Under-the-Radar: Musa of BIH and Vasiliauskas of Lithuania are Talents from Unlikely Places

Dzanan Musa of Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the top talents in Europe that comes from a country that isn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse.

When it comes to European basketball development, certain countries and clubs have a stronger reputation for developing talent than others. If you are from Serbia, you have a strong basketball talent history that includes players like Vlade Divac and Milos Teodosic. If you played for Real Madrid B (Real Madrid’s developmental team), you also played for a club that developed talent such Nikola Mirotic and Bojan Bogdanovic. Certain countries and clubs in Europe have a more illustrious history when it comes to producing basketball talent, and thus, there is higher attention on players from those countries and clubs when it comes to finding “the next big stars” in European basketball.

However, there is a tendency sometimes for talent to come from unexpected European countries and/or club programs. That is the case with two players who faced off against each other in the 2015 U16 FIBA European Championship last year: Dzanan Musa of Bosnia/Herzegovina, who played for Cedevita Zagreb during the Euroleague and ANGT, and Grantas Vasiliauskas of Lithuania who played for his home club of Alytus SRC during the domestic season, and on loan for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in the ANGT. Despite the fact that they did not come from a “power” country or club in the European basketball scene, these two versatile talents are rising up quickly in the youth scene, and could be major contributors to upper-level clubs in the next couple of years.

Let’s take a brief look at each player, as well as check out some of their highlights.

 

Dzanan Musa, Forward

Dzanan Musa not only played for Cedevita during the ANGT, but also spent some time with the senior club during the Euroleague season.

Country: Bosnia/Herzegovina; Club: Cedevita Zagreb; Height: 2.03 meters

2015/2016 ANGT Stats: 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.2 apg, 2.4 spg, 52.9 2-pt FG %, 40 3-pt FG % (5 games).

Bosnia and Herzegovina is developing as a country in basketball, but by no means are they up there with traditional “former-Yugoslavian” powers such as Serbia and Croatia. In the 2015 Eurobasket, BIH failed to get out of the group round, and only went 1-4 in group play, their lone win being a 1-point win over Israel. Granted, they do have some recent talent who have made a name for themselves in the global basketball scene as of late. Sharp shooting forward Mirza Teletovic of the Phoenix Suns, and formerly of the Brooklyn Nets, has carved out a good career in the NBA, and center Jusuf Nurkic seems to be following his lead with the Denver Nuggets, though he suffered some injuries that set him back a little last year.  Furthermore, guard Nihad Dedovic of Bayern Munich, Milan Milosevic of AEK Athens, and Elmedin Kikanovic of Alba Berlin, have represented the BIH well by playing for clubs that participate in the Euroleague and Eurocup scene. But if you go back further or look beyond those names, there is not a lot of extensive history of basketball players from Bosnia and Herzegovina making a major impact in Europe or in America.

Musa however seems to be the exception to that rule. Last summer, during the U16 European Basketball Championships, Musa earned MVP honors in leading Bosnia and Herzegovina to their first Gold Medal in any kind of FIBA competition (be in European or World). Musa averaged 23.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 6.3 apg for BIH and scored 33 points and had 8 rebounds and 7 assists in BIH’s 85-83 victory of Lithuania, who was playing the Gold Medal game in front of their home country fans in Kaunas.

During the tournament, Musa displayed a versatile and explosive game, as he is able to beat defenders off the dribble, but is skilled enough to step back and hit the mid-range and 3-point shot. If there is one word to describe Musa’s game it is “active”. Musa is a multi-tool players and a legitimate “triple double” threat that can carry a team, as was obvious last year with his home BIH squad. Check out the highlights below and see how Musa torched the competition during the U16 European Championship, especially against global powers like Lithuania in the Gold Medal game and Spain in the Semi-finals (he also scored 24 points in their 86-78 OT win).

