We continue our player-by-player recap of the U-18 European Championship played in Madrid with the big men. It was quite an interesting competition regarding the paint players, and among others, the list includes the two great dominators of the tournament, MVP Kosta Koufos and the best player of the champion team Milan Macvan, while also the extremely intriguing Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas.
1989, C, 7-1, Greece; 26.5 ppg, 13 rpg, 3.5 bpg
Koufos shows an impressive build. He had reportedly been working very hard this summer, losing weight while gaining bulk, in order to show up at Ohio State this upcoming fall in the best possible shape, and you can tell hes done a fine job. He looks very strong, particularly in his upper body, while there doesnt seem to be much fat left and, therefore, barely any room to keep losing weight. As a result, he has showcased significantly better athleticism than advertised in advance. For a 7-1 guy with a great wingspan, he enjoys a very solid athletic profile, with nice leaping ability and footspeed.
The shooting reputation Koufos brought from Ohio was pretty much confirmed here. His jumper looks very solid from the mid-range area, out to 18 feet from the basket, but he seriously struggled throughout the tournament with the three-point shot (2/22 overall). Perhaps the further three-point line compared to the HS/college courts and the little time he had to adapt his game were the reasons, especially since virtually all his three-point attempts fell short.
Regardless, inside the arc he left plenty to drool about. Koufos' mid-range stroke looked particularly intriguing: shooting in turnaround fashion off post positions and going for the bank shot after a hesitation, almost a la Duncan. Hes not much of an off-the-dribble shooter unless hes trying from short distances. Indeed hes neither much of an off-the-dribble player, even if he can put the ball on the floor with both hands and attack his match-ups. Still, he struggles to completely beat his opponents off the dribble, as his first step is average and so is his quickness with the ball in his hands, so those are usually approximation drives that allow him to shoot from shorter distances, often using the glass or trying in hook fashion.
Anyway, if were talking about a 7-1 dominating center, its pretty clear he has to display a very solid low post game, precisely what Koufos shows. He wouldnt likely be a top prospect otherwise. How comfortable and confident he feels down low, and how physical he can be there, quickly jumps to your eyes. It was a piece of cake for him to establish good position against his match-ups at this level, only suffering when the opposing team employed various pieces to float around him so he couldnt receive the ball. Once he receives, he loves to draw contact in his moves; actually he was virtually unstoppable spinning off his opponents bodies, which ended up sealed and unable to contest his layups. Showing extremely solid footwork, his very nice footspeed allows him to do the rest. He also likes to spin towards the baseline and quickly gain his opponents back and go for the dunk or the reverse layup. But he doesnt need to completely beat his match-up in order to score; he enjoys a nice right-handed hook that he can deliver over opponents. In other situations, being close enough to the basket, he would just project himself over his opponent looking for a layup, but this is something he will likely not be allowed to perform at a top level. Still, the biggest weakness Koufos faces when trying to score near the basket is his absolute lack of a left hand. He never uses it, which wasnt a problem in this championship playing against kids, but will hamper his effectiveness in the low post down the road. We also have to mention his strong finishes of alley-oop passes. He can easily get off his feet to go for a powerful dunk.
All in all, the big fella shows nice poise and feel for the game on the court. He knows how to attack his opponents, which way to go, he nicely combines his different offensive weapons. As example, he was very smart taking Macvan out of the lane in the final and attacking him off the dribble to exploit his lack of quickness. And despite his huge point production, he passed the ball every time he wasnt in good situation to score, often when opposing defenses collapsed on him, then showing a nice ability to take the ball out of the low post, even using the weak side to find an open teammate, but also delivering some nice dishes from the high post.
Carrying a reputation of a mediocre defender, he made a good case to pretty much erase it, emerging as the defensive anchor for Greece in the paint. For many stretches during the game, particularly when he was fresh, he looked almost unbeatable, a huge wall that any opponent would crash into if he dared to come close to the basket. He showed very nice positioning on the court, always keeping the team defense in mind, with excellent timing and decision making going for blocks, and of course, completely taking advantage of his long and strong body. He was a real intimidator. Still, its a pity that he never uses his left hand to block shots, which limits his effectiveness, especially once he faces tougher opposition. Anyway, hes a physical guy with enough lateral quickness for a center and a smart use of his athleticism. He was also a force in the rebounding area, using his length and strength to clean the boards. Still, he often wasnt that aggressive and physical to collect boards that werent falling in his area.
