U18 European Championships: Preliminary Thoughts, Preliminary Round

U18 European Championships: Preliminary Thoughts, Preliminary Round
Jul 23, 2006, 04:59 pm
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You can find all the boxscores and recaps from the entire tournament at the official website

Once again this summer, brings you coverage of the top youth event that takes place in the Old Continent, the European Junior Championships. Kids born in 1988 and 1989 fight for the continental throne, but also a berth in the World Junior Championships to be held next summer in Vancouver.

Tales from... Olympia?

After crossing half of Europe by plane and half of Greece by train, there's nothing than finding out that the tournament is actually not being played in Olympia as advertised, but in Krestena, a small village 13 kilometers away, with no other transportation than taxi to connect them.

I don't get the point of advertising Olympia all the time in, the only source of information for this event, if the games are being held in Krestena. And while the site has Amaliada, Olympia and Argostoli as venues, in the press book, obviously prepared and printed several days in advance, it's Amaliada, Krestena and Argostoli all over it, with no mention of Olympia. It's certainly hard to understand.

Furthermore, it's a bit annoying how distant the venues are becoming. Two summers ago, all the games of the tournament were played in the same arena in Zaragoza. Last year, there were two venues, but both in Belgrade. In this edition, we have Krestena and Amaliada in the mainland, already dozens of kilometers away one from the other, and Argostoli in a rather distant island not easy to reach at all from Amaliada in a reasonable time. If they keep this rate, I can see next year's championship being held in different countries.

Anyway, enough complaining. It's time to talk basketball.

Nobody Expected the Spanish Inquisition!

And very few people expected the Spanish squad to be this competitive, at least, in this preliminary round.

With a game based on a strong defense, transition play and aggressive slashing game in the set offense, Spain becomes a very serious contender to make the semifinals. The victory against France, the early favorites after winning in Mannheim in April, has meant a huge dose of confidence for this team. It was really an awesome game, displaying an excellent level and great intensity.


Three names in Spain stand above the rest.
First Xavier Forcada, the main catalyst of the team in the aforementioned showdown against France. Despite the solid play of PG Quim Colom, the load of creating offense rested foremost on the shoulders of Forcada, an explosive off guard who has been attacking and splitting defeses almost at will. He's aggressive, enjoying a very good first step, handles, excellent footwork, the athleticism and the soft touch in his layups to successfully finish around the basket. Besides, his perimeter shooting, probably his biggest weakness, looks improved, more fluid in the release, although he has still work to do. Anyway, at 6-4, he's not big enough to become a serious NBA prospect as a wing player, and despite his nice passing game, it's not clear at all that he can become a PG.

We then have Pablo Aguilar, a 1989 born player that already shined last year in Leon in the Cadet stage, becoming a very important player at both ends of the court. Offensively, his excellent mid-range stroke, even effective out to the 3-point line, opens defenses to allow his teammates to attack the basket easier. On defense, he's succesfully battling against bigger players than him. He's an athletic and intense power forward who stands 6-9 with good basketball insticts on the court.

1496Victor Claver

Last, but not least, comes Victor Claver, the only clear NBA prospect of this squad, finally showcasing in big competition some of the vast potential he enjoys. Victor, who is usually matched with power forwards, is literally blowing every defender away with his superb first step, which is really awesome for a 6-9 guy. The character issues that sometimes knock his competitiveness are probably still there to some degree, but he's looking incomparably more self-confident and aggressive than he did last summer in Belgrade. As a sample, he has already finished a couple of slashing trips with vicious dunks on the face of a rival (Nicolas Batum in this picture), taking advantage of his excellent athleticism. Also, he's looking more intese on defense, being much more active and effective than usual, especially on team defense. We only miss a little bit more confidence in his perimeter jumper, which is good enough to display on a regular basis; instead, he's going for the penetration on most occasions, even if he's given a lot of space.

All in all, Claver perfectly reflects the mutation that this squad seems to have experienced lately. Let's hope it lasts.

Early Disappointments

Where do we start?

Nicolas Batum in nowhere to be found. Those concerns about his character that Antonio Rodriguez mentioned in the AST Mannheim report have arised in the preliminary round, and badly. Whenever he does something, he shows his impressive talent, but it's becoming a rare luxury for the viewer and for his own team. This doesn't mean that, from now on, he can't take over and blossom for a dominant showing; he's perfectly capable of doing it, but this wasn't expected from a player meant to be one of the top 1988 international prospects, and also this coolness he shows is certainly concerning.

The same goes for France. Not that much because of the loss against Spain (where they were beaten by a nice squad that played up to perfection, even if the French defense could have been a bit more aggressive), but especially because of the painful humiliation they suffered against Iceland. The French coach decided to start the game with bench guys, while Antoine Diot (the true floor general of this team) wasn't even dressed to play, so Iceland got into the game, and they stubbornly stayed in until the end. They played with so much passion and energy, that they managed to overcome the ridiculous talent and physical diferential they suffered compared to the almighty French. Not even when playing with Alexis Ajinca and Ludovic Vaty at the same time, trying to abuse physically, they could score regularly and contain the unpredictable Icelandic offense; without Diot, the French looked uncapable of reacting. Still, we expect France to come back in a dominant fashion in the quarterfinal round, but they are not anymore the one-and-only favorites for the final victory.

It's hard to mention here a guy who is just off a 22-point, 25-rebound performance. He's no other than Tim Ohlbrecht, but there has been more shadows in his game than lights. He has looked painful until early in a meaningless game against Israel, with Germany out of competition and facing a short squad where he found no real opposition. For the most part, Ohlbrecht has looked pretty soft, not willing to mix it up inside, avoiding contact, intimidated when operating near the basket and settling for perimeter jumpers. On a mediocre team like Germany, he hasn't been able to step up as a go-to player until some point in that mentioned third huge game. After another soft start, missing a couple of extremely easy shots under the rim, he finally picked up things and took advantage of his superior physical set to dominate the Israelis in the paint, scoring near the basket, rebounding and blocking, while showing nice timing in his efforts.

Back to his flaws, it's nothing that he didn't show last summer to some degree, but he was a first-year junior, so understandable in the end. There are no excuses this time. It's a pity, because he enjoys some rare gifts, like an excellent combination of length and athleticism, while some nice skills and the coordination to get the job done. Let's see how he fares in the upcoming games.

While you can look for a positive side in Batum, France and Ohlbrecht, there's little redemption to be found for Aleksandar Ugrinoski. The Croatian point guard has been a major disappointment, fulfilling the worst fears about him being a head case. He hasn't gained any degree of consistency from his last summer outing, but actually has lost some real spark and flair in his game. He's hasn't been able to lead Croatia on court, to become a real floor general. He's hardly looking involved in the games, failing in basic stuff such as controling the tempo of the game, of consisntely creating game for his teammates. We greatly miss his fancy passes, and he even suffers more than expected stepping onto the lane. The result for Croatia, a mediocre tournament at best.

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