Its been a couple of months since Serbia and Montenegro won the gold at the U-20 European Championships, and despite the fact that DraftExpress couldnt be in Turkey to watch it live, we take a look at some of the players that shined there by taking advantage of footage we were able to acquire.
This stage lacks the tradition and importance of the junior (U-18) championship. Many players reach an age in which, if they are really good, they get invited to the senior National Teams, so most of the squads were left without their biggest stars. Actually, every single drafted player but the Turkish ones (who played at home) were nowhere to be found. We talk about the likes of Belinelli, Rodríguez, Petro, Biedrins, Andriuskevicius or Korolev, joined by some of the most interesting prospects such as Dragic or Tripkovic.
Also, its a stage where big surprises are more limited. Between what you can see in previous youth tournaments and in pro competition during the season (these guys are old enough to start getting regular action in their domestic leagues), you get a rather clear idea of what you can expect from many players. Still, its an excellent chance to check the reality of these pre-assumed individual trends or to give second thoughts about certain players.
Also see: Part One of this article
Luigi Datome (Italy)
This was a so-so tournament for Datome, as he was expected to make a bigger impact. He wasnt even able to lead Italy in scoring, although we have to take into account that he was a first-year player. Still he delivered several drops of his excellent skill set and intriguing potential. He shot the ball well, showing nice range and that ability to release the ball off the dribble from mid-range while hanging up in the air. Perhaps he was a little less aggressive (or active) than usual attacking the basket, but whenever he did, he exhibited his athleticism and footwork. That athleticism, and some nice explosiveness, was on display in different settings, resulting particularly spectacular whenever he went to block a shot. All in all, from what weve seen, we cant say that this tournament has hurt his stock, although neither has it helped it.
Hrvoje Kovacevic (Croatia)
We were expecting a little more production out of Kovacevic. Hes a good player, although his potential seems limited. He can beat his matchups one-on-one and easily dish the ball, but looked far from being capable of consistently playing point guard (he was used as off-guard full time). Also, he has a decent shooting touch, but he didnt seem anywhere near a big-time scorer. And finally, although he shows athleticism and strength, his ripped body looks quite mature and, at 6-5, hes not particularly tall for a shooting guard. Anyway, hes a well-rounded player that contributes in numerous departments, namely defense or rebounding, besides the already mentioned characteristics.
Damjan Rudez (Croatia)
Rudez had been penciled in for a few years now as a high-potential prospect given his great size, nice athleticism and frame as well as intriguing skills at the small forward position. Hes a guy with solid ball-handling skills to beat his matchups and go all the way to the basket, and a nice stroke with excellent range. However, hes probably too much of an underachiever, and this tournament has been no exception. It might be a problem of character; he doesnt show as much aggressiveness as you would desire, and in the end he settles for three-pointers and doesnt look hardly enough for other options closer to the basket. But also it might be a problem of not having figured out how to fully take advantage of his tools and skills. Warming the bench in Oostende hasnt helped him at all to sort out this problem; next season, playing in Split, might be redemption time for him.
Stanko Barac (Croatia)
One of the few surprises in the tournament, this fundamentally sound 7-1 center emerged as a very consistent low post presence. Playing only 13 minutes per game, he led Croatia in scoring average with 11.2 points. Actually, its rather surprising the little action he enjoyed given his reliability with his back to the basket. He uses his body quite well, showing remarkable footwork in the post, and the ability to finish with both hands even in semi-hook fashion. Given his size, it was very difficult for his rivals to stop. He can also put the ball on the floor and has a decent, albeit inconsistent shot. The biggest knock on him is his poor athleticism; as he shows heavy feet and poor reactiveness. He has a nice frame that he still needs to completely fill out, so strength wont be a problem. All in all, he has some nice potential, and an excellent chance next season to showcase his abilities in the Adriatic League with Siroki.
