Welcome Back Turkey, Turkish Talents Tantalize

Welcome Back Turkey, Turkish Talents Tantalize
Sep 08, 2006, 11:14 am
Welcome Back Turkey

Dimitris Ritsonis

A few months ago, when FIBA decided which teams would be receiving the four wildcards for the World Championships, it was almost a give in that back-to-back defending Champions Serbia and Montenegro, Olympic Silver medalists Italy and Latin American powerhouse Puerto Rico would be three of them. The surprise came with the fourth selection which was Turkey instead of Russia or Croatia, two teams that had been constantly better than the Turks in International tournaments since 2003. It was FIBA that had created many concerns with this selection, which was only partially understandable as Turkey was already set to organize the next World Championships and their participation would help them further improve the product in their country.

Turkey had their best run in International ball in 2001 when, playing at home again, they finished second in the Eurobasket. This helped the sport take a huge boost, as their team was filled with Euroleague and NBA talent in Mirsad Turkcan, Hedo Turkoglu, Ibo Kutluay and Mehmet Okur. However, in the following competitions and despite the further improvement of the team’s roster and individual talents, they constantly underachieved as the prima donna situation and the bad locker room relationships were enough to push them out of any competition. This situation peaked last summer when they couldn't even make it in the top-8 round of the unexpectedly low-level Eurobasket, only managing to beat Bulgaria in overtime.

When the Turks received the unlikely wildcard, though, coach Bogdan Tanjevic decided to make some significant changes for the sake of team mentality and the morale of the players. Having already cut Turkcan, he dropped Okur and Turkoglu from the team when they both asked to start training later than the rest of the players. The outcome of getting rid of superstar trouble-makers of the past years was a young roster, without any NBA player or true star, led by Euroleague veterans in Kutluay, Kaya Peker and Serkan Erdogan, along with a number of solid role players and the core of the U-20 National team, which was already considered the most talented generation in Turkish basketball. Players like the already drafted teenagers Ersan Ilyasova and Cenk Akyol and the 20-year old Hakan Demirel have seen significant minutes so far and play for the national team, creating the core for the next World Championships in 2010.

The Turkish game play is not specific. They play tight, old-school European defense, but on offense, there are different tricks that make them difficult to guard, not only because they shoot the ball well, but due to the presence of capable inside role players who can offer post scoring and above average rebounding. It would be even better if Ilyasova, the team’s most talented player hadn’t been sidelined for the past two games due to injury, but still, their offensive game is a persistent force for any opponent, mainly due to the good ball distribution and the team-play. Their point guard line in the most underrated in the tournament, as Demirel, 23-year old Ender Arslan and 22-year old Engir Atsur are no protagonists here, but they can lead the team in the decisive minutes, play tough defense and make the open trey.

Sure, Turkey came out as the darkhorse in the toughest group of the tournament and stole some significant wins with patience, Erdogan’s heroics and some serious hustle, but you cannot underestimate the result that the coach and these young guys have accomplished so far. Having partly overachieved, the Turks got wins over all their opponents with considerable difficulty (Lithuania, Australia, Brazil and Qatar), only to fall to favorites Greece in the last minutes of the last, decisive game of the group, which pushed them to second place. Their defensive pressure and Erdogan’s shooting worked fairly well one more time, just when they needed it, to make a late run that helped beat Slovenia in the knock-out round to reach the quarters and already surpass what Memo, Hedo and Co. had achieved four years ago.

Nobody really expected Turkey to stand serious chances against Olympic Gold medalists Argentina in the quarter-final game. Team depth, experience and game dominance were all on Argentina’s side and Turkey were heavy underdogs once again, but at least, they tried to play their game and at the end the result (a 58-83 loss) came normally, proving one thing which should be a give in for all future competitions. Turkey will be fighting until the last minute to keep the game close and will hustle for every loose ball and rebound, even when Ilyasova will have to fight against Luis Scola and Akyol may be guarding Manu Ginobili. They proved that thought right in the 5-8 games, totally upsetting Lithuania and winning the game in overtime, before losing to France and finishing sixth in the World Championships. They did so with a 12-men rotation, where every guy provided at least 10 minutes per game and the scoring was rather well shared between stars and role players. Whether Okur and Turkoglu should be invited again in the National team for the next big tournament (starting with next summer's Eurobasket) is the next question that comes to mind immediately, with the answer probably relying on whether the team chemistry will be distracted once again.

Turkey didn't win their quarter-final matchup, but FIBA should be very happy, not only for bringing back a lost friend with bright potential, but also for at least having one of the four wildcard teams reach the top-8 stage in these World Championships.

