Federico Mussini cuts down the nets after Italy beat the United States to win the 2014 Albert Schweitzer Tournament

Federico Mussini cuts down the nets after Italy beat the United States to win the 2014 Albert Schweitzer Tournament

Every two years, the Albert Schweitzer Tournament brings the world together for an unofficial U18 world championship. Every two years, many of the top nations in the world send a gathering of their biggest and brightest stars. And every two years, I head out to Mannheim (and the past two years Viernheim as well) to catch a glimpse of what the world has to offer at the 18 years level. The event is a wonderful gathering at which I get to see various old friends from the business while making new acquaintances along the way.

This time around I decided to spend the full week in Mannheim to see as many of the players as often as possible – and to get the necessary interviews for various outlets.

The first day I needed to get my bearings straight, especially to see which players actually ended up on the final rosters, which traditionally don’t get announced beforehand – save for provisional ones, on which you can at least partially orientate yourself.

The 27th edition had a number of top notch players who unfortunately did not show. Some of the guys I was hoping to see were Turkey’s Berk Ugurlu, who Fenerbahce needed as back-up point guard after releasing Pierre Jackson; Germans Andreas Obst and Leon Kratzer, who were busy helping Bamberg farm club Baunach earn promotion from the third division ProB to ProA; Serbian Vojislav Stojanovic, who was named the MVP of the Belgrade NIJT tournament for Red Star; Spain’s Francisco Alonso; and French point guard Etienne Ory among others.

That being said, I really didn’t know this 1996-born generation that well, so it was a great chance to really see what these teams had to offer.

Unfortunately, USA Basketball does not recognize AST as an official event so it does not send any of their top players. Just to get an idea of whom the Americans could have sent from the 1996 generation – Myles Turner, Tyus Jones, Justice Winslow. That being said, U.S. coach Mike Olson did a good job putting together a group of players – most to-be collegiate freshmen – from schools where he knew the coaches.

More on those players in a bit.

So, what will this report be? It’s a combination of a rundown of events and experiences and a look at the players at the tournament.

 

The first day I saw England v Argentina and really only Jules Dang Akodo stood out in the final couple minutes that I saw. One guy I couldn’t see on the court and a player I was looking forward to checking out was Josh Steel – who as it turned out needed an operation to remove an infection on his foot.

Argentina didn’t really have a lot of great talent either. The most interesting player was Carlos Delfino’s younger brother Lucio Delfino, who was born in 1997. After not shooting a three-pointer at the U18 or U16 FIBA Americas in 2013, Lucio was hoisting them up regularly in Mannheim. And it was clearly the result of work he’s done to turn himself into a small forward.

 

Turkey v Slovenia was next.

Let’s start with the easier assignment. There was not a lot of talent on this Slovenia team – an ever-growing trend as the Balkan nation is not producing a lot of good young players. In a blowout by Turkey, it was even harder to find any Slovenians. Sandi Grubelic showed he can shoot a little bit and Tilen Kodrin had decent size and was at least productive as a four. The first time I saw center Jan Kosi he didn’t really show much but upon the second and third showings (yeah, I sat through three games with Slovenia) he showed that he might be Slovenia’s best player on this team. He has a striking resemblance to good buddy Nick Gibson, though I think the blogger formerly known as Freak Nick is a big shaggier up top. Kosi has decent length and didn’t shy away from going to the offensive glass. As far as I can remember, he seemed to be able to finish in transition – though he doesn’t play above the rim.

In general though, Slovenia were pretty lean on attractions.

 

Turkey on the other hand have more than a handful of players you can dream on – with some liking some players more than others.

One of the players I had known by name was Okben Ulubay. The first thing that stood out – other than full beard – was the neck tattoo. Of course, it’s ludicrous to judge a guy for his neck tat, but it did stand out. Later conversations with the Turkish team revealed that he had a challenging up-bringing and the tattoo is the letter B – the first letter of his mother Banu’s first name.

With that out the way, it also didn’t take long to see that Ulubay had some real game. The lefty is amazingly silky smooth and makes the game look so easy. He had a good array of offensive moves and could shoot the ball a bit – but not really over impressively. Ulubay seems like a real big time player who picks up his game when it matters most. In the first game, he did make some silly decisions with the ball but that may have been just first game struggles since I really didn’t see that in later games I saw.

I also knew through some initial research of Furkan Korkmaz, who was a really deadly shooter from outside but showed right away that he can really get at it on the defensive end at the front of a press and really go up and finish at and above the rim in transition.

