By Kevin Sweeney
In the post-NBA Draft world, basketball fans are starved for anything they can get. Featuring more than 50 current and future Division 1 players and several future NBA players, the FIBA U19 World Cup in Crete, Greece was a welcome reprieve from the offseason. It provided a closer look at several players who will make an impact on the college hoops landscape this year and beyond, while providing a competitive atmosphere with some awesome games.
The US bringing home the gold was far from a surprise, but Mali’s storybook run to the championship game was one of the more inspiring stories I’ve seen and speaks to the future of what is an increasingly global game.
I watched a ton of this event, making sure to watch every team with college prospects on it at least once and most at least twice. In doing so, I came away with lots of takeaways that I figured I’d share.
Athleticism Carries US Despite Misfit Roster
This wasn’t exactly the best-constructed roster for an event like this brought in by Bruce Weber, as the Kansas State head coach loaded up on athleticism but failed to bring enough consistent outside shooters with him to Greece. One player expected to provide spacing, Alabama’s Kira Lewis, rarely got off the bench in favor of Isaac Likelele, the bruising defensive whiz from Oklahoma State. As a result, the US team struggled to find offensive rhythm in the halfcourt, though the Americans were mostly able to overcome those woes by forcing turnovers and getting out in transition.
Of the five rising college sophomores, Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton and Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry stood out the most. Haliburton, an analytics darling during his freshman year in Ames due to his defense and assist-to-turnover ratio, flashed an improved offensive game. His jump shot isn’t perfect, but Haliburton was much more confident shooting it both in catch-and-shoot and off-the-dribble situations. Meanwhile, he made one impressive defensive play after another while deploying his elite floor vision to set up teammates in transition.
This video of Haliburton in a group stage game against Lithuania by Spencer Pearlman of The Stepien sums up what makes Haliburton so intriguing:
After playing primarily as a power forward for Ben Howland as a freshman, Perry was deployed exclusively at the 5 in this event. That was a change for the better, providing Perry more post-up looks and better spacing down low. He was named MVP of the tournament after averaging 13.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. His grab-and-go ability was perhaps most impressive and was consistently a weapon for the US in this setting as they looked to push the pace. His finishing around the rim left a fair bit to be desired, especially when he couldn’t just bully opposing big men with his size and strength. Still, it’s easy to project Perry as one of the best bigs in the SEC next season.
Likelele didn’t show anything we didn’t already know about him from his freshman season– he’s a physically imposing guard capable of bullying his man off the bounce and being a perimeter defensive pest. His jump shot is not steady at all though and he’s not a natural point guard. He’s a great role player, but his limited skillset caps his upside for this season.
Purdue’s Trevion Williams backed up Perry at the five, and his play was uneven. He flashed promise on a number of occasions, specifically with his passing ability out of the post.
Unfortunately, for every dime like the one above was a thrown away pass looking to do too much. Williams has soft touch, but needs to go up stronger at times. He also struggled to move his feet on the perimeter defensively despite being very nimble for his size. Williams is a legit weapon when on the floor, and getting developed by Matt Painter should only help in that regard. Still, I think Purdue’s best bet is an even 50-50 split of Matt Haarms and Williams at the 5.
Villanova 2019 signee Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was impressive at the four, flashing the versatile skillset that makes him appealing to NBA front offices. Robinson-Earl can step out and shoot (though he shot just 1-9 from 3 in the event), handle the ball, and switch defensively. He has soft touch, doesn’t need the ball offensively, and displays strong defensive instincts & technique. He’ll likely slot in as the starting four-man for Jay Wright and will have plenty of chances as a small-ball five as well.
Among the 2020 recruits on the team, it was Cade Cunningham who shined the most as expected. It remains baffling that the 6-7 point guard isn’t seen as the consensus top player in the 2020 class, flashing shades of Brandon Roy as a big, do-it-all lead guard ready-made for the modern NBA game. Cunningham’s jump shot was concerningly off throughout, as he shot just 1-14 with multiple air balls in the event from downtown. Still, he is an absolute menace in transition and outstanding when put in ball screens.
One of the other main contenders for the top spot in the 2020 class, Jalen Green, wasn’t as impressive. Green is clearly an excellent athlete who made his presence felt defensively in the USA press, and was very good in transition offensively. In the halfcourt, he struggled to find rhythm and looked lost at times. Green’s outside shot was rough was well, as the California native shot just 6-29 from 3.
Fellow elite 2020 recruit Scottie Barnes flashed his potential throughout the event, including an outstanding finale that featured 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists. Barnes’ feel for the game leaves a lot to be desired, but his elite physical tools at 6-8 with a 7-2 wingspan combined with his passing ability makes him an intriguing prospect. For my money, he was the #2 2020 prospect on the US team over Green.