Luca Vitali (Italy)
Lets not mislead anyone here: Vitali probably will never step foot onto an NBA court. Still he was the clear leader in Italy (despite the presence of the much more hyped Datome) and was rightfully honoured with a spot in the All-Tournament Team. He was arguably the guy showing the highest basketball IQ in the championship (from what we have seen). Hes a rather unusual player, a 6-7 and unathletic point guard, which in the end pushes him often to play on the wing, or even defend power forwards. Vitali astonishes with his decision making. When taking care of the playmaking, he always finds the best solution, the open man, even if hes in the corner of the weak side or the shot clock is running out, perfectly using his size to see the court. Hes not quick, but shows very good ball-handling skills and uses his well-built body intelligently when he wants to drive. Playing off the ball, he usually went through screens trying to find an open shot in the perimeter. He seemed to feel especially comfortable shooting from the corner coming off a baseline cut. Luca spent the last season in the highly demanding Italian second division, significantly contributing for his team Premiata Montegranaro to reach the first division. Vitali reflects really well that maturity on court, and he should be able to become a very good player in Europe in the future.
Jaka Klobucar (Slovenia)
The second offensive reference on his team, Klobucar is another example of the physically immature perimeter players that are so common to find in the Slovenian youth teams. The characteristics of this left-handed wing dont jump out at you immediately, but hes a smart and skilled player. Not a great prospect from the physical side, hes about 6-5, skinny and relatively athletic (not by NBA standards, though). A quick player and a solid ball-handler, he can attack his matchups looking for the layup, the dish or the mid-range jumper. His most dangerous weapon right now is precisely his shot. He has excellent mechanics and shows very good range, enjoying the ability to easily shoot off the dribble or on step-backs. He topped the individual scoring performances by knocking down 44 points on Lithuania. Also a reliable defender, he shows good lateral quickness, and only the lack of strength limits his effectiveness. Born in 1987, for the moment hes a nice prospect for European basketball.
Emir Preldzic (Slovenia)
Nobody counted on Slovenia to seriously compete in this tournament, as well as very few people knew anything about this kid. In the end, a bronze medal and a well-earned spot in the All-Tournament Team rewarded the major surprises of the championship. Preldzic is a 6-8 skinny and very fundamentally sound small forward born in 1987, therefore being a first-year U-20 player. Something that distinguishes the Slovenian school is how polished their players are skill-wise, and this kid is not an exception. But also, he has a great feel for the game and an excellent basketball IQ. It seems like he always knows what to do and where he should be on court. A solid shooter, he shows excellent mechanics and range with deep three pointers, while has the ability to shoot off the dribble. He can play near the basket, and even if he doesnt show too much of a low post game, his ability to finish near the basket against opposition (using fakes, being patient and smart) is truly remarkable. A nice dribbler, he can attack his matchups putting the ball on the floor. Hes not an awesome athlete, lets say decent, so its not like he can blow away his opponents at will; still, he manages to regularly step into the lane, looking for layups, mid-rangers or passes to open teammates. Preldzic is an excellent passer indeed; he has great court awareness and easily finds a good option, which also helps him not to force situations despite enjoying great scoring ability (20.3 points per game, second in the competition). His terrific sense of positioning was rewarded with huge rebounding averages (9.4 per game, second in the championship), and great averages on steals (2.4 per game, tournament leader). A kid to seriously keep under the radar; despite his gross stats, hes still physically very immature, and could evolve into something really special.
Hakan Demirel (Turkey)
Back in Europe after a strange experience in the NCAA (he stayed at Western Carolina for only a red-shirt 2004/05 season after being suspended significantly for his professional experience), hes now a free agent (NBA wise) after not being selected in the last draft. He wasnt as dominant here as he was in Zaragoza at the junior stage; after all it was crystal-clear then that he was a rather mature player. But he delivered a good performance regardless. Perhaps not a very creative point guard, Demirel took good decisions and broke defenses when his team needed him to step up. Hes a guy who enjoys nice handles and can perform some awesome moves, particularly his reverse in motion, showing a good ability to beat his matchups off the dribble and dish an open teammate. Irregular with his perimeter shooting, but reliable on defense, he was another important piece in the star-stacked Turkey.
Semih Erden (Turkey)
A player with very nice potential, he is yet to blossom, and was overshadowed in his team by the outstanding 1987 Turkish generation. Erden is quite a big guy, nicely athletic, with a good frame and a well-built body, and who is showing improving coordination. He delivered some nice moves in the low post, showing ability to finish with both hands around the basket, but he still needs to polish his footwork and get more in control of the situation. He also showed a decent shooting touch, although with limited range. He doesnt seem to have these natural basketball instincts that other guys show, but hes a player that clearly has worked on his skills.
