The best guard at the Under-18 European Championships this past summer and a candidate for the prestigious FIBA Europe Player of the Year in the young men's category, Dmitry Kulagin has to feel like a breath of fresh air for Russian basketball.
Kulagin led his Russian national team all the way to the Finals of the Under-18 European Championships this summer, where they were defeated by Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania, who hosted the event.
This season, he's seeing big minutes in the first division with Nizhny Novgorod at age 18, and is producing in a very interesting manner. Clearly one of the most talented young players in international basketball, Kulagin is a player that NBA teams should be keeping close tabs on, despite the fact that he plays in total obscurity in the heartland of Russia.
A sturdily built 6-5 guard, with a quick first step and an extremely aggressive mentality, Kulagin is a very fluid player with good physical attributes for a European prospect.
Seeing time at both guard positions, Kulagin is a player who clearly looks most comfortable with the ball in his hands. Very effective in transition, he likes to create his own shot in isolation or pick and roll situations and has found success doing so in the Russian league this season thanks to his quick first step, change of pace ability and excellent ball-handling skills. He struggles to finish through contact at times once at the rim due to his lack of strength and average explosiveness, but has been able to get to the free throw line at a very nice rate regardless due to his aggressive nature.
Also a capable threat from the perimeter, Kulagin shows the ability to make shots with both his feet set and off the dribble. Although not terribly consistent at this point in time, Kulagin shows good ability as a shooter due to his fundamentally sound mechanics and quick release. Not very experienced, but extremely confident in himself nonetheless, Kulagin will show questionable shot-selection from time to time, even if you have to admire the fearlessness he displays.
Despite his scoring prowess, Kulagin's best attributes as a prospect mostly revolve around his playmaking ability and overall feel for the game. Displaying an exceptional level of creativity and talent, Kulagin is a player for whom things clearly come extremely naturally for.
Full-court bounce passes, alleyoop lobs, no-look behind the back drop-offs Kulagin gets the ball to his teammates in every which way possible, looking extremely impressive with the imagination he displays. He makes decisions quickly and incisively, often in highlight reel fashion, showing poise and maturity that belies his age.
Kulagin isn't a typical Russian prospect in many regards, as he shows plenty of emotion on the floor, is very vocal, displays nice toughness, and doesn't seem to shy away from responsibility at all.
Kulagin's flair for the creative doesn't come without consequences, as he is prone to making some bad decisions from time to time. That hasn't been as much of an issue as you might think all things considered, though, as he's only committed 13 turnovers in 224 minutes so far this season, or one every 17 minutes he's on the court. Nevertheless, continuing to gain experience will be crucial moving forward, something that he's been able to do in the excellent situation he's currently in in Novgorod, where he's playing big minutes in one of the most competitive leagues in Europe.
Defensively is where the biggest question marks about Kulagin's NBA potential are likely to arise. His lateral quickness appears to be just average, and at 6-5, it's tough to imagine him being able to guard opposing point guards full time.
His good size, mature frame, competitive nature, and terrific anticipation skills (especially in the passing lanes) will all help, but it's very likely that he'd be better off defending NBA shooting guards rather than point guards. Being forced to operate as a shooting guard offensively will likely take away many of the things he does best, though, so finding the right fit (both on and off the court) will be a big key for him.
Kulagin is pretty far off the radar screen of most NBA teams from what we've been able to tell, but if he continues to play as well as he has halfway through the season, expect that to change pretty soon.
Quick Hitters from Around Europe
Generously listed at 5'10, Andrew Albicy was a catalyst for France's U20 European Championship run. The diminutive lead guard did a fine job orchestrating his team's office, and even saw some action playing for the French Senior National Team in this year's World Championships in Istanbul. After declaring himself eligible for last season's NBA draft before withdrawing, Albicy has had a breakout year of sorts in Pro A, showing a mature game, but still faces an uphill battle to legitimize his draft stock.
A solid passer and shooter, Alciby's size is easily his biggest drawback as a prospect. He has solid speed and quickness, but isn't a blur or quite on the same level as the likes of Earl Boykins and Nate Robinson, raising some questions about his potential to play in the NBA. He's already making waves in France this season for Paris-Levallois, averaging 11 points and 4 assists per- contest, but he's also starting to deal with the obstacles associated with being an undersized point guard in the professional game.
Albicy is shooting a mediocre 40.2% from the field this season, but converts an incredibly poor 31.7% of his attempts from inside the arc. Struggling badly to finish around the rim, looking a bit off of control at times, and lacking the consistent tear-drops and floaters that would allow him to produce amongst the trees, Alibcy has compensated by shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, getting to the line at a nice rate in LNB play, and doing his best not to venture inside too frequently. Quick enough to create some separation off the dribble; Albicy struggles to use that to create easy shots for himself on the professional level.
A somewhat streaky catch and shoot threat, Albicy gets great elevation on his jumper and has a quick release, allowing him to get it off regularly despite his size. He has a very nice pull-up jumper too, even though his shot selection leaves a bit to be desired at times. Capable of much more in terms of scoring efficiency, Alibicy's ability to crack down on his forced attempts from just inside the arc and become more versatile in the lane will be key to his development and the impact he can make in the European game.
