Eurobasket (European Championships) Preview: Group B

Eurobasket (European Championships) Preview: Group B
Sep 09, 2005, 05:18 am
Group B

Games will be conducted in Podgorica, Serbia and Montenegro from September 16th to 18th

Read more about the Eurobasket tournament at the informative official website


The Star:

Nikola Vujcic, 6-11, Center, Maccabi Tel Aviv, 27 years old


Jonathan Givony

On paper, Vujcic might be the difference between Croatia competing for a medal at this tournament or going home with their tails between their legs. Very few teams can boast having such a skilled near 7 foot center on their roster with such a nice resume over the past few years to boot. The problem is that that hasn’t come to play much so far in the preparation games for Croatia, which doesn’t bode too well for their chances.

Vujcic plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv, a dominant force in European basketball over the past few years, where he has won the Euroleague title over the past few years playing with a wonderful supporting cast that compliments him to a T, helping him be amongst three Maccabi players named to the All-Euroleague first team this past season. At age 27, he is in his prime and will be expected to play a major role for the Croatians in Belgrade if they are going to be able to overcome their relative lack of experience and reputation for coming up just short when things get close.

Vujcic is a mobile Center who offensively plays more like a Power Forward. He is extremely skilled in most facets here, whether it’s his ability to put the ball on the floor with surprisingly good ball-handling skills, shoot the ball with decent accuracy all the way out to the three point line, or best of all use his high basketball IQ to pass the ball with purpose taking full advantage of his height. His ability on the pick and roll made this one of the signature plays between him and Sarunas Jasikevicius or Anthony Parker over the last two years with Maccabi. Vujcic also can score with his back to the basket, a skill that could pay great dividends for Croatia should they decide to take advantage of it.

His shortcomings fall in the defensive and rebounding categories mainly. His motor is not off the charts, nor is his level of conditioning, and his play can often be described as extremely soft by people who are used to seeing their big men fight and claw in the paint. His face-up skills often lead him to fade to the perimeter at times, and he does not seem to be the type to demand the ball and change the game by himself as the go-to guy for his team. How well Vujcic can mesh with his teammates leading into this tournament and just how much he will decide to take on his shoulders will play a big role in how far his team can go here in Belgrade. Considering that this is a contract year for Vujcic and Croatia would like nothing more than to stick it to their arch rivals Serbia and Montenegro on their home floor, we might see a Vujcic here who has some more fire in his belly than we’ve grown accustomed to here in the past. Reports out of Israel this summer quoting his Entersport (led by Marc Fleisher) agent in the States have indicated that Vujcic is more interested in playing in the NBA than he’s previously indicated. NBA scouts will surely be watching him closely here at the Eurobasket.

The Upside:

Roko-Leni Ukic, 6-5 PG/SG, Tau Vitoria, 21 years old

Dimitris Ritsonis

Ukic is a tall and lanky point guard, who has improved much during the past couple of seasons. Already known by many NBA fans from his decision not sign with the Toronto Raptors, but, instead, look for job in Euroleague Powerhouse Tau Ceramica, Ukic has looked a few seasons away from being dominant still in the preparation games so far, or at least consistent enough on both ends of the floor to warrant being a major factor at the highest levels of basketball so far.

Playing for a club which includes no other major talents but him until this summer, Ukic has learnt to do everything on the floor well enough, aided greatly by his superior physical skills. He is a very good, naturally born PG, smart enough to organize the game for his teammates while still finding enough room to get off his shot. His penetration skills are much above average, while his outside shooting has deep, although inconsistent range. His passing is excellent and he really shows flashes of becoming a great PG in the making at times. He can find the open shooters and cutters on his team (with Gordan Giricek being his best weapon lately) and in general his passes are most of the time accurate and his game often makes his teammates shoot confidently.

What he seriously lacks and should become more than obvious in this Eurobasket, his first major career competition, is consistency and mental strength. He simply doesn't seem experienced enough in knowing how to run a team and make good decisions with many different options available offensively at this point, especially a team that needs to play every possession as if it was its last.. He’ll make an unbelievable play one moment and then, the next minute make a terrible mistake that easily could have been avoided.

Defensively, Ukic has shown great potential. Although he lacks bulk and experience on this end of the floor, his smarts and mobility help him become a nice defensive contributor and he can do a very good job staying in front of his man. But, once again, one can easily notice that, whenever he gets caught off guard, an opponent can outsmart him easily. In general, a player like him seems destined to succeed in the long-term, but isn't mature enough to lead a contending team right now.

