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Behind Serbia's EuroBasket Run

Through the first two rounds of EuroBasket 2013, there’s been no country more impressive than Serbia. Despite having the youngest team in Slovenia, with an average age of 24, they are tied for the second-best record. They have an 8-3 mark through group play, including a 63-56 victory over Lithuania and a 77-65 defeat of France. After a decade where they won only one medal in international competition, the Serbian national team looks poised for a resurgence.  

The MVP of this year’s team is one of their only veterans, former NBA center Nenad Krstic. Krstic headed overseas two years ago at the age of 27, still young for a big man. He has plenty left in the tank, averaging 17 points and 5 rebounds per game on 52 percent shooting in EuroBasket play. At 7’0 265, he’s got a good combination of size and skill, with the ability to post up and stretch the floor out to 20 feet. If he wanted to, he could go back to the NBA tomorrow.

The Serbs run most of their offense through Krstic, who is effective as a roll man and a shooter in the pick-and-roll. When all else fails, he gives them the option of throwing the ball into the low block. While he’s not all that graceful, he’s a fundamentally sound 7’0 with decent touch and footwork. In the NBA paint, the domain of the biggest and most athletic players in the world, Krstic is an average center. Across the ocean, he was first-team All-Euroleague in 2012 and 2013.

Just as importantly, Serbia has the personnel to maximize his skill-set. Their starters can all pass and shoot; they put four skilled players around Krstic and try to space the floor as much as possible. It’s a very fundamentally sound brand of basketball, with a lot of cutting and screening. They were able to frustrate France, the more athletic team, by controlling the tempo and keeping the game in the half-court, where they had the edge in size and execution.

Running the show is Nemanja Nedovic, whom the Golden State Warriors took at No. 30 in this year’s draft. Nedovic, a 22-year-old who has been dubbed the “European Derrick Rose”, will come over to the NBA after EuroBasket. A 6’4 200 combo guard, he’s averaging 9 points, 3 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game on 37 percent shooting. As long as he can make 3’s, Nedovic has the size, skill and athleticism to play both guard positions in the NBA. He’s shooting 30 percent from deep in Slovenia.

The breakout player is 21-year-old swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic, who plays for Partizan Belgrade, the top team in Serbia’s pro league. Bogdanovic has been their most consistent perimeter player, averaging 10 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 43 percent shooting. At 6’6 200 with a 6’11 wingspan, he has great length for his position and a good feel for the game. While he’s not an elite athlete, he’s a legitimate prospect for the 2014 NBA draft.

Nemanja Bjelica, their power forward, was a second round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010. Now 25, he may never end up being brought over, but he’s an NBA-caliber player who plays a huge role in their system. At 6’10 210, Bjelica is not a great shooter, but he’s good enough (30 percent from three on four attempts per game) that he drags his man out of the paint. He’s unusually skilled for a player his size; he can attack a close-out and run the offense in a pinch.

There’s more talent coming down the pipeline too. EuroBasket 2013 is the national team debut for Vasilje Micic, a 6’4 185 PG coming off a strong performance at the U19 world championships in June. He was a first-team All-Tournament selection, beating out a number of high-level American guards, including Marcus Smart. Micic’s size and shooting ability make him a natural pick-and-roll player; he’ll be a first round prospect in either the 2014 or 2015 draft.

The Serbian performance in EuroBasket 2013 is the culmination of a number of victories at the youth level in the last few years. They have silver medals in the last two U19 world championships, losing to Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania in 2011 and an absolutely loaded American team in 2013, which featured Smart, Jahlil Okafor and Aaron Gordon. From 2010-2012, Serbia went home with two bronze medals and a silver in the European U18 championships.  

While this generation of Serbian players lacks a star, they have a solid nucleus who can grow together going forward. They have NBA-caliber players at every position, a huge advantage against national teams with an uneven distribution of talent. Like the “Golden Generation” in Argentina, Nedovic, Bogdanovich, Micic and Bjelica will spend most of the next decade learning each other’s games inside and out at EuroBaskets, World Cups and the Olympics.

