Early Standouts from the 2004 Generation

Every year, a new generation of players is scouted and ranked after the conclusion of the FIBA U16 summer tournaments for national teams. This year, as you all might have realized, all FIBA tournaments were cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Given the absence of that first spotlight event for the 2004 generation, this class is a tricky one to evaluate and it could very well remain that way until these players are old enough to play at the U18 tournaments.

The following list is hardly a comprehensive one – the possibility to compile such a list went out the window once FIBA cancelled this summer’s championships. But even though this initial list might strongly deviate from other scouts’ rankings and from my own list for this generation in one or two years, there’s a clear competitive advantage to be gained by those teams who can successfully identify, scout and recruit the talent in the 2004 class this early in the process, as the lack of available tape against quality competition, can make some players who can add value either at the NCAA or the professional level around the world, fly under the radars for most scouts.

Victor Wembanyama

France | Team: Nanterre 92 (France) | DOB: 01/04/2004 | Height: 7’2″
Projected Roles: Primary Rim Protector, Versatile Interior Finisher, Opportunity Driver, Spot-Up Shooter

Wembanyama possesses tremendous size at 7’2” with a reported wingspan nearing the 8’ mark, which allows him to affect the game virtually by just being in the right place at the right time. Wembanyama knows how to use his size and length to block shots, get on passing lanes, rebound the basketball and get good extension when finishing at the rim.

Even more impressive than his size are his coordination, mobility and his perimeter flashes. At 7’2” Wembanyama is fluid enough to handle the ball in space and escape defensive pressure. Despite his height, his long arms allow him to keep a low dribble point which allows him to minimize turnovers. His assertiveness to attack off the dribble is also noteworthy, as he is aggressive to find and exploit driving lanes.

Wembanyama has also made strides as a shooter, showing excellent touch from deep, some flashes of versatility (being able to catch on the hop and get his shot off coming off screens and against defensive pressure), and impressively repeatable mechanics for his age.

The uniqueness of Wembanyama’s profile doesn’t stop with his physical tools and his offensive polish; his approach to the game is nearly unique for a prospect at his age, he’s a competitive player on both ends of the floor. On offense, he understands his role and plays unselfishly – showing some flashes of stationary passing. Wembanyama is not afraid to step out of his comfort zone to make plays on defense, playing with energy and taking pride in that end of the floor.

The only concern at this point is his rail thin frame and his lack of strength in his lower body. Wembanyama can easily get him thrown off balance by contact, which causes problems with ball control and finishing at the rim.

Wembanyama is a rare prospect considering his unique physical profile in terms of size, length, coordination and mobility, his overall offensive polish considering his age and size, and his motor and engagement on the defensive end of the floor. Considering the aforementioned mystery surrounding the 2004 international class, one thing is for sure: Victor Wembanyama is the top player in the class and it would surprise me greatly if he wasn’t the first international name taken in the 2023 NBA Draft.

Paulius Murauskas

Lithuania | Team:  Žalgiris (Lithuania) | DOB: 02/14/2004 | Height: 6’8″
Projected Roles: Advantage Driver, Spot-Up Shooter, Versatile Interior Finisher, Gravity Passer

Murauskas is one of the most well known names of this class, as he has been playing against high level competition for a while; in 2019 he was already seeing minutes as a 14 year old at ANGT playing three years up in age for Žalgiris. This experience playing against older competition has seemed to pay its dividends, as watching Murauskas playing against opponents of his same age earlier this year at the TBF U16 Tournament, it was clear that he was by far the best player on the floor at nearly all times.

Murauskas is a 6’8” forward who possesses an interesting physical profile – mobile, long-limbed, with a strong upper body and wide shoulders –  and has the potential of a versatile offensive player, as he shows flashes of passing, shooting, driving and interior scoring all at different levels of development.