Greece not winning the title was basically because they didnt enjoy a fresh Koufos for the whole game. Actually that was a pretty big problem. Averaging almost 35 minutes, with only 7 minutes of combined rest in the last four games (all against tough teams), he eventually looked completely exhausted. Particularly painful was in the semifinal against Lithuania, where he didnt sit for even a second, and ended up totally burned out and pretty much ineffective on both ends of the court for the last minutes. On a lesser extent (the coach granted him some rest), it also happened in the final. It was pretty usual that his first halves were significantly better than the second ones, greatly affecting the teams result. Actually, his stamina might not be the best around. He was pretty conscious of this situation, and always saved efforts on fast breaks, using slowly jogging or even walking up to the offensive end. But it speaks volumes that in the meantime, his defensive transitions were always excellent. They guy seemed really committed to the game, a very serious player, a hard worker, and just a fine teammate to play with.
1989, PF/C, 6-9, Serbia; 19.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg
Nobody could keep up with a guy who is just built like a house. And when he faced the only player with the physical presence to limit his physical dominance, Kosta Koufos, he gave a clinic on basketball IQ and skills, to still remain productive. Standing 6-9, an showing an excellent wingspan, he enjoys very broad shoulders, while his body line just goes down with no intention of drawing a waist. He is indeed overweight, showing noticeable fat whenever he takes off his jersey. Hes not fat, obviously, but theres a lot of room to improve his physical condition. That would likely help his athleticism, his biggest shortcoming, although everything suggests that he will never be what we would call an athletic guy. Right now, hes just slow and heavy footed.
No problem at all. That extra weight came very handy to overpower his opponents. Macvan just gains position in the lane at will, actually moving very intelligently to receive the ball in the best possible situation. Not a low-post dancer, he shows nice moves, even if his first option is to bang his opponent and spin for the layup, or go for a simple right-handed hook shot from as close range as possible. He can use both hands near the rim with consistency, a pattern with most Serbian big men. Still, Macvan often settles for a turnaround jumper, or a step-back shot. He gains enough space in the process to enjoy a comfortable release, and sometimes even delivers a slight fade away move. However, he looks streakier in these kind of shots. Macvans shot enjoys range out to the three point line, but not with consistency, particularly in this championship.
One of the best assets of Macvans game is his passing ability. They guy sees the floor really well, and hes equally effective in any part of the court. From the low post, to the high post, the arc or in transition, double-teamed or off the dribble, to his fellow post-mate, finding the open man on the three-point line, feeding cutters, from the weak side hes very smart getting his teammates involved, even if his first option is usually to score himself. Anyway, hes not obsessed with the definitive pass, but just looks for the offense to flow properly.
Milan was a rebounding force in this championship. Showing good positioning and cashing in off his width, strength and excellent hands, he put on a true exhibition, although its true that his teammates always conceded the rebound to him if he was near. On defense he often came with mixed results. Hes a slow player, particularly concerning the power forward position, and occasionally opposing teams exploited that flaw. Also, whenever he collected fouls he virtually gave up any kind of defensive risk to not to get into foul trouble, which greatly affected his effectiveness there. Still, hes a player who knows how to position himself, while he uses his wingspan and relies on his strength to get the job done.
Even if Macvan is stubbornly proving that he can keep up his production as the competition grows older (and stronger), I still have serious concerns about his real potential. Of course he will at least be a very nice player in Europe, probably a very good one. But he just doesnt enjoy a NBA-friendly profile. His poor combination of athleticism and size will likely hurt him in the long run. Indeed, I don't expect draft-wise anything more than a second round call down the road, if anything.