Ukic will stay in the court long enough in this Eurobasket and will probably share time with the older and more mature Zoran Planinic of the New Jersey Nets, who will probably start at the point. Because of the unfortunate injury to sharpshooting guard Marino Bazdaric, Ukic will see even more minutes at either the 1 or the 2 for Croatia. He’s definitely one of the more interesting prospects to look out for here. Tau Vitoria will certainly be keeping a watchful eye.

The Upside:

Marko Tomas, 6-8 SF, Real Madrid, 20 years old


Luis Fernandez

Just on his way from a small team, KK Zagreb, to a European powerhouse, Real Madrid, Tomas will have in this championships a first taste of what is to play in a strong and loaded team. It’s crucial for him to start getting used to higher level of competition. Last season in Zagreb, he was the absolute offensive reference for his team, virtually a do-it-all player on the offensive end, even playing point guard when his brother Ivan fell injured. He was the primary ball-handler, creating many of his shots off the dribble, even if his handles still aren’t that good. Regardless, Tomas likes to put the ball on the floor trying to beat his matchup, but neither his quickness nor his explosiveness is outstanding. So in the end, he frequently can’t beat his man, but takes advantage of his unbalanced position to deliver a high-released jumper which is rather hard to stop.

With Croatia, and next season with Real Madrid, he won’t enjoy as much ball control, but whenever he does, he will have even more problems to beat his matchup, also not being able to shoot over them as easily. So it will be a matter of adjustment, of learning to play off the ball, in catch and shoot situations, or using cuts to more easily beat his rival. On preparation games he has looked a bit lost in his new role. At least, he has been playing decent defense, and that was another concern regarding his game. Nevertheless, Croatia doesn’t enjoy too much depth at the SF position, so Tomas is expected so see some playing time during the tournament. Shooting guard Marino Bazdaric’s injury could open up even more time for him on the wing next to Gordan Giricek.


The Star:

Ramunas Siskauskas, 6-6, SG/SF, Benetton Treviso, 27 years old

Almantas Kiveris

If someone in Lithuania would have read Siskauskas’ name next to the word “Star” a year ago, they probably would have called the writer crazy. However crazy is the situation to which defending European Champions Lithuania fell lately. This year, despite having a record six players in the NBA, this little nation (of 3.4 million people) can’t rely on any of them for the National Team side. Due to various reasons, 10 Lithuanian players are missing in this Championship. This year you can only dream about the ideal Lithuanian starting five of: Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Macijauskas, Saulius Stombergas, Darius Songaila and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Another 5 players, which would keep the team solid (Rimantas Kaukenas, Donatas Slanina, Mindaugas Timinskas, Linas Kleiza and Eurelijus Zukauskas), are skipping the tournament as well. If to be precise, new Hornets SG Arvydas Macijauskas was in the National Team preparation camp and played in some friendly games, but in one of them he injured his calf and even if he was healthy enough on the day the tournament starts, he (and his new team the New Orleans Hornets) will likely decide to play it safe. We felt that this little intro is necessary to make it clear why Siskauskas ends up being "the Star" on the Lithuanian roster, which is usually loaded with talent, but is rather depleted this time.

The 6’6 natural swingman Ramunas Siskauskas would perfectly blend with the players mentioned above. He always has done so. Siskauskas is your typical team-oriented player, but in this year’s situation, he could be forced to take the leadership burden onto his shoulders. Being only 27 years old (birthday on September 10th) Ramunas is already called a veteran in the version of the Lithuanian National Team. He’s the only player left from the 2000 Sydney Olympics squad – the one which frightened Dream Team for the first time (Lithuania lost by 2 points in the semifinal). His nickname in those days, “the Baltic Pippen”, reflects the versatility of this interesting player. Siskauskas has a variety of tools in his offensive arsenal: good long-range shooting, decent penetration skills, relying a lot on his athletic ability. He is one of the best perimeter defenders of the team (along with Dainius Salenga), using his long arms and athleticism in that department, allowing him to defend positions from 1 to 3.

With Jasikevicius resting, Lithuania lacks a top class PG. Playmaking itself doesn’t give so much problems for a team as this which shares the ball so well, but bringing the ball up the court is a headache arriving with the smallest pressure from the opponent team. Out of necessity on this Lithuanian team, Siskauskas will have to taste PG bread as well. Though most of time he will probably spend in his usual swingman position.

Ramunas, although a highly-gifted player, has earned a reputation throughout his career as one who is content to remaining in the shadow. He will have to demonstrate a lot more assertiveness - even healthy egoism - in order to carry his team in Serbia and Montenegro.

