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U-19 World Championship: Early Rounds

U-19 World Championship: Early Rounds
Jul 20, 2007, 06:45 am
Four years later, it’s time for another edition of the world’s top youth basketball competition. After the first two rounds, three teams have emerged as legit title contenders: USA, Serbia and France. Meanwhile, Andrew Ogilvy has taken the tournament by storm, leading Australia to a perfect 6-0 record, also leading the scoring board and emerging as our personal choice for the provisional MVP award.

Team USA, Finally a Real Team

Probably the most pleasant surprise in this tournament is USA. Not really because of the talent level they are showing. Actually, that’s what you would expect from the perennial single-most productive pool in the world, and regardless the fact that the very best players of this age group, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, aren’t here (just the thought of having them in this setting is scary). No, it has much more to do with attitude, cohesiveness, commitment and playing style.

What we’re seeing these days in Novi Sad is a group of players thinking of the team first, playing serious basketball and working hard on the court. It’s very refreshing to watch the way they share the ball on the offensive end, move off the ball, knock down their open shots on a regular basis, and still not give up on the advantages they can generate with their one-on-one skills. On the other end of the floor, we can finally see some quality defense, with a bunch of guys exceeding their individual assignments with team rotations and nice zone defenses. They are committed for the whole 24 seconds of the shot clock-- not your typical USA squad only able to put pressure on the ball early in the possession, basing their offense in the transition game off the opponents’ turnovers.

As usual, the American players have the edge in terms of physical tools and athleticism. Almost every guy here is a good athlete on his own, and only France emerges as a serious competitor in this area.

If we talk about potential, one guy stands above the rest: Michael Beasley. A very well known NBA prospect by now, Beasley is living up to the hype with some excellent showings. He’s a super-athletic, explosive and extremely smooth player-- very strong, ripped, displaying a perfect basketball body. Not the longest guy around if we talk about a power forward, the position where he’s evolving here, he’s every inch of the 6-8 feet he’s listed here, and looks like a very legit 6-9 in shoes.

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Beasley is doing his biggest damage in the paint, working off the ball, often continuing moves from the elbow or the baseline to finish with acrobatic layups. He’s a flat-out impressive finisher around the rim. He perfectly uses both hands, and his ability to hang in the air with the balance he shows there allows him to work to avoid almost every opponent’s attempt to challenge him. He’s just a majestic player evolving off the ground. Although not prolific in this area, he’s eventually putting the ball on the floor and taking advantage of his quickness and coordination to beat his matchups, often using very quick reverse moves and showing excellent footwork in the process. He can also hit his left-handed jumper with range out to the three-point line, although he’s struggling from the perimeter. Still, he shows a notable ability to create separation in turnaround fashion and shoot over his opponent.

It’s not only about scoring points. Beasley is not forcing his plays either. He shares the ball reasonably, doing nice defensive work while cleaning the boards, particularly on the offensive glass. Considering his star status at this level, he’s a pretty nice example of how things are working out for the US team.


Underdogging France

Beware of France. Don’t put too much trust on how they have fared so far in the tournament (defeated by both USA and Serbia), because we won’t know their real level until the elimination games come. Just as what happened last year at the U-18 European Championships, they have not been playing at full intensity. Actually, team effort is something that doesn’t come naturally with this group of players, globally considered. Also, they seem to feel comfortable with an underdog status to face the decisive games. All in all, you get the feeling that they didn’t care that much in those losses; the real championship begins now.

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Curiously, the best performer and a very big reason why France hasn’t fared better answers to the same name: Nicolas Batum. The Le Mans swingman has been a terrific team player. Defense, rebounding, passing... actually, it’s pretty impressive that he provisionally leads France in both assists and rebounds. He has consistently created for his teammates, usually with kickout passes, giving up his own scoring options. Sometimes he has settled for perimeter jumpers, but his long-range shot is not falling in (quite a redundant problem for him). In the end, he’s not showing up when his team is struck in the offensive end and needs points from its go-to player. We would like to see a more aggressive Batum, attacking the basket and taking more scoring responsibilities.


More mixed feelings with the other top prospect in France, Alexis Ajinca (who by the way has signed with Hyeres Toulon for next season). He’s still awfully ineffective on the offensive end. Facing the basket as a power forward would do, he’s struggling badly with his perimeter stroke, and still doesn’t show good enough ball-handling skills to attack his match-up off the dribble on a regular basis. Playing down low as a center, he still suffers to get the job done. If he puts the ball on the floor to operate in the low post, defenses collapse on him and force many turnovers from him. Besides, his touch around the rim still needs work, while obviously his skinny body remains a matter of big concern. We’re still in an early stage in the long-term process of his physical development.

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On the other hand, some of the stuff he displays from time to time is ridiculously impressive. We’re especially taking about the intimidation he delivers around the basket and his ability to block shots. He’s so freaking long, while also nicely athletic, that he can reject a shot from virtually at the roof, right where he sometimes comes up with some impressive rebounds. He’s gaining defensive awareness, better following his match-ups, and recognizing where and when to execute a team rotation. To summarize: still raw, still promising.


Serbia, the Host Candidate

Serbia presented its credentials for the title with strong performances so far in the tournament, particularly its brilliant victory over the French squad, but also a promising close loss against USA. The support of the local fans here in Novi Sad is strengthening what already was a very nice squad.

Serbia is basing its game on its inside power, with the likes of Miroslav Raduljica, Boban Marjanovic and Milan Macvan assuming big responsibilities. However, it’s the later one, Milan Macvan, still one year younger than most of his teammates, who has emerged as the go-to player in Serbia. As usual, we can talk about his limited athleticism and physical grace, but the truth is, he’s so far delivering at any category he plays.

