A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

Turkey and Canada are still two teams that have a chance to qualify for a spot in the Olympics in this Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a preliminary round of games, we have reached the bracket rounds of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The reward? Three teams will get berths in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they can fight for a chance to earn a bronze or silver medal (sorry…nobody’s competing with the USA, even though the lack of big-name stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will make it a little bit more interesting). 12 teams remain in the OQT, and to be frank, there is a strong chance a team worthy of an Olympic berth will not qualify through this tournament. While I do think the FIBA World Cup is a better venue for National Team basketball competition, the Olympics still remains the most high-profile, and the dogfight for the last three spots will be interesting to follow this weekend.

For those who are unaware, the tournament is split into “three groups”: An Italy Group, a Serbia Group and a Philippines Group. The winner of each group goes to the Olympics. Everybody else will be forced to watch the Olympics on the NBC Family of networks from their home country (whether or not it’s the one they participated for in this tournament though is to be determined). Before going into the preview of the “bracket” round, let’s point out some key events and thoughts from the tournament so far.

  • Not a great tournament for FIBA Asia or FIBA Africa, as the teams from the two continents went a combined 0-12 in group play. I know the NBA is trying to make great inroads with both those continents, both economically with fans as well as in basketball development. However, it is obvious that those continents are still years away from seriously competing on the global level with major continents like the Americas and Europe.
  • Speaking of FIBA Asia, it was a bit of a disappointing showing for Gilas Pilipinas (the name of the Filipino National Team). Despite the home court advantage, Gilas went 0-2, with losses to France and New Zealand in Manila. They played admirably in both games, and actually gave France a pretty good fight, as they actually led the global power after the first quarter. However, their lack of size (average height was 6’5 and that was with naturalized citizen Andray Blatche) ended up being their own worst enemy in both games, as it has been in FIBA Tournaments in the past. There still is some promise with Gilas, as Terrence Romeo and Bobby Ray Parks look to be a good combo to take over the mantle at the guard positions when Jayson Castro and Jeff Chan retire from international play. It’ll be interesting though to see how long Gilas lasts with Tab Baldwin, who has obviously made an impact offensively and defensively with the club (they played a much more aggressive scheme in the OQT). The Filipino Basketball organization isn’t known for being patient, but I think Baldwin deserves some more time, at least through the next FIBA Asia Championship to prove his worth.
  • The Americas was a bit of a surprise, as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Bracket round. Canada, despite missing Minnesota Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins, has remained competitive in their group (though inconsistent…as always) and has really been boosted by the presence of Tristan Thompson, who hasn’t been as active in the international scene the past couple of years. Mexico was missing former NBA player Gustavo Ayon, who just recently signed an extension for the reigning ACB champions, Real Madrid. However, they were able to pull the upset over Iran, who had former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, to qualify for the bracket round in their group. And Puerto Rico, who have faded a bit since their “monumental” Olympic win over the USA in 2004, have played well, and parlayed the experience winning the Centrobasket Tournament weeks earlier into solid play in the OQT.
  • There is going to be at least 1 deserving European squad left out of the Olympics this August. Latvia, Greece, France, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Italy have all proven that they would be competitive if they made the Olympic field, but unfortunately, only three of those listed have a chance to make it. At this point, I would not be surprised to see all three slots go to European squads. The FIBA Europe field in this OQT has been that strong (the lone exception being Turkey, who have not looked very good this tournament).

Okay, with some of those thoughts out-of-the-way, let’s get to the preview of the bracket round of each group.

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

Analysis: Puerto Rico has been a good story, as they pulled off a big win over African power Angola 91-81 in Game 2, and only lost by 6 points to Serbia, a heavy favorite as they are playing these group games in Belgrade. Puerto Rico is led by their point guards, as Carlos Arroyo (who went through an up and down season with FC Barcelona in the ACB last year) and JJ Barea have played well, as expected for Puerto Rico, averaging 12.5 ppg and 14 ppg, respectively. However, the big surprise has been John Holland, who is averaging a team-high 16 ppg and 5 rpg from the wing position. The depth on the perimeter for Puerto Rico has made them a sneaky dark horse threat.