As a point guard, Albicy does a nice job controlling the tempo of the game, won't compound his mistakes, posts a good assist-to-turnover ratio for a young player (2.22), and doesn't hesitate to pull the ball out to reset his team's offense if he doesn't like what he sees. A fairly heady passer, Albicy does a nice job threading the needle through traffic from time to time, but his size hurts his ability to pass out of traffic and he is more of a steady facilitator than a dominant playmaker.
Defensively, Albicy is capable of applying ball pressure the length of the floor and creating easy opportunities for himself with his quick hands. Clearly limited in his ability to contest shots, Albicy is a scrappy defender, but is susceptible to bigger guards in the post and midrange and would likely be deemed a liability at the NBA level.
Though Albicy is undersized, his talent shouldn't be understated. Competing for the French National Team at the tender age of 20 is a tremendous step that few prospects get the chance to make. His game may not be tailored to success on the NBA level due to his lack of size, but he is a mature player for his age and will be productive on a high level for a long time.
Playing a prominent role on France's U20 European Championship winning roster, Paul Lacombe has parlayed his continued maturation as a player into a role off the bench for Tony Parker's team, ASVEL Villeurbanne, despite being slowed by mid-season injuries. The 1990-born Lacombe is still getting his legs back this season, but was named MVP of last season's Espoirs Trophée du Futur competition in 2010, showed well in a brief appearance in the Treviso EuroCamp, and has displayed some unique abilities as an over-sized combo guard in junior play.
Much of Lacombe's intrigue as a prospect revolves around his athleticism and ability to push the tempo and make things happen with the ball in his hands. These things that haven't been as readily apparent when playing in Pro A France against older players this season, but are surely still bubbling underneath the surface waiting for him to feel more comfortable with his role. Standing 6'5 with very nice leaping ability and good speed in the open floor for a guard in the European game, Lacombe is at his best in up-tempo situations, sparking the break with his quickness and capacity for finishing above the rim.
When the game slows down, Lacombe shows the ability to get to the rim off the dribble with a nice array of crossovers and a solid first step looking more like an American player than a European one in the process. More of a finesse player around the basket, Lacombe struggles to get all the way to the rim against quicker defenders and has a hard time finishing in a crowd on the senior level, but got the job done regularly on both fronts in U20 competition and was extremely impressive slashing to the rim against Spain in the semifinals. Prone to force the issue at times, Lacombe will need to learn to pick and choose his spots better to be effective against more athletic defenders.
In addition to his ability to score off the bounce, Lacombe is also a fairly good passer for his size. Showing good vision in drive and dish situations, the Venisseux native did a fine job running the point on the Espoirs level. If he can tighten up his handle, continue to add bulk to his frame, and cut down on turnovers, he could emerge as a quality secondary ball-handler down the road.
In the LNB, Lacombe's role, and perhaps the most promising aspect of his offensive repertoire, revolves around his perimeter jump shot. His mechanics are pretty impressive, as he has an extremely high release point, very good touch, and the ability to pull up off the dribble. With little wasted motion in his mechanics, the name of the game for Lacombe moving forward will be consistency and shot selection. He's shot just 2-16 from distance in the French League and Eurocup this season and forces some tough attempts from way beyond the arc.
Defensively, Lacombe shows a very good activity level, constantly moving his feet and trying to take his matchup out of rhythm. However, he's a bit over-aggressive at times when closing out, and allows penetration unnecessarily. If Lacombe can continue to work on his body, he could emerge as a solid defender in the European game since most of his mistakes are correctable.
Moving forwards, Lacombe is a player who is very much worth keeping an eye on. His biggest issue at the moment is that he is not terribly consistent and still hasn't translated his game to a higher level of competition, but the tools are there for him to emerge as an interesting prospect as he continues to make strides in those two areas.
Sergey Karasev, Dmitry Kulagin's teammate at this year's U18 European Championships, had a fine showing for the Russian side as well. The son of former Russian Nation Team player Vasily Karasev, the 17 year-old played almost exclusively on the wing despite being amongst his team's tallest players. A fluid athlete at 6'7 with good speed in the open floor, Karasev finished 15th in the competition in scoring at 12.4 points per game and was a big reason his team finished in second place. Displaying a good feel for the game Karasev had some nice moments, but showed his inexperience at times too.
A bit too eager to shoot the ball from the perimeter and settle for tough floaters from the midrange, Karasev showed a good activity level without the ball in his hands and flashed the ability to get hot from beyond the arc on a few occasions. He still needs to shore up his defensive ability and become more assertive and versatile offensively, but he's performed admirably in playing a surprising 15 minutes per game off the bench for Triumph Lyubertsy, and still has plenty of time to develop. If Karasev adds weight to his frame and polish to his game as he matures, he'll be a major factor in junior play again this summer and a player worth keeping an eye on down the road.