Top-15 recruit and Gonzaga lean Jalen Suggs earned Weber’s trust as a reliable “3 and D” option and averaged 12.6 points per game in his final five games in Crete. His jumper was inconsistent, but his three triples were important in putting Mali away in the final game. Suggs is a high-level athlete whose game feels robotic at times, but he possesses considerable upside as he refines his game on both ends.
Ziaire Williams and Evan Mobley barely played for the US, with Mobley seemingly dealing with an injury and Williams unable to beat out Suggs for minutes on the wing.
Gonzaga Guys Show Promise
Given Mark Few’s reliance on international prospects throughout his time in Spokane, it was hardly a surprise to see four current Zags (including 2019 signees) along with 2020 commit Julian Strawther all playing in Crete. All five got big minutes, providing a great offseason look at a team with a lot of roster turnover from last season.
Most impressive for me was French guard Joel Ayayi, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall. With questions looming about Gonzaga’s backcourt, minutes are there for the taking, In Greece, Ayayi made a strong case for big minutes. Named to the all-tournament team, Ayayi was incredibly impressive on both ends of the floor for a France team that finished third. Ayayi is a complete offensive player, able to play the one or the two, operate pick-and-rolls, score at three levels, and distribute. He was assertive when he needed to be without forcing anything.
Defensively, an area he has struggled in the past, Ayayi showed significant promise. He used his length and physicality to bother opposing guards and get into passing lanes while making some strong team defensive plays.
Also outstanding was Serbian rising sophomore big man Filip Petrusev. He posted averages of 19.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game while shooting over 66% from the field, serving as a hyper-efficient post player and strong rebounder who should fit nicely next to Killian Tillie up front. Petrusev has soft touch around the rim, good passing ability and defensive upside.
2019 signee Oumar Ballo, still 16 years old until later this month, helped lead the way for Mali’s dream run after arriving to the tournament late. For such a young player, Ballo is incredibly gifted physically and went toe-to-toe with older players all tournament long down low. His fluidity and strength at 16 years old is very impressive for a 6-10 big, and he flashed the ability to step out and hit midrange jumpers as well. Ballo is a work in progress defensively with slow reaction times, but that is somewhat to be expected. There are a lot of similarities in his game to 2018 #1 overall pick Deandre Ayton.
The least impressive of the group was 2019 signee Martynas Arlauskas out of Lithuania, who came in with lofty billing from previous international competition. Instead, Arlauskas looked overmatched athletically, struggling to deal with the strength and physicality of opposing teams. He didn’t flash the creation ability he had shown earlier in his career, and he had a negative assist to turnover ratio for the event. Arlauskas seems like a redshirt candidate to get stronger and add more polish to his game.
Finally, 2020 commit Julian Strawther can flat out score. His 40-point outburst against Russia in the fifth place game Sunday was an absolute offensive clinic, scoring from all three levels efficiently while also adding 10 rebounds and 4 assists. His jump shot is inconsistent and somewhat slow-developing, but he is tough to stop when he gets downhill and is a strong finisher at the rim. Getting in better shape would help, but with a year before he even sets foot on Gonzaga’s campus, it’s clear that the Bulldogs have a star on their hands.
How About Mali?
I’ve already touched on Ballo’s exploits, but it was a team effort that led the African nation on such a great run. Ballo paired nicely with Pitt signee Abdoul Karim Coulibaly up front, forming a tough, inside-out duo that was a menace on the glass. Coulibaly is what I would describe as an old-school player built for new-school basketball, a crafty and physical power forward who can step out and shoot the three or lead a fast break. He is limited athletically and his low release on jumpers and floaters almost shrinks him on the floor, but Coulibaly is a fun player to watch. He reminds me of former Buffalo star Nick Perkins, who is now playing Summer League with the Lakers. A lower-usage offensive role at Pitt early on should suit him well, but he should be able to contribute right away for a Panther frontcourt that has more questions than answers at this point in time.
The biggest surprise of the tournament in my opinion was the play of Saint Peter’s signees Fousseyni and Hassan Drame, who teamed up on the wing to make big play after big play. The book going in was that the twins were raw but with high upside, but they showed far more polish than I expected out of the gates. They used their length and athleticism to make plays on the defensive end, and Fousseyni in particular was awesome on the glass despite his wiry frame. Both can handle the ball well. Shooting will be a struggle for both out of the gates, but Shaheen Holloway landed a pair of high-major talents to inject into his program in the fall.
If you are a college coach reading this, get on the phone and figure out whether Siriman Kanoute is interested/eligible to go play D1 basketball. Information is limited on Kanoute outside of what I have watched in this competition, but I’d sign him up in a heartbeat. While he stands just 5-9, Kanoute would be a great college basketball player thanks to his shot-making ability, vision, and toughness. Watching him lead this Mali team gave me flashbacks of watching Justin Robinson at Monmouth– another fearless tiny guard who made play after play in the MAAC.
