2011-12 Citta di Roma Tournament: Top Prospects
By Alexander Kaftan
More top prospects: 2011-12 Citta di Roma Tournament Top Prospects: Part 2
James Birsen 6'9" 205 lbs. SF/PG/PF/SG 1995-born.
Birsen exhibited impressive ball-handling skills, looking up when initiating the offense, often times after a defensive rebound in traffic. As a testament to this skill, this 6'9" 210 lbs-ish sixteen-year-old was playing as a true point guard when the primary point, Berk Ugurlu, was subbed out; and, in the second game, he occasionally played point with him in.
Birsen appeared right-hand dominant, and although had a competent left that will likely improve over time, he almost exclusively penetrated rightwards, even when veering left would have been far more advantageous. When penetrating, he either made a crisp pass to an open teammate, or shot a pull-up jumper, rarely looking to drive all the way to the basket, despite having the quickness--for this level, at least--and, especially, the intelligence to do so. While it would be impossible to evaluate the proficiency of his jump-shooting ability with such a small sample size, in these four games his shot was a bit streaky, though it's clear that he has tremendous potential to develop into an elite shooter, as he combines confidence with good form and intelligent shot-selection.
Birsen rarely forced the issue, looking to make the right play for his teammates, almost to a fault, and was alert on offense and defense, getting deflections, offensive and defensive rebounds, and steals, though occasionally was flatfooted on defense, and didn't always get in an optimal defensive stance. For his age, Birsen has an unbelievably high offensive skill-level, as his diverse repertoire features jab-steps, spin-moves, hook-shots, pump-fakes, step-back jumpers, and an unusually advanced back-to-the-basket game to exploit his size and strength advantage. His glaring weakness on offense, as mentioned, is his reluctance to penetrate all the way to the basket.
In addition to his impressive skills on-the-ball, Birsen also shows efficient off-the-ball movement, cutting at appropriate times, spacing the floor in both the half- and full-court, wisely choosing his spots on the offensive fast break, getting back on defense, and communicating with teammates on both ends. Furthermore, when provoked by excessively-hard fouls, Birsen never retaliated.
Birsen also has promising physical tools: he has a well-proportioned body, with the requisite upper- and lower-body strength, shoulder breadth, and arm length to, once filled out, compete at the NBA level. Though he lacks blow-by agility, Birsen could make up for this deficiency with his strong frame--he'll likely wind up being a 6'9"-6'10" 240 lbs. point-forward--high skill-level, and intelligence; after all, Kevin Durant also lacks elite quickness and still manages to score at the rim.
It's clear from these games that Birsen is heady, smart, grounded, and well-liked by teammates and coaches. Furthermore, his dual-nationality--his mother hails form Ireland and his father from Turkey--and his exposure to two vastly differing cultures will be advantageous when transitioning to Fenerbahce's senior team, as well as a possible eventual transition to a third entirely different culture--America and the NBA.
While there are many facets that the sixteen-year-old must work on--such as taking over games and playing with greater consistency on offense--Birsen enjoys world's of potential, with the ability to develop into a slightly more perimeter-oriented version of Lamar Odom. We must remember though that Birsen will turn just seventeen in April, which would make him a high school junior; at his age, no star, no matter the brightness, is guaranteed to keep shining. Despite my admonition, I have become a fan and a believer, and will carefully monitor his progress.
Dario Saric 6'10" 220 lbs. SF/PF/PG 1994-born.
Dario Saric, the most well-known player at Città di Roma, has been considered an elite prospect for over two years, and has to be the top European prospect eligible for the NBA draft over the next two years. This tournament was the first time that I'd seen him play, and despite the expectations, he still performed at an ethereal level--more so than what I could have expected--and completely dominated every single game in every single facet on his march to winning the MVP and, more importantly, a ticket to the U-18 Euroleague Final Four.
On offense, Saric played as his team's primary ball-handler and scorer; on defense, he anchored the middle of Zagreb's 2-3 zone, grabbing nearly fourteen rebounds per game--despite his thin frame--by aggressively boxing out and using great anticipation. Zagreb's zone, utilized to cover up their lack of overall height and strength, made Saric's defensive ability a bit difficult to gauge, although he appears to have the lateral quickness, strength-potential, intelligence, and especially, height and length to cover NBA small forwards.
With a great first-step and low ball-handling, Saric penetrated at will. He showed tremendous balance as well as surprisingly good core- and upper-body strength, managing to repeatedly score through contact; and, while not an elite leaper, Saric's jumping ability certainly does not hinder him. When unable to drive all the way to the cup, Saric showed that he possesses at least five eyes, as he found open teammates everywhere, no matter where they be on the floor.
Saric showed an incredibly high basketball IQ, as he managed to take what the defense gave him, rarely forcing bad shots. He understood when and from where he'd be double-teamed--and always found his unmarked teammate; he understood when he could penetrate all the way, or when he had to pull-up or shoot--and though he had success with mid-range shooting, accuracy from long-range eluded him this entire tournament. He also understood when to involve his teammates and when to take over, and for stretches he seemingly did do everything for his less-than-stellar teammates. Despite the chasm in talent, Saric showed patience and leadership, and rarely complained after poor calls or bad plays.