But my first new personal cheeseball of the tournament – Sweden’s Ludde Hakanson had long reached that status – was Turkish center Akif Egemen Güven. First off, he was shooting from beyond the three-point pre-game and hitting a decent percentage of them. But he is anything but a stretch-five – though a three-point game would make him an even more dangerous threat – and even more enticing talent. If I remember correctly, the first thing in the game that caught my attention was a wonderful pass within the paint to another big man. And then he had a solid array of offensive moves in the blocks. And on defense he was all over the place, with active hands getting him steals and blocks. Güven impressed me even more on the defensive end in Turkey’s later game against Germany in which in a span of about five minutes or less he blocked the shots of Germany’s talented big men Niklas Kiel and Mahir Agva – two totally different centers playing style-wise. But Güven didn’t care. A block is a block is a block and he was going to get his hands on any ball he could – which ended up being quite a solid amount.

Other people will likely be really intrigued by Tolga Gecim – a 2.03m point guard – who obviously has great size but never really impressed me in the games I watched. That is not necessarily a fair observation because I never really focused on him. I was dreaming on Güven, Ulubay and Korkmaz too much I guess. But I can see the size as a huge plus for Gecim.

One other guy I watched a bit was Fenerbahce center Ayberk Olmaz. While I liked Güven, others said they liked Olmaz more. Fair enough. It seems to me though that Güven is more active and game changing defensively. Olmaz has nice size and length and can do plenty of things well.

 

The third game of the first day was Sweden v Serbia, and I was looking forward to seeing Hakanson, with whom I have talked a number of times over the past couple years, including last summer when he played with the Swedish senior national team at EuroBasket 2013. And he dominated this competition – averaging a tournament best 25.5 ppg while also doing a bit of everything else. He finished hitting 46 percent of his three pointers as well as 94 of his free throws.

The question revolving around Hakanson is what happens with him at Barcelona. The 18-year-old scored in double digits in five of his last six games for Barca’s LEB Gold (second division) team. The team was relegated from LEB Gold – though it’s very unlikely that it will actually move down. But it seems time for Hakanson to play with and against adults – which would mean he gets sent on loan to another club, especially given the fact that Barcelona’s average age drops to probably around 19 or 20 if you take out 37-year-old Ferran Lavina.

Otherwise, the Swedish have a rail-thin, long guard in Sheriff Drammeh (Gambia is the African root) as well as a big strong center in Matthias Markusson. Apparently the 18-year-old Markusson hasn’t been playing basketball for that long and used to play the Swedish traditional sport Innebandy or Floorball, a sort of indoor floor hockey.

 

Serbia had a number of interesting players. You have to be impressed with the all-around game of Stefan Lazarevic, who can do about everything except maybe shoot a bit – still needs to work on that. The wing can finish in transition and in the paint, is a tough rebounder and defender. A total team leader. Loads to dream on.

I really enjoyed watching two long kids – Danilo Ostojic and Dejan Kovacevic. Ostojic is a bit more of a wing whereas Kovacevic plays more down low and Ostojic is further along in his development. Both are interesting players.

One Serbian I had heard about before coming to Mannheim was center Vasilje Vucetic. The Union Olimpija big man didn’t really impress me. He shot 49 percent for the tournament with just 2.7 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game – Nikola Pavlovic for example had 8.6 total and 2.7 offensive rebounds in the same number of minutes. Many NBA scouts recently had travelled to Slovenia and elsewhere in the Balkans to see Vucetic play and he definitely didn’t live up to my subsequent expectations. At times he seemed to have solid footwork but seems to lack athleticism. Maybe I just got a bad tournament for him. He did play a year younger at U18s last summer and maybe he still needs to get used to his teammates. Not sure. But I did expect more.

One last Serbian I would like to touch on is Stefan Peno. I had low expectations coming into the tournament as he never seemed to impress me recently from his numbers, especially after putting up video game like numbers at the cadets level. But I kind of liked Peno. Despite being (or maybe because he’s) a year younger, he’s got plenty of confidence in his ability. He did a good job breaking down the opposing defense and getting his team set up. He shot the ball very well – 55 percent overall and 47 percent from threes (1.0 of 2.1 on average) and 90 percent on free throws. Peno sticks back and gets rebounds and while he didn’t put up huge assist numbers (2.4 apg) he only committed 2.0 turnovers per game – not bad for 25.2 minutes for a guy who doesn’t turn 17 until August. Whereas Vucetic went down in my opinion, Peno went up. I look forward to seeing what he does this summer at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship.