Murauskas has improved as a shooter, he always showed the requisite touch from range but now has worked on his mechanics to a point where he could develop into a reliable catch-and-shoot scorer. Murauskas shows a quick shot preparation, barely taking the time to flex his knees to elevate into his motion. His upper body mechanics are fluid and repeatable and he shows good balance, fully extending his body on the jump. The wrist motion could use some softening, as he can be too aggressive on the flick at times, which causes long/short misses.

With the ball in his hands, Murauskas is able to attack certain mismatches on the perimeter, taking advantage of slower, bigger opponents who try to contain penetration away from the rim. Murauskas is a fluid ball-handler for his size who is able to use simple dribble moves to create space against his defensive matchup and use his long legs to get to the rim in a few strides. Murauskas’ combination of length and strong upper body allow him to be an effective finisher on the move, as he’s able to be physical against opponents, creating space with his strong frame and finishing at the rim after contact. Once he’s on the move, Murauskas shows interesting flashes of vision both in transition, where he’s able to make accurate long-range passes and in the half-court, where he’s able to find teammates in the strong side after beating his man on the perimeter.

On the paint, Murauskas’ lack of lower body strength makes it hard for him to establish position and post up similar-sized defenders, but he knows how to use his length/standing reach to shoot over opponents, he shows fluid footwork to turn around and find the open space out of a post-up and he’s assertive to exploit mismatches against smaller players, it will be interesting to see if he can continue to develop as an interior self-creator once he works on his lower body.

The next step for Murauskas is to improve as a decision-maker; offensively his shot selection can leave a lot to be desired and he has lapses where he drives to the rim with no plan, dribbles himself into crowded spaces and takes ill-advised contested shots with teammates wide open. It will be interesting to see if the game continues to slow down for him and so he can develop into a positive decision-maker with the ball in his hands.

Overall, given his physical profile and his offensive versatility, Murauskas is one of the most interesting prospects in all of Europe, the development of a single bankable skill and his improvement as a decision maker will be the keys for him in getting to the next level.

Juan Nuñez

Spain | Team: Real Madrid (Spain) | DOB: 06/04/2004 | Height: 6’3″
Projected Roles: Primary Initiator, Drive Creator, Spot-Up Shooter, Guard Defender

Nuñez is an excellent all-around passer who displays tremendous poise and control on half-court sets, while also being extremely reactive and quick to recognize open teammates when he’s on the move, showing the ability to pick and execute the perfect type of pass to counter whatever the opposing defense throws at him in either of those situations.

Nuñez shows tremendous versatility and creativity to deliver passes, using a different number of techniques to find teammates. From simple drive and kicks to his strong side, to timely and perfectly executed pocket passes to hit the roll man on his way to the rim, to wild behind-the-back passes to set up teammates in traffic, to one-hand live dribble passes to the weak side corner through heavy traffic. You name the type of pass and Nuñez probably knows how to deliver it with timing and accuracy.

As a scorer, Nuñez is able to create drives thanks to his shiftiness and his fluid handling ability, as he uses simple but effective crossovers, hesitations and hang dribbles to create separation against his defensive matchup. His optimal body control allows Nuñez to navigate through tight spaces and split the pick-and-roll defense in the perimeter. Once he’s on the way to the rim, Nuñez shows not only optimal speed with the ball in his hands, but also the ability to change gears after turning the corner and generate momentum on his final steps to the rim, which allows him to finish against size and length.

Still in a developmental stage as a shooter, Nuñez shows the requisite compact upper body mechanics to be an effective shooter off-the-catch, but he will need to continue to extend his range as a pull-up shooter, as he’s more comfortable creating space and shooting from inside the arc at this point.

Nuñez is the top European initiator in this class and given his combination of positional size, court vision, ability to make plays for others and drive initiation, he has a strong case as the second best overall international prospect in this generation. If he continues to extend his range as a pull up shooter, it’s hard not to see NBA potential for Nuñez.