As for Latvia, they have been led by Bilbao Basket star Dairis Bertans, who is averaging a group high 19 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, and the two Janis’: Janis Timma and Janis Blums. Timma has done more of his damage around the basket, as he is averaging 10.5 ppg but only shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Blums has been a marksman from three, averaging 10 ppg on 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. The only issue for both teams will be in the post, as Puerto Rico relies on aging players like Renaldo Balkman to hold down the fort, while Latvia is missing Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Whoever wins the rebounding edge will be key to who makes it to the championship game in this matchup, especially since they are both strong teams on the perimeter.

As for Serbia, they are the favorite and rightfully so: they are in Belgrade, and are led by a lot of NBA and European talent such as Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Nedovic. Serbia struggled a bit to put away Puerto Rico in game 1, but they have seemed to find a groove against Angola, as they won by 23 points. Jokic and Raduljica have been key in the post for Serbia, and Bogdanovic has provided impact, as expected, on the offensive end both off the drive and from beyond the arc (he is averaging 12 ppg and shooting 46.2 from beyond the arc. However, the key to the team earning an Olympic berth rests on Teodosic and his ability to create offense for this Serbia team. While Teodosic’s leadership and presence on the floor has been felt (he was a +24 in net rating in their win against Angola), he hasn’t really exploded with a big performance (he had 8 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers in the game 2 win). If he can channel his big-performance capability in this bracket round like he did in the Euroleague, then Serbia will be a shoe-in for 1 of the 3 Olympic berths.

However, they might have a tougher time in the semifinal round than in a possible championship game. Led by first-team All-Euroleague center Jan Vesely and future Washington Wizard and former FC Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky, the Czech Republic bounced back with a convincing 16 point win over Japan in game 2 after a rough 12 points loss to Latvia where they shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 2 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key to a possible dark horse run in this bracket will be the combo of Vesely and Satoransky, as they are a tough combo to stop when they are on. Satoransky has been a bit up and down though, as he only scored 5 points against Latvia. He will need to improve upon that performance against Serbia if the Czechs want a possible rematch with Latvia. Only this time an Olympic berth could possible be on the line.

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

Analysis: This is arguably the strongest of the three groups, as you have three legitimate Olympic teams in Greece, Croatia and Italy. Unfortunately for FIBA and International basketball fans, two of these worthy teams will be left out in Rio.

Mexico has been a surprising story, led by NBA journeyman Jorge Gutierrez at the guard position, who is averaging 12.5 ppg, and under-the-radar guard Francisco Cruz, who plays for VEF Riga in Latvia. However, the lack of Ayon in the post is a serious hinderance for this Mexican club, and though Lorenzo Mata is serviceable, they are going to have issues defending Italy’s long and outside-oriented bigs.

Speaking of Italy, no team has looked better than this country over the past month, in both OQT and in international friendlies. Coached by former CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid head coach and current San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Italy cruised through group play with their meticulous, outside-oriented style. Italy is not known for playing a physical style of ball, but they have hurt teams with the 3-ball, as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani, Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari are all threats to hurt opponents from beyond the arc. The big question though will be how they fare in the post, as Bargnani isn’t exactly the kind of physical player to bang with the potential posts from either Greece or Croatia.

Greece is probably the deepest team in this group, and arguably the whole OQT in general. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ioannis Bourousis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Efstratios Perperoglou, Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes leading the roster, Greece is a squad chock full of NBA and Euroleague pedigree. They don’t have the shooting depth of Italy, but the length they have will give Croatia fits, and Italy in the Championship, should they get past Croatia.

However, don’t count out Croatia, who bounced back from a 7-point loss to Italy with a 20-point win over Tunisia. This isn’t the kind of “strong” Croatia team we have seen in the past with Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja or Drazen Petrovic, but the talent on this team is young and capable of pulling the upset. Bojan Bogdanovic has carried the young squad, as he is the group’s leading scorer, averaging 25.5 ppg in group play. And Darko Planinic and Dario Saric (who will be going to Philly next year) have been holding things down in the post, though they still have room to grow as players. And lastly, don’t count out Mario Hezonja, who’s struggled this tournament, but has the potential to light it up from beyond the arc. I think this Croatia team is probably a couple of years away from being a real contender on the global scene, but they have a puncher’s chance against Greece.

