This Thursday starts the Nike International Junior Tournament in Berlin and features some of the best U18 Club Teams in Europe. Three qualification tournaments and two Wildcards later, 8 teams will fight in 2 groups to get the trophy. I took a quick look at the teams and tell you who are the prospects to follow this year.
Union Olimpija Ljubljana is one of the two Wildcard teams. They did not manage to qualify despite playing two tournaments and despite having a very interesting group of talent. However, the total absence of inside impact players makes them vulnerable. The main player to follow of course in Mirza Sarajlija who had already some Euroleague games. But the quick guard is questionable for Berlin because of a small knee injury. So the main roles offensively will be taken over by the Ukrainian guard Andriy Lebedintsev, who is a nice scorer but also a great defensive pressure guy, and by wingman Matic Sirnik. The younger players of the team feature also some interesting guys and it is especially the 1993 born Djordje Micic who already attracts the interest of the international scouts.
Lietuvos Rytas had already a great team during last year’s NIJT built around a back court that put tremendous pressure throughout the game. With the addition of the top Center prospect Jonas Valanciunas (MVP of the U16 EC in 2008), the team looks like on the favorites for this year’s edition. You better be prepared to see full-court pressure of Ovidijus Varanauskas, Augustas Peciukevicius and Mantas Kadzevicius during 40 minutes and three point bombing by Osvaldas Matulionis. Definitely, Lietuvos Rytas will be one of the teams to watch during the 4 days in Berlin.
Caja de Canarias Gran Canaria was a big surprise for me when they qualified during the Stella Azzurra tournament in Rome this winter. But this team is probably the closest one to a perfect team chemistry. A true Point Guard in Oscar Alvarado (MVP of the Stella Azzurra tournament) who won’t impress you with flashy passes, crazy scoring but with basketball knowledge, game temp control and defense; Alejandro Lopez who is an off guard that can score and runs the break. The wings are occupied by true team players while the inside is composed of three highly different player types: a shooting seven-footer from the Czech Republic in Milan Jaros, the rail-thin and raw but highly athletic Bakary Konate and the hard working powerful Samuel Dominguez.
KK Hemofarm Stada is more unknown to me as I never saw them play and they have no outstanding superstar talent. But their team basketball helped them to qualify through the FMP Tournament in Belgrade. Petar Lambic is one of the more interesting players of the group, he played for example during the Jordan Brand Classic in 2008.
Unicaja Malaga impressed during the Hospitalet tournament with a team built around Tautvydas Sabonis, the son of the great Lithuanian Center and the Brazilian inside player Augusto Cesar Lima. Sabonis plays the SF position and has a good basketball IQ and can connect on long distance shots. Lima is more of an inside presence on both sides of the court. Having never seen them play in person, I am looking forward to see these guys in action in Berlin.
FMP Belgrade is the 2008 champion and will try to defend the cup this year in Berlin. Probably the most impressive team in the paint with Branislav Djekic and Dejan Musli. But the guard positions around Nikola Vukasovic and the wings around Strahinja Mladenovic will not be far behind in terms of talent and basketball skills. But I see nobody in the tournament that can match the power of Musli and FMP looks like a highly likely title candidate.
Montepaschi Siena is the other big team of the Group B and they will play for the first play too. The guards Simone Centanni and Nunzio Sabbatino can both score at will, but being very different in their style, Centanni being more of a shooter while Sabbatino is a pure drive specialist. Tommaso Ingrosso is a very versatile forward while the Georgian big guy Nika Metreveli is one of the NBA prospect of the tournament because of his interesting combination of size and skills.
ALBA Berlin will play its first NIJT with a Wildcard as host of the tournament. The team finished 9th in Rome but they can be considered stronger than that. Next to the ALBA players around the athletic forwards Brian Wenzel and Niels Giffey, the team features additional players coming from the partner academies of ALBA Urspring and Central Hoops Berlin. Kevin Bright and Justin Raffington are the guys to watch coming from Urspring, Bright being a versatile athletic defender while Raffington gives the team the necessary size and physical presence in the paint. Head Coach Henrik Rödl will certainly try to impress the local fans with good basketball.
You can find additional information on the tournament in the official Media Guide that can be downloaded here