 

The final game of day one – don’t worry, the other six days will not be this extensive – was Germany’s demolition of Japan.

As previously written, Germany didn’t have Obst and Kratzer and Jan-Niklas Wimberg was actually with his ProB team in Oldenburg helping the team to earn promotion to the ProA – where he also got hurt. On top of that, Konstantin Ebert did not play with an injury.

So, who was there and how did they look?

Well, I had seen Niklas Kiel before and was once again happy with the 1997-born player’s showing (12.2 ppg/10.7rpg/2.3 apg/1.4 bpg). Kiel can really dominate a game in the paint – still a bit more offensively than defensively though he’s solid on the defensive end. I would have liked to have seen that shooting percentage of 49 percent be a bit higher but he made just 27 percent from three-point range (he shot 45 percent in U19 JBBL league).

Germany’s other main big man Mahir Agva proved very effective in the post, averaging 14.3 pts/8.0 rpg/1.7 apg. Agva is a traditional center who has a handful of moves in the blocks and works hard rebounding. He was one of the better bigs in the tournament though his upside isn’t as high as others. Agva’s future will depend on him working his butt off to get the best out of his abilities.

Wing Tim Hasbargen injured his right foot and will likely miss about four weeks – leaving Mannheim in a walking boot. He is a nice versatile player at both ends of the floor who can also shoot from long range.

I didn’t see anything impressive out of the lefty Joschka Ferner – was really busy watching others more than him. Germany really didn’t have any prospects at the guard positions as Lars Kamp, Luis Figge and Jacob Merz are all undersized guys who can shoot the long ball (41 percent, 46 percent and 57 percent respectively).

Japan will go quickly. Really the only guy to follow in the future is 1998-born Louis “Rui” Hachimura. The son of a Beninese father and Japanese mother is one of Japan’s tallest players, which means he automatically must play in the post even though he is undersized there. That fits his game most at the moment as he possesses a good basketball body and athleticism but is still quite raw. Down the road he will need to learn to play the three to be an international prospect.

There was little else on Japan’s team to look at – though they had five players 1997 or younger as they prepare those youngsters for the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship. Hayato Maki is one guy to possibly watch because he can light it up from outside.

 

For Day Two, it was over to the Waldsporthalle in Viernheim to go NBA talent hunting on Easter Sunday. Okay, sorry about the cheesy line, but it was time to see the other eight teams in this tournament.

First off was Bosnia & Herzegovina v Italy.

Bosnia are an up-and-coming nation at the youth level, especially with the development of the Spars Sarajevo program, which reached the NIJT Euroleague Final Four last season. But somehow this team didn’t have a lot of interesting players.

One who did catch my eye a bit was Edin Atic, a big guard who runs the point. Atic did make some questionable decisions with the ball over the course of the tournament but he showed an ability to score pretty much everywhere on the court. He hit 45 percent of his threes and can easily nail three or four in a row. He also rebounds well for a guard – thanks to his good size – and is not afraid to mix it up on the offensive glass. Atic also has quick hands and good anticipation on defense.

The other big name on this team was Nedim Djedovic. But that’s more because he’s the younger brother of Nihad Djedovic. Nedim however is quite a ways from having his brother’s talent. He struggled throughout the tournament offensively, shooting 38 percent from the floor and just 24 percent from long range. Djedovic did come up with 2.2 steals per game.

 

Italy wound up winning the tournament – for the fourth time following 1966, 1969 and 1983 – and the main reasons were star point guard Federico Mussini and a tight-knit group of players. Mussini will be a great player to watch for years and years. What he lacks in size, he makes up in coglioni – which thanks to TomasVDS we know is Italian for cajones. He’s a pure killer on the court. The über-quick Mussini plays tough defense and does a good job at the point, though he can score in a variety of ways. He’s deadly if given space from behind the stripe (52 percent on threes) and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes with the ball. Mussini also has played this season in the Serie A and the EuroChallenge. My two favorite Mussini moments were in the semifinals against Turkey when after nailing a bit three late in the third quarter he pulls out his finger guns, shoots them off and sticks them back in their holster and then in the final when he got out on the break and knowing that American Ethan Happ was trailing him for the block went up and under the far left side of the rim for the layup. A maestro with coglioni.

