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 taken the chance to make their case in front of scouts while representing their country in FIBA U18 competition. Unfortunately, this summer has been anything but typical and FIBA was forced 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.
In the first part of this series, we looked at the 2018 U16 European Champions, Croatia, and their impressive 2002 generation that was set to make their return to FIBA competition in 2020. Croatia’s U16 team knocked France out in the semifinals back in 2018 but things may have gone differently if not for Daniel Batcho’s injury in the previous round. Batcho, now a freshman at Arizona, suffered a torn ACL in Novi Sad in 2018 that kept him out for more than a year. Without their best inside scorer and defender, France had a lot of trouble with Croatia’s size and missed their chance at winning gold in 2018.
Batcho’s injury took away the chance for France’s 2002 generation to medal in 2018 but four of them were on the U18 team that was upset by Turkey in the quarterfinals last year, finishing 5th despite being a clear top 3 team at the tournament. This is a “preview” of what roster would have looked like this summer had this talented group been given the opportunity to finally earn the medal they deserve. Unlike Croatia, France has the chance to put the same team together and compete at the U19 World Cup in 2021, so in many ways this is also a preview of that team. However with the NBA Draft date still undetermined, there may be high profile absences next year that would have been available in 2020.
Despite missing significant time with injury, he picked up right where he left off when he returned for the 2019-2020 season. Batcho is a strong big man who is very instinctive in the post. He’s adept at manipulating the defense with fakes and a variety of post moves to get good looks at the rim. Despite missing significant time with injury, he picked up right where he left off when he returned for the 2019-2020 season. He even started to show early signs of a catch and shoot 3 upon returning. Batcho provides France with post defense and physicality around the rim. His offensive rebounding in 2018 was huge creating more attempts for a team that couldn’t shoot efficiently. One of his most valuable strengths on this roster — and an area he’s grown a lot in — is his ability to create his own shot by posting up or physically driving to the rim, even throwing in an occasional change of direction move.
Strazel is the clear leader of this team. On every youth team he’s been on, Strazel has been the clear vocal leader. He easily has the most senior experience on the roster, spending most of the season with ASVEL’s pro team, and even starting in a couple Euroleague matches.
Strazel is extremely explosive laterally, he does a great job of changing speeds and using his quick handle to go by bigger defenders. He has great touch around the rim; because of his size, Strazel has to be selective about when to stop short for a floater or kick out to an open teammate. But he makes the right decision much more often than not. He has a low release which makes it more difficult to get shots off but because of his ability to quickly create space, he can still get good looks. Against youth competition, Strazel is a very effective scorer. He’s a high volume 3-point shooter and he can put a lot of pressure on the rim.
Catching up with the ASVEL vs. Real Madrid from last thursday and I’m really impressed by Matthew Strazel and his shotmaking ability. He has the touch to convert at the rim when covered by bigger defenders (like in this case vs 7’3″ Walter Tavares) pic.twitter.com/vhtkObdTBs— Ignacio Rissotto (@eyreball) March 8, 2020
Strazel is very composed for a point guard his age. He does a great job of controlling the pace of the game, taking advantage of transition opportunities but backing out run offense and get good looks. Strazel’s playmaking is creative but he doesn’t have the best vision which results in forcing passes which can lead to turnovers.
He’s an active, high IQ defender with very obvious limitations due to his size. He can only guard one position but he guards it well. His feet are quick and his positioning on and off the ball is excellent. Strazel has quick hands and gets a lot of steals on the ball and in passing lanes despite his lack of length. His peskiness on the perimeter is frustrating for opposing initiators, it’s rare to see him take a play off on the defensive end.
Matthew Strazel is a professional, and his leadership would be huge to this team’s success in U18, and hopefully next year in the U19 World Cup.
Matthew Strazel doing cool stuff. pic.twitter.com/GQmY6HLNWg— 7 Foot Schnitzel (@7_Ft_Schnitzel) September 3, 2020
One of the best open court athletes of the 2002 generation, Begarin is a high-flying big guard. He was just 6’ 5” at last measurement, but he plays much bigger, thanks in part to his 7’ wingspan. When Begarin gets a runway to the rim, the only thing on his mind is putting a defender on a poster, something he does frequently. He is a physical driver and he does a great job of forcing his way to spots. Begarin is a very effective scorer at the rim, he gets most of his rim looks by going over and through the defense but he has the touch and length to finish around rim protectors as well.