As opposed to the Macvan we’ve seen this season with the FMP juniors, virtually an orchestra conductor (a role he will likely reassume on the U-18 national team later this summer), Milan is evolving as a much more clear-cut inside guy, primarily looking for the low post to take advantage of his strength, moves and intelligence.


Ogilvy Inheriting Bogut

Four years ago, the eventual #1 draft pick Andrew Bogut led Australia to the U-19 World Championship title, earning MVP honours in the process. It wouldn’t be fair to expect Ogilvy to take the Oceanic country so far this time, but the name Andrew is not the only thing both share. Regardless the fact that both are skilled and fundamentally sound big men who opted for the college route (Ogilvy is committed to Vanderbilt), the Aussie should probably be considered the provisional MVP in this edition of the championship.

Still, we feel cheated: we had seen Ogilvy a month ago in the first two days of the Douai Tournament, and although he looked nice, it was nothing compared to what he's showcasing here. He's the centerpiece of the Australian game, a very skilled 6-11 player who makes the most out of his limited athleticism. He usually looks for the surroundings of the basket, either with his low post game or attacking his match-ups off the dribble from the mid or high post. Actually, he sometimes overdoes himself looking for the way to the rim, but it basically shows how aggressive he is. Down low, he enjoys nice footwork, loves contact (he's a very strong guy at this level) and can finish with both hands around the rim showing a nice touch, even getting up pretty fast for the dunk. Not a bad shooter from the mid-range area, he's not particularly active there.

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Defensively, Oglilvy is doing a decent job, particularly coming away with a number of blocked shots (second in the tournament), where he shows great timing and an excellent control of his efforts, so he rarely risks his defensive position. That very same timing plus nice positioning help him out in the rebounding department. He's a naturally smart guy playing the game, also visible through his extremely solid passing game, feeding the weak side from the low post or rewarding cutters from the mid-range area.

However, the competition Ogilvy has found so far in this championship is average at best. He's yet to face the best teams, which happen to enjoy the most powerful frontcourts. We'll see if he lives up to the task.


Small Bites

The guy standing ahead of Ogilvy in the blocked shots category is the endless Nigerian center Solomon Alabi, a skinny, athletic and very raw 7-1 kid who will play for Florida State next season. Offensively, he's not effective at all; he tries and shows some promise from the low post or even putting the ball on the floor, but he's still noticeably unpolished. So he basically sticks to role-player duties such as intimidation or cleaning the boards. Similarly to Ajinca (although more wildly), Alabi can deliver some jaw-dropping blocks from an incredibly high vantage point. Besides, the guy is a nice fighter on court who will even dive while pursuing a ball out of bounds. His rebounding production is being benefited as a result, particularly on the offensive glass.


Perhaps the biggest surprise in the tournament came when South Korea defeated Turkey. We don't remember the last time a Korean team had a victory against a European squad, if ever. It was extremely fun to watch, with the Asians making up for their glaring lack of size (they got to put on court four guys under 6-3 at the same time) with restless intensity, a very quick game style, very nice ball movement (the expression "extra pass" reached a new degree here), perimeter accuracy, a bit of luck (they netted a number of extremely wild layups) and surprising character on court.

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Victor Claver was probably the biggest story in the preliminary round, but has faded a bit off the tournament sky these last days, somehow following the evolution of his perimeter accuracy. He has dominated while his jumpers have gone in, showcasing a great ability to create his own shot, but he has struggled in the last couple of games, right when his team needed him the most to emerge as the go-to player. He's still one of the best prospects here hands down: length, athleticism, activity, passing, rebounding, handles, it's hard not to feel very intrigued with him.


Reporting to the Championship

While we all would desire to have the very best kids from this age group in this tournament, reality strikes to show again that there’re always very important players missing the party.

The list has to be headed by two apparently soon-to-be NBA superstars, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, busy these days with Summer Leagues. The question is, would it be so difficult to convince the players and NBA teams to skip these settings and play a fairly prestigious competition as the Junior Worlds that the US Team hasn’t won since 1991?

Probably the team suffering the most from absences is Spain. As the U-18 European Championship will be hosted in Madrid in August, the Spanish Federation has preferred to secure the success of this event with a strong Spanish squad, cutting the wings of the U-19 team. It’s not far-fetched to think that with the likes of Ricky Rubio, Pablo Aguilar and Pere Tomas on the team, Spain would even opt to the gold medal.

There’s no doubt that the most disappointing squad here has been Lithuania, easily a top-4 contender in advance and now out of the quarterfinals. While the team is very similar to the one that advanced to the Final in last summer’s U-18 European Championship, it’s hard to understand why a nice playmaker such as Sarunas Vasiliauskas is not here to replace Zygimantas Janavicius every time he visits the bench, as there’s not even a single reliable point guard to give him a rest. Even such a talented big man as Donatas Motiejunas would’ve come in handy, regardless of his youth.

France could have presented a stronger squad had they managed to add Rodrigue Beaubois to the mix, but apparently the athletic point guard was too busy with the draft process to earn himself a spot on the final roster. Meanwhile, Turkey lost a foundation piece in Baris Hersek. The forward from Efes Pilsen was included on the U-20 Turkish squad, but was apparently kicked out due to some disciplinary measures, and didn’t make the U-19 team either.

China has come to the tournament with a strange roster where you can miss some very promising guys, starting with Chen Jianghua, and following with the likes of Zhou Peng, Liu Xiaoyu, Han Shuo or Ding Jinhui. Finally, one of the very top prospects of the 1988 generation, Vitor Faverani, didn’t make the Brazilian team.

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