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

Analysis: A bit of a blah group, as Turkey and New Zealand should be easy fodder for France and Canada, respectively. However, don’t count out Canada’s history of inconsistency on the big stage, as evidenced last year where they dropped a semifinal game against Venezuela that cost them the FIBA Americas 2nd automatic berth.

Athletically, Canada could compete with anybody in the OQT field. Their average height is 6’6 and they are a young team with an average age of 25 (and this is without Andrew Wiggins). However, sans Corey Joseph, who is averaging a team-high 17 ppg, this Canada team has struggled. Thompson has added NBA experience and defensive versatility to Canada’s roster, but has gone through efficiency issues on the offensive end, as he is shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 ppg. Brady Heslip, who lit up the D-League with the Reno Bighorns a year ago, has hit a cold streak so far in the OQT, averaging only 3 ppg while shooting 18 percent from the field. The talent is there for Canada: Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Tyler Ennis, etc. However, they have not been able to mesh at times, as evidenced in their 58-55 win over a Senegal team they were much better than on paper.

Canada should make it to the Championship game of this tournament (most likely against France), but they should not take New Zealand lightly. The Tall Blacks pulled a big win in front of a passionate pro-Filipino crowd in Game 2, winning 89-80 in a game which they won every quarter but one (they tied the third quarter). They key to the Tall Blacks’ to qualifying for the bracket round has been guard Tal John and Corey Webster and forward Reggie Abercrombie. New Zealand doesn’t possess a ton of athleticism or highly skilled or big-name players in comparison to their competition, but they play well together, and they run a lot of different looks on defense to give teams fits. If Canada shows up to play like they did against Senegal, it would not surprise me to see the Tall Black add another upset to their OQT resume.

The Turkey-France matchup is one that would have been good four years ago, but will most likely be a blowout in favor of the latter. Turkey has a solid mix of NBA and Euroleague stars in Omer Asik, Bobby Dixon, Semih Erden, and Furkan Korkmaz.  However, the absence of real big NBA stars like Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova makes this Turkish squad feel a bit second-rate in comparison to teams from past international competitions. And it has shown on the court, as Turkey not only hasn’t been impressive in group play, but they didn’t impress either in many of their friendlies leading up to the OQT competition.

On the other hand, though they are missing Rudy Gobert, and with Nic Batum sitting out (but on the bench), France is loaded with star power who play well together. They mix of NBA veterans like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have meshed well with Euroleague stars like Nando de Colo and Thomas Huertel. The absence of Gobert and Batum has left France a bit fragile in the post, as Joseph Lauvergne and Kim Tillie haven’t been able to duplicate Gobert’s presence, as evidenced their 93-84 shootout against the Philippines. But, France can score from all over the court and in a variety of ways, and the presence of two highly skilled and polished playmakers like Parker and de Colo makes France one of the smoothest offensive teams in the OQT, which should carry them to victory in this group, and a spot in the Olympics.

Pick: France.

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Club Profile: KK Mega Basket (Mega Leks) of Serbia

Timothe Luwawu (23) was one of three draft picks from the Serbian basketball club Mega Leks that was one of the more interesting clubs to follow last year…mostly due to their uniforms.

The big story of the 2016 NBA Draft on Thursday night was the record 14 foreign-born players that were selected in the first round, a NBA record in that category. Considering the lack of top-shelf talent beyond Top-2 picks Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, many teams holding a plethora of draft picks (the Celtics, Nuggets and Sixers just to name a few), and with the cap looking to go up considerably over the next two years (meaning more room to spend on potential free agents), it makes sense that many NBA teams decided to take some risks on some European talents that are not only unknown with the typical American basketball fan, but also might not dress for their team in a year or two (ala Dario Saric and Ricky Rubio). Nowadays, letting talent develop overseas for a year or two against top European competition while still keeping that player’s rights has been a more accepted route to player development in NBA front offices, as it allows teams to save money in the draft (because they are not on their active roster, they do not have to pay them), while at the same time, allowing them to be patient with players who probably are a couple of years away anyways from making impact at the NBA level. Dirk Nowitzki and Ricky Rubio are quintessential success stories of such a strategy, and the Sixers are hoping to strike gold in the same way with Dario Saric this season.