Ousmane Ndiaye

Senegal | Team: Dragons Rhöndorf (Germany) | DOB: 03/19/2004 | Height: 6’10”
Projected Roles: Advantage Driver, Versatile Catch-and-Shoot

Ndiaye is one of the most intriguing players of this generation given his size, coordination, mobility and flashes of a perimeter skillset. Standing at 6’10” with long arms that allow him to contest shots and get good extension as a finisher at the rim, Ndiaye is a coordinated north/south athlete who is able to outrun opponents in the open court. Ndiaye is also able to play above the rim with ease either off of one or two feet.

Offensively, Ndiaye mostly operates from the outside in, with his ability as a shooter being one of the key aspects to watch. Ndiaye could correct a couple of things in terms of mechanics – he could certainly hold his followthrough a bit longer, but the touch from range is definitely there, as he is able to convert threes off the catch from a few feet behind the FIBA three-point line. Even more impressive are his moments of shooting off the dribble, being able to create space with his handling ability and convert jumpers out of advanced moves for his age like stepbacks/sidesteps.

As a ball-handler, Ndiaye has potential as a drive creator, being able to break defenders in the perimeter with his fluid handling ability and create space to initiate his drive. Once he turns the corner, Ndiaye is able to fluidly navigate through traffic with the ball in his hands. Ndiaye gets a ton of momentum going downhill, as his long legs allow him to eat a ton of space within a few strides. Here’s where his best moments as a passer come, as he’s able to utilize the gravity he generates as a driver to find open teammates on the strong side corners.

Improving his strength should allow Ndiaye to take the next step, as several aspects of his game are affected by his skinny frame; His ability to finish at the rim against contact is limited at this point as well as his interior scoring profile, which is restricted to him flying in from the perimeter to crash the offensive glass. Growing to be more comfortable against physicality will certainly help Ndiaye be more effective at leveraging his size difference against smaller defenders instead of settling so much for tough jumpers.

Despite what his optimal size and physical profile for his age would suggest, Ndiaye will need to make serious strides on defense to be a positive player at the highest levels of competition, as he’s not as quick laterally to contain drivers in the perimeter, can have trouble with positioning as a pick-and-roll defender and tends to give up on plays if beaten on the perimeter.

Overall, Ndiaye’s combination of physical profile, shooting touch and fluidity with the ball in his hands make him an interesting potential creator of advantages at the next level, but he will need to get stronger and especially, improve as a team defender to be a positive player at the highest levels of competition.

Tyrese Proctor

Australia | Team: NBA Global Academy | DOB: 04/01/2004 | Height: 6’3″
Projected Roles: Secondary Initiator, Advantage Driver, Versatile Catch-and-Shoot, Guard Defender

Proctor is a versatile 6’3” combo guard who can do multiple things on offense on a good to great level considering his age. Offensively, he is extremely polished at creating advantages on the perimeter and capitalizing on them by attacking closeouts, creating space for pull-up jumpers or finding the open teammate on the move.

Proctor is not extremely explosive, but shows the requisite deceptiveness in terms of changes of directions and start/stop moves to create space on his way to the rim. Once he’s able to shake his man off, he shows excellent bend to turn the corner, good speed on straight line drives and the body control to navigate through crowds and find the open space for shot attempts and kick out passes.

Despite having long legs and gaining good momentum on his way to the rim, his power as a driver can be contained by players who are able to stay in front of him or by centers helping at the rim, as his lack of strength doesn’t allow him to create space out of physicality at this point. Proctor does seem to compensate to some degree by using floaters and runners, which allow him to finish plays a few feet away from the rim.

Once Proctor is on the move, he’s able to spot and deliver the ball to teammates open in the perimeter. Proctor is reactive on the move and versatile with his deliveries, being able to find and hit teammates both to the strong and to the weak side corner. Despite not running much half-court offense for teammates, Proctor has shown the ability to find the open man in the sporadic pick-and-roll handling duties he was tasked with.

In terms of shooting, Proctor shows impressive footwork to create separation for pull-up jumpers in the perimeter. Despite some mechanical tweaks that should be made to his shot (elbows flying out, having virtually no follow through and pulling back both his shooting and guiding hand immediately after the release), the fact that Proctor has been effective at different types of movement jumpers at this young age, bodes well for his projection as a versatile shooter in the future.