Oguz Savas (Turkey)
Another very solid display by this center, who actually played some power forward next to Erden (the Turkish frontcourt was huge, with Ilyasova as small forward). Hes a guy with Euroleague experience, really smart and nicely skilled. He evolved in the high post, doing some distribution duties, shooting the ball with solid accuracy, but also in the low post, using his body and a few nice moves to produce there. Anyway, his potential is certainly limited by his poor athleticism.
Cenk Akyol (Turkey)
Coupling with Ilyasova, they formed the most dangerous and spectacular duo in the tournament. Actually, they were the only drafted guys taking part in the championship. Free of the huge offensive responsibilities that he assumed (and defensive attention that he suffered) in the European Junior Championship last summer in Belgrade, Akyol materialized his nice shooting stroke with much better percentages, showcasing his range and ability to fire off the dribble, even in some complicated situations. Earning a place on the All-Tournament Team, he was a pleasure to watch as always, displaying his very fundamentally sound game, working off the dribble, passing the ball, taking decisions, and showing a lot of character. He is a winner, and cried like a baby after losing the gold in the final, actually the fourth consecutive summer that it happens to him.
Nenad Mijatovic (Serbia and Montenegro)
The years go by and Mijatovic stays pretty much the same. He still hasnt been able to figure out how to effectively distribute the ball for his team. Too often, he abuses his dribble, looking for a good option, but slowing down the ball movement of his team and eventually taking wrong decisions. He also struggles from the field, showing poor shot selection. However, his strengths were there too, such as quickness, ball-handling skills, ability to beat his matchups and solid defense, but unless he starts showing better decision making, he wont be able to fulfill his potential.
Ersan Ilyasova (Turkey)
A man amongst boys (take that as you want), a true NBA player (despite his tenure in the NBDL) in a youth tournament. Physically, Ilyasova was on a totally different level, showing a blessed 6-10 body, strong, ripped, with a perfect frame and wide shoulders, while also delivering terrific athleticism and explosiveness. On the court, he was a big scoring force, showcasing an excellent stroke, that he loves to deliver with spectacular jumpers after a pump fake and a dribble (sometimes also with a step-back). Showing very nice ball-handling skills, it was quite a task to try to stop him whenever he drove to the basket, given his quickness and strength, which he also used near the basket to put the ball in the net against opposition. Perhaps it was missed a bit more of passing, while he sometimes became too enamored with his jumper. Still, he was the well-deserved MVP of the championship.
Nikola Pekovic (Serbia and Montenegro)
A tremendous force down low in this championship, Pekovic looked like the most mature big at this stage. He looked awfully strong out there, particularly compared with his rivals, but also fairly athletic. Hes not a super-skilled guy, but he knows what to do on court to be effective. Pekovic played very well off the ball, setting picks, establishing position near the basket, looking for spaces in the paint or taking advantage of defensive rotations. Once he receives near the basket, hes hard to stop given his strength, toughness and athleticism. He easily dunks the ball showing nice explosiveness. He played some one-on-one in the low post, but trying to receive close to the basket, so he just needed some simple move to deliver a semi-hook while outmuscling his opponent. Showing a solid stroke from the mid-range area, he also ran well the court. On defense, he used his mobility and body quite well. His potential is not great, because hes more of a center with a power forward size at 6-10, but still an interesting player. He earned All-Tournament Team honors while being one of the main foundations of the Serbian victory.
Milenko Tepic (Serbia and Montenegro)
Tepic emerged as the virtual leader of the Serbian team, delivering an exhibition of consistency and good decision making. His presence on court was always felt on his teams offense, which looked much more fluid and effective with him in the game. Actually, he was probably the best distributor despite playing on the wing. He successfully used his nice athleticism to create offense, beating his matchups regularly off the dribble, just to dish the ball or look for the basket himself. His perimeter shot looked more accurate than in past occasions, notching even some off-the-dribble three-pointers. He gave a hand in the rebounding department and did fine work on defense, as usual. A smart guy, with the size, the athleticism, and some nice skills, he certainly has very interesting potential. For the moment, he has moved from Vojvodina to Partizan, where he will play in the Euroleague next season.