Whether American basketball fans agree with drafting “unfamiliar” European players who are a couple of years away from contributing (if they contribute at all) over well-known college stars, this much is clear: the demand for talent from Europe in the NBA is greater than ever, and it’s going to be more and more difficult as the years go by for European clubs to be able to keep their best young players from jumping to the NBA, especially after the success of Kristaps Porzingis with the New York Knicks. Yes, dumb and ignorant fans in NBA jerseys on draft night will still boo them because their team drafted a teenager from France over some player who was Honorable Mention All-SEC his senior year (Bravo!). But the boos are becoming less common (Porzingis helped silence that last year), and front offices are becoming more open about building their roster with younger European players, who offer different and in some cases more refined skill sets that mesh better in today’s more “wide-open” NBA game.

Of the players picked, there were a lot of different angles taken when it came to covering the European players drafted. Some focused on Dragan Bender, the No. 4 pick overall in the draft, who was one of the few players in European history to go in the Top-5 in the NBA Draft (Porzingis went last year, making it two years in a row). Some focused on the Kings’ surprise selection of Georgios Papagiannis, an 18-year-old Greek center from the Greek power Panathinaikos who went far above what most people expected in mock drafts. And there was some experts focusing on the Global diversity of talent represented in this latest draft, as Croatia (3), France (5) and China (2) had multiple players from their country selected in the draft (Spain, Germany, Serbia, and Greece were also represented as well).

However, one of the fascinating stories of this draft in my mind, as a newly-christened European basketball fan, was the tremendous representation from one club in Europe in this latest NBA Draft. And surprisingly, it was not a commonly-known European power that participates in the Euroleague or even Eurocup. Yes, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos, and FC Barcelona were all represented, as they commonly are because they tend to be able to outbid for the best young talent in the world to play for their developmental and senior club teams. That being said, there was one club that did better than those clubs by having as many players drafted in this draft as those three combined.

Who was that club? KK Mega Basket, or better known as Mega Leks, out of Serbia. Not quite the common household European club name, I know, but they are a fascinating club in Europe that is slowly rising after one of their best seasons yet.

So, let’s find out more about this Serbian club that produced THREE draft picks in the latest NBA draft.

Who were the players drafted from Mega Leks?

The three players drafted who played for Mega Leks last season were as follows: Wing Timothe Luwawu, who hails from France (he went 24th overall in the draft to the Sixers); Center Ivica Zubac from Croatia (who went 32nd overall to the Lakers); and wing Rade Zagorac from Serbia (who went 35th overall to the Celtics, but was traded later to the Grizzlies).

Luwawu has the most upside of the three, as he averaged 14.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 1.7 spg for Mega Leks in ABA (Adriatic Basketball Association) play through 28 games, and 13.6 and 3.6 rpg in Serbian League play, though he only played 5 of the club’s 13 games. Luwawu has tremendous potential with his 6’6 athletic frame, and has proven to have a strong ability to score, as evidenced by his solid ppg averages in his year-long tenure with the Serbian club. Furthermore, there may not be a whole lot of players from this recent draft who can match Luwawu’s speed in the open court, as he excels in transition, whether off the ball or on the dribble. However, his shooting is still in some need of work, as he only shot 41.9 percent from the field in ABA play (he shot 54.6 percent in Serbian League play, but as said before that was only 5 games, and against lesser competition).