Where Begarin must improve is the in-between game, changing gears and playing under control when he can’t out-physical his opponent. He struggles with balance and footwork when navigating through traffic and his decisionmaking isn’t reliable enough to get out of trouble. His ball handling is not tight enough to navigate the spaces that he wants to get to, resulting in turnovers and out of control shots.
Begarin shoots with decent percentages but he sometimes forces deeper shots or contested shots off the dribble. He doesn’t get much lift when shooting and the effectiveness of his entire shot suffers as a result of the extra power he’s required to get from his arms and chest. He is still a somewhat effective shooter but his numbers and consistency would be significantly improved with better shot selection and mechanics.
Begarin struggles to give 100% effort at all times on the defensive end and when he does he can get into foul trouble; he likes to defend with his hands more than his feet. Overall, his defensive fundamentals and footwork are poor but the tools are definitely there if he focuses on improving on that end.
If he can round out his skillset and maximize his very impressive natural athletic ability, Begarin can be a first round pick in 2021. His highlights from the U18 tournament would have been incredible but it’s the little things in between that will determine what kind of career he ends up having.
21 points by Juhann Begarin. No more words. pic.twitter.com/UBcu35OX9A— Kuzey Kılıç (@Kuzeykg) September 23, 2020
Rudy Demahis Ballou
After playing a minor bench role in the 2019 U18 tournament, Demahis Ballou took a significant step forward in his development this past season. His impressive 2019-2020 campaign was enough to earn a contract with Monaco in Pro A where he will begin his senior career.
Demahis Ballou is a really long 2-guard with positional size. He’s a pesky perimeter defender with a high motor but he plays with intelligence as well. Demahis Ballou does a great job of controlling the pace and flow of the game with his point of attack defense. He is extremely active off the ball, creating havoc for the offense when he’s one pass away.
It’s his first game in a Monaco uniform and Rudy Demahis (#3 in red) is already doing what he does best. Playing amazing defense. One of the best young guard defenders in Europe. pic.twitter.com/omezybwQnu— 7 Foot Schnitzel (@7_Ft_Schnitzel) September 1, 2020
On the U16 version of this team, Demahis Ballou demonstrated his high IQ when effectively moving the ball around the perimeter. He excelled as a ball mover despite suspect ball handling, and decision-making off the dribble in 2018. But the lack of guards forced him to also play a heavy initiator role that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with yet. However, towards the end of the 2018-2019 season, he started to realize some of his potential as a lead guard. The vision was always there but recently he has been able to put it together with improved ball handling. The step up that Demahis Ballou made in his ability to create on the ball in 2019-2020 was significant, not only for his future but for the (hypothetical) France U18 team that was in need of playmaking in 2018.
The development of Demahis Ballou’s shot hasn’t been as rapid as the rest of his offensive game but it’s an area he has been steadily improving for some time now. He’s never been afraid to shoot, and they’re starting to fall at a higher rate. His shot will open up even more of his game if it continues, especially his shooting off the dribble. With high level defense and a burgeoning offensive game, Demahis Ballou is a player to watch in the coming years as a late bloomer for high level basketball in Europe, and possibly the NBA.
One of the top prospects on this roster, Dieng is a big guard (reportedly growing to 6’ 9” this summer) with a ton of skill who isn’t afraid to put up shots. He doesn’t fully extend his body on his shot to maximize the lift from his legs but his mechanics are fluid and his numbers are solid. He needs to be more consistent with his balance, especially as he has been taking a lot of shots off movement and off the bounce.
Dieng can handle the ball like a guard and run the offense in transition but doesn’t yet have the decision-making necessary to be a primary initiator in the halfcourt. The biggest question mark is his strength. He needs to get much stronger, he has struggles going downhill because he can’t play through contact. His touch at the rim is good but he doesn’t handle physical defenders well enough to finish at a high rate.
When guarding the ball, Dieng has active hands and smooth footwork. He is extremely engaged off the ball and knows when to take his chances. Because he can guard a wide range of positions, he can get steals from help on the perimeter and protect around the paint depending on his matchup at the time.