1990, PF, 6-11, Lithuania; 13.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg
As we discussed last May during the Euroleague Junior Tournament, Motiejunas has greatly developed physically from the super-skinny kid that showed up last year at the U-16 European Championship. He has gained some strength that allows him to play near the basket, but still hes a slim guy with work to do. Still, his frame looks very solid, and he shouldnt have problems to develop a terrific body for a power forward, not the bulky type, but strong enough.
Motiejunas looked almost unguardable at times during the championship. Either taking advantage of his superior length or superior quickness, he was regularly a nightmare match-up. Hes a player who can step out to the perimeter, showing range in his shot out to the three-point line. Still, this time he barely tried from deep distances, sticking to mid-range attempts, from where he can even display pull-up jumpers. Its not his most consistent skill, as he still struggles to regularly hit his shots, particularly the further he tries from the basket, but his mechanics look fairly nice. He was more prolific putting the ball on the floor to attack his opponent. His first step and quickness can be impressive for a guy of his size, being able to go both ways, and having the ability to eventually come up with a directional change during the drive. Still from the perimeter, hes a very useful pick-and-roll guy, given how quick he can roll towards the basket and his excellent size to catch the ball high and finish with a dunk.
If we come closer to the basket, it was pretty usual to see him asking for the ball in the mid post, in order to again use his quickness turning towards the basket looking for a layup extension with either hand. Down low, even if Donatas doesnt show the most orthodox and polished post moves, his footspeed and ability to knock down hooks, again with both hands (although a bit low released with his right), paves the way for him. Its pretty interesting to stress the relatively very skilled right hand Donatas enjoys, lets remember, a left-handed player.
The concerns arise when talking about his character and attitude on court, as he sometimes looks like a bit of a cocky guy. He showed a tendency to get in foul trouble, which comes to reflect his struggles controlling his own emotions and reactions. Hes a very expressive guy, quite hot-blooded, who easily falls into provocations, and who might like to provoke himself. He got into a verbal fight with the Spanish audience during the game against Spain that he could have perfectly avoided. On defense, hes not the hardest working player, and sometimes neither physical enough. Still, with his wingspan and superb mobility, he shouldnt have troubles to get the job done once he gains enough strength. He did a pretty good job rebounding the ball, cashing in off his length and athleticism.
If Motiejunas keeps seriously working on his game, theres no reason why he shouldnt become a great player. We could even say, the sky is the limit for him.
1989, PF/C, 6-10, Lithuania; 11.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg
However, an important part of the intrigue comes with his physical development. Having grown a bit (he looks at least 6-10, and perhaps even taller) and enjoying great wingspan, hes slowly but constantly getting stronger, starting to fill out his excellent frame. Hes also a nicely athletic player, with solid leaping ability and interesting reactivity. Terrific tools to rebound the ball and block shots indeed. 9.1 captures and 2.9 rejections in less than 23 minutes per game sounds like outstanding production. The guy has a great sense of timing, shows very good position and, very important, the willingness to get it done. But hes not only about amassing stats; Cepukaitis is a very solid defender, physical in the low post, quick enough for a big guy, rather smart not to get easily cheated with fakes and pretty intense generally speaking.
Moving to the scoring department, he still primarily relies on his mid-range jumper, pretty solid and with a high-release point, both because of his mechanics and his leaping effort. But this time he showed a bit more ball-handling in order to gain an advantage in certain situations. Nothing really remarkable, but a couple of dribbles here or there, looking more aggressive than in the past, and also more active in the game. Indeed we could see him igniting the fastbreak by putting the ball on the floor without any hesitation. He even tried to play in the low post a few times, which is refreshing for a guy who almost refused any physical contact in the offensive end in the past (probably due to his lack of strength). He still looks rather unpolished there, anyway. Besides his mid-range stroke, he was quite productive in second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds, showing nice touch in short shots.
Still looking like a pure role player, even if a very good one, Cepukaitis might be able to develop into a very intriguing player down the road.
1989, PF, 6-8, Spain; 16.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg
Still an average ball-handler, its not common to see him putting the ball on the floor, even if he was slightly more active in this department than in previous years. So even if he can eventually display a pull-up jumper from mid-range, hes mostly about static shots, enjoying range out to the three-point line. Hes a reliable guy from any distance when left open, showing quick mechanics, although he tends to lose balance on the release. Aguilar is still not a productive post player, lacking polished footwork and not showing particular ability to finish over his opponents unless he goes for the turnaround shot. A solid player off the ball, hes also a nice passer with a good understanding of the game.