Since the European championship, Musa has kept the momentum going after signing with Cedevita Zagreb. He put up a strong overall performance in the ANGT, averaging 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 7.2 apg, once again showing that multi-faceted ability that makes him so intriguing as a player against the best under-18 talent in Europe. However, his success and impact wasn’t simply limited to the ANGT, as Musa also appeared in 10 games for Cedevita during the Euroleague campaign. Though he only averaged 2.7 ppg, Musa was the ninth-youngest player in Euroleague history to make his debut, and he held up well considering he was only 16 years old and playing against some of the best veterans in Europe (in his debut he matched up against Olympiacos guard and Greek legend Vasilis Spanoulis).

Musa has the chance to be a real impact player not just in Europe, but abroad as well. He has a well-rounded game (he can create for others as well as himself), an excellent shooting stroke and the kind of competitive fire that can carry a team, even one that may not be as talented. Musa does have times where his game can be streaky. In the ANGT, he started off strong in the qualifying round with a 37 point performance against Bayern Munich and a 24 point performance against Partizan Belgrade, but he struggled to find his rhythm in the following 3 games, as he scored only 9 points in the final qualifying round game against Zemun Belgrade, 13 points against Spurs Sarajevo in the first Belgrade Final Round game, and zero in 9 minutes of play in a re-match with Partizan with a trip to the Finals in Berlin on the line (though an injury was a reason for his limited time).

Granted, while Musa couldn’t carry Cedevita to the ANGT Finals in Berlin, and didn’t have as strong a finish to the tournament as his start, he definitely displayed that he has the potential to be one of the best overall players and pure scorers in Europe. And furthermore, he’s doing it from a country whose national program has only been established since 1992.

Yes, Teletovic and Nurkic may be the figureheads for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s basketball program now, and rightfully so considering their status in the NBA. However, expect Musa to inherit their place on that mantle within the next five or so years.

 

Grantas Vasiliauskas, Forward

Grantas Vasiliauskas had a strong performance for Lithuania in the 2015 Euorpean Championships as well as the ANGT for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius

Country: Lithuania; Club: Alytus SRC and Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius; Height: 2.00 meters.

2015/2016 ANGT stats: 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.7 apg; 47.5 2-pt FG%; 30.8 3-pt FG%.

Vasiliauskas comes from Lithuania, which is a pretty big hotbed when it comes to basketball talent. NBA players that have come from the county include Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors, Sarunas Marciulonis, formerly of the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, Sarunas Jasikevicius, formerly of the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors (not to mention numerous European clubs like Maccabi Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Fenerbahce, Zalgris, and Panathinaikos), and of course, Arvydas Sabonis, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers. So, Vasiliauskas doesn’t exactly come from a less-developed basketball country like Musa.

However, what makes Vasiliauskas different from other Lithuanian basketball players is the fact that he doesn’t come from a big program or town. He isn’t from Vilnius or Kaunas (the two biggest cities in Lithuania), nor is he in the systems of Lithuania’s premier clubs, like Zalgiris, Lietuvos (more on this later) or Neptunas. Instead, Vasiliauskas played for his hometown club of Alytus SRC, based in his home town of Alytus, which has a population of less than 55,000 residents, according to this feature piece on Vasiliauskas on the Euroleague web site. Vasiliauskas went under the radar in his home country by the major clubs, mostly because of where he lived, and the fact that his father was a champion rower, not basketball player.

However, while his background may be anonymous in Lithuania, his game certainly is not. Lietuvos sought the “under-the-radar” talent from Alytus, after his strong performance in the European Championships where he averaged 10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 2.4 apg in 9 games, which included a 12 point-6 rebound performance in the championship against BIH. Vasiliauskas did not disappoint for the club based out of Vilnius, as he averaged 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg and 3.1 apg while averaging 29 minutes per game. Vasiliauskas’ best performance came in the qualifying round, where he averaged 16.7 ppg and put up a 25 point-9 rebound stat line against VEF Riga. Furthermore, he did have some strong performances against much better competition in the Final Round in Berlin, as he scored 15 points against ANGT runner-up Crvena Zvzeda and 15 points against Alba Berlin.