Ousmane Dieng will be eligible to play U18s again next year, and he’ll be one of the top candidates for MVP of the tournament.
Because he plays at IMG Academy in Florida, Diabate is not someone that we watch regularly. But he’s proven in FIBA’s summer tournaments that he’s an elite prospect, which is the last time we’ve watched him. His performance in high school has clearly been enough to earn respect as he’s currently the #7 prospect in the ESPN 100 for the 2021 high school class. He would be ranked similarly if he was eligible for our 2002 generation rankings.
Diabate has great size and length. He’s an explosive athlete with a relentless motor who can score at the rim with ease. He’s a great rebounder, who is still growing as a defender but he made a lot of progress from the summer of 2018 to 2019. According to high school scouts, Diabate has started to stretch his shot to the 3-point line. There are no glaring issues with his shot but his free throw numbers have been really worrying in the small sample size of FIBA tournaments. If he can reliably catch and shoot from the 3-point line, it will open up space for teammates to get to the rim. With his athletic profile, there is no limit for his future. Wherever he goes for the 2021-2022 season (Coach Calipari from Kentucky recently offered him) he will look to be a one & done and enter the 2022 NBA Draft.
Ouedraogo was the starting center for a Nebraska team that was 7-25. It was the first year under head coach Fred Hoiberg who is looking to turn around the program and Ouedraogo will be a big part of that. In his first year in the NCAA, he was physically dominant enough to score 5.7 points and grab 6.3 rebounds per game even as a young freshman.
Ouedraogo is super strong and athletic which was obvious at the NCAA level even with most opponents being 2-4 years older than him. At the FIBA U18 level, opponents would not have been able to do anything to stop him around the rim. However, many of his limitations that he had at CFBB were still holding him back at Nebraska. His True Shooting % was abysmal at 43.3%. According to Bart Torvik, 46 of Ouedraogo’s 170 field goal attempts were non-rim 2-point shots. He made just 6 (13%) of these looks, and missed his last 18. He also shot just 47.7% from the free throw line which tracks with his numbers while in Europe. Ouedraogo must improve his shot selection to score more efficiently but the skill around the rim can carry him to a solid career and a dominant performance in FIBA competition.
I’m not a fan of player comps and I rarely ever use them myself. But it’s hard for me to watch Yohan Traoré without thinking of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. As far as comps go, MKG is not one that most young players aspire for. But he is an NBA player and Traoré can be an NBA player one day for a lot of the same reasons that Kidd-Gilchrist is.
Traoré is actually bigger than MKG, and is still young enough he could grow more in the next year or so. His size, strength and defense are elite skills that will carry him throughout his career. He can’t handle the ball much but he makes good decisions with it and attacks the rim hard when he gets a lane.
The most visible similarity between the two is their shooting and the lack of effectiveness there, especially on the perimeter. Traoré’s shot isn’t nearly as broken as MKG’s when he left Kentucky but the slow release and wide base leave a lot to be desired. There is still time to improve his shot to the level he’ll need to reach his high ceiling but it won’t be easy. According to his new school, Prolific Prep, he grew 4 inches this summer which changes both his ceiling and the shooting burden he’ll likely have at the next level. Traoré will look to refine his game in California (and likely pick up high major offers) before coming back for the 2021 FIBA U18 tournament, which he’ll still be eligible for next year.
Traoré is a great wing defender with a super high motor. He’s very active and disruptive on and off the ball. His combination of length and quickness make him more than qualified to match up with wings, while he can guard 1-4 in most situations as well. Traoré would be the primary wing lockdown defender on a team that is already so tough to score on.
Traoré is super quick with the ball but he’s yet to develop the counters to be a threat changing direction. He’s typically just a cutter and straight-line driver with athletic finishing at the rim. He must improve his decision-making with the ball to be trusted with more opportunities to handle the ball and make plays. He is coming along as a shooter, and it’s vital for him to continue to improve here. His footwork in shot prep is still slow and he only takes spot-up looks with room to step into the shot.
Armel Traoré has a lot of room to grow on the offensive end but he’s already made a lot of progress and it should continue. The defensive playmaking and versatility is his most marketable skill, it will translate at every level.
