Another year, another visit to the U-18 European Championship, the top youth competition in the Old Continent. Madrid (Spain) is hosting a very interesting competition that has already drawn plenty of excitement, with great games and other controversial ones, with surprising and disappointing teams, while showcasing a number of NBA prospects, perhaps limited, but highly intriguing.
After the first two rounds, Greece remains undefeated with a perfect 6-0 record, obviously qualified for the semifinals. In the process they have not only looked like an extremely solid team, but achieved a very prestigious victory against France, in a thrilling game that Greece was losing by 9 points with less than 2 minutes to go. With France failing to control the game (again Antoine Diot disappointed in this regard), the Greeks came back to sail the one-point victory with a phenomenal block by our hero Koufos.
He provisionally leads the scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking rankings, with averages of 23.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Pretty impressive stuff. He completely determines the game of his team with his presence, being the permanent offensive reference to score and open spaces on the perimeter, while being the defensive anchor in the paint.
The Ohio-born Greek is a seven foot center with solid athleticism, actually good mobility and a physical and rather fundamentally sound game. He shows a greatly built body, extremely strong but not too voluminous, and with a very good frame. It allows him to virtually overpower every rival here (still we're hoping for a match-up against Milan Macvan, perhaps in the final), and he doesn't renounce to this possibility. He´s a physical player in the low post, showing nice moves, solid footwork and notable footspeed, while looking for the opponent's body to execute his spins. If he's double teamed, he keeps cool and easily finds his open teammates, even on the weak side. While he does a lot of damage down low, he also loves to settle for a jumper. He's pretty effective from the mid-range area showing very solid mechanics with a quick and fluid release, but he´s struggling from long distances (achieving an awful 1/17 in three-point shooting).
He's equally important on defense, a true intimidator at this level who scares opponents away with his ability to contest shots. Even if not a terrific leaper, his great length (he enjoys a very good wingspan) enables him to get pretty high, and certainly it's not like seven-footers are crowding this edition of the junior championship. Still, he shows excellent poise going for the rejection, with very good positioning and the right timing when it comes to when and where attack the ball. Actually, he´s a guy who most times seems to be in the right place, showing a very nice understanding of the game.
At this point, he looks like a really high draft pick in the making, but we'll have a couple of excellent chances to see his real level in the semifinal and the final or bronze medal game, going against very strong teams inside like Lithuania and perhaps Serbia.
Ugly Poetic Justice
It was all set for Spain to win gold and cash in off Ricky Rubio's immense impact. The Spanish Federation pulled the strings again to organize the event (this is the third tournament in a row they organize for Ricky, after the 2005 and 2006 U-16 European Championships), and, unlike the other European teams participating in the U-19 Worlds, they reserved every possible player for the European competition.
While France sent Diot and Jackson, Turkey went with Balbay, Ozkan and Aydogan, Serbia called Macvan, Stojacic and Katnic, and Lithuania formed with Janavicius and Cepukaitis, nobody from the 1989 Spanish crop showed up in the Worlds. Guys like Pablo Aguilar or Pere Tomas, key players in last years bronze medal in the junior category teaming up with the 1988 generation, couldn't join forces again to try to emerge as contenders again. Of course, not even Ricky Rubio, born in 1990 but ready enough to emerge even as the team leader at U-19 category.
And it was precisely two of those teams, Lithuania and Serbia, the ones ruining the Spanish plan. It was somehow a sort of poetic justice to reward those who went with everything to the worlds top youth competition (the U-19 Worlds).
And still, it looked ugly.
Both Lithuanians and Serbians, facing each other in the last game of the second round, pre-arranged the final result to get them both into the semifinals at the expense of Spain. It was a fake game. These things should never happen on a basketball court, but that's how the competition system works and, in the end, it's pretty logical that it happens. Both squads were smart enough to know that putting the hosts and the top candidate for the gold out of the picture, while particularly securing their presence in the semifinals, was too much of an appealing scenario.
But still, it looked really ugly.
While the Serbians played some theater during the game trying to show they were contending, in the last seconds of the infamous game, the Lithuanians were particularly interested in making obvious the fact that it was all arranged. Why? Revenge.