Defensively, again Proctor is limited by his current lack of strength, but with the proper work in this area, Proctor could become a plus in the perimeter considering his good size and length, his body control which allows him to cover drives, his defensive instincts which allow him to rotate and position himself in the optimal spot to disrupt plays and his overall engagement on the defensive end of the floor.

Overall, considering Proctor’s multiple offensive skills and the possibility that he grows a couple more inches, he could develop into a two-way offensive versatile two-guard who can mix in some lead ball-handling duties. This latter area will be the key for him: if his role as a half-court creator for others continues to expand, his value could grow exponentially as a lead initiator with good size and the ability to self-create on multiple levels of the floor.

Emmanuel Adeola

Nigeria | Team: Stella Azzurra (Italia) | DOB: 06/07/2004 | Height: 6’6″
Projected Roles: Drive Creator, Gravity Passer

Adeola stands out due to his combination of size and ball-handling ability. Standing at 6’6” with a strong upper body and wide shoulders, Adeola is able to leverage his size to create space on the move and finish at the rim.

Offensively, Adeola possesses a solid first step and a fluid dribbling ability which allows him to create space and initiate drives on the perimeter. Adeola is not extremely shifty on the move, in terms of changing directions on his way to the rim, but he compensates with his physicality, which allows him to create space after making contact with defenders as well as drawing fouls on his way to the rim. Adeola doesn’t get a ton of momentum going to the rim and seems to decelerate on his final steps, but compensates to a degree by being comfortable finishing with either hand and by having really good hangtime which allows him to readjust mid-air and convert tough shots against contact.

Adeola’s fluidity with the ball in his hands allows him to sporadically bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. At this point his vision and execution in the half-court is limited to exploiting help defenders, finding open teammates in the strong side and utilizing his size to deliver passes over the top of the defense.

The next step for Adeola is definitely the shooting, as he went 0/16 in the most recent competition (2020 Szent Istvan U16 Tournament) and it will be extremely necessary for him to develop given his perimeter roles. His mechanics look fluid from a stationary motion but he shows a clear two-motion shot, bringing the ball almost to the top of his head before releasing; a slow shot which can be easily contestable.

Overall, the combination of handling, size and passing on the move make Adeola an interesting prospect to monitor as we move closer to his draft eligibility. If he can add some half-court creation for others and especially develop as a shooter, Adeola becomes an interesting bet as a secondary initiator who can create his own drive from the perimeter.

Urban Klavžar

Slovenia | Team: Real Madrid (Spain) | DOB: 05/27/2004 | Height: 6’0″
Projected Roles: Drive Creator, Versatile Catch-and-Shoot, Secondary Initiator

Klavžar is a scoring 6’0” guard who is prolific at creating separation, getting into the teeth of the defense and getting shots off thanks to his quickness with the ball in his hands and his quick dribbling ability. Klavžar shows impressive multi-level touch which allows him to compensate for his lack of size on offense.

As a driver, Klavžar has quick dribble moves that allow him to create separation against his primary defender in the perimeter and a powerful first step which allows him to beat his opponents out of sheer quickness. Klavžar is limited in terms of size, but compensates to some degree with his advanced finishing ability, being effective at finishing with floaters with impressive range.

Klavžar has developed as a shooter in recent years, improving his mechanics and being more consistent in his release. Even though his pull-up ability is still in a developmental stage – being more comfortable inside the arc, he is already a versatile shooter off the catch who is able to quickly set his feet and convert shots against heavy defensive pressure.

In terms of playmaking, Klavžar has shown the ability to initiate an offense and prowess at finding teammates out of pick-and-roll plays, but playing next to Juan Nuñez in Real Madrid Junior Teams, Klavžar’s creation for others is on a secondary, as evidenced by his insufficient assist rate for a lead guard.

