Tuesday April 15th, 2008

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The most intriguing players in the Nike Hoop Summit came from the World Select Team, including one who will be in the NBA draft this June. With better guard play, the 19-and-under international team could have made a run at upsetting the heavily favored U.S. Junior Select Team, a 98-78 winner Saturday thanks to impressive performances from forwards Demar DeRozan (17 points), who is headed to USC, and Drew Gordon (15 points on seven shots), one of four players in the game committed to UCLA.

Alexis Ajinca, 19, a 7-foot-1 center from France, will put his name in the draft, his agent said after the game. But the player with the most provocative story and upside was a teen from Congo. Here's a closer look at a few players from the World Select Team:

Serge Ibaka: The 18-year-old is a 6-9, 225-pound forward from Congo who has spent this season playing in the Spanish second division for the suburban-Barcelona club CB Hospitalet. Ibaka, who turns 19 in September, is averaging 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds and shooting 55 percent in essentially his first official season of basketball.

Ibaka was 4-of-13 for eight points Saturday while adding eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals. He was not outclassed athletically by the Americans. "He doesn't know how to play,'' said an NBA international scout who knows Ibaka well. "But athletically he's off the charts -- there's no telling how good he can be.''

Which is to say that he has no ceiling. "If he could just get a good coach,'' added the scout, who passed on a rumor that Ibaka might move to the Spanish first-division club Badalona next season.

Ibaka's parents played basketball. His father, Desire', was a 6-6 forward from Brazzaville. "My father tells me that we are different players,'' Ibaka said through an interpreter. "My father was a true center, a defensive rebounder. He says I am capable of doing more things -- I can shoot, block shots, dunk.''

Serge was among Desire''s 18 children. After civil war broke out in 1996 (continuing in various forms through 2003), Desire' crossed a river in search of food when he was captured by one of the warring factions. "He was in jail for 1½ years,'' said Spanish agent Pere Gallego, who represents Ibaka in conjunction with the American agent Andy Miller. "He was tortured. He almost died.''

Serge's mother died when he was 8. He lived with his grandmother, and during those times when the war was fought in his region, they would go hungry for a week or longer. "Their home had no water, no electricity,'' Gallego said. "I went to see his grandmother's house. At night the streets are of dust and trash, and no lights. There is no bathroom in the house. But he is proud to show us where he lived.''

Ibaka has made donations to his local club and the Congolese federation to help create opportunities for other young players. After the war ended, he began to play basketball more seriously. He and his friends would wear cardboard in their sneakers to cover the holes in the soles, and they would take a bus to play on the outdoor court nearest his grandmother's home. There was no league, but a local basketball coach helped him with the fundamentals.

At 16, he began playing for the Congolese club Avenir du Rail. Ibaka played for the Under-18 Congo national team in 2006 and was MVP -- as leading scorer and rebounder -- at the African Junior Championships the following year. While on loan to another club, he played in the senior African championship and emerged as the leading rebounder and best center. He was discovered by Cleveland Cavaliers scout Anicet Lavodrama, who had grown up playing against Serge's father. Lavodrama introduced Ibaka to the Spanish club Hospitalet as well as Gallego of the Spanish agency U1st. Ibaka joined Hospitalet last spring and spent last summer training at the Abunassar Impact Basketball academy in Las Vegas with NBA players.

"My dream is to be a recognizable player, someone that people will talk about,'' he said. "Kevin Garnett is my mirror.'' His role model, he means.

Many NBA scouts remain skeptical of Ibaka's future. "There are a lot of American 18-year-olds like him,'' said one scout, which is to say that Ibaka must improve his skills and feel for the game if he hopes to stand out in the NBA someday.

But his growth over the last three years has been impressive, and his humility brings hope that he will continue to work hard in pursuit of an NBA career.

"All of the problems I had while growing made me a stronger person,'' Ibaka said. "I tried to forget that stuff and tried to be a better player, to focus on getting better so I could get out of Congo. Everyone said that no one from Congo could go on to the NBA. ... But already there is a big difference in my play since September.''

Alexis Ajinca: His rights are owned by French power Pau-Orthez, but he has been on loan to the smaller club Hyeres-Toulon, where he is averaging four points and three rebounds in 10 minutes per game. On Saturday, however, he produced an impressive 13 points, nine rebounds and three blocks while swishing a three-pointer and scoring inside with his left hand.

Ajinca has gained 20 pounds since last season, when an absence of self-confidence resulted in a poor showing at the Hoop Summit in Memphis. "Last year I'm not ready for the game,'' he said in English, which he improved by taking lessons last year in anticipation of a career in the NBA. "I got more confidence.''

He said his agent is forecasting that he could go in the range of Nos. 15-20 in the draft, if not higher. "We are going to test the market and see if we can find the right team,'' said agent Bouna Ndiaye, adding that Ajinca would develop more quickly in the D-League than by staying in France. "I don't think in France or Europe we do a good job with big guys like him.''

Ndiaye hired a trainer, a cook and a nutritionist to help bulk up Ajinca. "Because the team has no program to do this,'' he said.

Ajinca appeared intimidated last season, but this year at team breakfasts he would go out of his way to greet everyone each morning. He saw himself as a team leader along with Canadian point guard Devoe Joseph. "I know this year is my year,'' Ajinca said.

Said an international scout: "He showed skills with the left hand, the three-point shot -- he showed more aggressiveness."

"He is a very interesting player,'' another scout said. "Very quick, and his hands are better than last year.''

Ndiaye represents Ajinca as well as French swingman Nicolas Batum, who will also enter the draft this year. His approach for both will be to find the right situation for their long-term futures, even if it means they are picked later in the draft.

"He's playing for the leading team in the French league,'' Ndiaye said of Batum, the 19-year-old-star of Le Mans. "I like some [NBA] teams for him better than others. Even if it's No. 14 or 15. I'd rather do that than have him go No. 8 or 7 to a team that isn't as good for him.''

Tim Olbrecht: The 6-10, 225-pound German has worked with Holger Geschwindner, the manager/trainer of Dirk Nowitzki, and his perimeter shooting with the German club Brose Baskets Bamberg has intrigued scouts. But he has spent the previous two seasons overcoming a knee injury, and he was a passive 1-of-2 for two points and five rebounds in 16 minutes Saturday.

"He's better than he showed,'' an NBA scout said of the 19-year-old forward. "I think the importance of this game got in his head.''

The consensus was that Olbrecht will need to build from his game, much as Ajinca has done this year.

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