Defensively, Aguilar is not always equally intense, but he gets the job done in the key games and minutes. He enjoys good lateral quickness, hes tough and physical, pretty competitive, and he can even get off the floor easily to block some shots if the proper opportunity arises. His reliability on the defensive end, plus his solid jumper, will help him make an easy transition to pro competition in Europe. Still, he will have to seriously expand his skill set to become a more intriguing player.
1989, PF, 6-10, France; 7.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg
Considering his length, hes a guy who stands out just by how easily he can put the ball on the floor and beat his opponents. He can go both ways using either hand with equal ease, always showing a nice first step, solid footwork and notable quickness approaching the basket, while he can finish with really stylish layups as he flies towards the basket. He can also shoot the ball out to the three point line, usually from static positions, with nice mechanics even if with inconsistent accuracy. Its often the type small forward stuff that he can eventually deliver with surprising ease, although he wasnt particularly prolific taking offensive initiatives. Anyway, Louves did emerge as a solid rebounder taking advantage of his length and leaping ability.
On the downside, hes a pretty cold player when it comes to getting involved in the game, not being the most aggressive or tough guy on a basketball court. Hes not a constant guy, as he often floats around the court with no apparent purpose. Besides, his decision making and basketball IQ seem pretty average. In the end, he doesnt consistently take advantage of his skills and physical gifts to become a productive player. Therefore, how he deals with these mental flaws will be crucial for him to fulfill some of his intriguing potential.
1990, PF, 6-9, Croatia; 12.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg
Delas is pretty versatile on the court, perhaps more of a face-up guy, but also capable of playing in the low post. He puts the ball on the floor easily, going both ways and displaying a solid first step and long strides to make up for his lack of extreme quickness. Often opting for passing off the drive (many times looking for his paint mate), when it came to scoring he would go all the way up for the lay-up, but also stop for the pull-up jumper, probably because he didnt look very effective netting the ball near the basket against opposition. Still, he wasnt very accurate with his off-the-dribble jumper; hes a player that feels more comfortable shooting in open spot up situations. Actually, he enjoys range out to the three-point line, from where he netted about half of his shots in the tournament. In the low post he shows good moves, but with inconsistency; sometimes he showcases notable footwork in a post move, but other times he cant find a proper way to beat his opponent, also because he often gets outmuscled.
Pretty intense rebounding the ball, limited on defense because of his lack of strength, Delas seems to have nice foundations to eventually become a very good player on the European scene.
1989, PF/C, 6-10, Italy; 14.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg
Renzi is a pretty skilled player in the low post, a guy who feels comfortable there, relying both on his nice physical set and solid moves. Hes a 6-10 player, with a very good wingspan, nice strength and broad shoulders to add as much weight as necessary. Showcasing pretty polished footwork, hes a reliable guy going one-on-one in the low post, also taking advantage of his right-handed hooks, where he shows a certain soft touch. Although decently athletic, Renzi is more of a solid leaper than a really quick guy. Thats a reason why hes not a very productive slasher, besides the fact that his ball-handling skills are not out of this world. So even if he can put the ball on the floor, he rarely gets real advantages. In the end, he prefers to settle for his jumper, which is not particularly pretty in the release, but not that bad in terms of effectiveness and enjoying range out to the three point line. A decent rebounder, he produced in this tournament mostly relying on his wingspan and leaping ability.
Still, there are concerns about his game, basically two big ones. First, hes looking a bit soft these days, particularly on the defensive end. He doesnt work very intently and hes not physical guarding the lane, so he doesnt challenge his opponents that heavily. Hes neither overly aggressive on the offensive end and settles for too many jumpers instead of taking advantage of his low post game. The second big problem here is his position on court. His struggles playing off the dribble and his average quickness limits his potential as a power forward, while hes small for a center. Of course, this is a relative problem depending on which level he ends up reaching.