Turkish Talents Tantalize

Sadik Iliman

Ersan Ilyasova, 9,6 points per game, 3,6 rebounds per game, 1 assist per game

The MVP of the U-20 European Championships was a consistent threat for the Turkish team. Ilyasova was always used as a small forward during the games and showed good signs. His step-back jump shot which some fans know from the U-20 European Championship was his main weapon again. He had no problems creating shots and was one of the main performers during Turkey's first two wins in the tournament. On the offensive side it was interesting to see that Ilyasova played a game which was pictured by jump shots, but he always was active on the offensive rebounds and second chances in the paint. On the other hand, Ilyasova showed great passion on the defensive side of the ball. His consistent work on the boards and his amazing ability to block shots often were turning points for his team (with the Turkey-Lithuania being a classification game). Ilyasova started to struggle when the opponent played more aggressive. It was clear to see that he had a lot of difficulties in finding and creating open shots, especially when he matched up with some quicker small forwards. The fact that he didn't try to post them up and look for points in the paint was the main criticism by Turkish fans.

All in all we can easily say that Ilyasova played a wonderful tournament for his team considering the fact that he was pretty tired due to the U-20 European Championship. An injury forced him to stay out of two games, but the fact that he came back to play in the last three games shows Ersan's character towards the game. He was also one of those players who offered some big highlights during this tournament with terrific blocks and alley-oops.

Cenk Akyol, 6,3 points per game, 1,5 rebounds per game, 0.5 asissts per game

Cenk Akyol was one of the players who had some problems in the first games. In the first three games Akyol was not able to score and prefered to stay focused during the game. This was probably the reason why coach Tanjevic cut his minutes during the game. But Akyol made an impressive comeback at the second round. He scored in double digits in three of four games and was the player who scored very crucial points against Slovenia to help Turkey stay in the game. Suddenly you could saw a much quicker and aggressive Akyol during the games. Perhaps his biggest contribution was on the defensive side. His man to man defense was outstanding and he closed almost every passing line to his opponent. Together with his crucial jump shots his comeback was perfect.
So, did we see something which we didn't know about Akyol? The answer is "no". We could see Akyol in his typical game: Smart, playing very good defense and the ability to hit shots in crucial periods. He still has some problems with his footwork and his general game speed where he has to work a little more in the future.

In conclusion you can say that Akyol played a good tournament, especially if you consider that he came from the U-20 European Championship and had big problems in the first days. The ability to bounce back was an important sign of his attitude

Hakan Demirel, 2,4 points per game, 1,2 rebounds per game, 1,7 asissts per game

Demirel, one of the key players for the U-20 Turkish team- started as the team's point guard. Unlike Ilyasova and Akyol, Demirel's performance was not that convincing. Many fans know Demirel as a point guard with a superb court vision and ball handling. But he showed big problems in translating this into a higher level like the World Championship. The main criticism against Demirel was that he couldn't direct his team’s offense. Indeed, Demirel had difficulties against the pressure coming by the opponent's point guards despite having very good ball handling skills. As a consequence, he had a high turnover rate and kept the ball too much in his own hands. Fans barely got to see his tremendous court vision and passing ability.

Of course, there are also some positive aspects. Demirel showed great passion and self-confidence. He once again improved his penetration and finished with beautiful layups. For Demirel, it's all about translating his known game into a higher level so he can face the pressure coming from his opponents. So, he needs some trust from his club and see some significant minutes in both the Turkish league and European league.

Semih Erden, 2,2 points per game, 2,3 rebounds per game, 0,2 asissts per game

Semih Erden was the player with the fewest minutes in the team. Erden who also couldn't fulfill the expectations stemming from the U-20 European Championship, surely lacking some experience in this kind of tournaments. He is still making too many easy mistakes like traveling and such. His long arms make him a tremendous threat for rebounds and blocks but he has to learn to hold his own against more powerful opponents which seems quite difficult for Erden with his current body. He definitely has to work on it since he also does not have a decent jump shot. But like all other young Turkish players in the tournament you can't criticize him for not fighting and showing passion. Erden is involved in every rebound battle and puts a great effort to defend his opponent as well as he can. So, all in all Erden needs to work on his body and probably much more important: To get playing time in order to gain some experience.

Engin Atsür, 7,9 points per game, 1,6 rebounds per game, 1,6 asissts per game

And finally there is Engin Atsür, the biggest surprise on the Turkish team. Atsür had a strange World Championship performance. The reason is easy to explain: Atsür did not see any playing time during the first two games. But due to the poor performances by the other point guards (Arslan and Demirel), Turkish fans wondered why coach Tanjevic would not try to run the offense with Engin Atsür. As if Tanjevic read all those sentences by the fans, suddenly Atsür came from the bench against Brazil. The result: Atsür offered something which was key for the Turkish offense; unbelievable court vision with almost no turnovers and mistakes in the game. Turkey got more shots and there was more active movement on the offensive side. But Atsür went a few steps further: Together with his point guard abilities he proved great leadership carrying Turkey in decisive situations against Slovenia to a comeback. He also showed pretty aggressive defense, especially on man to man defense. So, are there no weaknesses? Of course there are. He needs to be a little more aggressive when penetrating and going to the basket. But looking at his duties in the team, you can say that he is very close to being the perfect point guard for the coming years. If this should be a confession, yes: Atsür is the point guard with the highest basketball IQ Turkey has had in the last 7-8 years.

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