The Upside:

Darjus Lavrinovic, 6-11, PF/C, Zalgiris Kaunas, 25 years old; Ksistof Lavrinovic, 6-11, PF/C, Unics Kazan, 25 years old


Almantas Kiveris

Not only identical looks, but also similar playing styles do not allow us to separate these twins from each other even in analysis. In real life Darjus and Ksistof are always together when not seperated by hundreds of miles playing for different clubs. The Lavrinovic brothers’ basketball story is rather fascinating knowing some of the details of their past. We hope that this little deviation from basketball will keep our readers more interested than scared.

The brothers were sued and convicted in a rape case 5 years ago, involving a local girl, with whom they had sexual relationships. The real details of the story still remain murky. It's been speculated that the twins had become targets of blackmail. Actually, the victim allegedly changed her mind during the litigation process and even fictitiously agreed to marry one of the brothers, trying to prove that the sex had been consensual. Nevertheless, the court found the brothers guilty and sentenced them to imprisonment. They disappeared from the public eye for a few years, and during that time the twins spent all their time in jail playing against each other every single day. When they came back, only few could believe their eyes. Remembering only two tall kids with limited potential, people saw two matured players with a nice shooting touch arriving out of nowhere. However the delight of playing was soon stopped for one of the brothers, Darjus, who tore knee ligaments just before the 2003 Eurobasket (he aggravated the same injury in 2004 and started playing again only in January 2005). His brother Ksystof at the time enjoyed a gold medal at the Eurobasket that year in Sweden (though being more of a reserve) and was a much bigger part of the team in the unlucky Athens Olympics showdown for Lithuania. A few months before that Ksistof drew the interest of the Toronto Raptors, who invited him for tryouts, but his past conviction played a part here as he couldn’t get a visa in time.

This time, the Lavrinovic brothers will not only have the joy of playing together, but also full hands of work being always in rotation for both the PF and C spots. On offense they show their best skills when they are together in the court. The Twins understand each other perfectly and if either of them is open, the pass will come just a millisecond afterwards. They both have a nice stroke from beyond the arc, but fall in love with it too much. When free, the brothers usually make it, but the problem emerges with impatience shooting over defenders and at the same time having nobody under the basket for the rebound. On occasions the Lavrinovic duo shows post moves and plays successfully there, but it’s sort of obvious that they feel better staying further away from contact on offense. Being mobile and athletic for their size, they don’t avoid playing facing the basket or taking their opponents to the hoop. Their athleticism is good enough for the NBA level despite their size, but the brothers don’t use it as much as coaches would like them to. On defense they sometimes lack strength vs. banger type forwards or centers. The Twins usually fish for the blocks of opponents making their way to the basket and are good on help defense. Fine reaction and coordination makes them decent rebounders as well. The problem might be getting into foul trouble as it occurred in some friendly games. As well as some childish mistakes not fitting to players of their caliber.

The preparation for this Eurobasket was harmed again when Ksystof suffered a broken nose 3 weeks before the tournament. Lithuanian fans and him are hoping that the rustiness of skipping 12 days and wearing a mask in the remaining practices won’t be seen in the Championship. The two brothers have a big task both on offence and defense and will see plenty of time to fulfill it. The upside of the twins is well known for Lithuanians, the duo just needs to show it to the masses and Eurobasket is the right place to do so.


The Star:

Mehmet Okur, 6-11, Center, Utah Jazz, 26 years old

Sadik Iliman

Mehmet Okur is facing high expectations here at the Eurobasket. Despite the fact that there is huge pressure from the media towards the whole team, Okur is one of the key players in the whole tournament. It is known that Okur is a very versatile frontcourt player who can post up his opponents but also knock down shots from three point range. Looking back to the last weeks of preparation, Okur showed fatal holes on the defensive end. His help-side defense often came too late and it was clear to see that he has to improve his footwork. Against France – a team built on quick and athletic players- he struggled to keep his opponent in front of him.

But the key question is: What about the condition of Okur? Will he last for many minutes? Okur is facing serious conditioning problems since the last European championships in Sweden. This was also the reason why Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was not satisfied with the way Okur came to Utah. Fans often see him dominating the first quarter but for the rest of the game Okur struggles, and badly. Okur now has a special Croatian coach who helps him in this area. It will be very important for Turkish coach Tanjevic to use him as much as he can. With Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu in the mix as well, Turkey does not face any problems with depth at the frontline, but keeping Okur on the court opens up many options for the team which benefits from his versatile play. And it will be very important to create room and position for Okur, too, the because latest games of Turkey showed that the Turkish players are facing serious problems using their big men. Considering also the fact that he is able to collect many assists, Turkey has to deviate from it’s focus on the forwards and use a smarter inside-out system in hope of seeing a maximum performance by Okur, who will be the key for Turkey’s chances here in Serbia and Montenegro.