Vasiliauskas doesn’t have the dynamic scoring ability or explosiveness of Musa, but if there is one word to describe his game it is “consistency”. Vasiliauskas plays within himself on a regular basis, and displays a solid overall skill set that mirrors Musa’s, though he doesn’t have the ceiling that Musa has as a player. One of the most impressive aspects of Vasiliauskas’ game is his heightened-sense of awareness on the court. He finds open pockets of the defense naturally, which leads to a lot of easy baskets; has a nose for the ball on lose balls and on rebounds, both on the offensive and defensive end; and is a strong passer, able to hit cutting teammates through tight windows with relative ease. Check out his highlights below, and though he doesn’t blow one away like Musa, he certainly does impress with his consistency and overall skill set displayed.

If there is one issue with Vasiliauskas’ game is that his shooting isn’t consistent and still is in need of refinement. Most of the buckets we see for him in the highlight tape are finishes around the hoop (layups and dunks), and his lackluster shooting percentages (47.5 from 2; 30.8 from 3) during the ANGT display that he doesn’t have the kind of outside game to make opponents play him honest on the perimeter (teams can sag to stop his drive or push him off the block, which is where he seems to prefer to play in the half court: moving from high to low post and creating from where he receives the ball). Vasiliauskas’ shooting form looks good in terms of elbow positioning and footwork, but it appears that his release is a little slow, which may be a reason why he struggles to find a consistent stroke on the floor.

It will be interesting to see if the “small town” kid will find a bigger club to participate with next year. His impressive performance with Lietuvos has the big club (which finished second in the Lithuanian league at the senior level) thinking about buying him out from Alytus and developing him year-around, which would be crucial since he still has parts of his game that need work (mostly his shooting). However, they are not the only club in Lithuania with interest: defending Lithuanian champion and Euroleague participant Zalgiris is also thinking about buying his rights as well.

Vasiliauskas hasn’t necessarily hinted what club he is leaning toward, and he seems to not have ruled out staying with Alytus SRC for another year as well, though I think the need to face better competition will be better satisfied if he played with Lietuvos or Zalgiris. Whatever the young forward chooses, he is certainly rising in the radar of players to watch out for, not just in Lithuania, but in Europe as well. He probably doesn’t have the European superstar potential like Musa, and I don’t even know if he has the kind of game that would translate to the NBA. While he certainly has the maturity and intensity to perhaps compete at that level down the road, I just don’t know if he will develop the size and athleticism to match up against NBA players (Musa on the other hand has all those characteristics).

That being said, Vasiliauskas is a very talented player with a polished skill set and considerable upside that would be beneficial to a major European club’s current developmental team and senior team down the road. Don’t be surprised to see him starting or playing a primary bench role for a major club team in the Euroleague or Eurocup within the next 10 years.

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Adidas NGT Watch: A Trio of Talent to Watch from Serbia

From L-R: Simanic, Radanov (Red) and Glisic (Black) are three players from Serbia to pay attention to from the Adidas NGT

The Adidas Next Generation Tournament showcases some of the best 18 and under talent in Europe. While some of the players may have end-of-the-bench roles on the top-level club, most play for the developmental clubs, developing their skills and talents to be ready for the senior clubs in a year or two. It is very interesting to see how Europe treats their “player development” process (which can begin as early 13-15 years old, depending on how talented the kid is), especially in comparison to how that process is done in the United States.

Almost every club developmental team that participates in the Adidas NGT has promising talent to display, but there really are a only a handful of players who truly stick out and look primed to be major players on the Euroleague and Eurocup stage within the next few years. And that proves to be true for country’s national teams as well, as the talent that is showcased during this competition could also be a sign of what countries could be strong in future FIBA Europe competitions (such as the Eurobasket) depending on the countries’ talent participation in the Adidas NGT. If a country has a lot of talented players making an impact for their professional club’s developmental teams in the Adidas NGT, that could be a sign that that particular country is on the cusp of being a major contender in international competition within a five-to-seven year span.

