Würzburg, Germany (heinnews) – The 1992 German basketball class features loads of talented players well known throughout Europe. But ask international scouts about perhaps the country’s top talent and there are more than a few raised eyebrows.
“Never seen him play or heard much about him. Should I have?” asked one who knows plenty about other 1992 born players such as Philipp Neumann or Daniel Theis or Mathis Mönninghof.
“Actually … don’t have any strong memory of him,” added another, who is also familiar with even more players from that Germany age group like Kevin Bright or Mario Blessing or Patrick Heckmann among many others.
Well, there is plenty of reason for the top talent finders to have overlooked Maximilian Kleber. The 6-foot-11 forward with s.Oliver Baskets Würzburg has been dealing with injuries for the past two years and missed out on playing for Germany’s youth national teams during that time – one major way many international scouts get a good look at talented players.
“Maxi” Kleber – as he is more commonly called – missed out on playing for Germany at the U18 European Championship in 2010 when he injured his cruciate knee ligament. He was then hoping to play at the U20 Euros in 2011 but a broken finger kept Kleber from pulling over the Germany jersey.
“It was pretty disappointing because I was probably going to play U18 and then my knee injury happened and the year was lost,” Kleber told heinnews.
“I fought back two years and nobody really knew me anymore, and I went to the (U20) training and it went well for me. But then I broke my finger. And then it was over for me again.
“I think there was a reason why I got injured. I just made the best of it. I gained some weight and some mass and looking back that was good because I need that for the Bundesliga.”
And the soft-spoken, baby-faced Kleber is finally fully healthy and ready to show the world what he can do.
“Now I feel pretty good. I do a lot of weightlifting with our coaches. I feel stable. I don’t have any problems with my ankles or knee,” said Kleber, who feels confident in his body and abilities.
“I have confidence in myself and I think that coach also has confidence in me and will continue to give me playing time.”
Würzburg coach John Patrick thinks Kleber can do quite a lot.
“Max is a tremendous talent. In my mind has the highest potential of any guy his age in Germany and maybe in Europe,” said the American coach who has played or coached in Germany on or off since 2001 and guided BG Göttingen to the 2010 FIBA EuroChallenge title and the 2011 Eurocup quarterfinals.
“He’s 6-foot-11 with 7-foot-2 arms. He’s a great three-point shooter. He’s just been injured for two years. He’s got a 35 inch vertical jump. He’s a ridiculous athlete. He’s just got to get back used to playing again. And I think we’ll hear a lot more from him in the future.”
His teammates at s.Oliver Baskets were not afraid to praise Kleber and compare him to some pretty big names in European hoops.
“I think he’s a pro. I think he’s got potential. I see him every day in practice and the things he can do. He can shoot it. He can block shots, he can defend, he can handle it. There’s not much he can’t do. When he gets that killer confidence I feel that at his age he may be the best German in Germany,” said Würzburg’s American point guard John Little.
“He’s gonna be in the NBA. Two to three years. He’s a pro. He’s a pro.”
When asked to compare Kleber to another player, Little said he reminds him of Brose Baskets Bamberg’s Predrag Suput – “as far as picking and popping and shots like that and handling the ball, coming off a ball screen and shooting and making the right play” – and also brought up the name Nikola Mirotic, the Montenegro-Spaniard who has excelled with Spanish giants Real Madrid this season as a 20-year-old.
“He’s similar to him because he can kind of defend and shoot it well. Maybe a better shooter than him. He’s a pure shooter. He catches it up off the screen and then doesn’t drop it down but just goes up with it. And it’s right in the bucket. He has the fundamentals down,” said Little of Kleber.
Little’s teammate Ben Jacobsen interjected about Kleber: “I think he’s a (Italian Danilo) Gallinari (of the Denver Nuggets). He can be like a Gallinari in the NBA one day if he keeps working.”
“Gallinari! Yeah!” said Little.
Mirotic? Gallinari? And the top international scouts don’t even know him? How is that possible? Asks the perplexed fan, who then asks what Kleber is he doing with Würzburg?
Taking a look at the stats, many may think this has to be some joke.
Kleber is averaging 5 minutes per game with 1.8 points and 1.0 rebounds per contest while shooting 36 percent from long range. His career high is 7 points and he has played more than 10 minutes just twice.