At EuroBasket 2013, the key for the Serbians will be avoiding turnovers and playing at a controlled pace. Neither Krstic nor Bjelica is much of a shot-blocker, so Serbia can’t afford too much dribble penetration; Krstic is less valuable when the game is sped up and his athletic deficiencies become more apparent. If their two big men get in foul trouble, there isn’t much behind them either. 6’10+ players with their skill-sets don’t grow on trees.

Going forward, Serbia should at least have a puncher’s chance of reaching the medal round in international competitions. The country has a great basketball history, including a silver in the 1996 Olympics and gold in the 1998 and 2002 world championships. Yugoslavia was a power in basketball too, although several nationalities contributed to those teams. If Serbia had Dario Saric (Croatia), Nik Vucevic and Nikola Mirotic (Montenegro), they could play with anyone.

With a population of a little over seven million, Serbia will have a tough time producing enough talent to compete with a continent-sized country like the United States. Nevertheless, the people of the Balkans are some of the tallest in the world, with an average height of nearly 6’1. For 19-year olds like Micic, the wars of the early 1990’s are ancient history. When you connect the dots, it’s easy to see the roots of the national team’s decline in the 2000’s and its rise in the 2010’s.

The AAU System And How The NBA Could Fix It

But to spend time inside the Spurs organization today is to uncover another interpretation of their dynasty: that as America's youth basketball pipeline has produced a type of player that Pop has no interest in coaching, he has found an advantage not only in targeting international players but in avoiding domestic ones.

-- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine

The San Antonio Spurs set an NBA record for the number of foreign players on their roster last season, with nine coming from outside the United States. According to a revealing article from Seth Wickersham, published during this year’s playoffs, that is no accident. The Spurs have grown weary of the youth basketball scene in this country, preferring players who grew up overseas, untouched by a seedy AAU basketball infrastructure that has “ruined” many American kids.

For Wickersham, NBA franchises are victims, passive observers of “something that has happened, well-document but irrevocable” to the game of basketball. The biggest divide, he tells us, “isn’t structural, but cultural.” In reality, he has it backwards. Because there is no professional structure to youth basketball in the US, a poorly organized and often self-defeating culture has developed in its place. If AAU basketball is bad for business, the NBA has the power to fix it.

Throughout, Wickersham contrasts the way things are done in San Antonio with a summer AAU game between the New Jersey Playaz and the New York City Jayhawks, whom he dubs “the anti-Spurs”. Instead of a team-oriented game built around passing and cutting, the ball sticks in the hands of players who try to score 1-on-5. It’s almost a different sport, as Gregg Popovich tells him. If one of these teenagers ends up in the NBA, Wickersham assures us, he won’t be playing for the Spurs.

The comparison, upon closer inspection, is somewhat bizarre. Are we surprised that an NBA franchise runs a more professional operation than two volunteer organizations competing before non-existent crowds in an AAU tournament? The Spurs are the beneficiaries of massive nine-figure revenue streams in the form of publicly-financed stadiums and national TV deals. AAU teams, if they are lucky, receive free gear and a small stipend from Nike or Adidas.

There’s no question that a lot of the coaching at the AAU level is deficient, if not outright harmful. However, if you look at the way the system is set up, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Shoe companies, not professional basketball organizations, are the ones paying for it. There’s a market for the talents of 15-year-old basketball players, just as there is one for 15-year-old tennis players, singers and actors. Refusing to acknowledge it only pushed things underground, creating a black market.

In contrast, as the article points out, European players like Tiago Splitter turn pro at 15. Splitter thought about coming to the States as a teenager, before realizing our system made little sense: “American coaches recruited him to attend high school in the States. He was intrigued, until the coaches told him that his parents would have to pay for everything. [Emphasis added] So he stayed in Europe, and at 15 signed a 10-year contract to play with Baskonia.”

From Splitter’s perspective, it’s easy to see how the culture of youth basketball in America went off track. Baskonia didn’t need to “pamper” him or “build up his ego” to play on their team. They gave him a substantial sum of cash and signed him to a contract. Since their investment made them committed to his development, they did everything in their power to make him a fundamentally sound player. As a bonus, they tried to keep him away from negative influences.

