It was the first edition with a Lithuanian team in many years, and they didn't disappoint. Not a bit. Lietuvos Rytas arrived by storm and left in the same fashion, wearing down every opponent with a lesson of basketball fundamentals and restless aggressiveness. Simply nobody could keep up with them for the full 40 minutes.
Supported in the middle by a deluxe role center like Jonas Valanciunas, while commanded on court by point guard Augustas Peciukevicius, Rytas is mostly composed by undersized but athletic wings that master the fundamentals of the game and play with endless intensity.
Peciukevicius himself was a perfect example. After playing the semifinal in the morning, he had to stay on court in the final for 35 minutes that very same day, not saving a bit of effort, and still able to knock down a couple of 20-footers off the dribble to secure the victory. By the way, he's a very nice floor general, smart and incisive, with decent ball-handling skills (his left hand needs serious work) and athleticism, a solid pull-up jumper and nice court vision. Probably the most important piece on this team.
By reaching the final, Unicaja Malaga, along with Lietuvos Rytas, earned the qualification for the Nike International Junior Tournament in Berlin during the Final Four. It's the best possible duo out of this tournament, especially since FMP Zeleznik is already qualified (as are Gran Canaria and Montepaschi Siena), and will likely emerge extremely competitive as long as injuries don't decimate them.
Out of the picture, for the moment, are a very talented DKV Joventut team that was able to beat FMP they fell in the semifinal against Rytas-- and Nenad Mirotic's Real Madrid. The Euroleague holds a wild card, and it's not that far-fetched to think that the amazing performance by the Montenegrin power forward could help Real Madrid's cause.
Anyway, in the aftermath of last year's brilliant edition, that involved the Euroleague and enjoyed superb TV coverage, this time there were some reasons for disappointment and signs for concern.
Despite the sweet final taste, the general level of the tournament was a bit disappointing, and we have to point to the participants' selection as the biggest reason. Probably because of the Euroleague, the number of foreign teams selected grew to six, at the expense of Estudiantes and Pamesa Valencia. That wouldn't be a problem if the foreign squads coming showed a decent level, but as expected, Asvel, Khimki or Kiev were forgettable choices, and Zadar fell in the average category. It's surprising that the tournament keeps insisting on bringing a French team, considering that the top prospects in the country usually play for the INSEP, while the roster presented by Kiev can't be considered serious: they featured a bunch of cadets and even a 13-year old kid. Meanwhile, a few days before, Pamesa won the Tenerife tournament, and Gran Canaria did the same in the Euroleague-sponsored qualification event held in Rome (Citta de Roma, which you can read about on the excellent EuropeanProspects.com).
The TV coverage was a matter of concern. At least since 2004 the games were always recorded with one video-camera, and the final broadcasted on the Catalonian TV, and in the past edition there was full coverage of the tournament on national TV. This year? Nothing. At all.
But even more concerning was the lack of audience in L'Hospitalet Nord. This was by far the worst attended edition I've witnessed (since 2005), and people with far more experience extend this negative peak for many more years.
It's hard to figure out the reason why, but there's one thought I can't avoid to have. For many years this tournament has enjoyed superb prestige and recognition in Spain, and recently on the European scene as well. The partnership with the Euroleague is probably necessary, but there's a risk of transforming a tournament that had great value by itself into just another qualification tourney for some bigger event.
Real Madrid, 1991, PF, 6-10
You've read correctly, 84 points of evaluation, distributed in 35 points, 23 rebounds, 2 assists, 9 steals and 6 blocked shots. It happened during the final day against FMP Zeleznik. Unfortunately, it was a consolation game played in another facility while the main arena was hosting a semifinal, so there are virtually no witnesses besides his agent, officials and the crew from both teams.
However, there are doubts about the reality of his stats, and indeed the organization itself distributed a press release voicing them. For starters, while the box-score shows a perfect field-goal line, the player himself remembers to have missed a few shots or to have been blocked once. The steals figure is also extremely doubtful, since he gets credit for the team's whole amount (almost an unheard of fact) while his agent admits that Nikola might have been awarded with some steals where he just tipped the ball but didn't secure it.
Still, it's an unbelievable statistical effort, perhaps possible given the fact that Mirotic played mostly near the basket, using his impressive footwork, feel for the game and ability to finish around the basket (noticeably improved when we talk about his left hand), to score with high-percentage shots.
Indeed we missed some more perimeter and face-up game. We didn't witness any shots after a pump fake and a dribble, which was a very common feature in his repertoire. He wasn't also particularly prodigal putting the ball on the floor, especially compared to last year. Mirotic is not what you would call an athletic or explosive player, and often struggles taking his man off the dribble, but it would be wise to keep working on his entire game, because he's not that tall in order to focus only (or mainly) on his post skills.
While his weakest spot was again his defense (he just doesn't put that much effort there), Mirotic impressed with his terrific hands and nose for rebounds. Also notable was his passing game or his ability to block shots, especially given the fact that he's not a leaper. It's just about positioning, length and timing.
All in all, even if he's not a top NBA prospect given his lack of athleticism, he's an incredibly skilled guy with a superb feel for the game and intelligence to get the job done.
