Last week, when the English version of Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a rare college basketball article, it seized the opportunity to run the ultimate Jewish/Mid-Major mashup headline: "Shooting Star of David(son)". The story was about Jake Cohen, the 6-foot-10 rising sophomore at Davidson who grew up in Berwyn, Pa., but -- because of his Jewish heritage -- was able to gain dual citizenship and join Israel's U20 national team for this summer's European Championships. It mentioned how the team, whose other starters are native Israelis, was holding some of its practices in English on account of Cohen, who told SI.com he's "the opposite of fluent" in Hebrew.
Cohen has been worth accommodating thus far: He's the breakout star of the U20 Division B tournament in Gussing, Austria, averaging a team-high 20.6 points and 7.4 rebounds through Tuesday for the Israelis, who were 3-2. He excelled in the Southern Conference last season, earning the league's freshman of the year honors after averaging 13.3 points and 5.1 rebounds, but is thriving even more in an international environment that requires a different set of big-man skills.
"At Davidson, I was usually on the block or taking a jump shot from the top of the key, but the post game isn't the same in European basketball, just because when you do go down [on the block], the defense is free to beat the hell out of you," he said. "So I've mostly been creating a lot of stuff on pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets, and working on driving to the rim with my left and right hand."
Wildcats coach Bob McKillop made the trek to Austria last week, at the end of the NCAA's first recruiting-evaluation period, and said he saw firsthand "that Jake is really cashing in on the experience." He got to witness Cohen scoring 16 points against Sweden on Wednesday, and at the Israeli team's practice the previous day, was the recipient of a surprise from Cohen's teammates. As McKillop tells it:
"They were all gathered together at center court at the end of practice, and Jake called me over and said, 'The team would like to say something to you.'
"I had no idea what was going on. And all of a sudden, they're singing Happy Birthday to me in Hebrew. It was certainly memorable."
It was McKillop's 60th, and it was the first time he'd ever been serenaded in Hebrew. For a coach who had to celebrate a milestone birthday during a recruiting period, Austria wasn't a bad place to do it. Especially since the same tournament featured two more Wildcats, incoming recruits Chris Czerapowicz of Sweden and Ali Mackay of Great Britain (more below on them). Their presence made Davidson, one of D-I's most active schools on the international recruiting scene, the only NCAA team with multiple players in the Euro U20s.
Davidson wasn't the only team keeping tabs on a breakout player abroad, though: Over in the Division A tournament in Croatia, Arizona sophomore-to-be Kyryl Natyazhko starred for the Ukrainian U20 team, averaging 17.2 points (fourth-best in the tourney) and 8.4 rebounds. Wildcats coach Sean Miller and his staff needed to be on the road recruiting in the U.S., given that this is their first full offseason at Arizona, but they happily followed the progress of their roster's lone import, who had freshman-year averages of just 1.9 points and 2.0 rebounds in 10.9 minutes. "Young big guys develop at different rates," Miller said, "and we think Kyryl's best days are ahead of him."
When the 6-11 Natyazhko first came to the U.S. from the Ukraine in 2007 and enrolled at IMG Academy in Florida, it took him until his second season to fully acclimate to the speed of the American game, and he told Arizona coaches that he believes there could be parallels between his high school and college development. He experienced significant gains in skill- and strength-work in Tucson during April, May and June, setting up the summer explosion in Croatia. Wildcats assistant James Whitford said Natyazhko saw the progress that 6-10 USC forward Nikola Vucevic, a Montenegrin import, made after starring in last summer's U20s, and hopes he'll make a similar jump in the Pac-10 next season. Vucevic went from averaging 2.6 points and 2.7 rebounds as a Trojans freshman to 10.7 points and 9.4 boards as a sophomore.