Curtis Malone is the co-founder of DC Assault, one of the most influential AAU teams in the country. Earlier this summer, a police search of his home found a kilo of cocaine and 100 grams of heroin. This isn’t his first run-in with the law either; he was convicted of distributing crack in 1991. In an alternate universe where the Washington Wizards paid for the development of the best under-18 players in the D.C. area, it’s hard to imagine them employing Malone.

Since D.C. is one of the most talent-rich areas of the country, it wouldn’t be fair for the Wizards to be the only team with access to it. Instead of AAU teams competing to give the best young players from the area thousands of dollars in cash, NBA teams could give those same kids millions of dollars in actual contracts. That, of course, is why a free market system for youth basketball doesn’t exist. The powers that be make too much money from washing their hands of the whole thing.

People point to the failures of 19-year-olds that NBA teams have drafted, ignoring the fact that highly-touted 19-year-olds bust out of college all the time. Jereme Richmond could have been the next Evan Turner; Renardo Sidney’s career started going the wrong way in high school. The upside of letting NBA organizations develop the best 16-year-old players is obvious. Instead of characters like Malone, they would be around guys like Popovich and R.C. Buford.

FC Barcelona has an under-12 team and the world seems to have survived. Over the last generation, we have had a natural experiment as to whether the amateur or free market system produces the best professional basketball players. The Spurs seem to think the Europeans have the right answer. Whether or not they are right, though, is almost besides the point. If NBA teams think the current system isn’t working, they can easily fix it. They are hardly lacking for money.

In 2016, the league is set to get a jaw-dropping TV contract in the billions of dollars. That kind of cash can have a huge effect on youth basketball, which we can see in USA Basketball’s investment in the U-16, U-17 and U19 national teams. At the very least, the NBA can afford to expand those programs substantially. Instead of investing in the youth of our country, we attack their character and import foreign labor. It’s an all too common reality these days.

Building USA's 2016 Olympic Team

Numerous international tournaments (FIBA U-19, adidas nations, etc) occurring during the summer between the 2012 Olympics and 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup triggered for me the thought of what the next USA Olympic basketball team can and should look like.

Among other differences, FIBA basketball generally has a shorter three-point line and a rule on goaltending that I personally would love to see the NBA adopt.  Both of these distinctions affect the composition and play of high-level teams. Interestingly, the new crop of American talent may actually benefit more from the shorter three point line than many of their opponents and have the athleticism to use the goaltending rules to their advantage if they can get their big men used to it.

One note before continuing: While he would be a great fit for the team, I cannot include Roy Hibbert as eligible for consideration for Team USA before he gets his release from Jamaica. Under FIBA rules, switching countries after playing for them is incredibly difficult- Marc Stein tweeted that it was “near impossible” while discussing Hibbert’s situation.

First off, we have the players who would make the team if they choose to participate but I do not expect to play:

LeBron James (PF/SF, 31 years old)
Chris Paul (PG, 31 years old)
Deron Williams (PG, 32 years old)
Carmelo Anthony (PF/SF, 32 years old)

If LeBron elects to represent his country one more time, Team USA can just line him up with Stpehen Curry, Paul George, Kevin Durant and whoever they want at center and everyone else can just go home. It would truly be a sight to see.

NOTE: In parenthesis are the positions the player should guard in international ball and their age on the day of the 2016 Opening Ceremonies.

The Starting Lineup:

PG:  Derrick Rose (PG/SG, 27 years old)- A fascinating player for international ball as long as his three-point shooting percentage maintains or even improves. Rose was a genuine force his last healthy season and can help set a defensive identity for the team.

SG: James Harden (SG, 26 years old)- An offensive dynamo who will have chemistry with a vast majority of the key players on the team. Another benefit to Harden playing a key role on the team is that he already has experience as both the lynchpin and a supporting piece for elite offensive teams and he could be forced to take on both roles during an Olympic run.

SF: Kevin Durant (SF/PF, 27 years old)- I’m not sure any of us can fully see how good Kevin Durant will be as he moves closer to his prime. Having already improved on defense, Durant’s scoring works even better with the shorter international three-point line. The lead crunch time guy on the team and likely an emotional leader as well.

