2002 born prospects will be eligible to enter their name in the NBA Draft pool for the first time in 2021. Were this a typical summer, many of these players would have made their case in front of scouts while representing their country in FIBA U18 competition. Unfortunately, this summer has been anything but typical, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing FIBA to cancel all of their youth tournaments. But life goes on. 60 players will still be selected in the 2021 NBA Draft. NCAA schools are starting to look at prospects for their 2021 and 2022 classes. The talent of these players is unchanged despite the lack of visibility. Some prospects that may have blown up this summer will go under the radar. That just makes the upcoming season that much more important for the NBA and NCAA hopefuls.
In this multi-part series, we’ll look at some of the top teams and players who missed out on the chance to make a statement in U18 FIBA competition this summer.
There were a few teams that inspired this series but Croatia was always on the top of the list. After winning Gold at the U16 European Championships in 2018, most of the 2002 born talent sat out of national team play for the summer of 2019. In 2020, they had the potential to be the first group to win a U16 and U18 European Championship since France’s 1998 born players (plus Ivan Fevrier and Sekou Doumbouya in U18) won the U16 in 2014, and U18 two years later. The cancellations also took away Croatia’s chance to qualify for the U19 World Cup in 2021.
2018 was just the beginning for this group. Boris Tišma was already in the academy at Real Madrid and Roko Prkačin was already on the radar as one of the players to watch in the 2002 generation but U16s is when the pair really blew up. Both prospects earned spots on the All-Tournament Team with Prkačin taking the MVP. Ivan Perasović, Matej Bošnjak, and Filip Paponja filled out the starting lineup and carried most of the load in 2018 – the bench averaged just 6.3 points per game – but they would have had plenty of help in 2020.
Had everyone opted to play, finding playing time and shots for everybody would have been a bigger challenge than finding productivity off the bench. While we’ve seen most of the starting lineup make significant improvements since 2018, a few guys off the bench have made complete transformations. Lukša Buljević, Duje Brala, and Hrvoje Majcunić were all given limited run in 2018. In 2020, it would be hard to justify not upping each of their roles. There’s also Leo Menalo, who has never represented Croatia in FIBA competition but would have certainly found playing time had he decided to make his debut in Bursa, which would only make the rotation that much harder to construct.
Prkačin and Tišma’s return to FIBA competition might have made them the best duo in Europe this summer, although a couple Lithuanians have an argument here too (more on that in a later post). With their place on NBA radars solidified, the 2020 U18 Euros would have likely been the last chance to see this excellent group of 2002-born Croatians playing together.
This past year, Prkačin played a big role for the senior team of Cibona and starred for their ANGT team. Tišma has made huge strides with Real Madrid, he recently signed a two year contract to stay in Madrid to play ACB and Euroleague.
Prkačin is already a role player, and spot starter, for the senior team of Cibona but he looks to expand his role this season. He is a physical straight-line driver that can play the 4 or 5 position. Prkačin is a skilled ball handler for his size, he does a good job of getting to the rim, where he draws a lot of fouls and can finish through contact.
Roko Prkačin plays the 4 and 5 but he isn’t afraid to put the ball on the floor and go at grown men pic.twitter.com/62ukRzDNuE— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 7, 2020
His shot looks alright but it’s hard to ignore the glaring issue of his wrist turning in.
Roko Prkačin checks a lot of boxes for a modern 4/5 but shooting is still an issue. The brief flick of his wrist perpendicular to the target is likely preventing him from more consistent shooting numbers and maximizing his impressive potential pic.twitter.com/a87YafYf9X— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 7, 2020
However, everything else on his shot is there and he isn’t afraid to shoot 3’s despite sub-30% numbers. Prkačin can be a legitimate pick and pop threat with really good ball handling. Defensively, Prkačin is still prone to the mental lapses you can expect from a 17 year old playing at the pro level but he’s shown the ability to cause havoc with his length and solid instincts. He’s not nearly a finished product on that end of the floor but his strength and size are overwhelming for most bigs at the U18 level.