One of those countries who look to be on the rise is Serbia, as they had an impressive trio of players who stood out impressively during the latest Adidas NGT. Forward Borisa Simanic and guard Aleksa Radanov of Crvena Zvezda (who finished runner up in the Adidas NGT to FC Barcelona) and forward/center Milos Glisic of Partizan were all named to the Adidas NGT All-Tournament team, and each put up impressive numbers and performances that will be chronicled in more detail below. And, not only will these three players have an impact in club competition in their respective domestic and international leagues (such as the Euroleague and Eurocup) fairly soon, but they also should be major contributors to the Serbian national team, who is coming off a fourth place finish in the Eurobasket 2015 (losing to France 81-68 in the 3rd place game). While the team is led by guards Milos Teodosic and Bogdan Bogdanovic, forward Nemanja Bjelica and centers Boban Marjanovic, Miroslav Raduljica and Nikola Jokic, only Bogdanovic and Jokic will be under 30 years by the next Eurobasket in 2017 (Bogdanovic will be about 26 and Jokic will be only 23) . So the need for good young talent to succeed the older veterans is high, and thankfully Serbia has that talent in the trio of Simanic, Radanov and Glisic.

So, let’s take a look individually at what each player did at the Adidas NGT and what their outlook is for their club as well as their national team.

 

Borisa Simanic, forward, 2.09 m, 18 years old

Simanic was named the MVP of the Adidas NGT for his dominating performances on the court as well as helping Crvena Zvzeda to a second place finish. Simanic was Red Star’s primary scoring threat and main impact player on the floor, as he averaged 22.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg while shooting 65.8 percent from 2-point land and 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. The 18-year-old Serbian also had a PIR (player impact rating) of 26.0, one of the higher marks from a player in the tournament.

The 2016 Adidas NGT was Simanic’s 3rd and final tournament, and he showed that he had come a long way since his debut in the Adidas NGT back in 2014. Simanic wowed basketball fans and scouts with his athleticism, his deadly three point shooting, and his ability to finish off the break. Though he is not a true “post” player in any sense, Simanic showed throughout the tournaments he was able to throw it down with authority off live ball turnovers as well as offensive rebounds as demonstrated in his highlight tape below.

However, Simanic’s main strength lies in his shooting, and considering he almost made nearly 50 percent of his 3-point shots, that further displays how talented and effective Simanic can be, especially considering his athletic 2.09 m (roughly 6’10) frame, which makes it hard for smaller forwards to defend him when Simanic is shooting. Simanic also shows strong handle for a big man, as well as developing athleticism and quickness that gives him the ability to drive the ball and finish around the rim should defenders close out too hard on him to defend his sweet shooting stroke from beyond the arc. Simanic’s athleticism doesn’t jump out at you, but he certainly has added more bounce to his game as he has grown into his body and become more coordinated since debuting as a 16 year old in 2014.

While Simanic has the shooting touch, the scoring ability, height and maturity (he displays a lot of composure on the court and determination, which is a reason why he spent some time with the senior club during the 2016 season) to be a future star for Crvena Zvzeda, he is still far from a finished product. His strength is lacking, as he gets pushed too easily by defenders out of the lanes when he doesn’t have the ball, and he lacks any kind of post or back to the basket game in the block. While Simanic excels with his shoulders square to the hoop and driving to the basket, especially with his size and against other forwards and centers, he needs to be able to have some kind of move set or scoring ability around the rim to make up for when his jump shot isn’t falling or if the defense is clogging the lane and he can’t get to the hoop on the drive. If Simanic can get stronger and be more comfortable with his back to the basket in the block, then he will be not only a more effective scorer, but tougher for defenses to stop as he matures as a player as well.

 

Aleksa Radanov, guard, 2.02 m, 18-years-old

Fellow Crvena Zvzeda teammate Radanov doesn’t have the height or the pure shooting or scoring ability of Simanic, but Radanov is an explosive guard with incredible speed and two-way ability from the guard position. While Simanic was Crvena Zvzeda’s Kevin Durant, Radanov was the Russell Westbrook, with his ability to drive to the hoop and finish at the him with aggressiveness and strength. In addition, Radanov was a pick-pocket on the defensive hound, not only putting pressure on opposing guards, but also generating a lot of turnovers that led to transition scoring opportunities for the Adidas NGT runners-up (he averaged 2.4 steals per game during the tournament).

