Leading the pack is the very hyped Ricky Rubio, who is in the pole position for the MVP award after what's so far been an amazing performance in this tournament. Also deserves special mention is the amount of quality big guys seen this year, contrary to what happened last summer. And we don't want to forget the improved organization from the past edition, likely due to the more active presence of FIBA Europe.
All pictures courtesy of FIBAEurope.com. Read more about the U16 European Championships at the Official website.
Not for being already widely anticipated, it's falling any short of staggering. Ricky Rubio, Ricard Rubio if you prefer, is fulfilling every single expectation for this tournament, meaning that he's enchaining exhibition after exhibition while leading an undefeated Spanish team all the way to the semifinals.
The expression at will comes quite close to describing what Rubio does on court. It's not only a matter of stats. Yes, he currently ranks first in assists and steals, and second in points and rebounds. But it's also a feeling of domination, of having everything under control, of being capable of taking over every game and just sending it home. And its all served in spectacular fashion too. He's flat-out impressive, as simple as that. He's only a solid shooting stroke shy of being directly outrageous.
Still, nobody seems capable of stopping his drives. He's a quick guy, but he doesn't particularly rely on his athleticism; on the contrary, he breaks everybody down mercilessly with his crazy ball-handling skills and outstanding footwork. Actually, Rubio is capable of enchaining a number of direction changes and fakes almost without moving from his place, completely unbalancing his defenders in the process.
It's true that Ricky needs to learn how to better distribute the ball; at this point he's not a pure point guard by any means. More than a playmaker that tries to circulate the ball, he's a player of definitive passes. Regardless, he's showcasing terrific court vision here, easily finding his teammates off the dribble, from the perimeter or on the break. He's also improved the way he controls the tempo of the game from the last time we saw him in youth categories.
On defense, it's a matter of how good he wants to be. He has looked like a terrific defender whenever he has been really intense. However, most of the time he just hangs around saving the effort for the offensive end, for example always going underneath the screens. Anyway, he enjoys excellent lateral quickness to stay in front of his man and he's a ridiculously dangerous ball thief. He has impressively quick hands, and the instincts to know where to be in order to come away with the ball.
It's these same instincts and activity he shows looking for rebounds. Twenty against Serbia and Montenegro! The guy is 6-4 and very skinny; forget about any kind of physical dominance. He does have good leaping ability, but it's mostly about positioning, quickness and superb hands. Well, also about the Spanish team being very undersized.
If only he could shoot the ball... it's the big knock on Rubio's game. He lacks a lot of accuracy with his perimeter stroke, displaying a bit of a mechanic and slow release, even if he looks a bit improved from the last summer, while he shows little signs of off-the-dribble jumper in slashing situations. He doesn't suffer nearly as much trouble finishing near the basket, and even if he might miss a bit of a soft touch on his layups, he has improved his ability to use his left hand. Given the chance, he will dunk the ball, but he needs space to gain speed and impulse for the jump. After all, Rubio is not a mature player physically speaking, and he will only improve his explosiveness in the future.
Rubio is the big story of this championship, and will likely be showcased all over Europe when he plays in the Euroleague with DKV Joventut next season. However, as good as he is, without serious work, especially on his shooting, he might still become a serious disappointment.
WELCOME BACK SIZE: CROATIAN FORWARDS
We greatly missed some size in last year's edition of the championship, which was actually dominated by point guards. Particularly the Balkan teams, usually displaying plenty of tall players, were disappointing in that regard. This year it's different. Both Croatia and Serbia have brought some of these rare and desired pieces: big and skilled guys to feed the intrigue.
When it comes to their offensive repertoire, both are quite versatile, even if Zubcic might have the edge here, having played as a small forward for a few stretches during the tournament. Whenever he's in the perimeter, he shows a very nice three-point stroke, while also a remarkable ability to put the ball on the floor. He has a nice first step, surprisingly good handles for a guy his size, and can attack his rival going either way. As for Delas, he's a much less prolific and reliable shooter, and regarding the slashing game, just toning down a little bit what concerns Zubcic, would be a quite accurate description for him.
In the low post, Delas shows the better moves. He's a bit more fluid, displaying nice footwork and footspeed. Still, both share similar problems trying to finish near the basket, whether off slashing or post moves. Lack of strength, an inconsistent right-handed semi-hook, and no ability to finish with their left hand, while they actually like to go left, those flaws are significantly limiting their scoring power in this tournament. Anyway, it's important to stress that both don't hesitate to mix it up inside looking for the basket.
They are also cashing in their size with nice rebounding and some decent shot-blocking production. Also their length is of great help on the defensive end, and while both show nice lateral quickness, they sometimes struggle to get the job done, mostly because of their lack of strength. Delas particularly is very foul prone.
All in all, Zubcic and Delas are a couple of intriguing youngsters to add to the productive Croatian pool.