Tišma was a young kid in the Real Madrid system when he blew up with averages of 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in the summer of 2018. He was still skinny but he had a knockdown shot to go with positional size on the wing. In the following 12 months or so, he seemed to grow taller which exacerbated his struggles with physicality in a lot of ways. He was getting taller but not stronger and having to play more around the rim, and his coordination just seemed a little off. When Tišma popped back up after taking the 2019 summer off, he looked like a completely new player. All of a sudden, he was welcoming physicality and matching it with his own. He’s still not completely filled out his body but he’s much closer than he was a year ago. Tišma still brings the same exciting shotmaking but he’s becoming much more comfortable attacking the rim and using his body on defense. The next step is improving his footwork on the ball defensively. The best way for Tišma to reach his ceiling is by playing at the 3 or 4 and defending the wing where he has excellent positional size.
Boris Tišma’s shotmaking is fun. He’s on another level now that his frame is filling out. Tišma is sticking around at Real Madrid for a couple more years, it will be interesting to see how much he gets on the court for the senior team. pic.twitter.com/fGkItvPZ7n— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 7, 2020
Bošnjak started at the 5 for the U18 team in 2019 and would have likely done the same in 2020 with his generation, after he averaged 10 and 7 while playing up a year. Despite being somewhat undersized for the center position, Bošnjak is a strong post scorer with good touch. He’s also skilled enough be effective passing out of the post and putting the ball on the floor. His free throw numbers and 3-point shooting in very small samples was encouraging this year (8/20 between ANGT and Croatian 1st liga) but his shot is still far from a finished product. While he does look to score mostly in the post, Bošnjak has high IQ and understands when to post up and when to get out of the way to let the forward positions go to work either in the post or on a drive. He’s a good fit for this lineup, providing tough defense and creating second chances with his offensive rebounding. Bošnjak will remain at Cedevita on a pro contract.
He didn’t compete in 2018 but Menalo continues to show flashes at Stella Azzura, even making an appearance at Basketball Without Borders this year. He is very long with a solid, but slow, shot. Menalo easily has enough size to play the 4 but he still needs to bulk up as he’s not big enough to handle most big men yet. Menalo’s ball handling is impressive but his decision-making is still lagging behind. It just doesn’t seem like things have clicked for Menalo to this point, but his tools and frame still make him an interesting prospect. This summer would have been a golden opportunity to show more than flashes but a good season in Italy’s Serie A2 could be enough to put Menalo back on draft boards.
While Paponja was the starting point guard in 2018, his role on offense was restricted to shooting wide open threes (he shot 9/17 from deep) and bringing the ball up the court. In the two years following, Paponja has become much more assertive on offense. His shot release is higher and he’s more willing to shoot off the dribble. He’s confident with the ball in his hands, he has great vision and moves the ball well to set up the scorers on this roster. Another Cibona player, Paponja already has chemistry with a lot of this roster. He does a great job of filling his role. It’s what allowed him to take most of the PG minutes in 2018 and how he will ultimately find his way onto more winning rosters throughout his career.
Filip Paponja is becoming one of my favorite low-mid major prospects. Smart, composed point guard who can create and make shots when his team needs it. pic.twitter.com/j0ljYdCYfV— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 7, 2020
Ivišić is the 2003 born player that had the best chance to make this roster as a backup big man. At 7 feet tall, his ability to pass and handle the ball is very intriguing for his size. Tomislav’s touch at the basket is solid and he’s quickly improving as a jump shooter. His reliance on poor mid-range shooting hurts his efficiency but he’s starting to expand to the 3-point line. He doesn’t have great footwork on defense, preferring to stay around the rim where he’s a solid shot blocker. If he continues his development as a shooter, Ivišić will have a bright future as a floor spacing big with impressive ball skills. Ivišić played with Cibona (his home club was GKK Šibenka, he is now moving to Budućnost) at last year’s ANGT where he’ll look to have a breakout performance in 2021, before getting his chance in U18s.
Most 7-footers can’t ever handle the ball like Tomislav Ivišić but especially not at 15 years old (in this video) pic.twitter.com/bKciucMecp— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 7, 2020
Duje Brala was the other of the two 2003 born players on the roster two years ago. He only played 7 total minutes and didn’t score (or shoot) from the field in his first U16 European Championships. He evidently gained valuable experience in 2018, because he followed it up with an excellent 2019 tournament, leading his generation with 16.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. Brala is a strong, aggressive guard. He’s a solid shooter but prefers to attack the rim and get to the free throw line; he plays well through contact but doesn’t his touch is average. While Brala generally makes good decisions, he plays with a little too much confidence at times, taking chances that result in turnovers and ill-advised shots. His aggression can get the best of him on defense as well (fouls, taking bad chances) but he does a great job of making plays and causing havoc. The risk/reward isn’t quite there with all the chances he takes but he’s heading in that direction. On the ball, he uses his strength to put pressure on his man and make up for his lack of quickness. Brala would not have been a lock to make the roster this year but he will likely be playing U18 next year, where he’ll look to build off his excellent U16 performance in 2019.
