With the start of the Top16, it is about time to get an update on some of the most promising players in relation with the upcoming NBA Draft. The schedule allowed me to follow three “big” guys in the same evening, even if they are all three very different players. I speak of Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Mirotic and Jan Vesely.
Jonas Valanciunas started all the games of Lietuvos Rytas in the beginning of the season and came up with some good stats and lots of minutes. But for the last two weeks of the Euroleague regular season, the new coaching staff of Rytas has put the Lithuanian Center back on the bench and gave him only limited minutes (4.5 per game over the last 2) preferring the fighting style of Turkish Cemal Nalga. In the first halftime of the game against Panathinaikos, Valanciunas only played 5 minutes to score 2 points from the free-throw line. What was however interesting to see is how his team mates “ignored” him on offense in several occasions where he was completely open under the basked and waving his arms to receive the pass.
In the beginning of the second half, Panathinaikos had a good run to get a double-digit lead but Aleksandar Trifunovic still did not bring in the 1992 born Center. With 5 minutes to go in the last quarter at –19, Valanciunas came back into the game for Rytas. He was immediately present on the offensive glass for his first bucket. He continued to set good screens for Pick and Roll situations but his team mates were not able to find him on the roll. He walked on another offensive rebound where he forced the score and turned over a back-door pass as his team mate did not see what he wanted from him. On the defensive end, he helped well on the drives of Panathinaikos but he was not fast enough back in position and got dunked on by Mike Batiste. In the last two minutes, Valanciunas saw his first low post possession and tried the turn-around hook shot but gets fouled on it to score 2pts from the free-throw line.
The next game of the evening featured two big guys mainly used on forward position with Nikola Mirotic and Jan Vesely. Additionally, it was a possibility to follow the progress of Branislav Djekic (he did not play though) and get a better idea on the game of Dragan Milosavljevic. The Czech forward was the only player of these five that started the game in Madrid. But it did not last long until Mirotic came to the court as well as Felipe Reyes had 2 quick fouls after 4 minutes. At that moment, Vesely only had a missed back-to-the-basket jump hook and both teams a multitude of turnovers. Mirotic started very well with a good defense on James Gist coming up nearly with a steal. Dragan Milosavljevic saw his first minutes as well and immediately nailed the long jump shot while Mirotic missed the open three pointer.
Partizan tried to use the size of Vesely on the SF position and found him on a high-low which the Czech finished with a dunk. This play gave him some confidence but he air-balled a catch-and-shoot three afterwards. The shooting mechanics of Vesely look a bit smoother than we were used to but this did not translate in better percentages from outside so far. Real looked for Mirotic in the low post out of a time-out which was a good choice as the quick spin move of the Montenegrin with Spanish passport could only be stopped by a Partizan foul. The 2m08 tall forward showed his good defensive reads by stealing a ball in the passing lane while Milosavljevic scored a tough one on the break. The 1989 born Serb tried his best on defense to stop Clay Tucker and he showed a great right-handed drive to finish the first quarter where he found Nathan Jawai for the power slam.
The start of the 2nd quarter saw even the 89 born Vladimir Lucic shine on an excellent right handed drive to score close to the basket. It was now Jan Vesely that should take care of Tucker but the American shooter immediately hit a three-pointer on the Czech for a 6-0 run. Without doing a lot that can be seen on the stat-sheet, Nikola Mirotic was very effective on both ends of the court and it was a real beauty to see a nearly seven-footer move with such an elegance and fluidity on the court with the ball. Vesely scored another one on a high-low, a move that he seems to really appreciate when playing SF as he has a big height advantage and can come up with the quick execution out of the catch because of his explosive second jump. The Partizan forward showed his jumping abilities on an impressive offensive rebounding sequence where he missed a tip and a tip-dunk but sprinted the court back to stop the break with a deflection. Real used the bonus to score several points from the free-throw line and grab a double-digit lead at the halftime.
The third quarter started with the direct match-up between Vesely and Mirotic. Both guys battled hard on defense for the position and it was Vesely that had the first positive play after a steal finished with the alley-oop dunk on the difficult catch. Mirotic joined the bench while Vesely continued to show his great athletic abilities on a fast-break rejection against Reyes and an immediate second jump to steal the possible rebound from the Spanish forward’s hands. This third quarter looked to be the Vesely one as the forward scored on a difficult drive where he came up with a nice spin move finished by a floating score to bring the score back to –15. But this run was only a short one as Real Madrid dominated again the second part of the 3rd quarter where Milosavljevic showed his limits as guard with some bad passes.
The last quarter did not feature a lot more interesting stuff. Vesely came up with a nice drive and dish but that was about it.
The general observations on the main prospects
The general impression on Jonas Valanciunas was that he has not yet adapted his game to the reduced playing time. He forced some choices as he wanted to rush the score instead of letting the game come to him as he did so well in the beginning of the season. The Rytas player remains highly effective on the rebound on both sides of the court; he had 7 rebounds in 10 minutes on the court. He showed that he likes to go for the back-door pass from the top and he got an assist on a cut of Khalid El-Amin. The main problem on his game is his limited back-to-the-basket game at the moment and his defensive presence where he needs to improve his decision making.
Jan Vesely had a rocky start into this season. But since the middle of December, he seems to be back with his usual play that we knew from last season. There is an improvement in his shooting mechanics but the production is not yet regular. He struggled badly from the free-throw line today where he had some very short attempts and others being too long. Despite these problems, the Czech is an amazing presence on the offensive glass (he was only credited for 1 offensive rebound but he certainly had an impact on more than that) where his relentless effort gives him some scoring opportunities. His high-intensity game remains though very foul-intensive and he looks to be a bit out of control at times. Next to that, there is not much of a progress seen at the moment for him, at least when it comes to this game.
Nikola Mirotic, who we predicted to have his break-out year in 2011, had a pretty good first half. He is incredibly fluid, especially in opposition to Vesely, and plays in a very elegant way. All his moves look under control and technically perfect. He had some very good scoring games in the ACB recently and seemed to have doubled Jorge Garbajosa in the rotation. However today, he did not see many minutes in the second half as the Real roster has the luxury to be built with 12 nearly interchangeable and equally talented players. There has not been that much talk about him entering the 2011 Draft but he is definitely on the radar of most NBA Teams as his combination of size and skills is excellent.