With all the three teams winning over every other rival, the story started right when Spain failed to beat Serbia. Automatically it meant that the host team was forced to beat Lithuania to keep the door to the semifinals open. It did happen, but the victory included some questionable calls favoring Spain, an ugly brawl involving Donatas Motiejunas and the local audience, and also some altercations between the Lithuanian big man and the Spanish players. The Lithuanians left the court being booed by the Spanish fans, but certainly decided to have the last laugh.
The math in order to advance to the semifinals reflected that Lithuania needed a 2-point victory to get in, while it was enough for Serbia not to lose by over 14 points. Still, to keep the first place in the group, the Balkan team could allow up to a 6-point margin.
It wasn't obvious during the game. There was a certain smell, but nothing too evident. The Lithuanians were keeping a small but comfortable advantage in the first half, actually too much of a consistent advantage. The third quarter brought some more excitement, with Serbia taking the lead, but still, you never had the feeling that was a do-or-die game. You never felt the logical tension that rides in these situations. Besides, the Serbian team hit a crazy wave of fouls, to the point that its leader, Milan Macvan, stayed in foul trouble for most of the game, and they had four players fouled out before the mid-point of the last quarter, an extremely odd situation.
Anyway, with virtually no interior Serbian defense to speak off, Motiejunas put the Lithuanians 8 points up in the score with just some seconds to go in the game. Then, the real party started, as Donatas himself moved away the Lithuanian defenders to make room for a Serbian guard to score a layup, followed by a Lithuanian player handing out the ball to a Serbian player for him to score another easy (and unnecessary) basket. 4-point lead, end of the game.
Everybody on court celebrated it, particularly Lithuania. They even went as far as hugging the Serbians and clapping at the Spanish players, who were in the stands and had been cheering for the Serbians to win the game.
Serbia and Lithuania qualified for the semifinals. That was the end of the comedy.
Can't believe it? Here is the video:
Completing the Triumvirate
Next to Kosta Koufos, the championship offers us two other high quality NBA prospects, Ricky Rubio and Donatas Motiejunas.
First, it's important to note that Rubio has suffered some physical problems in one finger and in an abductor muscle. Still, on the negative side we have to remark his questionable defense at times (particularly in the game against Germany, which was also exactly the moment when he physically looked his worst), his left-hand dribbling struggles, his yet to completely develop playmaking abilities or his sporadic problems to score against closed defenses. Anyway, none of these things look particularly important when you see the general picture of his development and how he plays with the veterans.
On the positive side, besides his well-known abilities, Ricky at times looked like he can really shoot the ball with nice range. In consecutive games against Germany and Lithuania he combined to go 8/11 from the three-point line, and currently credits a terrific 47.6% for the whole tournament from that distance. His mechanics look everyday better, with a quicker and more fluid release of the ball, also more natural in off-the-dribble fashion.
In terms of how we should value Rubio as a basketball prospect, the general outcome is very positive given the importance of a perimeter stroke for a guard like him.
His incidents in the game against Spain are not an exception. Motiejunas looks a bit of an immature kid, sometimes acting like a spoiled young star and reacting on the court with little poise, for example easily getting into foul trouble. Let's hope he can learn to handle his own hot character. Otherwise, he would spoil a big part of his vast potential.
Finally, just keep an eye on Semen Shashkov. Just as it happened in the Euroleague Junior Tournament some months ago, he started the championship extremely slow, but has heated up in the last games, culminating in the second round with a 27-point 13-rebound effort against Germany. As a 6-8 forward, greatly built, very athletic and rather skilled small forward, he's probably on Motiejunas league in terms of potential. He just needs to get more confident and find the proper playing rhythm. We'll write more extensively on him when the tournament finishes.
The fourth and surprising semifinalist joining Greece, Serbia and Lithuania is Latvia. With obviously inferior potential to these teams (and several others already out of contention), they have worked their way into the semis with great team effort at both ends of the court.
On the other hand, France might be labeled as the biggest disappointment, as the loss against Latvia condemned their future in the competition. Antoine Diot is looking increasingly incapable of controlling games, Edwin Jackson still looks a bit inconsistent and streaky despite putting up some impressive scoring shows, they show some nice stuff inside with the likes of the skilled forward Luc Louves, the raw strong center Johwe Casseus or the young Alexis Tanghe, but nothing really solid. All in all it's one of the very top teams in terms of potential, but failed to put pieces together.