The Upside:

Cenk Akyol, 6-4, PG/SG, Efes Pilsen, 18 years old


Sadik Iliman

There is no doubt that Cenk Akyol is a very valuable player for Turkey, especially in the future. After shining at the U18 European Championships with the Turkish team, he is currently preparing with the Turkish national team for Belgrade. It was clear to see that Akyol looks a little tired. An ollness also forced him to be out of the team for a few days.
Akyol is a shooting guard with the ability to also run the point very well. He can shoot, penetrate and dish out several assists per game. He is not a spectacular player but everything he does on the court is well considered and often ends up being positive for his team.

In the scenario that Akyol will play in Belgrade it would be obvious that he could have much more room than he was used to playing at the U-18 European Championships in Belgrade. And without any doubt he has shown to be ready to play for this team and be a member for many years.

But there are some critical points. First we have to wait until the final roster will be announced by Tanjevic. It's a big probability that fans will see him on this roster but, not making it shouldn't come as a huge surprise since only 10 of 12 players are safe at the moment. Akyol is tired and had an illness which caused him to be out for few days. So, at the end of the day it will be the coach’s decision.

But in case he will be on the roster it will be interesting to see how much playing time he will get. Especially the shooting guard position is filled with very good players like Kutluay and Erdogan. But there is a lack in the roster at the small forward position. For now there is no real small forward who can back up Türkoglu. Akyol might be used as a shooting guard if one of the duo Kutluay-Erdogan will be placed at the three.


The Star: Todor Stoykov, 6-6, SG/SF, Academic Sofia, 28 years old

Luis Fernandez

In one of the clear-cut weakest rosters of the Eurobasket, the name of Todor Stoykov stands out among the Bulgarian squad. He’s not a superstar in Europe, particularly since he has never displayed his game in the showcase that the Euroleague represents, but he’s an excellent player regardless, capable of being the go-to guy on a mid-level team. A lefty player, Stoykov enjoys very nice handles that allow him to assume a fairly big share of the ball, being a crucial presence on the offensive end. What might be a matter of concern for other players is rather productive for the teams he plays for, as Todor is at the same time a big scorer but a nice distributor as well from the shooting guard position. Just a fact that shows his offensive potential: he was the best scorer of the ULEB Cup last season, averaging 24 points per game for Lukoil Academic. Not bad at all.

Stoykov combines his shooting pretty well with his slashing game. He’s a real gunner, perhaps not in the sense of outstanding accuracy, but his peculiar mechanics are rather quick, and he doesn’t need too much space to fire, which in the end leads him sometimes to questionable shoti selection. He’s rather quick, and using his good handles, he’s a real slashing threat, becoming another source of scoring for him, but also a chance to break defenses and find a teammate open. All in all, he’s a bit of a prototype of a shooting guard “star”: more of a scorer than a shooter, a good slasher and a player who likes to have the ball in his hands. However, he’s not a loner out there, playing integrated in the team, being a rather good decision maker despite his eventually poor shooting selection, and in the end he’s quite an effective guy. Finally, just in case anybody is wondering, he doesn’t feature the kind of athleticism to think about NBA potential.

The Upside:

Deyan Ivanov and Kaloyan Ivanov, 6-9 PFs, Avtodor Saratov, 19 years old

Luis Fernandez

Despite the honor of having the first FIBA international player to take part in the NBA in Georgi Glouchkov, Bulgaria is a country that is not known for its pool of basketball players. It’s rare to see talented players coming out of this country, not only with NBA potential, but simply for the Euroleague level. Nevertheless, this year’s Bulgarian roster features a couple of very young guys, two brothers, twins indeed, who could evolve into very nice players at the European level. Not only their appearance denotes that they are twins condition; they feature a very similar skill set even if Deyan is a bit ahead of Kaloyan. Therefore, it wouldn’t make much sense to feature them in separated pieces.

Both are modern power forwards, skilled players that show nice versatility in their game, being able to play in the perimeter or in the paint. They show a decent stroke with three-point range, although they need to gain consistency. They can also put the ball on the floor to penetrate, taking advantage of their nice mobility. Another option is the low post, where they show a few movements. The twins are fundamentally sound players that know the game pretty well; they are nice passers, both from the low or high post, who can read every situation fairly well. Effective rebounders in junior categories, in this much higher stage they may struggle given their average size and underdeveloped body (although they are fairly strong for their age). It won’t be much different on defense, where they might be forced to fight with much more mature players. However, they are not soft by any means, and will try their best. All in all, this Bulgarian couple shows a very complete set even if their potential doesn’t let us think in a future beyond European basketball. In the end, their athleticism is average and neither is their size anything outstanding. This tournament is a good chance for them to face high level competition, as they regularly play in the Russian second division with Avtodor Saratov.

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