Postcard from Riga: Wrapping up the FIBA U19 championships

Publish date:

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 a column looking at what doomed the U.S. team against Russia, and coach Paul Hewitt took offense to comments from NBA scouts about the team not caring enough about the tournament. "It's B.S. to say these kids didn't care," he said, while reviewing tape of the game a day later at the hotel. "These guys all cared -- they may have hung their heads a little after missing shots, but to say they didn't care enough is wrong. ... They took that loss really hard."

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:

Joe Jackson, Memphis (23.7 mpg, 11.6 ppg, 37 assists / 30 turnovers): He was the primary point guard and second-leading scorer, and none of the international defenders could contain him off the dribble -- he's that fast. But he showed he has a long way to go to be an effective distributor at the college level, struggling to create shots for teammates and hurting the U.S.' offensive flow.

Keith Appling, Michigan State (10.3 mpg, 4.1 ppg, 11 assists / 7 turnovers): He was the steadiest of the U.S. point guards in short stretches, and had to be called on to right the ship when they were struggling against Russia and Australia, but Hewitt insisted on sticking with Jackson for most of the minutes.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State (8.5 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 19 assists, 10 turnovers): He was the lone high-school player on the roster, and probably wasn't ready for the intensity of high-level, international competition, but should be a serviceable Pac-10 point guard 2-3 years down the road.

6. Moving on to the U.S. shooting guards/wings:

Jeremy Lamb, UConn (27.6 mpg, 16.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 18 steals): Without question the go-to scorer of this team and a potential All-American in 2011-12. He almost single-handedly carried them back into the Russia game, and hit the winning bucket against Australia (although he described his 2-of-14 performance in that contest as "terrible"). His massive wingspan helped him lead the team in steals and deflections, but he'll need to be a more consistently hard-nosed defender to be one of the best all-around players in college next season.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (20.2 mpg, 9.4 ppg, 16 assists/10 turnovers): He was on a phenomenal run to close the season for the Wolverines, but had trouble getting into a shooting groove on this trip, making just 10 of 37 three-point attempts. It wasn't until the final game against Australia that he really broke out, scoring 21 points, hitting a trio of threes, and playing tough D against Emus' star Hugh Greenwood on the victory-clinching possession.

James Bell, Villanova (16.1 mpg, 3.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg): Earned his way into the starting lineup for all nine games due to Hewitt's belief that Bell was the best on-ball defender on the roster. The U.S. failure to put Bell on Russian star Dmitry Kulagin -- who lit them up for 14 first-quarter points -- may have doomed them, though.

Anthony Brown, Stanford (11.4 mpg, 3.6 ppg): Didn't appear in four games and played the fewest overall minutes (57) of anyone on the roster, so I have to grade him out as an incomplete. I just didn't see enough of him on the floor.

7. And the U.S. forwards/centers:

Doug McDermott, Creighton (26.4 mpg, 11.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg): Hewitt called him "one of the most consistently good" players on the roster, and I'd have to agree. McDermott was the team's third-leading scorer, and only committed three turnovers the entire tournament while playing big minutes. He should be one of the Missouri Valley's best players next season if this is any indication.

Patric Young, Florida (19.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 6.8 rpg): Connected on 72.0 percent of his field-goal attempts, because most of them were dunks, and put together a breathtaking highlight reel. He needs to be a high-energy guy in every game, though, not just the big-time matchups; while he was great against Lithuania, he missed a key opportunity to dominate a weak Russian front line.

Meyers Leonard, Illinois (16.3 mpg, 6.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg): Apparently he struggled early in the tournament, but while I was present -- and especially in the U.S.' final three games -- he was the best big man on the floor, hustling for blocks, rebounds and buckets in transition. If he can bring that energy to Illinois for 20-plus minutes a game next season, he'll be one of the breakout players in the Big Ten.

Tony Mitchell, North Texas (15.9 mpg, 5.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg): Totally unrefined due to missing his entire freshman season as an academic non-qualifier, the former Missouri commit still put up impressive numbers, posting the second-highest per-minute efficiency rating in the tournament and a team-high 16 blocks. He doesn't have a great feel for the game or the team concept yet, though; that should come as he gets experience with the Mean Green.

Khyle Marshall, Butler (13.3 mpg, 5.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg): He proved to be an excellent offensive rebounder in the NCAA tournament, and true to form in Riga, he had more offensive boards (14) than defensive (13). He's a more valuable player in the Bulldogs' team-oriented setting than in a situation like this one, where the U.S. offense often devolved into AAU-like freelancing. Impressively, he stayed behind at the gym to watch every Australia game in Riga, because he wanted to support future Butler teammate Jackson Aldridge, the Emus' starting point guard.

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 breakdown of as many international-to-college prospects as I could find at the tournament, which ran on Thursday. The more games I saw, the more confident I am that the best of the bunch will be Australia's Hugh Greenwood, who's headed to New Mexico in the fall. He's the captain of the Australian Institute of Sport team, and a killer shooting guard who lit up the U.S. for 26 points in the fifth-place game. He made the all-tourney first team (as did Lamb and Valanciunas) and has the makings of an All-Mountain West player within a few years.

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 Playboy mags (the Twitpic link is safe, as it's just the cover) for sale at the main concession, for reasons I could not understand. What happens if you buy that and just sit in the stands or press row, reading it? Is everyone cool with it? I refrained from conducting this experiment.

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.