Written in partnership with Overtime Basket
To keep track of all the prospects that pass through a tournament like the FIBA U19 World Cup, this article wouldn’t be nearly enough. Every U19 World Cup edition is historic in its own way. Especially since 2005, when FIBA shut down the U21 tournament and the U19 category became the most prominent showcase for the next generation of basketball players. To the players themselves, it’s a rite of passage – and the next one in slated between the 29th June and the 7th July, in Heraklion, Greece, on the beautiful Isle of Crete.
For the kids who won’t follow through with their career in sports, this will be a proving ground and a memory to cherish. For those who will proceed to the NBA or the toughest European leagues, it will be a bar to raise. We’re drafting a Top 5 of the players to keep an eye on, to see who will prove themselves ready and bring their A Game. And ultimately, who at 19 years old (or younger), has already learned how to deal with pressure like a champion.
Until you visit the Philippines, you can’t understand how deeply this nation loves basketball. This love is not just limited to playgrounds and domestic leagues anymore; thanks in part to the success of imported players like Andray Blatche in meshing with the national setup, the senior team has made some noise in international competitions, and the youth sector follows suit. Both teams will participate in their respective FIBA World Cups in 2019. Due to this trend, the best Philippines prospects are beginning to think big.
Kai Zachary Sotto fits the description. 17 years old, 218 centimeters tall (just under 7 feet 2 inches) and still much more room to grow, both in height – he will probably stand over 220 centimeters one day. If we compare him to Yao Ming, which many tend to do, as Sotto may turn out to be the next big thing in terms of Asian prospects.
Kai Sotto, born in a family with basketball tradition, has been looking to play in the NBA since the very first time he touched a basketball. He’s not rushing things, though, and if we keep faith to his words, he doesn’t fear pressure. He knows that in modern day basketball your height can only do so much if you don’t possess other means to claw your way to the basket. Hence his clean fundamentals, his developing lefty jump shot, his good feel for the game all over the court and his quick feet, to stand his ground on defense – although he gives away some weight and strength in the paint.
This looks like the blueprint of a big man who just came out of a lab: the first one that comes to mind is Kristaps Porzingis. While he tries to emulate the Latvian’s explosiveness and touch, Kai Sotto is training in Atlanta, supervised by a professional staff. He’s considering offers from European teams – Real Madrid is said to have a strong interest in him – but for now he’s staying put with the Manila Blue Eaglets, his college’s varsity team.
Following the lead of our Kristaps Porzingis’ comparison, our analysis inevitably shifts towards Latvia. It’s not that easy for a country of two million people to impose itself among the World Cup’s six European representatives, but Latvia has taken their Lithuanian neighbours as an example and turned a nationwide passion into a surprisingly successful setup. The senior team sits comfortably among the continent’s top teams, led by the very same Porzingis alongside the Bertans brothers, and the youth sector is even more promising: in 2018, they ended their U18 European Championship cinderella’s run in the final game, losing only to Serbia.
Arturs Zagars is one of the leaders of a tenacious, inspired group. He played that role last year too, ending up in the championship’s Top 5 thanks to an average of 18.9 points and 6.3 assists per game. Standing at 190 centimeters tall (just over 6 feet, 2 inches), Zagars is a point guard who’s pretty confident in looking at the rim, even from long distance (44% from three-point range at the last European Championship).
The European audience is very much aware of his potential, since they watch him every week in Spain, wearing Joventut Badalona’s jersey. Alongside the other “Spaniard”, Baskonia’s Arturs Kurucs, Zagars will be the core of this Latvian raid on the Greek shores. In his words, it will be “an amazing opportunity”, that ought to be lived “with the mindset that we can win it all”. Still recovering from ankle surgery, particularly troublesome at his age, Zagars will need to recover his quick first step, but watch out for the threat he poses slashing to the basket.
