective cleaning the boards. His long arms, nice vertical and very good hands were a good help. If you're about to appeal to the poor competition to explain his numbers, I'll tell you that he kept amassing boards against CSKA Moscow in the final.
Back to our perennial concern: it remains to be seen if Pavel is capable of defending point guards. He's fairly athletic and quick, but I'm not sure if he's athletic or quick enough. He might end up as a combo guard. Anyway, he looks like a promising player.
(CSKA Moscow; 6-9; SF; 1987; 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2 steals)
His main offensive weapon is his jumper, which he frequently takes from three-point range. He usually makes it from a stand still, and while you may see him in an off-the-dribble mode, it's generally after a simple and easy movement; as he rarely forces the situation. He's also a great finisher in transition or in half-court offense, cutting by the baseline. He loves to dunk the ball whenever he has the chance. His ball handling isn't much more than average, but he can penetrate with a nice first step, although he doesn't try too much.
As you may have realized by now, he's much more of a finisher than a game creator. And while he doesn't look like a big-time prospect right now, he has enough interesting characteristics to take him into account.
(CSKA Moscow; 6-5; SG; 1987; 23.5 points, 4.7 rebounds)
He seemed more limited potential-wise than he looked last summer in Zaragoza, and his game has hardly improved. Not what I expected from a guy who is enjoying some action (as little as it may be) this season with one of the three best teams in the world outside of the NBA. But he's still a 6-5 shooting guard without standout athleticism to make up for it.
Zavoruev is a scoring type of shooting guard. He's as good of a shooter as always, and while he successfully used penetrations to produce, it doesn't look like he will be able to translate his slashing abilities to the pro level with enough consistency to keep his effectiveness. Besides his size and athleticism, his dribbling hasn't evolved a bit, being just about average for a shooting guard. Nor is his passing ability off-the-charts when dishing to his teammates in those situations.
So I think Zavoruev will make a good living in Europe, but hardly anything else.
(Adecco Estudiantes; 6-10; PF; 1988; 12.3 points, 6.3 rebounds)
At 6-10, Clark is quite a fundamentally sound player whose main strength is his shooting. He can be deadly when he's hot, especially from the three-point line, but his temperature throughout the tournament kept pretty low. He can create his own shots with nice footwork and handles, using fakes and spins. And he uses the low post to deliver turnaround jumpers with good effectiveness. Being a skilled type of big man, it doesn't surprise that he isn't particulary agressive in the paint.
One of his biggest weaknesses may be his athleticism. He's not very quick, and his vertical is just one hair above average at this point. Clark looks rather physically underdeveloped, not strange being a 1988 kid, but I think there's room for significant improvement.
(CSKA Moscow; 6-1; PG; 1987; 8.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists)
Urazmanov tried to take advantage of his superior athleticism attacking the rim and going for the block. He constantly looks for the penetration, just to finish himself or feed a mate. Every time a rival stole the ball in CSKA's backcourt, he preferred to closely follow him to go for the block rather than trying to stop him right away. Indeed I think he risks too much in many situations. His good legs are also a very good tool on defense, allowing Artur to effectively guard his matchups.
Urazmanov loves the transition game. He's very quick and has good handles (better with his right than with his left hand), so he constantly pushes the ball to accelerate the pace of the game. He's pretty good at distributing on the break, and can finish well himself thanks to his athleticism.
Perhaps the biggest concern about him is his shooting. A player of his size, not being a superb playmaker, and despite his athletic gifts, needs a very consistent perimeter shot to have a chance at the top level, and Artur doesn't look like a reliable shooter for the moment.
(F.C.Barcelona; 6-9; PF/C; 1987; 18.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 steals, 2.7 blocks)
So considering what could be seen in L'Hospitalet, and despite his stats, I can't feel anything but disappointment. He barely showed any special skill that made me think he's evolving in the right way. The majority of his points came right under the basket and against much smaller players. There, he shows a very good reactivity; he recieves the ball and dunks in a blink of the eye.
He also tried some mid-rangers, looking quite comfortable, and put the ball on the floor a few times to go for a penetration with mixed results, as he's not particulary quick while dribbling. He's pretty good in transition, running the floor like a forward. And he looked solid on defense.
Not enough, anyway, to feel too excited about him. But he has some very good conditions to play this game at a high level. A player to keep on the radar.
Besides those nine kids, there were some other players that drew attention to themselves for one reason or another.
The Polish Kamil Pietras, born in 1988, was the only player worth mentioning from the extremely disappointing Union Olimpija Ljubljana team. I still can't believe how bad the Slovenians were, given that this country is a great producer of basketball players. Back to Pietras, he's a 6-9 paint kid. He's very raw and pretty unorthodox in his style, even running the court. He isn't one of those guys for whom the game looks easy. With decent mobility and athleticism, and average quickness, in L'Hospitalet he made a living in the paint with some post-up moves and taking advantage of his size against smaller opponents, to finish with averages of 18.3 points and 11.3 rebounds.
The youngest player of the tournament was Diego Gerbaudo, an Argentinean PG born in 1989, who doesn't reach 6 feet tall, but is pretty quick with very good handles, amazing court vision and passing skills. This kid is really a great distributor, showing an extremely quick mind and very good decision making. As soon as he recieves the ball, he delivers a pass. He was a blessing for Real Madrid's ball movement. Given his youth, it is difficult to guess about his future. He will have to grow some inches and work a lot on his shooting, but this kid shows a natural talent to play the game.
CSKA's team was so stacked that besides the four players highlighted, we have to mention another three, all of them born in 1987. Starting with Anatoly Kashirov, a seven-foot center with nice athleticism and mobility, although with poor wingspan. He averaged 12 points and 8.5 rebounds. He's rather unpolished, although he shows a decent mid-range shot and some incipient post-up moves. But he's not as tough and agressive in the paint as you would like. Anyway, 7 footers are 7 footers.
The other tower of the Russian team was the 6-11 Iliya Astafiev, perhaps one of the rawest players seen in L'Hospitalet. He's extremely skinny, but with very promising athleticism and long arms. He's so unpolished that whenever he tried something, his teammates on the bench were laughing. But he's a guy to closely follow in the future given his potential.
Finally, the 6-6 shooting guard Igor Smyghin suffered the consequences of CSKA's depth. He's already a good player for junior categories, showing nice athleticism, a good stroke up to the three point range, good handles, even to carry the ball in transition, and accurate defensive skills. He's pretty skinny, but enjoys a nice frame with long arms. He has some decent potential.