Still, Kay Blümel is convinced enough of the talent and knows Kleber well as the German U18 national team coach has regularly followed his career.
“I think he is a great talent,” said Blümel.
“I would not compare him with Mirotic, as he is the top player of this age group in Europe. But as a power forward/small forward he looks a little bit like (Dirk) Nowitzki.”
Blümel had Kleber with him at the Nike Global Games last summer in Portland, Oregon – his first games after he was unable to play at the U20 European Championship. And Blümel was impressed as Kleber held his own with 9 points and 6 rebounds against a USA Midwest team which features stars such as Jabari Parker, Tony Parker and Garry Harris. Kleber then scored 17 points against Puerto Rico and collected 15 points, 5 rebounds and 6 blocks against Brazil.
“The way he played against these very athletic American kids was phenomenal. Driving, shooting, dunking on others, he did all the things you love to have from a player. He was by far the best player on that team and totally deserved his spot in the All-Tournament-Team,” said Blümel.
Blümel, who had hoped to have Kleber at the 2010 Albert Schweitzer Tournament showcase event, added that the youngster is a good person.
“He is someone you like to share your time with, and I think we will hear a lot of good things about him, if he stays healthy.”
There is a lot to like in Kleber’s game according to the German youth coach. The Würzburg native has good ball-handling skills for his size, giving him the ability to dribble the ball well down court. His three-point shot looks good, according to Blümel, meaning he is dangerous from long range. And Kleber does not shy away from contact and posts up opposing players with good post moves.
According to Little, Kleber plays tough down low despite needing to gain a bit more strength on his long frame and then learn how to best utilize his package of skills.
“It’s not that he doesn’t play strong. He doesn’t get knocked around. He knows how to play strong. He moves his feet. He plays angles well. And he’s a hard guy he can play behind the big guy and he can still bother their shots,” said Little.
Blümel said Kleber has gained some 12-15 kg (between 25-30 pounds) since 2009. “And he can still work a little on that. But he is on a good way.”
Almost everyone around the league who talks about Kleber praises the youngster and his skill-set. But at the same time they say he needs playing time.
Blümel said he and U20 national team coach Frank Menz are confident of Kleber’s ability, adding: “We think that he can have an impact in the BBL right now, if you give him the chance.”
Kleber has played less than 7 minutes in seven of his last eight appearances.
One assistant coach of an opposing team said Kleber is definitely talented but he needs to play. “Würzburg need a (third division) ProB team so he can play more,” said the coach.
s. Oliver Baskets has co-operations with two teams, but both play in the non-professional fifth league 2. Regionalliga.
The mild-mannered Kleber admits he is pleased to be playing in the first division.
“Not every young German basketball player has the chance to play with a Bundesliga team. It’s a big honor for me,” Kleber.
And Little said Kleber has really been blossoming in the time he does get with the BBL side.
“The more playing time he gets he’s gonna be something nobody can deal with. He’s going to be a tough player. He works his butt off too to his credit. He’s one of the hardest workers on the whole team,” said Little.
That issue – hard work – is exactly one that has turned a lot of super German talents into busts.
“He is a typical German talent. What I mean is that he has a great body; he has a basketball body. He’s tall. He has a good shot. But the question is how hard he works and who coached him in the past,” said Marko Pesic, who owned a sports agency group with a number of young German internationals as clients before taking over the position as sports director at Bayern Munich.
“I think he has a good coaches in Würzburg, and I believe if he stays healthy that he is one of the major talents in that age group. But the main thing that I am always concerned about with youth players in Germany is their work ethic and their dedication to become a professional basketball player. At what level is that? I can’t tell you that.
“He looks very good. He has a good basketball body he’s tall, he can shoot. And these are basics that you cannot teach. You cannot teach size, you cannot teach body, long arms, feeling for the shot. But what do you do with that talent. And this is always where work ethic and dedication comes into play.”
Kleber hopes he can finally get his chance to shine for the German youth national team this summer as he was invited for the U20 training camp in May.
He said he would love to play for Germany in Ljubljana, Slovenia – where the U20 European Championship will take place this summer.
“You always want to play national team. I hope that it will come true some time, and not always get blocked by injuries,” said Kleber.
Another injury would again keep talent scouts from getting a look at Kleber – something the young power forward hopes to have put behind him.