The 19 year old Zubac from Croatia posted a solid campaign in the Serbian League, which he primarily played in (he did not make any appearances in the ABA for Mega Leks). He averaged 10.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and a team-leading 1.5 bpg in 22.5 minutes per game during the 13 game season. Zubac primarily stays around the post, as he shot 50 percent for the year, and took ZERO shots from beyond the arc. Zubac displays mature footwork for a player his age, some good moves off the pivot in the post, and he as the kind of body (7’1, 265 pounds) to bang down low in the post in the mold of a Dino Radja or Zan Tabak, both centers who hailed from Croatia and played in the NBA.

And lastly, Zagorac doesn’t have Luwawu’s raw athleticism, but he is a more polished shooter and is better at creating opportunities off the dribble for himself and his teammates. As you can see from the highlights below, Zagorac plays well in the pick and roll for a combo/wing and is able to find teammates on the roll or pop either for layups or short jumpers. Zagorac was Mega Leks’ best overall player in the Serbian League as he averaged a team-high 14.7 ppg and also contributed 3.1 apg, and 6.2 rpg in 27.4 mpg. One of the most impressive aspects of his game is his ability to shoot off the dribble, especially in the mid-range. He shot an incredible 64.7 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from beyond the arc in Serbian League play. His game shows flashes of former Serbian NBA player Peja Stojakovic, which could be good news for the Grizzlies who got him in the Second Round.

How did Mega Leks Do Last Year?

Mega Leks has only been around since 2008, but last season was a historic one for them in their young history as a professional basketball club. According to Eurobasket.com’s Top-100 ratings, Mega Leks finished the season ranked 88th, a sterling accomplishment considering that they are the “new kids on the block” in the European basketball scene. They were one of four teams from Serbia to play in the ABA last season, and they actually finished as a runner-up to Crvena Zevezda in the playoffs, the top Serbian club that has played in the Euroleague the past two season. In KLS (Serbian League) play, they finished 4-2 in regular season play, and were swept in the semifinals by Crvena Zevezda. However, they beat FMP Beograd 3 games to 2 to not only win the third place consolation prize of the KLS playoffs, but also qualify again for the ABA.

The biggest achievement though for the young club was during the Serbian Cup (or also known as the Radiovaj Korac Cup), a single-elimination national tournament played in February and put on the Serbian Basketball Foundation. The upstart Mega Leks team, with only 1 player on their roster over the age of 30, won the Serbian Cup championship beating longtime Serbian power Partizan Belgrade 85-80 in the championship game. 22-year-old Macedonian Nikola Ivanovic was named the Tournament’s MVP, especially after his 24 point, 5 assist performance in the championship game. The Korac Cup victory is the first trophy acquired in Mega Leks’ eight-year club history.

What Makes Mega Leks Worth Knowing About

The club is a pretty “hip” club in a country that is as basketball-crazed as any in the world. For years, the Serbian basketball scene has been dominated by Partizan and most recently Crvena Zvezda. However, Mega Leks has come on as of late by building their team not with veteran free agents, but through young players they develop through their own 18U team (which does participate in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament). The average age of last year’s roster was 20.87 years and they only had 1 player on the roster who was over the age of 23 (34-year-old Serbian Aleksandar Rasic). This strategy of building through a young, mostly Serbian roster (11 of the team’s 16 players were from Serbia) not only endeared themselves to fans who liked young, exciting basketball, but as you can see above from the results, it also produced a squad that got better and developed more chemistry as the year went on. Head coach Dejan Milojevic has been coaching the team since he retired as a player in 2012 and has done a phenomenal job building this Mega Leks club into a stronger program each and every year.

In addition, one of the other major reasons to like Mega Leks is their uniforms and club color scheme. Saying the scheme is bold is putting it lightly: nobody in the world from my knowledge can match their hot pink and neon green ensemble. At first, it was a little weird, as no other basketball, or sports team in general, has ever sported such a scheme with so much bravado. But after repeated viewings, I have begun to dig their uniform duds. It’s bright, it’s bold and it definitely shouts “future” in a uniform fashion world that is in dire need of some change at times. There pink and green combination might not be for everyone, especially traditionalists that still pine for the days of the “short shorts.” That being said, considering Partizan’s all-black look (blah), and all-white scheme that mirrors Real Madrid somewhat, and Crvena Zvezda’s nearly identical look to Olympiacos, it is refreshing to see Mega Leks go against the grain of what it is to be expected from a basketball uniform not only in Europe, but worldwide as well.