In the aforementioned last year’s FIBA U18 European Championship, France held his ground too, stepping onto the podium to win a bronze medal. Coach Frederic Crapez has decided to bring back nine players from that roster to face this summer’s World Cup, tweaking ever so slightly a group that aims to bring home a more precious medal, and is sure to have learned from their past mistakes.
Joel Ayayi is the jewel of the crown: a lightning fast point guard, boasting a noble pedigree, and he was also selected for 2018 European Championship’s Top 5. His father, hailing from Benin, was a professional player and his sister, Valerie, played in the WNBA and in France women’s national team. He grew up at the INSEP institute, a name that speaks absolute quality – Ronny Turiaf and Killian Tillie had also honed their skills there.
Trying to live up to these two fellow countrymen, Ayayi moved to America enrolling at Gonzaga, a basketball program who has a knack for international prospects. While Tillie has filled the shoes of a key player in this year’s Bulldogs’s NCAA run, Ayayi averaged 5 minutes of playtime after sitting out his freshman season as a redshirt.
There’s a lot of buzz around what his role will be next season, given how coach Mark Few is patient in waiting for his players’ development. In the meantime, Ayayi will prove his worth acting as a primary or secondary scorer for this France squad, which is balanced and far-reaching: coach Crapez will need a spark of energy from Ayayi, every time he steps on the floor.
At this point, we need to talk about Europe’s defending champions. Among the European teams, Serbia is the one more committed to challenge USA and Canada for the gold medal. As always, Serbia boasts a fearful frontcourt, bringing back the Pecarski-Petrusev duo who led them to victory last year.
Marko Pecarski acts as the center of gravity among the two, being more renowned for his career with his club team, Partizan Belgrade (Petrusev, instead, moved to NCAA and is a teammate of Joel Ayayi at Gonzaga). Averaging over 24 points and 10 rebounds per game, Pecarski won the MVP award in last year FIBA U18 European Championship.
Following the footsteps of his father Miroslav, Marko has already garnered some international experience all over the continent. Born in Gijòn, Spain, his resumé sports a season in Germany and some sound play for his national team. Standing at 208 centimeters tall (just over 6 feet, 8 inches), blessed with the physical prowess and exquisite skillset of the great Serbian big men linaege, Pecarski is also able to do damage from the outside: he shot 44% on his threes in last year’s European Championship, and that should be enough evidence.
Given the usual array of US prodigies, it’s difficult to guess with confidence who will be the key player for a United States team that lands in Greece. The team boasts a complete, all-around roster, adept at playing as a team more than satisfying the tendencies of a single star player.
Jalen Green, MVP of last year Argentina’s FIBA U17 World Cup, may turn out to be the joker of that deck. He’s more than capable of going off, even when sharing the load with top prospects like RJ Hunter and Evan Mobley, thanks to his unshakable confidence: the very same mindset that allowed him to get better and better every season even though people were highlighting him as a basketball phenom since he was a kid – bringing home two gold medals in the process.
Green will play his last high school championship in 2020, then he’ll be required to choose from the many scholarship offers that first-class colleges will no doubt deliver to his desk. And then, he’ll probably be a one-and-done, just a single NCAA season before declaring for the NBA 2021 Draft as a consensus lottery pick, maybe even a top 3 pick.
Standing at 196 centimeters tall (over 6 feet, 4 inches) and a natural-born leaper (just look at one of his dunks for proof), Green will need to add some muscle to his frame to fight against stronger guards, but his all-around play makes him a valuable asset on the court, even more so in a FIBA tournament. Due to his slick way of moving up and down the court and rising up for the jumper, some say he has a hint of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Penny Hardaway, in him but Green’s strong point is his ability to play through four positions.
Defense, passing (he’s acting more comfortably as a playmaker now), shooting off the dribble or off his teammates’ passes: Green does it all, and he knows it. He likes when people call him “unicorn”, because he’s indeed one of a kind: “I feel like I am different”, he says. “On the court and off the court. I’m the unicorn, what else can you say?”
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