PF: Kevin Love (PF/C, 27 years old)- A player absolutely born to play international ball because of his skill and offensive potential with the shorter three-point line. Thanks to the Gasol brothers getting older, we could see a weaker group of interior big men for the 2016 Olympics, which would open up some windows to play Love at center and really mess with opposing defenses.

C:  Dwight Howard (C, 30 years old)- After missing the 2012 Olympics due to injury, Howard seems more likely to make a return in 2016. His defense and rebounding would give the USA their identity on defense without having to carry any of the offensive load other than crashing the boards. Potentially could sit at the end of close games should the team have any of those where free throw shooting becomes critical.

Bench players:

Paul George (SF/SG, 26 years old)-With Andre Iguodala firmly on the back end of his career at this point, look for George to become the perimeter defensive stopper in international play. Like Love, George will benefit from having better teammates and the closer three-point line on offense. It would not be remotely surprising to see him start if the team goes with more offense at center.

Russell Westbrook (PG/SG, 27 years old)- Third in the league in WARP at just 24 years old last season, one could argue that Westbrook deserves better than coming off the bench here. If Derrick Rose plays, Westbrook becomes a sparkplug off the bench that could spend meaningful minutes defending both guard positions and unleashing dunks that demoralize opponent in the early rounds.

Stephen Curry (PG, 28 years old)- Shockingly older than all of the non-Dwight starters, Curry will play huge minutes on this team as the best shooter on the planet. An ability to play on and off the ball makes him even more dangerous and both Rose and Westbrook should be able to handle opposing SG’s on the defensive end. Potentially a starter or closer on the team depending on what they do with Paul George and the center spot.

Anthony Davis (C/PF, 23 years old)- Another nice fit for FIBA play due to his guard skills and insane physical attributes. He fits incredibly well with Love on the defensive end because he can guard both big man positions, allowing the team to hide Love on the less dangerous player.

Brook Lopez (C, 28 years old)- Having a reliable back to the basket scorer helps immensely in international basketball, as we have seen from Spain over the last few major competitions. Lopez has improved as a defender and rebounder and could very well start and/or finish games, particularly if Dwight elects to sit this one out.

Kawhi Leonard (SF/PF, 25 years old)- A perfect glue guy on a team like this because of his elite defensive ability and skill at the corner three. Another few years under Gregg Popovich could turn Leonard into an even bigger force than he was for the Spurs in the 2013 playoffs.

Julius Randle (PF, 21 years old)- An absolute beast already who will already have made a name for himself in the league at this point. His combination of athleticism and skill will be a nice complement for the rest of the interior players and an improved jumper could even push him into the rotation.

Reserves/Replacements:

Kyrie Irving (PG, 24 years old)- In all likelihood, one of the point guards on the team pulls out due to injury and gets Irving the spot on the team that he absolutely deserves. His handle and shooting already make him a tough cover in the NBA and a few more years of work should allow him to develop into a legitimate all-around force.

John Wall (PG/SG, 25 years old)- It’s a shame that Wall may have to wait until 2020 to play in his first Olympics. The PG class is just too strong right now to put him any higher than this despite how well he played at the end of the 12-13 season and how much better he can get over the next three years.

Andre Drummond (C, 22 years old)- If Dwight Howard chooses not to go to Rio, either Drummond or LARRY SANDERS! should get the spot as the designated center defensive beast. Drummond had a simply monstrous rookie season in a strange situation and will only get better with time. I shudder to think about what he could do with the amazing PG’s Team USA will have for the next ten years.

Others considered:  LARRY SANDERS! (C/PF, 27), Andre Iguodala (SF/SG, 32), Blake Griffin (PF/C, 27), Klay Thompson (SG/SF, 26), Jabari Parker (SF/PF, 21), LaMarcus Aldridge (PF/C, 31), Ryan Anderson (PF, 28), Nerlens Noel (C/PF, 22), Harrison Barnes (SF/PF, 24), Jimmy Butler (SG/SF, 26), Mike Conley (PG, 28), Andrew Harrison (PG/SG, 21), Greg Monroe (C/PF, 26), DeMarcus Cousins (C, 25), Andrew Bynum (C, 28), JaVale McGee (C, 28) and Kenneth Faried (PF, 26).

