While the expression "Division B" might sound discouraging in terms of competition, the tournament was extremely interesting given the huge contrasts between the different national teams. You can see why these squads are playing in this second level, as they all miss something important, but their very different strengths and the way they try to make up for their huge weaknesses produce extremely interesting match-ups and very surprising results. Actually, it's a highly propitious setting to see any given David beating some Goliath.
For example, you can find the talented Bosnia, physically very strong, but not very smart on the court. Something similar could be said of Ukraine or Poland, teams with size and potential, skilled wings, but very poor playmaking.
At least these teams show some competitiveness.
The Czech Republic represents the biggest waste of talent, lacking both team attitude and any sign of heart. We'll deal them separately.
On the other side of the spectrum, we can find Belgium, a very short team but smart and aggressive. Finland follows the pattern with organized basketball, perimeter threats and intensity. The most radical styles would be represented by Luxemburg, an extremely limited team both in size and talent, but incredibly committed and greatly orchestrated on the court, or Ireland, that just rely on their intensity and aggressiveness to survive.
There were only two teams out of context here. Both were placed in this division because they were new participants for FIBA Europe. One is Montenegro, showing the strength of the Balkan basketball; the other is Armenia, whose resemblance to a basketball team is almost non-existent. It's unlikely that either of these two teams will be in Division B next season.
Best Team, Best Player
Whenever every other team suffers a big hole in a major area of the game, in Montenegro's case the pieces seems to fit pretty well. It's a talented team with brains in the backcourt, size in the frontcourt, solid shooting, nice passers and post players. They are competitive, intense and play smart basketball, being effective on both ends of the court. Everything is orchestrated by a coach who could rival the Sergeant from the movie "Full-Metal Jacket".
Born in 1989 and standing somewhere around 6-3, he's a nicely built player, with solid athleticism, very smart and extremely difficult to stop for his opponents. The guy just goes inside again and again, always knowing when and where to attack, finding the way to the rim. He shows notable ball-handling skills and footwork in penetration, with a nice ability to finish with floaters and layups.
Still, he's not your typical scoring guard, but a good decision maker who involves his teammates and makes things happen for his team. He particularly excels in transition, pushing the ball and finding the best solution, either with a long pass early or with the definitive assist near the basket. Not as impressive in the set offense, he still produces by dishing off the dribble and taking heady decisions. He's just a smart guy with a high basketball IQ.
Lalic is more of a slasher than a shooter, even if he can knock down long distance jumpers, apparently preferably in spot-up mode. His offensive brilliance doesn't save him from committing on defense, where he uses his quickness and works as any other teammate. Actually, he's probably the kid who showed the best chances to eventually become a solid player at a top European level.
Waste of Time
We weren't expecting anything out of the Armenia after its cadet version somehow managed to lose a game by over 200 points in the U-16 Championship, but still the lone time we watched them in Sofia was enough to qualify them as the worst team I've personally ever seen in international competition.
You could see it coming already during the warming up, just by the way they executed the easiest layups, actually missing them too often, like school boys. Then, during the game, they had a certain guy answering by the name of Gevorg Myilyon as the go-to guy and premier ball-handler, who couldn't actually dribble the ball to save his life. Still the highlight of the game was a couple of back-to-back wild three-pointers he netted off the dribble. Indeed, it was rather surprising to see them reaching the 40-point mark in the game.
Anyway, there was no game or whatsoever, obviously nobody to scout in that squad, and actually they weren't even good enough to serve as sparring partners to seriously scout their opponents.
Pretty much a waste of time.
Waste of Talent
While a woeful collection of players like the Armenian will secure you an endless succession of losses, to display a highly-talented roster won't guarantee anything, even in this division.
The Czech Republic is one of the most talented squads we saw in Sofia. Virtually every player on its roster has something intriguing to offer. They looked like skilled guys with promising physical profiles. We saw them facing Belgium, a much more limited squad, with very undersized players and, for the most part, technically limited. However, they played really tough and delivered excellent aggressiveness (actually dominating the paint with a 6-4 PF and a 6-6 center), while displaying very solid organization catalyzed by a tiny 6-0 devil named Jorn Steinbach, an athletic playmaker who split apart defenses and provided good decision making on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, the Czechs lacked any kind of heart or intensity. They were a bunch of individualistic kids who didn't seem to know what the words team and competition mean. Just an example, 19-0 was the game's closing run, good for the definitive 21-point advantage for the Belgians. The Czechs completely fell apart once things looked slightly complicated. The worst part of the story is that it's not an isolated game, but reportedly pretty much reflects the attitude of this team. No wonder why they are in this division. Hopefully, they will be able to put things together and fight for the promotion, as they have the talent to eventually get it done.
Anyway, he's a very skilled guy with an excellent feel for the game and nice athleticism, particularly in terms of quickness. He loves to attack his match-ups off the dribble going both ways, almost always using crossover dribbles, which in the end, become a little bit predictable. But he's skilled displaying them and enjoys the quickness and footwork to easily step into the lane, while he's smart using his body to finish near the rim. He can also shoot the ball with nice range and off-the-dribble skills. In the end, he abuses his abilities way too much; trying to make things happen himself while ignoring his teammates, which usually results in forced plays and bad shots. It's a pity, because he seems to enjoy decent court vision, and he certainly has the skills to involve his teammates. But he plays and feels like a star, which is reflected not only in the amount of possessions he absorbs, but also in his very poor defensive effort. Hopefully Joventut coaches will be able to guide him to the right path for the future.