Klavžar has been on the radar as one of the best players of this generation for a few years already, as he was a starter for Slovenia as a fourteen year old, playing two years up in age at the FIBA U16 European Championships in 2018. Klavžar is certainly a gifted multi-level scorer, but considering his size, he will need to make serious improvement as a playmaker and as a creator of dribble jumpers in order to develop into a positive on offense at the next level of competition.

Ilija Milijašević

Serbia | Team: Partizan (Serbia) | DOB: 02/06/2004 | Height: 6’1″
Projected Roles: Primary Initiator, Drive Creator, Versatile Catch-and-Shoot

Milijašević is a triple-threat initiator who stands out due to his versatile offensive skillset at his age, as he’s able to create open shots for others, convert jumpers off the catch and create drives for himself.

Milijašević is a prolific drive creator, possessing the combination of a solid first step and a number of dribble moves (crossovers, in-and-outs) which allow him to shake off defenders and create space to drive from the perimeter. Despite not being extremely fast with the ball in his hands and not being able to gain a ton of momentum coming down the lane, he’s able to compensate for his shortcomings with his ability to change directions on the move and his flashes of hangtime, which allow him to convert tough layups and floaters on the interior against bigger defenders.

When given space in the perimeter, Milijašević is able to make the opposition pay by making three-pointers. He’s a versatile shooter off the catch who is quick to set his feet and get his shot off against pressure. Milijašević possesses compact and repeatable upper body mechanics, and his quickness to set his feet and his one-motion shot release allows him to convert shots against defensive pressure. Milijašević hasn’t been as effective as a shooter off the dribble up until this point, but he has shown the ability to create separation to get his shot off despite not being as efficient in these types of shots off movement.

When creating for others, Milijašević is able to utilize his scoring gravity to create advantages and find open teammates in those situations, being especially effective in drive-and-kicks. In the half-court, Milijašević keeps it simple, being solid at finding teammates on the interior, whether it is with entry passes to bigs on the post, or finding cutters over the top of the defense. Milijašević knows how to run pick and rolls and take advantage of botched coverages and defensive miscommunications in these situations.

Despite possessing a tough, well built frame for his age, there’s always going to be defensive limitations for Milijašević considering his size. The next step in his development is likely continuing to improve on the areas in which he already adds value on the basketball floor, specifically, taking the step from versatile shooter off the catch to someone who can reliably create his own shot off the dribble and improving as a decision maker to cut down on turnovers and become a more reliable playmaker.

Zinedin Mulić

Bosnia and Herzegovina | Team: Spars (Bosnia and Herzegovina) | DOB: 01/15/2004 | Height: 6’6″
Projected Roles: Versatile Perimeter Defender, Spot-Up Shooter, Advantage Driver

Mulić has optimal size for the wing position at 6’6” with long arms that he uses to harass guards and ball-handling forwards at the point of attack. His defensive potential is one of his biggest selling points as a prospect, since Mulić not only possesses the optimal physical profile in terms of size, length and lateral mobility, but also has the instincts/IQ and discipline to be a positive defender in the perimeter, doing a good job of covering drives and navigating screens when he’s on the ball, and rotating from the corner to help with contesting shots and rebounding on the interior when he’s off the ball.

Offensively, Mulić is fluid with the ball in his hands, not exactly someone who is able to create his own drives at this point, but does show some interesting abilities to change speeds and directions on the move, which allows him to turn the corner with the ball in his hands and his long legs allow him to get to the rim in a few strides from the perimeter.

His calling card on offense however is his potential as a floor-spacer; Mulić shot 37% from three-point range at the U16 European championships on 5.4 attempts per 36 minutes. Mulić shows tight, consistent upper body mechanics and a high release, which makes him a threat on catch and shoot opportunities. Shooting off movement is still on a developmental stage, but he has shown some ability to convert from midrange, especially when assisted by screens.

Overall, Mulić’s potential as a three-and-D wing/forward who can defend multiple positions, shoot off the catch and exploit advantages as a driver could turn him into a player who adds value immediately to any professional team down the line. If he can develop some self-creation down the line, his value as a prospect should increase even more.

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