We'll find out in November if a post-U20 boom is in store for Natyazhko. All we can say with certainty, in July, is that he tops SI's ranking of the 20 collegians we found playing on U20 rosters (all stats through Tuesday):
1) Kyryl Natyazhko, Ukraine (4-5, eighth place, Division A) 6-11, Soph. C, Arizona U20 Stats: 32.0 mpg, 17.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg (3.6 orpg)
2) Jake Cohen, Israel (3-2, Division B)6-10, Fr. F, DavidsonU20 Stats: 30.8 mpg, 20.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg (82.9 percent FT shooting, 6-of-15 three-point shooting)
3) Ovie Soko, Great Britain (4-1, Division B) 6-8, Soph. PF, UAB U20 Stats: 29.0 mpg, 19.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.4 spg
Soko, who played high school ball in Virginia but was born in London, was a bit player for the Blazers as freshman, averaging 1.5 points in 10.1 minutes. He's using his size to dominate the interior in Austria, scoring 29 points (to go along with seven boards) against Poland on Tuesday. He also ranks fourth in Division B in steals.
4) William Neighbour, Great Britain (4-1, Division B) 6-10 Soph. F, Daytona State JC U20 Stats: 17.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg
Neighbour could be a nice frontcourt role player for a Division I team in 2011-12. He was rumored to be headed to Arkansas-Little Rock in 2008, but surfaced instead at Daytona State, where he averaged 15.3 points per game as a freshman.
5) Olek (Aleksander) Czyz, Poland (5-1, Division B)6-6 Soph. F, Nevada (formerly at Duke)U20 Stats: 24.2 mpg, 13.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 72.1 percent shooting
Czyz, who left Duke early in the '09-10 season and will be eligible for the second semester at Nevada in '10-11, has been highly efficient for the Poles, shooting nearly 75 percent from the field. He should be a strong frontcourt presence in the WAC once he's eligible.
6) T.J. DiLeo, Germany (3-6, 14th place, Division A) 6-2, Soph. SG, Temple U20 Stats: 27.3 mpg, 10.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg
DiLeo, the son of 76ers senior VP Tony DiLeo, was mostly stuck on Temple's bench as a freshman last season. He had several promising performances in Croatia, though, dropping 20 points on both the Czech Republic and Netherlands, and finishing as the Germans' second-leading scorer.
7) Andrew Lawrence, Great Britain (4-1, Division B)6-1 Soph., PG, College of CharlestonU20 Stats: 30.2 mpg, 13.2 ppg, 2.2 apg, 2.4 spg
Lawrence could be Charleston's future starting point guard. He's playing quite well for the 4-1 Brits in Austria, with a 2.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in five games.
8) Zisis Sarikopoulos, Greece (8-1, second place, Division A) 7-0, Soph. C, Ohio State U20 Stats: 19.6 mpg, 7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg
Sarikopoulos played significant minutes in a run to second place in Croatia, but cracking the Buckeyes' frontcourt rotation -- which will include Dallas Lauderdale, Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas in 2010-11 -- will be tougher than cracking the Greeks'.
9) Alex Marcotullio, Great Britain (4-1, Division B) 6-3, Soph. SG, Northwestern U20 Stats: 22.8 mpg, 10.0 ppg, 2.0 spg
Marcotullio had the green light to shoot threes as a freshman at Northwestern, and he made them at a 36.9 percent (41-of-111) clip. He's emerged as the Brits' primary gunner, and has made 38.5 percent of his international treys thus far.
10) Chris Czerapowicz, Sweden (3-2, Division B) 6-7, Fr. F, Davidson U20 Stats: 26.8 mpg, 13.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg
There's no way McKillop will give Czerapowicz, who was discovered on a tip from ex-Wildcats playing in Sweden, the kind of shooting freedom he's been allowed in the U20s: In his past two games, he's gone 2-of-12 and 4-of-12 from beyond the arc. But the Wildcats do have hopes that Czerapowicz will develop into an excellent wing player in the Southern Conference.
11) Aksel Bolin, Norway (3-3, Division B)6-7 Fr., SG, Northern IllinoisU20 Stats: 26.4 mpg, 9.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.6 bpg
Huskies coach Ricardo Patton called Bolin "a big kid with good perimeter skills." The Norwegian 19-year-old quietly signed with NIU this June, and has one double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds vs. Slovakia) so far in the U20s.