Team USA's Next Generation

Team USA changed the peer group of the NBA’s best young players. While their NBA teammates changed every year, their USA teammates stayed the same. It fostered the relationship between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that led to a dynasty with the Heat and it could do the same with Paul George, Kyrie Irving, etc.

Basketball's Ambassador-In-Chief

LeBron James is an ambassador for the game of basketball, a game that can and does change people's lives for the better. That's a tremendous responsibility, and asides from one foolish primetime TV special, he's handled the blinding media spotlight and the celebrity fishbowl that comes with it about as well as could possibly be expected.

2012 Olympics: Final Advanced Player Stats

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili and Andrei Kirilenko were the stars of the Olympics. Here is how their offensive ratings measure up.

One Last Chance For Argentina's Golden Generation

While Team USA was turning over its entire roster every two years, the same core of Argentine players have been getting older. Now, in Friday’s Olympic semifinal, the “Golden Generation” has one final chance to defeat the Americans. It will be a much harder task in 2012: Team USA has been built in their image -- except faster, stronger and more athletic.

Let The Valanciunas, Anthony Davis Comparisons Begin

Like almost all young centers, the development of Jonas Valanciunas and Anthony Davis will depend heavily on the environment their team puts them in. Davis has a higher ceiling than Valanciunas, but the difference between the two isn’t nearly as high as their pre-draft publicity would suggest.

Why The Owners Want Olympic Basketball Marginalized

After driving the NBA to the brink of a lost season in order to maximize their revenue streams, the owners are at it again with their World Cup of Basketball pursuit. If Mark Cuban wants another paycheck in the summer, he can earn it himself on the Shark Tank.

Kevin Seraphin's Roadblocks And Opportunities

Kevin Seraphin is the rare young big man comfortable scoring with his back to the basket, and his wide base and long arms allow him to establish deep post position. National team experience could allow a player like Seraphin to emerge in a new role when he returns to the Wizards.

2012 Summer Olympics Preview: Group B

While Spain should control Group B, Russia and Brazil each have an opportunity to medal.

2012 Summer Olympics Preview: Group A

Team USA will be the favorite throughout the tournament, but Lithuania, Argentina and France figure to make noise in Group A, while Nigeria and Tunisia look to play the role of spoilers.

Ben Gordon's Participation In Olympics Remains In Doubt

Entering an offseason free of drama, Ben Gordon has been adamant about following through on his commitment to represent Great Britain in this summer’s Olympics, but was a no-show as training camp began.

No Need For Hysteria, NBA Will Survive

The lockout will unquestionably damage the NBA, but not to the extent its fans fear or its detractors hope. There are several important reasons why it is so well-positioned in the long-term.

How Team USA Must Adjust To Match-Up Against Spain

To beat a Spanish team that dominated EuroBasket, Team USA will have to play two traditional big men most of the game instead of their standard small-ball attack. As a result, they will be required to make several intriguing roster decisions.

Rewriting The History Of European Basketball

A few decades ago it was unthinkable to imagine players from the United States representing countries of the former Soviet Union, but several Americans are doing so proudly in the 2011 EuroBasket.

Previewing EuroBasket 2011

We kick off our start to finish coverage of EuroBasket 2011, with key storylines, predictions and names of players you should keep an eye on over the next few weeks.

The Limiting Nature Of How Young Talent Is Developed In The USA

Many blamed the youth development system for Team USA's loss in the Women's World Cup. Those same arguments can be applied to the consequences of American basketball players raised on an AAU-dominated system.

Europe Interview: Joel Freeland Of Unicaja Malaga

Joel Freeland recently sat down with RealGM to share his views on his development, NBA plans with the Blazers and international hoops.

Europe Interview: Alexander 'Sasha' Volkov

Alexander "Sasha" Volkov was one of the first European players in the NBA, playing for Mike Fratello, who might become the national coach of the Ukraine.

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