Team Canada Disappoints
After stunning the world by knocking off the USA behind RJ Barrett, Lindell Wigginton, and Abu Kigab in 2017, Canada was seen as perhaps the biggest threat to the US once again in 2019. Instead, the Canadians were bounced early en route to an 8th-place finish in Crete.
The biggest bright spot was AJ Lawson, the rising sophomore wing at South Carolina who looked the part of an all-SEC player for next season. Lawson has added polish to his offensive game and has improved as a shooter, hitting 40% from downtown on three makes per game. The first game I watched of the tournament was Canada vs Australia, a game in which Lawson had 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in an 81-76 win. If South Carolina makes the NCAA Tournament this season, he’ll be a big reason why.
Seton Hall signee Tyrese Samuel looked excellent despite not putting up massive numbers. Samuel is the perfect modern power forward– athletic, able to guard on the perimeter or down low, with nice shooting touch from the outside. He should see 15 minutes or so per game as a freshman at the four for Kevin Willard’s group, an option against quicker teams for a Seton Hall team that is likely to play two bigs often next season.
One of the biggest stock-risers of the spring recruiting period was combo guard Karim Mane, 247Sports’ 30th-best recruit in the 2020 class. Mane had an uneven tournament, showing promise but far from perfect. Mane is best playing off another ballhandler rather than running the show on his own, but needs to continue to improve as a jump shooter to be dynamic in that role. He shot 32% from downtown, a similar mark to the 33% he has posted so far on the Under Armour circuit. Perhaps more concerning was Mane’s finishing ability, as he shot just 40% from inside the arc and missed several shots at the rim. Still, he’s a dynamic athlete who can handle the ball and operate in ball screens. That type of player is incredibly valuable in this day and age.
Cal signee Joel Brown, a Brewster Academy product, came off as more game manager than lead guard on tape. Brown has a tight handle and is quick with the ball, but was very passive and rarely looked for his own shot. He also didn’t seem dynamic as a passer, more a ball-mover than anything else. I preferred UC Davis rising sophomore Damion Squire, who fits the mold of undersized combo guard that can thrive at a mid-major. With a nice stroke and the ability to handle the ball, Squire may wind up starting at point guard for Jim Les and the Aggies this season.
The future of basketball in Canada is very bright still, but this year’s crop didn’t quite have the upside of past groups, nor did it have a future NBA star like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or the aforementioned Barrett.
I obviously can’t hit on every player or team that played in this event, but I want to touch on as many guys I saw as possible.
The Argentinian high-major duo of Francisco Farabello and Francisco Caffaro was somewhat disappointing. Farabello, didn’t seem dynamic with the ball in his hands and shot just 14-46 for the event. With 4-star PG PJ Fuller incoming, Farabello may be relegated to a bench role for much of his career. Caffaro was amazing last summer at U18 Americas but looked much less polished offensively in this event. Caffaro struggled to finish around the rim and shot just 12-32 from the free throw line. Still, he has some Mike Tobey/Jack Salt equity as a tough, physical big who rebounds and does the dirty work if nothing else.
Fellow Virginia returnee Kody Stattmann suited up for Australia. Known as a high-level shooter, Stattmann really struggled with his stroke, connecting on just 22% of his attempts in the seven-game event. He didn’t show aggressiveness getting to the basket to draw fouls and had more assists than turnovers. It’s not a good sign if he plays major minutes for the defending national champs this season.
Joining Stattmann on the Australia team was a number of D1 prospects, my favorite of which was Saint Mary’s-bound Kyle Bowen, a sturdy old-fashioned big man who is good around the rim and an excellent rebounder. Bowen isn’t a rim protector, but should be a useful rotation player in the WCC.
Perhaps the most unfortunate story of the event came just two minutes into game one for the Philippines, when Toledo rising sophomore big man AJ Edu tore his ACL. Edu’s length and instincts allowed him to be one of the better freshman shot-blockers in the country last season, and he was in line for a bigger role in his sophomore campaign. Unfortunately, it seems likely he won’t play at all in the 2019-20 season at this point.
A young Puerto Rico team started slow with three losses in three group stage games, but came on strong with wins over Argentina and Canada to finish 6th in the event. Leading the way alongside the aforementioned Strawther was top-75 2020 recruit Andre Curbelo, a shifty point guard who thrives in ball screens. He needs to finish better at the rim (partially due to his lack of strength) but he is going to be an excellent college point guard.
Puerto Rico also featured the only player so far to get a scholarship offer and commitment while in Crete, as physical wing Jermaine Miranda signed with Hofstra during the event. His jump shot needs work and he made some wild plays, but Miranda looked more than capable of playing at the CAA level.
Questions about specific players or on the event as a whole? Tweet me @CBB_Central and I am happy to clarify or give my thoughts.