Postcard from Riga: Wrapping up the FIBA U19 championships
RIGA, Latvia -- All quiet here on the morning after the FIBA U19 World Championships, except for the footsteps of scattered tourists making their way over the cobblestones, admiring the Medieval and Gothic architecture. Riga is Europe's more underappreciated destinations, a beautiful Baltic capital famous for its Old Town (where I'm sitting outside, writing my final missive), its wealth of Art Nouveau buildings in the city center, and its night-time mix of sprawling summer beer gardens and sweaty Euro-clubs. Its latitude is so far north that it only gets truly dark for a few hours each day, and so the drunks go home around 6 a.m. and give way to the camera-toters only a few hours later.
Riga's population is almost split between Latvians and Russians, but yesterday it had a Lithuanian feel, as thousands of the country's green-and-yellow clad fans descended on the city for the gold-medal game between their top junior national team and Serbia. They filled the bars, they lined up outside Arena Riga three hours in advance to secure choice seats, and they spent much of the game banging drums and chanting. (In my ears, faintly, I can still hear the incessant "LIE-TU-VA! LIE-TU-VA!")
As I took a cab home from the arena last night following Lithuania's 85-67 victory, a pack of fans was waiting in a back parking lot to send off the team bus, and others were hanging out of cars in traffic, waving flags to a soundtrack of honking horns. I came here thinking I might follow the U.S. team on a gold-medal run, but this was Lithuania's tournament and Lithuania's moment. Its fans nearly sold out an 11,000-seat arena in a neighboring country for a junior event that wasn't on TV in America, its team dominated its final three games, and its star, Jonas Valanciunas, was the U19 Most Valuable Player.
The U.S. beat a short-handed Lithuania team (sans its excellent point guard, who was nursing an injury) in the second round and was 5-0 in the early stages of the event. But the Americans were stunned by a middling Russian team in the quarterfinals and fell out of medal contention, escaping with a one-point win over Australia on the final day to earn fifth place with a 6-2 record -- a serious setback for a program whose senior team won gold last summer in Turkey.
As the lone college hoops writer in Riga, it's my responsibility to share with you the good, the bad and the weird from the U19s, so herewith are 19 observations:
1. When I covered the NBA draft a few weeks ago, there was some surprise over the fact that the Cavs took Texas' Tristan Thompson at No. 4 -- mostly because every mock draft had Valanciunas in that spot, not because the assembled press strongly believed the 6-foot-11 Lithuanian was the better player. I've seen Thompson in person and on TV many times, and like him despite his offensive limitations, but after seeing Valanciunas' final five games here, I think the Cavs will deeply regret passing on him due to the year remaining on his Euro contract, and the Timberwolves and Jazz may as well. Raptors assistant GMs Maurizio Gherardini and Marc Eversley, whose team landed Valanciunas at No. 5, were in the building for the U19s, and his total dominance had to reassure them they made the right selection.
After posting stellar per-minute numbers in Euroleague, he averaged 23.0 points and 13.9 boards in the tournament, including 30 and 15 against the U.S., and 36 and 8 against Serbia in the final game. His player efficiency rating (29.0, on a pace-adjusted, per-28-minute formula) blew away the rest of the field. He's the opposite of a soft Euro big man -- "he never stops battling on the inside," one NBA scout said -- and he knocked down 81.1 percent of his free throws after drawing constant whistles. He also followed up his "I have not so strong body" gem-quote from the draft with one in the post-tourney press conference, when asked if he would now turn his focus toward his potential career in the NBA.
"Right now," Valanciunas said, "I focus on celebrating."
2. On Friday, I had
The U.S. was 0-of-9 on threes in the game that derailed their tournament, and shot just 29.5 percent (45-of-156) from long-range in the tournament. Creighton's Doug McDermott (39.5 percent) was the only player on the team over 32 percent, and the guy who most thought would be the Americans' featured gunner, Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr., only connected at a 27-percent clip. In his final press conference at the tournament, Hewitt said he regretted not getting his shooters in the gym on the day before the Russia game. The coach had wanted to rest their legs in hopes of improving their shooting -- because their previous two best shooting performances had come after off-days -- and so they didn't practice, opting for two meetings to discuss game-planning and then an excursion to a nearby beach.
They came out cold, and the Russians went 12-of-29 from deep to pull off the upset. The previous U.S. Under-19 team, which won gold in 2009 under Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, had better shooters, but was also more defensive-minded; in this tournament, the Americans didn't exert much ball pressure on weaker opposing guards, and were constantly getting caught under screens while trying to defend the perimeter.
3. The Americans' best memory will certainly be their second-round win over Lithuania in overtime, in which Jeremy Lamb had 35 points and just one turnover in 37 minutes, and Florida's Patric Young had 15 points, including two of the best dunks of the entire tournament. One of them came over three Lithuanian players, and the other came over Valanciunas, whom Young relished facing in one exhibition and one real contest. "He's the No. 5 pick," Young said, "and I'm trying to go No. 5, too."
FIBA was enamored enough of Young to cut a highlight reel of his dunks and accompany it with some tribal flute music (the video can be found below). He was pleased of its existence but had a mild complaint about one of his best slams, on a breakaway in a loss to Croatia. "I wish it was a different angle," he said. "It's still pretty nice, but it's shot from the opposite basket."