WELCOME BACK SIZE: A MATTER OF TRADITION
Following the tradition of big and quality centers coming from Serbia and Montenegro (Raduljica was the penultimate chapter in the junior championship),
Actually, it isn't a matter of great skills. Musli does the basics pretty well; beyond that, it's physical domination that has barely found an answer from other teams. He does establish his position in the low post very well, using his body and looking for the ball high. If his defender aggressively tries to cover the passing line, he smartly gains his rival's back to receive an arched pass over him. Once posting up his defender, it's mostly about simple stuff, as basically turning around he already has a good option to score. His footwork is not spectacular, but still pretty solid; he's a coordinated and smart guy. Around the rim he's not the most finesse player. He has sometimes struggled to make his short shots, but it doesn't look anything to worry much about (and he usually takes care of his own offensive rebounds). He can eventually use his left hand near the rim, although he clearly prefers his right. The semi-hook is a possibility, but he needs to polish it, as it is simply to dunk the ball. He feels rather comfortable with his mid-range shots, already nicely reliable, and where he shows solid mechanics, just as he does from the free-throw line.
Despite his offensive prominence, Musli has resulted at least as important in the defensive end. He's basically a wall for most of his opponents. His length and strength are difficult to overcome. He provides regular intimidation and blocking production. Besides, he shows good positioning and some nice lateral quickness. Musli is not really a greatly athletic guy, but he fares pretty well for a center. For example, he runs the court well.
Given the level he's showing here, it's scary to think what he could do next summer at this category as a second-year player.
WELCOME BACK SIZE: LITHUANIAN INTRIGUE
Still showing poor accuracy and great inconsistency, the Lithuanian forward has three point range and some ability to release his shot off the dribble from the mid range area. He can easily put the ball on the floor from the perimeter, although he could use some work on his first step. Very left handed, he usually goes left in his drives. Near the basket, he gets regularly outmuscled, but the kid displays some nice intensity. To round up the intrigue, he shows some feel for the game, meaning that he's no any physical freak with no clue about how to play.
Motiejunas already played with Zalgiris Kaunas in the Euroleague junior tournament held during the Final Four a few months ago. His performance there against older rivals, even if inconsistent, left hopes for a blossoming at the cadet category that actually hasn't happened, partially frustrating the options of Lithuania to get far into the tournament.
In case you haven't noticed, France is en vogue in the basketball world these days. From a well established NBA star such as Tony Parker, to an up-and-coming skill freak like Boris Diaw, or some of the most intriguing young prospects like Batum, Diot or Ajinca, not to forget the strength of the National Team, hopefully beefed up with the addition of NCAA standout Joakim Noah, or the European title recently conquered by the junior squad... Yes, France is en vogue; it's even en vogue for non-French guys who actually speak the language and have/had ties with that basketball, such as Saer Sene or Thabo Sefolosha.
The NBA likes them, and why shouldn't it? They are the most athletic guys among the international scene, so it's easier for them to fit in such an athletic league. It's not difficult to see that in every international tournament, like this championship for example.
France has emerged once again as the most physical and athletic team. Virtually every single Frenchman here is a great athlete on his own. They try to play stifling defense and run, almost fly, over anybody who dares to stand in their way. However, at some point, they bump into a good and serious team that can refrain from panicking under pressure on the offensive end, but also delivers good transition and half-court defenses (the zone is a usual resource). So they can't easily run anymore, they can't easily slash anymore, and it turns out that they can't really shoot the ball. Does this ring a bell for anybody?
Italy hit first, Spain crushed them later, and Serbia and Montenegro finished off any hope for France, that went winless in the quarterfinal round.
Although he can put the ball on the floor, he doesn't look like too much of a slasher, basically limiting his face-up production to his perimeter jumpers, where he shows nice form on his release and some (improvable) accuracy. He has a solid post game, having good use of his body but also displaying nice footwork. He can finish with both hands near the rim, even using semi-hooks, although his left hand still needs work. He also has the reactiveness to easily dunk the ball if there's not much opposition. Reliable on defense, helping in the rebounding department (particularly on the offensive glass), good running the court, he was one of the steadiest contributors on the disappointing French team, and a breath of fresh air between so many track-and-field players.
YOUNG AND YOUNGER
Anyway, Lebedintsev looks now like a veteran in terms of production, while he's also a leader on the Ukrainian squad. However, he also shows serious signs of his youth running the point. Setting the tempo of the game or distributing the ball, both departments figure among his weaknesses. He's a guy who basically knows one pace, running, while he has a higher vocation for scoring than for passing the ball. Also, it's no good sign that he leads the turnover list while not being such a prolific passer. He takes many risks driving the ball, and the defenses focus on him given the amount of game he absorbs.
But not everything is bad. He's a quick guy with decent size for his age at 6-2. A good ball handler, he gets past his defender rather easily to find scoring opportunities. He's a particularly nice mid-range shooter off the dribble, a usual resource whenever he sees too much traffic to finish under the rim (even if he's actually aggressive if he needs to go inside). He enjoys three-point range with some decent accuracy. Although not the most usual thing to see, he's not bad driving and dishing the ball. A real menace in the steals department, he has quick hands and reads the passing lanes pretty well. He's quite an electric guy on both ends of the court.
Maturity, that's a major issue for Lebedintsev. However, having celebrated his 15th birth date just a week ago, time is not any problem for him. For starters, he will be a serious candidate to lead next summer's edition in scoring.