12) Nimrod Tishman, Israel (3-2, Division B)6-5 PG, formerly at FloridaU20 Stats: 32.2 mpg, 9.4 ppg, 2.6 apg, 2.8 topg
Tishman's trial year in D-I didn't go well; he couldn't break into the Gators' rotation behind Ervin Walker and Kenny Boynton, and so the former Israeli junior star opted to return to his homeland and turn pro. He's piloted his national team to a 3-2 record thus far -- but has a disappointing, sub-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
13) Vladyslav Kondratyev, Ukraine (4-5, eighth place, Division A)6-8 Soph. F, BryantU20 Stats: 19.7 mpg, 3.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 0.9 spg
Kondratyev was one of the few bright spots for a Bryant club that went 1-29 last season and was arguably one of the worst two teams in Division I. He was named to the NEC All-Rookie team after averaging 8.9 points and 3.1 rebounds, and followed it up with a decent summer in Croatia, serving as a solid role player for the Ukrainians.
14) Akeem Vargas, Germany (3-6, 14th place, Division A) 6-4, Soph. PG, Iowa Lakes Community College U20 Stats: 22.6 mpg, 4.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.9 apg
Vargas is an oversized point guard who could end up on a D-I team in 2011-12. He scored 16 points on eventual third-place team Spain in Germany's opener, but was quiet for the rest of the U20 tournament.
15) Ruslan Pateev, Russia (5-4, fifth place, Division A) 7-0 Soph. C, Arizona State U20 Stats: 7.3 mpg, 3.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg
Pateev's U20 experience was remarkably similar to his freshman year with the Sun Devils, for whom he averaged 2.1 points and 1.9 rebounds in 8.3 minutes per game. His minutes should increase as a sophomore now that fellow import Eric Boateng has graduated.
16) Carl Engstrom, Sweden (3-2, Division B) 7-0, Fr. C, Alabama U20 Stats: 16.4 mpg, 2.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 0.0 blocks
Alabama announced on July 1 that it was adding Engstrom to its 2010 recruiting class, and he appears to be a classic project center. He was a former national team handball player in Sweden and has only been playing hoops for two years, so his limited production in Austria was understandable.
17) Deniz (Mükremin) Kilicli, Turkey (2-7, 13th place, Division A) 6-10, Soph. PF, West Virginia U20 Stats: 6.8 mpg, 1.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins is eyeing Kilicli as a starter at center next season, and WVU fans are hoping the big Turk will have a sophomore breakout ... but his stats from Croatia were underwhelming. He was with the Turkish team under curious circumstances -- he initially said he'd be visiting home for 2 1/2 weeks, but was then pulled into national-team duty until the end of July. Kilicli didn't get off the bench in four of the team's final five games, and probably would've been better off training in Morgantown.
18) Alistair Mackay, Great Britain (4-1, B Division) 6-10 Fr., C, Davidson U20 Stats: 10.8 mpg, 2.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 0.4 bpg
Mackay is a Scottish project who'll need time to get acclimated to D-I hoops, but could be an asset for the Wildcats in a few years. It's not easy for mid-majors, even those of Davidson's ilk, to recruit size stateside.
19) Raheem May-Thompson, Great Britain (4-1, Division B) 6-6, Soph. F, Quinnipiac U20 Stats: 5.0 mpg, 1.3 ppg, 0.7 rpg.
Thompson, whose father, Leo, is a former member of the British national team, was a bit player for Bobcats this past season ... and a bit player for the Brits in Austria. Soko and Neighbour earned the bulk of the minutes at forward for England.
20) Carmel Bouchman, Israel (3-2, B Division) 6-8, Fr. F, Temple (but may be returning to Israel) U20 Stats: 1.5 mpg, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg
Bouchman only appeared in nine games for the Owls, averaging 1.3 minutes, but didn't have much of a role on the Israeli team, either: In the four games he appeared in, he had three trillions.