Now that I’ve written so much about Mussini, I really need to look at the rest of Italy. There were a lot of interesting players but no real superstars. Diego Flaccadori can score in a lot of different ways and Daniel Donzelli is an under-sized big who can shoot from outside and works hard on both ends of the court.

Andrea La Torre – Italy’s only underclassman at the tournament – showed some major flashes of stardom. It’s hard not to remember his thunderous dunk in transition against Ukraine and his nasty block on American Austin White in the final game of group play. He’s an intriguing lefty and it will be interesting to see what he does at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship – he led Italy in points, rebounds, assists and steals at the 2013 U16 European Championships.

 

The second game of the second day provided one of the biggest upsets in AST history as debutants Chile shocked France in overtime. With five underclass players (three 97s and two 98s), Chile came to Germany just looking to get exposure to the rest of the world of basketball. Especially since their last appearance on the world stage came in 1959 when they hosted the World Championship and claimed third place.

Funnily I kind of adopted Chile as my team after the victory – similar to how I really supported Egypt at the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship in Kaunas. Possibly because I wanted to tell the world about this amazing victory and the country’s story.

For those who might not know it, this win – probably one of the greatest in the country’s history – is rooted in Argentinean Juan Manuel Cordoba in January 2010 taking over as head coach of the Chilean senior national team and over-seeing the youth ranks. One of the first thing Cordoba did was recommend that the country’s top youngsters spread their wings and learn how to fly abroad – preferably in the United States and if possible Europe. And a number of his players followed his call and went to the U.S. to high schools and colleges. This Chile team’s center Nicolas Carvacho has already spent time in the States, playing in Frisco, Texas. More are expected to follow.

But a couple of Chileans will likely land in Europe.

Sebastian Herrera, for example, has a German passport – through a German mother – and will likely be pursued by clubs in Germany – if nothing else to possibly initiate a pipeline to future talents as well. Diego Low’s grandfather was born in Germany as were Felipe Haase’s mother and grandfather.

Spanish clubs are already after other Chileans as the Burkhard Wildermuth Award winner – as the most talented player – Nicolas Aguirre received an offer from Canarias, according to the Chilean federation’s press officer. But the club was only offering a scholarship and no money and Aguirre’s family apparently is interested in making money.

And Spanish club Zaragoza tried to get Javier Barra but the paperwork didn’t work out.

Chilean basketballs face a difficult situation in that they first must play South American qualifiers to reach the FIBA Americas youth tournaments, which then lead to a possibility of moving to youth World Championships. Next summer will be huge for Chile as the 1998 generation – that of Aguirre and Haase – play U17 South Americans qualifiers, hoping to reach the 2016 U18 FIBA Americas and then possibly the 2017 FIBA U19 World Championship.

Last summer, Chile finished fifth in the U16 FIBA Americas, from which the top four went to the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship while the country did not even compete at the U17 South American championships. Those two facts mean that the 1996 and 1997 generations have no FIBA/FIBA Americas tournaments to play this summer.

All that information either confused you or you just read more about Chilean basketball in the past three or four minutes than you did previously in your life total.

 

So, let’s move to France. Obviously they were really missing point guard Etienne Ory. As usual, Les Bleus had some major athleticism among their ranks – guys like Alpha Kaba, Cyril Eliezer-Vanerot and Lenny Charles Catherine. All three of those guys showed flashes – and all three used their athleticism to help defensively.

Eliezer-Vanerot was with the U18 team at the 2013 U18 European Championship so he did exhibit a bit more leadership. He worked well around the basket offensively but struggled from long range.

Kaba was a serviceable backup who really got his chance in the final game against England with starting big man Antoine Wallez out. Kaba went for 19pts and 13rebs to go along with two assists and two blocks.

Wallez was probably the best player for France at AST. The wide-shouldered power forward used his body well for rebounds – also on the offensive glass – and he was quick enough to get to the rim. His outside shooting didn’t impress but he did show an ability to knock down the long ball.

 

China vs Spain was next on the bill.

China were an extremely young team – every player from 1997 or 1998 (for a 1996 tournament). The Chinese were preparing their group for the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship. Their main gun was clearly Zhao Yinhao. The small forward, who doesn’t turn 17 until late October, was a big time shooter who also was fearless going to the rim – though his finishing skills weren’t quite there. He rebounded well from the wing and helping in the passing game. But Zhao also worked hard and was effective on defense with his quickness and anticipation. Zhao was better early in the tournament and clearly got tired over the course of six games in seven days. The Chinese lack of physical development with age was exhibited most against France, who just dominated the Asians with their massiveness against the younger Chinese.