Take a look at a few shots below and simply digest and enjoy. (Or at the very least digest…)

What does the future look like for Mega Leks?

As stated, this is a very young club with a very bright future, even with the possible departure of their 3 young stars to the NBA. Mega Leks also lost Macedonian and Serbian Cup MVP Ivanovic to AEK Athens this off-season, so it wasn’t just the NBA that hurt Mega Leks’ roster this offseason. That being said, that is the reality for ALL clubs in the Serbian League, as even Crvena Zvezda was hurt this offseason by other bigger and much wealthier clubs poaching their talent (Red Star lost Maik Zerbes and Quincy Miller to Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv).

Despite this massive loss, it is possible that Zagorac and Zubac may stay in Serbia (Luwawu is good as gone to the NBA as a first round pick to the Sixers, a team that could use his talents immediately), as they probably are a year or two away from really having an impact at the NBA level, and their status as second round draft picks could further heighten that possibility. The return of those two will make them a dark-horse favorite in the KSL and ABA, especially if Partizan and Crvena Zvezda cannot adequately replace the talent they just lost this offseason. Whatever happens with those two is yet to be determined, but considering Milojevic’s track record of success, I think he’ll be able to succeed with this Mega Leks club next season with or without the NBA Draftee pair.

Another major development for Mega Leks is they will participate in the inaugural FIBA Champions League, which is supposed to compete with the Eurocup as a second-tier competition to the Euroleague. FIBA is hoping the Champions League will develop eventually as an alternative to the Euroleague, but with it in its early stages, and considering the failures of FIBA’s past “European Club” efforts after they lost the Euroleague-brand in 2001, that is still a long ways away from being realized. However, Mega Leks seems to be the most premiere club to join FIBA’s league and could be the favorite to win it. A championship in the new FIBA league and perhaps some strong performances in the KSL and ABA, and it is totally possible that Mega Leks could jump their 88th Eurobasket.com club rating and then some by the summer of 2017.

And hopefully, basketball fans will know them for more than just producing three NBA Draft picks in one year and the wild and funky uniforms by then.

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.

Can Quincy Miller Save the Season for Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade (And Save His Career Too)?

Ryan Thompson (5, red) struggled immensely against Real Madrid in the wake of an injury to Luka Mitrovic; He and Red Star hope new addition Quincy Miller can get them back on track.

After a promising 81-59 opening day win at home against Strasbourg, times have gotten tough for Serbia’s Euorleague club, Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Telekom Belgrade. Earlier in the week in domestic play, the team suffered a massive blow when it lost captain Luka Mitrovic to a left knee injury during a rare home loss to Union Olimpija. Mitrovic, in addition to his leadership role, has been a crucial building to Red Star and head coach Dejan Redonjic’s recent success the past couple years after making the jump to the Euroleague last year, and making the second round. Last season, Mitrovic averaged 8.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg in 24 games as a 21-year-old, which earned him a 3-year contract extension this off-season. This year appeared to be a breakout year for him, as he put up a stat line of 13 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in the season opener. Add that on top of a pre-season injury to forward Nemanja Dangubic that will keep him out a few more weeks, and it’s easy to see why things looked grim for Red Star as the entered yesterday’s road game against defending Euroleague Champion Real Madrid.

However, even the most pessimistic of Red Star and Serbian basketball fans didn’t quite foresee their 98-71 blowout loss to the Spanish powerhouse. The first half for Red Star was especially putrid, as they scored only 6 points in the first quarter and 14 in the second to find themselves down 56-20 at halftime. In the second half, they made the game a little bit more respectable, scoring 21 in the third quarter and 30 in the fourth, but it was obvious that Real had put in their replacements, and were simply trying to rest up after halftime to conserve their star players for the following week of games, both Domestic and Euroleague.