Despite my effusive praise, it was a bit hard to fully evaluate Saric on this level, especially at this event. As I've mentioned, he had a shoddy supporting cast, and was forced to do everything for Zagreb. These will be the last years where he'll be burdened with being his team's sole offensive and defensive catalyst: at the Euroleague and NBA-levels, he will likely have at least one teammate that will be a better scorer; another that will be a better passer; another that will be a better rebounder, and so on.
At Città di Roma--and, from what I've read, at other junior events--Saric played far more iso than what he'd play at higher levels. This, in my opinion, is not a potential budding flaw in his game; rather, it's the result of him having to adapt to a particular setting that calls on him to wholly control the offense due to a paucity of talent around him. One of Saric's biggest strengths, especially for his long-term potential, lies in his incredibly versatile offensive skill-set. While he one day may have a single teammate with superior court vision, and another with more scoring ability, and yet another that boxes out better, it will be highly unlikely that he'll have a teammate that combines all three, especially in a 6'10" or 6'11" body.
Saric's pro adaptability potential--in one game, with a particular lineup, he could become his team's primary scorer; with shorter, more offensively-minded substitutions he could become their principle facilitator and defensive rebounder; with a third lineup he could become a mix of the three--is likely his biggest virtue. If I were to compare Saric to a current player in the NBA, both in terms of both potential style and impact, I would say a lither, more motivated--and thus better--Boris Diaw, who started his career on the wing, but then ate his way to the post.
While premature, Saric may never develop into a traditional NBA star, as his penetration and finishing abilities will probably be somewhat limited by the size and athleticism of NBA defenders; however, his versatility could very-well enable him to become a valuable "star role-player" on a championship caliber-team.
Tridon Makonda 6'8" 210-220 lbs. SF. 1994-born.
Fill name: Tridon Makonda Moke. Contrasting sharply with the previously-profiled, highly-skilled wings, James Birsen and Dario Saric, Gran Canaria's Tridon Makonda Moke is far, far more prospect than player. Currently, the Congolese-native isn't even the best player on his average team, that being Mouhamed Barro, Canaria's 6'8 1/2" power forward.
Easily the most outstanding athlete in the tournament, Makonda Moke has elite athleticism for even the NBA, with jaw-dropping leaping ability--both in motion and from a standstill--feline quickness, and a sculpted upper-body. In addition, his broad shoulders indicate that he could add more muscle without loosing his fantastic athletic advantage. The only potential blemish in Makonda Moke's body are his skinny legs, which will limit his ability to defend post-oriented power forwards and back his man down on offense.
Makonda Moke's physical profile, along with long arms, rapid reflexes and an acrobat's coordination, gives him the potential to be both a lock-down defender on point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, and perimeter-oriented power forwards, and an elite slasher and fast-break finisher on offense. Furthermore, he shows the potential to develop into a solid ballhandler, at least an adequate passer, and has the touch to become an effective shooter.
All this praise hinges on a single word: potential. While having the aforementioned ability, showing it on occasion during games --Makonda Moke currently lacks any of those skills on a consistent basis. On defense, he rarely looked at the location of the ball, thus rendering him susceptible to back-door passes; in addition, he either defended with too much aggression, drawing unnecessary fouls, or with too little aggression, allowing inferior athletes to score on him. On offense, Makonda Moke played either too rushed--resulting in a cascade of turnovers, such as numerous traveling violations, stepping out-of-bounds, poor shot-selection, etc--or too slowly, which resulted in more turnovers, such as errant passes or charges.
Makonda Moke rarely took what the defense gave him, preferring to shoot contested jumpers or barrel into a crowded lane. He must develop the ability to recognize the defensive scheme and attack that, not decide independent of circumstances. He also must tighten up his handle, improve his passing, and work on his overall perimeter skills.
I would normally not pay attention to such a raw player, but Makonda Moke's has both elite athleticism and hand-eye-coordination, which, in addition to hard work, are the building blocks of great NBA players. While it's difficult to gauge his work ethic in such a limited setting, Makonda Moke's pre-game practice habits were not encouraging, as he neither appeared focused, like Saric or Birsen, nor did he practice useful in-game movements, like his teammate Barro; instead he looked to dunk as hard as he humanly could.
While having the ability to excel in the NBA, Makonda Moke also has the ability to bottom-out as a third division bench warmer if he does not diligently work to improve his skill level and basketball IQ. In this case, the cliche is true: Makonda Moke's future really does hinge on him.
Due to James Birsen's versatility, it was difficult to assign him a position. His most frequent NBA position will likely be small forward, though he could become, at least for extended periods, a true pass-first point guard, or fill in at shooting guard, or play power forward, depending both on how much he vertically and athletically grows and on the composition of his team. I do believe that he has the frame and defensive ability--including rebounding instincts--to eventually be able to play some power forward, though his most likely defensive position will be small forward.
Just as with Birsen, Saric's versatility makes him difficult to peg. He'll probably be an NBA small forward, though he could occasionally play point guard, shooting guard, and power forward. I don't see him as a potential "pure" and primary point guard, like Birsen, nor do I believe that his terrific scoring instincts would be best served as his team's primary distributor; and while I have stated that he could assume that role for stretches and be highly effective, keeping Saric there long-term would somewhat limit his ability to attack--either by shooting, driving, or passing--from all three levels, especially from the outer-mid-range wing, where someone of his skill, athletic, and physical profile can have a good deal of success. Finally, he lacks great strength potential, which will somewhat limit his ability to play inside, especially on defense.
More top prospects: 2011-12 Citta di Roma Tournament Top Prospects: Part 2