Another wing who would necessitate a lot more minutes than in 2018 is Lukša Buljević, who played 10 minutes per game last time around. He was strictly an outside shooter in the U16 tournament but he’s made huge strides since that summer, especially in the last year, to diversify his offensive skillset. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s gotten stronger and grown to about 6’ 7”. At the Valencia ANGT tournament this past December, Buljević led Cibona in scoring, barely surpassing his teammate, Prkačin. He was bullying his way to the rim and shooting well from beyond the arc but he wasn’t nearly as efficient as he had been in Junior ABA a few weeks prior. His touch is still not very good around the rim and his shot selection is worrisome at times but there is plenty to like about the player Buljević is starting to become.
Hrvoje Majcunić would find playing time in the point guard spot with Paponja on the bench, though he is primarily a scorer that fits best as a slightly undersized 2. Majcunić had a really impressive showing in Junior ABA, scoring 19 points per game and shooting 13/32 from deep over five games. His size is a limiting factor, he struggles to score at the rim and doesn’t really do much in terms of shot creation that will work against better perimeter defense. Majcunić will have to fight for minutes on a stacked roster but with his performances this year a bigger role he’s earned the chance to fight for playing time than in 2018 when he took just 13 shots in the 7 game tournament. However, there’s a lot more bench scoring this time around, he would have his work cut out for him. If he can shoot like he did with Cibona this season, Majcunić will be alright.
Zvonimir is oftentimes thought of as the “other” Ivišić twin but he’s a solid prospect in his own right. He’s the skinnier brother and he’s definitely not as skilled with the ball but at the moment, he’s more confident as a shooter. While there isn’t film available from the 2020 Croatian cadets season (please reach out if you have it!) and therefore no way to verify stats, Ivišić supposedly blocked 28 shot in just 129 minutes. He has always been a good rim protector but that number is a step up from where he’s been in the past. Zvonimir is definitely someone to keep an eye on. If he can back up those block numbers and continue to improve his shooting, he could shoot up the rankings.
Ivišić twins, Tomislav and Zvonimir, even block shots together pic.twitter.com/AoHkkaEdp6— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 7, 2020
Perasović is one of the few players from this team that I’m lower on than a couple years ago when he was the third leading scorer behind Prkačin and Tišma. While he had good size at the 2/3 positions he played in 2018, Perasović has not grown much since that tournament and his struggles moving his feet have been exposed as opponents have gotten quicker, probably relegated him to the 3 or 4 which are both already stacked with talent on this roster. He doesn’t have the quickness or handle to blow by defenders on the perimeter so he’ll be relegated to more of a low usage shooting role this time around. All that being said, he’s still 6’ 7” with length and a 35% percent shooting clip this season, there will always be a spot for a floor spacer like Perasović. He likely would not average 33 minutes like he did in 2018, but 15 minutes and 1 or 2 3’s per game could have been very valuable for the Croatians.
Ante Perkušić to Ivan Perasović connection pic.twitter.com/k1tfuodjpD— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 7, 2020
It’s unfortunate that Croatia didn’t get the chance to defend their U16 Gold. This could have been one of the best, and deepest U18 teams, we’ve seen in a while. And even then, there’s a chance they could have been knocked off by one of the other impressive teams we’ll cover in a later post. It’s especially disappointing considering we may not get to see guys like Prkačin and Tišma competing in U18 much longer if the NBA changes the one & done rule, lowering the minimum draft age to 18. But as much as we are disappointed as fans and scouts, it’s especially devastating for these young players who only have so many chances to represent their country and play in front of scouts. The best chance to watch many of these players will be at the U19 Junior ABA League later this year. Many will also play ABA Liga, although don’t expect to see many of these guys other than Prkačin playing much of a role there. Outside of Croatia, Tišma will play in ACB and Euroleague for Real Madrid, while Menalo will likely play for Roseto Sharks in Italy.