The biggest difference in the game was the play in the post, as Red Star couldn’t stop Real in the paint, and vice versa, they couldn’t score in the paint against the talented Spanish front line either. Real shot 57.8 percent on 45 2-pt shots, with Gustavo Ayon scoring 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting on 2-pt shots, and Willy Hernangomez, playing a lot of early minutes due to Felipe Reyes in foul trouble, scoring 11 points on 5 of 6 shooting. As for Red Star, they shot 33.3 percent on 48 2-pt shots, and while German Maik Zerbes tried to pick up the slack with a 15 point performance, almost half of his points (7) came from the free throw line and he shot 4 of 10 on 2-point shots, struggling to get position and shots on the active Real post players (Real blocked 6 Red Star shots). Furthermore, they also got little to nothing from other post players such as Stefan Nastic, who went 1 of 6 from the field  and played a little over 7 minutes, and recent off-season addition Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who went 1 of 5 from the field, had 1 rebound and was blocked 3 times in 13 minutes. Add those disappointing factors along with Israeli point guard Gal Mekel scoring 0 points and getting no assists (compounded even worse by Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull combining for 16 assists), and it makes sense why there was a difference in Total Player Index Rating between Real and Red Star (134-60).

While Mitrovic’s injury effect has already been felt by Red Star, there is help on the way. Earlier this week before their contest against Real, Red Star signed former NBA draft pick Quincy Miller, who has played for the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons, as well as the Reno Bighorns, Grand Rapids Drive and Iowa Energy of the D-League in his early 3-year professional career. Miller is an interesting pickup by Red Star, as he is still incredibly young (22 years old) and has so much raw potential, size (6-9, 210 pounds) and athleticism. However, this will be his first stint in Europe in general, let alone the Euroleague, and it will be interesting to see how Miller will adjust to the European (especially Eastern European) culture as well as the style of game from America.

What Miller Offers Red Star

Quincy Miller was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, but has struggled to find a place in the NBA. Will a year-long stint with Red Star Belgrade change that?

Miller probably left college earlier than he should’ve, as he declared for the draft after his freshman season at Baylor, where he played with future NBA and European professional players like Quincy Acy, Perry Jones and Brady Heslip. In college, Miller averaged 10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg in 24.4 mpg over a 37 game span and shot 44.7 percent from the field, as well as 34.8 percent from 3-point land during the Bears’ Elite-Eight season. Miller impressed teams and scouts during his time at Baylor with his raw athleticism and his inside-outside game, but his inconsistent shooting (48.5 percent eFG%), tame rebounding percentages for a big man (7.5 offensive rebounding rate; 16.1 defensive rebounding rate), and tendency to be a “ball-killer” (his 23.1 usage rate was second highest on the team) and get the Bears out of rhythm offensively at times, was a major reason why he fell to the second round, though he was projected as a mid-to-late first round pick going into the 2012 draft.

In his rookie year, Miller struggled to find the floor, as he played only 7 games, and spent most of his time in the D-League, as he appeared in 23 games with the Iowa Energy, and averaged 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg on 39.1 percent shooting. In his second season, Miller saw more time with the Nuggets, as new head coach Brian Shaw gave him some more time on the floor to prove if he was worth keeping around and could realize his potential. He appeared in 52 games and averaged 15.2 mpg, and Miller was known for making some impressive plays at times, as evidenced by the highlights below:

However, despite his “upside” and ability to create off-the-dribble for a player of his size, Miller’s youth and lack of experience was obvious, as he only averaged 4.9 ppg and 2.8 rpg and put up a PER of 8.6 (15 is average). Trying to build a more “playoff-ready” roster, the Nuggets let Miller walk in the off-season (as a second round pick, he didn’t have the kind of rookie deal that first round picks receive; second round picks go year-to-year after their initial contract), and in 2014-2015, Miller found himself bouncing around in the D-League and NBA.

