Ariel Hukporti is highly regarded in the German basketball world. There is a lot of potential there. But what can he do now? – Photo courtesy of Porsche BBA Ludwigsburg

Crailsheim (heinnews) – A do-or-die game is an excellent test to see what a player is made of. It might be even better in evaluating the player if you’ve never seen him before that game.
That was the case for my trip to Crailsheim to see the JBBL U16 game between Crailsheim Merlins and Porsche BBA Ludwigsburg. The winner in the Southwest showdown would move onto the main round of the season while the loser would drop to the relegation round.

How would a couple of players who have been nominated for the German U16 national team camp in France for later January play in this big game?

One of the big names on the radars of talent observers in Germany is Ariel Hukporti from Ludwigsburg. The 2002-born big man has Togo roots and moved from Freiburg to Ludwigsburg in the off-season. The 2.08m Hukporti is playing a year younger in the JBBL but has already gained a following.

The other German U16 national team invitee – and known name going into the trip – is Lukas Herzog, a 1.86m point guard for Ludwigsburg.

But it’s hard not to look at Hukporti, clearly the biggest player on the court. He has excellent length and a strong build. It’s unclear if Hukporti was sick or not but he sat for at least the final five minutes of initial warm-ups – if not seven or eight minutes – while the rest of the team was doing layup and shooting drills.

When Ludwigsburg went into their locker room for their pre-game talk, it was time to check out Crailsheim a bit closer. The first thing that stands out is some good length for a number of guys.

The only thing I knew about Crailsheim was that Vincent Hofmann was the leading scorer. He looked pretty interesting … a 2.04m kid with a bit of length and solid build. Just looked like a baller.

Vincent Hofmann played an excellent game for Crailsheim and helped them reach the JBBL Main Round. Photo: Steffen Förster at swp.de

And then there was Benjamin Moser. Listed at 2.11m already and very skinny and absolutely monstrous feet – small boats travelling around the court. Was told later that they were size 52 and already biggest in the entire club – professionals included. He grew 5 centimeters in the past year and is not yet done growing. But he doesn’t look uncoordinated at all. He runs pretty well and can move his boats … ah, feet pretty well. He can shoot the ball from outside and also has some nice touch around the basket and a good sense for passing the ball.

So, Ludwigsburg were back out on the court warming up and Hukporti still hasn’t got his lefty shot going at all – from near or mid-range. It will be interesting to finally see him play live and see more about what people like in him. And once again he was the first to sit down on the bench – again minutes before any other teammates come over.

Again, not sure if he was sick but Hukporti needed to be subbed out after just three and a half minutes of the game – not really doing much at all and actually being handled easily in the post by Crailsheim’s 2.06m big man Jekabs Beks.

This sighting of Hukporti until now has been more worrying than reassuring. The rest of the first half was unspectacular for Ludwigsburg’s big man. He is quite slow and deliberate in the post. It’s all to the left for him – nothing to the right yet so there is no need to defend him when he goes that way.

The first half saw Hofmann nail a couple of three-pointers and confirm the thoughts from warm-ups. There was also Moser sticking to the outside and showing he could play out there – also guarding Ludwigsburg’s wings.

Crailsheim really deserve a tip of the hat for letting Moser develop his game outside. It would be easy to just let him play in the post – even though he would be pushed around a lot because of lack of bulk. But they clearly think he can develop into a stretch four power forward – man, he’s long.

Herzog meanwhile showed his fantastic motor and leadership skills right away – directing the team while getting to the basket when needed. He struggled from outside – more on that in a bit. But he could definitely be an important player for Germany this summer at the FIBA U16 European Championship in Podgorica.

The other player to note in this game was Johannes Patrick, the son of Ludwigsburg professional team head coach John Patrick. Johannes looks like a miniature version of his father and he is a natural born leader – which is not a surprise at all considering who his father is. Patrick, who was born on December 30, 2001,  showed he can shoot the ball, nailing five three-pointers (5-of-10 from long range) in scoring 18 points to go with three assists – and zero turnovers. Patrick is a fighter and a leader in an undersized package – at 1.76m.