Center Hu Jinqiu did a good job in general in playing against four European teams – Italy, Spain, Bosnia and France. Hu rebounded well on the offensive glass and used his size effectively on defense in blocking 2.5 shots per game.

One other guy of note was 1998 born Wang Zixu, who was a forward who showed an ability to shoot from the outside but struggled in general offensively – mainly it would seem because of his age. But he worked well in the Chinese system.

 

Spain were an attractive group of talents. Marc Garcia can quite simple light it up big time. He’s great from outside and does a solid job getting into the paint but most of his damage comes from the outside. He solid defensively but is clearly a more offensive-minded player.

Yankuba Sima is a long, athletic, a bit undersized big who like Ethan Happ and Niklas Kiel averaged a double double. He was third in blocks (1.7 bpg) and fourth in overall efficiency. Sima was especially strong on the offensive glass with 5.0 orpg.

I came into the tournament thinking more highly about Sergi Costa and the point guard did not have a very strong tournament. He shot just 13 percent from the field though he did have a 1.3 to 0.5 assist to turnover ratio. But I had higher expectations about him coming in.

At the other end of the spectrum, I knew that Marc Bauza had teamed with Costa to lead Joventut Badalona to the NIJT finals in Milan – and both were 2013 NIJT champions. But I had lower expectations for Bauza and was pleasantly surprised. He has some decent athleticism and worked very hard on the offensive glass (3.2 OR to 1.7 DR). He also played within himself offensively, shooting 54 percent.

 

The final game of day two was Ukraine v United States. I was pretty beat after the first seven games and didn’t watch this game too closely. But here are some general observations on both teams after watching them over the course of the tournament.

Starting with Ukraine, Sviatoslav Mikhailiuk is a pretty darn good ball player. The shooting guard, who doesn’t turn 17 until June became a hotly-discussed item after his impressive practices at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit in a couple of weeks ago. And it’s not a surprise when you watch Mikhailiuk play. He’s got the complete game. He’s got a good basketball body, can shoot, drive, play a bit inside, rebound, defend, create for others. Easily put, Mikhailiuk is probably the top NBA talent at the tournament.

Other guys from the Ukraine team, Oleksandr Kobets is another all-around guard, who actually led Ukraine in scoring and shot better from long range. The Mikhailiuk-Kobets tandem was pretty strong and could be a nice combo for the future

Serbian-Ukraine big man Djordije Slivancanin flashed some nice skills as the tournament went on. He’s not a great athlete but takes care of the ball – other than shooting from long range, which he showed that he cannot really do.

 

The United States meanwhile had some pretty interesting guys. By far the best one was Ethan Happ, who would eventually win the MVP of the tournament in helping the U.S. reach their first final since their title in 1996.

The Wisconsin-bound Happ was one of few US players who got more attention internationally than he did back home. US college fans will have fun watching him with the Badgers, once he cracks Bo Ryan’s lineup. Happ can, quite simply, do it all. He’s a small forward who proved that he can move up and guard the four and play in the post. He can dribble in traffic, rebounds at both ends, has good anticipation, doesn’t have a lot of wasted movement. He’s a vocal leader on the court, can play against bigger guys than him on defense and score in the paint. He blocks shots, gets his handles on loose ball and he’s a finisher who can drive to the lane as well. He doesn’t have the prettiest of shots but is effective with it. Happ is definitely one to follow whose game easily could translate to Europe. And he was the deserved MVP.

Scott Lindsey showed he can influence the game at both ends. The long wing can light it up from long range, rebounds well and is a highlight reel at the defensive end.

Shavar Newkirk did a solid job at the point of a team of Americans who met for the first time a couple of days before the tournament. Newkirk struggled a bit offensively with his shot but did a good job getting the US team organized and rebounded well from the guard spot. He used his quickness on defense well as well, picking up a lot of steals.

Otherwise the US team was solid but not spectacular.

 

Wow, that’s a lot of writing that you probably didn’t go through …

Still, in case I still have you at this point, thanks for reading the piece and showing interest in the 2014 Albert Schweitzer Tournament I cannot wait until Easter time in 2016.

See you there hopefully

Dave

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