Despite the lack of security and a stable team, Miller’s most promising stint in his early professional career happened last year in the D-League during a 15-game stint with Reno, where Miller was featured in first year head coach David Arsenault’s “System”.  For those who aren’t familiar, the “System” originates from Grinnell College and features constant full-court pressure defense, frequent waves of substitutions and a heavy reliance on 3-point shots (at least half of their total field goal attempts need to be from beyond the arc). Miller fit in this system like a glove, as he averaged 25.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg on 50.3 percent shooting. Miller constantly torched team from beyond the arc, but he also was able to beat slower defenders on the dribble drive to the rim, and meshed seamlessly in Reno’s fast break, consistently finishing break opportunities off of turnovers as well as made and missed baskets (Reno is always running the break, regardless of the result on defense). Take a look at a game during last year’s D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz where he scored 35 points against the Westchester Knicks.

His impressive stint in Reno earned him billing as the Top D-League Prospect by the D-League Web site last season, as well as short 10-day contracts with the Kings and Pistons and a spot on the Brooklyn Nets preseason roster. But, Miller didn’t do enough to make the Nets roster, and after being cut by Brooklyn, and the D-League not really a lucrative financial option, Miller opted to sign with Red Star for a much better payday as well as a bigger role on a team that is looking to stay competitive despite their rash of injuries.

The big question will be how Redonjic will utilize Miller with this roster. Miller isn’t a physical forward and he will not help much on the glass (they were outrebounded 51-33 against Real), but Mitrovic didn’t possess any of those qualities either, and he still was a productive player that Redonjic planned to build around this season. Furthermore, Red Star has those types anyways with Zerbes and Schortsanitis. What Redonjic needs from Miller is scoring and instant offense, which was painfully missing against Real, as it seemed like Red Star didn’t have the kind of go-to scorer to help them out of the various scoring slumps they suffered through in the first half of Thursday’s contest. Miller needs to be able to be “the guy” and carry this Red Star team on the offensive end, and considering Red Star likes to push the ball and play more up-tempo, it makes sense why Red Star signed Miller, who played his best basketball in an up-tempo system in Reno.

It will be interesting though how Miller responds to the European game, as well as how he fits chemistry-wise with this roster. As talented as Miller is, one of the biggest knocks on him is his attitude and focus, as this was stated about him in a pre-draft scouting article from Draft Express prior to the 2012 draft:

Additionally, his focus and energy level are inconsistent, as he doesn’t seem to bring the same intensity level from possession to possession, which was clearly an issue for him already in high school. He’ll need to improve his toughness, particularly in terms of fighting his way through screens, something that getting stronger will likely help with.

From DraftExpress.comhttp://www.draftexpress.com/#ixzz3pVFrH45N
http://www.draftexpress.com

This will be interesting considering Red Star’s passionate fan base as well as the annual circumstances Euroleague teams face with the threat of being regulated with a poor season, which puts additional pressure on players, especially imports, to perform and make an impact right away. Miller can come off as passive and uncaring at times on the court, and to the common European (or even American) fan, that can be a huge insult, and prevent them from supporting a player. Red Star fans though have showed in the past that they can really get behind their players though, as evidenced by their little “bus surprise”  put on by the fans for Schortsanitis when they signed him this off-season. If Miller can embrace them and the environment (which is one of the best home crowds in Europe), and be more consistent in terms of displaying his passion on the court, not only can he help Red Star win, but he can garner the kind of fan support he never really received in the States professionally or in college. And at the end of the day, when somebody is a fan favorite, they will get paid in one way or the other.

That being said, at the end of the day, this is most likely temporary. Miller solves an immediate need and has the potential to fill the role that Mitrovic would have had prior to his injury, which is as the team’s primary dynamic scorer. There is no questioning his skills, but how Miller adjusts to Redonjic, the Red Star team and European basketball will be key to whether Red Star rebounds after the early setback to Real, and Miller revitalizes his status as a prospect, or they continue to regress and Miller proves that he is another “athletic” talent who doesn’t have the makeup to put it all together at the professional level.

Let’s face it. Red Star needs Miller to continue their Euroleague success from 2014-2015, and Miller needs Red Star to find his way back to the NBA. Whether or not this “relationship” can or will be successful for both parties though is yet to be determined, and it will be interesting to see if Redonjic can be the “counselor” to make it work this season.