However, the main strength of Radanov’s game is in his ability to create scoring opportunities in different forms for himself and his teammates. Radanov is strong in his drive and ability to take it to the rim, and he has good vision off the drive as well. He can hit teammates with spectacular passes (he averaged 4.6 assists during the Adidas NGT), but he also has the strength and body control to finish around the rim with a layup or even dunk. If you watch his highlights below (from the start to about 1:07), he amazes with his ability as a playmaker despite only being 17 during the time of competition. Whether it’s a behind the back pass or an emphatic dunk, Radanov displays some of that Westbrook-esque explosiveness off the drive that makes him entertaining to watch and enticing to think about when it comes to his professional future.

If there is one issue with Radanov, it is that his shot isn’t very consistent, especially from beyond the arc. While he shot over 40 percent from 3 during the Belgrade rounds, he only shot 31 percent from beyond the arc during the Berlin rounds, which undoubtedly hurt them against FC Barcelona in the Adidas NGT Final. If Radanov wants to continue to progress as a guard, he needs to shore up his shot, and not only get a more consistent stroke, but develop a faster and more fluid shooting motion as well (you can see in one of the clips his shot is extremely slow and i’m surprised he got it off at all, let alone made it).

I like Radanov a lot, and was surprised by his ability to finish against contract, and use his speed in the open court, especially with the ball in transition. He has a lot of Teodosic’s style of game in him (i.e. ability to be a creator for himself and others), and though he may not have Teodosic’s shooting ability just yet, he may have more pure athleticism and bounce than the Serbian standout guard who also won a championship with CSKA Moscow this past season. Once Radanov develops a more reliable outside shot, it will complement his already dangerous penetration game off the dribble that gave opponents fits during this years Adidas NGT and give him the potential to be one of Europe’s next great guards.

 

Milos Glisic, forward, 2.05 m, 18 years old

It hasn’t been easy for Partizan, as they have lost to conference rival Crvena Zvzeda twice in the national championship the past two years, and haven’t qualified for the Euorleague since 2013-2014. However, they do have some hope for the future, as evidenced by Glisic.

Glisic isn’t particularly tall at 2.05 m (roughly 6’9), but he is built like a rock and he is not afraid to play in the block. Unlike Simanic who tends to play more around the 3-point line, Glisic fights to get good position and displays a good back-to-the-basket game that is advanced for his age and leads to a lot of scoring opportunities. During this tournament, Glisic, who also made the All-Tournament team, was arguably the most impressive player in the entire tournament, as he averaged 27 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 1.8 spg and a PIR of 36.6.

One surprising thing that stood out about Glisic, especially on tape, is his quick hands and ability to generate steals. Even though he is a player who lives in the post, I was surprised how he was able to get easy steals off of unsuspecting opponents who weren’t ready for his quick hands. During the Adidas NGT, Glisic was able to get pick opponents  on the perimeter and demonstrate a strong ability to finish in transition off the turnover. This sneaky ability will serve him well as he gets older as a player, and display Glisic’s unique combination of strength and speed as a player, as evidenced by the highlight video below.

There are a couple of issues with Glisic’s game of course. He is not particularly a strong free throw shooter, as evidenced by his 63.6 percentage during the Adidas NGT. Considering he shot 33 free throws in a 5 game span, he needs to get that percentage up in order to keep defenses honest and prevent them from fouling him purposefully “Hack-A-Shaq” style. The second issue is that is outside shot is not particularly strong either. I wasn’t entirely impressed by his shooting form, and his 35.3 percentage from beyond the arc wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring as well, especially compared to fellow countrymen Simanic and Radanov.

Nonetheless, I like Glisic’s game. He has the ability to be the kind of natural post player Serbia has been lacking as of late, though Jokic had a solid campaign in Denver last season. Glisic is incredibly strong and talented, with good footwork and a natural scoring touch around the block. If the free throw shooting can improve, he can be a lasting post presence not just for Partizan but the Serbian national team in the near future as well.