Tchikou is 4-star recruit and an incoming freshman at the University of Alabama. After a brief stint at INSEP, he spent most of the last few years in US high schools and hasn’t played a FIBA tournament with the national team yet. At 6′ 11″, his fluid ball handling and shooting is very impressive for his size. He’s an explosive athlete who produces highlights on both ends. Because he’s spent so much time at different American high schools, we haven’t seen much more than highlights. But Tchikou has done enough that he could make the team, had he elected to participate.
2004-born Wembanyama would probably not be playing with the 2002 generation because he would have also had the chance to play the U16 Euros and U17 World Cup. But he’s certainly good enough to be on this roster. Standing 7’ 2” with a +8 wingspan, Wembanyama can protect the rim, shoot from outside, and handle the ball. He’s highly skilled for a prospect his age, likely the top NBA prospect in France at the moment.
Serbia in 30:06 with Wembanyama on the court: 41 points, 5/24 from 2, 31% eFG— Drew Mastin (@andrewmastin) September 22, 2020
Serbia in 9:54 with Wembanyama off the court: 24 points, 7/11 from 2, 67% eFG pic.twitter.com/yDLRHQe03n
He hasn’t played outside of the United States in two years but with the lack of elite shooters on the roster, Lesmond will be needed to do what he does best. The Harvard commit (after turning down numerous high major offers) has a pure shot. He can hit on the move, and off the dribble, from anywhere on the court. He’s a solid athlete with plus length and passable defense but his shooting is where he adds value to this team and what will take him far in his career – until he decides to put his Harvard degree to use.
A physical, long forward with massive potential. Magassa wants to shoot it, and has decent numbers despite his flat shot and high volume with Real Betis. He’s made a ton of progress on improving his handle recently but he struggles with shot selection and decision-making once he gets to the paint. He doesn’t yet have the ability to actually execute the passes he sees which results in forced shots and turnovers. Magassa has the body to be a great defender but doesn’t have awareness on where to be in help or how to use his size to his advantage on the ball.
Skilled wing with good size. Bal can handle it but isn’t ready to be a decisionmaker with the ball (although I believe this is coming soon). He has a good looking shot with a leg kick that needs to be addressed to improve his balance. Really good, under control pull up shot. Skilled in the floater range where his length allows him to get a lot of shots off. A lot of untapped defensive potential due to his length and foot speed. Bal is good enough to make the roster but he wouldn’t have played a huge role so he likely would have been limited to the U17 World Cup team. He can have a huge impact for France at the 2021 Euros as one of the top French players in the 2003 generation. With a late 2003 birthday (18 days older than 2004-born Wembanyama), just being in consideration for the team shows the potential that Bal has.
Another long defender for this roster, Tchicamboud also brings secondary playmaking and spot-up shooting. His length and quick feet make him very effective on the ball. He has already had success (in limited action) defending point guards at the pro level with Strasbourg, despite his obvious lack of strength especially on screens. Tchicamboud could dramatically improve his NBA prospects if he can add muscle and consistency with his outside shooting. But even then, it’s hard to stand out as a 3&D guard, especially in France and on an NBA big board. He needs to continue to improve his playmaking and ball security to be more well-rounded offensively and to truly reach his ceiling.
Yet another wing with extremely long arms and superb defense. Nearly every team needs guys like Galin. If he was from any other country in Europe, he would be a near lock to make the U18 roster. In France, it’s not so easy and as a result, Galin has never made a national team roster. He has made steady improvements throughout the last few years and the 2021 U19 World Cup roster is an attainable goal. He is long and physical with a high motor on defense. Galin is strong, especially in his lower body and core, and doesn’t get moved easily. His left-handed shot looks good and was very accurate on low volume in 2019-2020. If he can put up solid shooting numbers in an expanded scoring role this season, he will not only grab the attention of the U19 coaches, he may get some burn at the professional level as well.
Frisch is a slightly undersized 4 with a great looking shot and a solid handle. He finds a lot of good looks with quick feet in the high and mid post. He’s a high IQ offensive player who can make plays for others as a gravity passer and pick and pop playmaker. He has excellent defensive positioning off the ball to rotate and make plays. While he’s not a great defender on the ball, Frisch knows how to direct his man away from space and towards the help which would allow his lengthy, turnover-hungry team to make plays if he made this roster.