4. Despite the games not being televised anywhere in the U.S., we weren't allowed to shoot any video in the gym -- but I did record a pregame routine unlike anything I've ever seen at a basketball game. The Argentine team, which played its way to a surprise fourth-place finish without a true NBA prospect on its roster, would go through an intense series of exercises in the hallway about 30 minutes before tip-off, in front of a nice backdrop of concert posters (Rihanna, Rammstein, Depeche Mode, etc.) It seemed to be more than what I would do in an entire, regular workout at the gym -- and then they'd go play 40 minutes of hoops. Behold:
5. Since college fans on Twitter were clamoring for individual assessments of their home teams' players, here are quick thoughts on the U.S. personnel in the four and half games I saw (I arrived straight from the airport halfway through Tuesday's win over Lithuania), starting with the point guards:
6. Moving on to the U.S. shooting guards/wings:
7. And the U.S. forwards/centers:
8. Cool move by Creighton coach Greg McDermott to scrap his first-week recruiting plans and be in the stands -- "strictly as a dad" -- to support Doug for the entire time in Riga. The U.S. rooting section, to my knowledge, consisted of Greg; his oldest son, Nick; and Anthony Brown's father, Quentin. This was understandable, considering that the team wasn't finalized until June 20, making plane tickets to Riga insanely expensive. Greg only made up his mind after he dropped by the training camp in Colorado Springs. "There's something about watching your son run around with a USA jersey on," he said, "that makes you think as a father you might want to take part in this experience." He was going to fly directly to the Peach Jam after the U19s ended, and get out on the normal AAU trail.
9. The Australian team, in contrast, had a horde of parents in the stands wearing custom-made kangaroo shirts commemorating the trip -- and a whole crew of dads were beating drums and cowbells in the front row. (See the photo below.) They packed the cowbells in their bags, but had to rent the big drums from a music store in Riga; it was apparently their first order of business upon arriving in town.
10. Seeing the intensity of the Lithuanian fans was one of the highlights of the trip. The most legendary -- and well-bearded -- Lietuva fan, "Sekla," is so hardcore that he was once arrested for protecting the Lithuanian flag in a riot with Spanish police before a 2007 international game. He's on the left in the photo below. On the right is a Lithuanian fan who had some inexplicable possessions: a two-liter bottle filled with some murky liquid, and an inflatable sex doll that he'd dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. I doubt you could get either into an American arena.
11. Beyond McDermott and the U.S. staff, which consisted of Hewitt, Randy Bennett of St. Mary's and Cliff Warren of Jacksonville, I saw five college coaches in the gym. Boise State assistant John Rillie, a former Australian pro, was there tracking two Broncos commits, Anthony Drmic and Igor Hadziomerovic, and other Aussie recruits. Butler assistant Terry Johnson stopped by for a day to check in on Aldridge. Dayton assistant Allen Griffin was following the Canadian team closely, in particular Dyshawn Pierre, and Utah assistant Andy Hill was checking on the Polish team, among others. Duquesne's Ron Everhart dropped in on the final two days after working a Latvian coaching clinic next door.
12. I did a
His nickname is "Baby Hughy," because he's was the youngest player ever to join the Aussies' senior national team. But a few NBA scouts in attendance decided that he looked like a blonde Michael Jackson, and started referring to him strictly as "Michael" in the stands.
13. I've been stuck eating some horrible food -- cold concession-stand pizza and grey-meat burgers -- for the past few days. Here's what a concession menu looks like at the arena (the prices are in Lats; double them to get the dollar equivalent).
14. There were also
15. The exterior of Arena Riga at 11 p.m. on Thursday (it's primarily a hockey venue for the local club, Dynamo):
16. A sampling of the weirdest concert posters up in the arena (should I copy the Maksims Galkins chin pose for my next column headshot?):
17. Valanciunas wasn't the only major, international NBA prospect in this tournament. Expect to start hearing the name Dario Saric in early discussions about the 2013 draft. Playing in this tournament at just 17 years old, he averaged 18.1 points and 10.1 rebounds, and shot 53.8 percent from long range. The 6-foot-10 Croatian forward was already one of the most talented players in the field and should be a Lottery Pick when he eventually declares. Hewitt likened him to a "young Dirk [Nowitzki]", and Saric really does have that kind of potential -- he's an amazingly fluid player whose skill set was already more advanced than that of any of the American forwards.
18. Latvian star Davis Bertans, whom some have likened to a Euro Kevin Durant -- that's overstating it, but his body type and shooting style are reminiscent of the Thunder star's -- did not have as strong of a tourney as Saric. Bertans, a second-round pick of the Spurs, averaged 15.2 points and 6.4 rebounds but his team, whom the locals had high hopes for, won just one game in Riga. Should he gain more confidence and aggressiveness to his game as he develops for 2-3 more years in Europe, Bertans could be a solid sleeper pick for San Antonio, but he's still a long ways away from being ready to contribute in the NBA.
(The one leg up Bertans had on Valanciunas and Saric? The 6-10 Latvian was the only pro prospect to appear on a cartoon shirt at the concession stand. The Latvia "New Stars" shirt is pictured at right, and was a pricey souvenir at 15 Lats, or $30.)
19. Although the Americans fell short in the standings, there will no doubt be players from this trip that use it as a springboard for big sophomore seasons. Will the players who passed on this, or were held out by their over-paranoid coaches, be jealous? The U.S. may have had a "good enough" team in Latvia, but the college basketball community needs to step up its support of the U19 program, and make a strong push for elite prospects such as Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Austin Rivers, Marquis Teague and Anthony Davis (all of whom were among the 29 who declined invites) to participate. There's no way that shoe-camp pickup games were more enriching than the experience of trying to keep Lithuania from winning gold. Had the U.S.' stars come out, they wouldn't have returned empty-handed to the states, and Valanciunas and crew might not be where they are as I finish this story: at a victory parade through the streets of Vilnius.