Hukporti was much better in the second half – and actually ended up playing a JBBL season-high 32:20 minutes. He flashed some good quickness and good footwork in getting in position to twice block guards’ shots on penetration to the lane. He also came up with a nice reverse jam – of course going to his left.

Hukporti was able to knock down one jumper from about 11 feet. He still does not have a power lefty hook shot – instead going up in the paint and shooting it like a jumper while almost falling away. He did hit one of those but he will be that much more effective when he gets a hook shot in his arsenal. He ended with eight points, 10 rebounds, two assists, five turnovers and three blocks.

But Hukporti could not really get much going offensively all game going against Beks, who is an advanced player at this time – especially physically – but really would need to work a lot on his quickness to have a high level career long time. He is a player who would help a team succeed at the younger levels. He is listed as Latvian and it remains to be seen for whom he would play this summer – Germany or Latvia.

Moser really didn’t play that much of a role in the result – with eight points, one assist and zero rebounds in 11:26 minutes. Besides Beks, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds, it was Hofmann who helped Crailsheim to the win. He nailed three three-pointers (3-of-6), which makes him 9-of-16 from long range in his last four games. But those treys were all in the first half and he showed a willingness and toughness to drive into the lane – which is one thing that some observers were wondering if he had enough of. And he showed the mental toughness to hit two big free throws with about 15 seconds left – 6-of-8 for the game from the line and 71 percent for the season – to make it a five point lead. And Hofmann was extra excited about it – first blessing/crossing himself after the first free throw and then jumping up and down and fisting his chest after the second. Hofmann, who used his good size and quickness on the boards and defense all game, ended up with 23 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks.

Getting back to Herzog to finish off with the game. His three-pointer attempt with about 10 seconds left looked really good and went in and out and continued his poor stretch of results from outside – missing all 15 three-pointers in the last three games after hitting 6-of-16 in three other JBBL games. If he knocks down that triple, then the game is still open. But that miss essentially decided it for good.

Lukas Herzog – Photo from Porsce BBA Ludwigsburg

Herzog, who won’t turn 16 until September, has also been playing in the U19 NBBL this season, averaging 6.9 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 2.0 steals a game in 25 minutes. But he has also been struggling from long range there. After hitting 5-of-12 in his first three games, Herzog has gone 1-of-14 in last four JBBL games.

Herzog’s poor shooting stretches back to November 13 when he played 34:55 minutes for the JBBL team against Crailsheim – with a 12:30 pm tipoff – making 1-of-5 three-pointers. Herzog then played 19:51 minutes and missed his two three-pointers in the NBBL game against Junior Baskets Rhein Neckar on the same day – with a 3pm tipoff.

Since the JBBL game that day, Herzog has made just 1-of-29 three-pointers in seven games – three of them in the JBBL. He seems too hard of a worker that those woes won’t be corrected.

Okay, so, let’s get back to the real reason for the trip – Ariel Hukporti.

When asking two people who know him much better and have seen him much more often, they both provided the same answer to the question “What can he do now?” The answer, he has a really good feeling for passing and that’s about it. Both individuals spoke of the high potential and upside – and that there is a lot in there. But it remains to be seen just how quick he is able to process the things he is learning. He did not receive a lot of training in Freiburg, which has changed since his move to Ludwigsburg.

When asked about the youngster’s work ethic, one of the individuals said Hukporti really loves the game but it’s too fast for him right now.

The lasting image from the trip will be the last time I saw Ariel Hukporti shortly after the game. A few minutes after Crailsheim had already done their “Humba” celebrations with the crowd and walked around the edges of the stands and clapped hands with the fans, there was Hukporti knelt down with a towel over his head and two teammates consoling him. He got up and there were a few tears on his cheeks.

He looked gassed early on but he fought through to play 32 minutes and gave his all – taking the loss hard, at least visibly harder than the rest of his teammates. This will undoubtedly be an early failure that Hukporti will store in his memory of moments he doesn’t want to taste again. And that will likely make him do that much more next time.

Again – do-or-die games are good to see what good players come up with.

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