Lietuvos Rytas, 1992, C, 6-10
His game still spells raw for the most part, but there's some stuff to work with. Offensively, he's a low-post player. His footwork is pretty limited, and he can barely perform anything more than a spin move looking for contact to try to seal his opponent, although executed with nice footspeed. Not a great finisher around the basket, he doesn't look comfortable at all using his left hand.
Valanciunas shows excellent shooting mechanics from the free-throw line, especially considering the kind of player he is. On the other hand, he barely took advantage of them in other situations, looking extremely inconsistent the few times he attempted a mid-range jumper.
The strongest part of his game right now revolves around his rebounding and defensive skills. Showing remarkable positioning, he usually finds himself in the right spot to challenge shots or clean the glass, while he rarely risks his defensive position. Jonas not only enjoys excellent hands, but the athleticism and length to make things easier.
Only born in 1992, it's a bit early to draw any long-term conclusions, but the Lithuanian has some serious potential and he's a player to closely monitor in the coming years.
DKV Joventut, 1992, SF, 6-7
Standing 6-7, Tomas is right now an athletic small forward, with a high basketball IQ, a variety of skills, but no go-to move. In younger categories we were used to see him constantly putting the ball on the floor to attack his opponents and easily create offense for himself and his team. On the contrary, in L'Hospitalet we saw a timid player not very confident in his ball-handling skills. Struggling to get past his opponents, showing a very poor left hand, he rarely was the go-to player that his team needed him to be.
Tomas is neither a great shooter. Enjoying three-point range, he only shows some reliability from standstill positions. However, from the mid-range area his off-the-dribble shooting attempts gain significant effectiveness. However, his activity off the ball and his nose for making plays provided him with a good amount of points.
On defense his lateral mobility might be a question mark if he ever manages to become a shooting guard, which should be Joventut's objective in order to maximize his potential and, in case he can't adapt to the guard position, to work on his weaknesses.
Unicaja Malaga, 1992, PG, 6-2
In the skill department, he's pretty talented too. Perhaps not the most finesse player around, he's still a nice ball-handler who can attack his opponent going both ways and shows nice ability releasing his shot off the dribble with very solid range and excellent elevation. And even if he looked pretty inconsistent in L'Hospitalet, his mechanics are pretty fluid. He didn't impress with his passing game, but seems to have solid court vision to work with, while more experience will help him to improve his still questionable decision making.
Actually, Freire's own love for highlight reel plays sometimes betrayed him. For example, he went scoreless in the opener while missing two dunk attempts that he could have easily scored with layups. Also, with the game on the line during the final that ultimately his team lost- he couldn't contain himself and threw an alley-oop pass off the glass in Jason Kidd-esque fashion that his teammate Lima couldn't grab.
On defense, he can be really effective when he puts the effort in, taking advantage of his legs and his strength.
Unicaja Malaga, 1991, PF, 6-9
Back to his abilities, Lima never showed a refined low-post game, a reliable shot or any improved ability to put the ball on the floor and allow you to think that he can beat his opponents off the dribble on a regular basis. He does show good positioning, decent timing and interesting coordination, but we'll still need to see some more meat before calling him a serious prospect.
FMP Zeleznik arrived to the tournament without its star Dejan Musli, and couldn't stay competitive enough without him. It's a nice team that lacks some finishers. Gone are Bojan Subotic and Andreja Milutinovic from last year's version, and thus the team missed perimeter firepower and scoring references.
The way he dribbles or releases his jumper automatically leads you to think about a very talented guy. However he's extremely passive on the court, rarely attacks his opponent, doesn't shoot the ball much, and just defers to his teammates. Actually, it's probably on the defensive end where he steps up the most, showcasing his excellent tools to contain his opponents. He needs to unleash his game and abilities badly.
We'll close this report with a few guys who are still very raw, but show some potential.
The annual dose of African flavor was addressed this time by Malick Fall, an extremely young (born in December of 1992) and very skinny center playing for Unicaja Malaga. Standing 6-11, he's basically a low-post player, showing decent footwork and moves, but still far from being productive.
DKV Joventut brought a couple of interesting skinny forwards, both standing around 6-9, Max Van Schaik from the Netherlands (born in 1991), and Marko Todorovic from Montenegro (born in 1992). Van Schaik shows a great perimeter stroke, but he's coming off consecutive injuries and looked unable to get anything else going. Todorovic is pretty athletic, was quite aggressive putting the ball on the floor and looks capable of developing a decent jumper.
Concerning Spanish players, and going beyond Joan Tomas, Josep Franch was disappointing, not showing any improvement from last year. Still, a couple of young kids drew our attention. Carles Marzo is a pretty talented lefty point guard standing 6-3 who plays for F.C.Barcelona and was born in 1992. He enjoys nice handles and likes to slash towards the basket to cash off his nice floater, while showing notable decision making in his game. Born in 1991, Edmundo Martin plays for Real Madrid, and stands out for his great size at the wing. Listed at 6-8, he could be somewhere near 6-9, looks pretty athletic, is capable of putting the ball on the floor and enjoys three-point range with his shot. Still extremely raw, though.