Dealing with Potential
Joining David Jelenik, we could see a handful of players who displayed greatly intriguing characteristics but, just as the Czech guard, also showed major drawbacks that invite to remain extremely cautious about their ability to fulfill their potential. Actually, not a single player emerged as a legit NBA prospect (meaning with high chances of eventually making it to the League) at this point. Of course, always take into account the limited playing time we've been able to gather in these three days.
1990, 6-11, PF, Poland
His best offensive weapon at this point is his shooting stroke. He's pretty solid from mid-range distances out to the three-point line, always in static fashion, but showing fluid mechanics. Not a great ball-handler, he can still take advantage of his quickness putting the ball on the floor with both hands (preferably his right one), showing a good first step and long and relatively quick strides. After all, he's not easy to contest for a big-man opponent. He can also play without the ball looking for spaces near the basket. He has good hands to catch the ball and he's fairly quick going up for the dunk, his favorite way of finishing around the rim. If we talk about back-to-the-basket skills, they are nowhere to be found. Perhaps it's because of his skinny body and a certain lack of aggressiveness, or perhaps it's just because he doesn't enjoy any skill there; the fact is he almost never pays a visit to the low post.
Defensively, he struggles against physical opponents, having trouble denying them the ball. Besides, he's an underwhelming intimidator considering his physical gifts, mostly because his timing looks a bit off.
Still he's a nice player with a pretty decent feel for the game, who needs to get tougher. Born in 1990, he's younger than most rivals here and has time to develop.
1989, 6-7, SG, Hungary
Hanga could be a bit of a lazy guy, disappearing from the court from time to time and settling for easy solutions that are not necessarily the best ones for his team. This is also reflected defensively, where he doesn't always display his best effort regardless of the good tools he enjoys. Still, he can eventually come up with nice steals in the passing lane or, in more spectacular fashion, fly for the block displaying good timing. It's highlight reel stuff without a solid defensive foundation supporting it.
In the end, the effort and work Hanga puts on the game will determine the success he will eventually achieve. He certainly has the and the talent to become an excellent basketball player.
1989, 6-6, SF, Sweden
Taylor shows a nice long frame and a ripped body. He's an explosive athlete, extremely quick off his feet and an excellent leaper. Given his lack of shooting ability, he always looks for the paint, particularly the baseline, either off the dribble or off the ball. He's a very solid ball-handler, which paired with his quickness, allows him to consistently beat his match-ups in individual settings. He shows nice footwork in the slashing department, with the ability to display reverses and various changes of direction. But he's also a very active guy playing without the ball, looking for spaces near the rim, where he can easily finish thanks to his leaping ability. A bit of an inconsistent defender, his tools are perfect to match him up against wings, but his effort is not always there. A decent passer, his basketball IQ seems, if not great, at least decent.
The recipe for Taylor seems clear: shoot, shoot and keep shooting until he develops a decent stroke.
1990, 7-0, C, Montenegro
In terms of abilities, he displays basically what you would look in a center. For starters, despite his physical weakness, he's quite a hustler who doesn't avoid contact and tries to make up for his lack of build. He can play in the low post, already showing some decent moves with solid footwork and the soft touch to net the ball out of jump-hooks. Although his jumper seems a work in progress, his soft touch goes beyond the low post and promises a useful spot-up mid-range shooter for the future.
Usually displaying very good decision making, he shows a good feel for the game, understanding what's going on in every situation. A solid passer out of the post, and a solid rebounder with very good timing, he usually reacts correctly to the different situations he faces. Very mobile, his lateral quickness on defense is pretty accurate, while he stays as physical as his body allows him in the low post.
Obviously the biggest problem with Lopicic is his physical build. It's not only that he's very skinny at this point, but his frame is really bad, limiting his future potential. Indeed, he will likely be as good as his physical development allows.
1989, 6-9, PF, Portugal
Where's the intrigue then? Fonseca is a pretty long power forward (listed at 6-9, he could be around 6-10) with excellent athleticism and some serious skills. He shows a great body, still slim, but ripped and strong, with a good frame to add weight. He's a left-handed guy with an increasingly solid shooting stroke. Actually he looked extremely consistent in Sofia, netting almost every open spot-up shot he took out to the three-point line. He enjoys nice fluid mechanics with a high release point.
Not a good ball-handler, the most he can do is a couple of dribbles (preferably with his left) to take advantage of his quickness going to the rim, while he runs the court very well and can finish with layups (also in reverse fashion) or dunks almost as a wing. Showing good hands, he can score from the low post with turnaround jumpers or jump-hooks with a soft left handed touch, and almost always delivering moves to create separation from his opponent. Actually, here is where the concerns start arising. He's a soft player, plain and simple. He always tries to avoid contact and he's not effective at all dealing with it. Indeed, the super-skinny Milos Lopicic (mentioned above) completely out-powered him in the game against Montenegro by simple hustle and intimidation. Not only soft, Fonseca doesn't show competitiveness at all, and it's extremely rare to see him stepping up when his team needs him. On defense he's equally disappointing, capable of great punctual actions, but generally weak as well.
Fonseca will need a big change of mentality to turn into the elite player that his physical and technical gifts should allow him to become.