Dzanan Musa’s Performance at the European Pre-Qualifiers (2-19 August)

Dzanan Musa burst onto the scene of international basketball in October 2015, when he became the ninth youngest player to ever play in the Euroleague. He has dominated FIBA youth competitions such as leading the European U16 in scoring in both 2014 and 2015, as well as going for 34 ppg in last year’s U17 World Championships for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even so, he has yet to be able to earn a stable role on his European team, Cedevita Zagreb, which competes in the Eurocup (the 2nd tier after the Euroleague), averaging less than 15 mpg.

This was Musa’s first chance to play with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s senior basketball team. On a team with an average age of 22-years old, Musa was one of the brightest stars of the European Pre-Qualifers tournament from day one and emerged as the team leader. Finishing second in the tournament in scoring and fourth in efficiency among all players, despite having to wear a protective mask throughout because of a recent facial injury. The tournament was a crazy ride for the Bosnian team: their fate was decided on the final day of the championship in a game against Armenia, which they played on enemy soil.
Right before the final game, Bosnia suspended its starting point guard for disciplinary reasons. To make matters worse, their head coach was taken to the hospital and could not travel with the team. Despite all of these incidents, Dzanan Musa’s debut for the senior team was a success, with Bosnia and Herzegovina now headed to the European Qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup after earning a crucial 83-66 win over Armenia in their final game.

The Event

The European Pre-Qualifiers are a tournament in which low-seeded European national teams battle to take part in the European Qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. The event wasn’t rich on NBA quality talent, but featured such NBA players and draft picks as Jakob Poeltl (Austria), Aleksandar Vezenkov (Bulgaria), and Marcus Eriksson (Sweden), as well as NCAA standouts Ryan Boatright (Armenia), Andrew Chrabascz (Armenia), Luke Fischer (Armenia), Mike Moser (Albania), and Dee Bost (Bulgaria).
Bosnia and Herzegovina played in the most competitive group of the tournament against Sweden, Armenia, and The Slovak Republic. Every team met twice (once at home and once in the opponent’s country) for a total of six games. Losing both games to Sweden, while winning both against Armenia and Slovak Republic, the team finished 4-2. This made them one of 8 teams to earn a spot in the 2019 European Qualifiers, ultimately giving them a chance to compete for a spot in the 2020 FIBA World Cup.

The best players Dzanan’s team went up against were Marcus Eriksson and Ryan Boatright, so Musa’s performance was a small sample size against subpar competition. These were, however, meaningful games for his country’s senior team, and we got the chance to see Dzanan Musa lead his team against professional players that were significantly older and more physically mature than him.

Here’s a breakdown of what Dzanan Musa showed in the 6 games with his national team, and what we can take out of this for his NBA prospects:

The Good

1. Shooting (45% from 3PT on 7 attempts per game, 82.2 FT%)

During the 2016-2017 season, Musa shot just 10% from three in the Eurocup (albeit on only 2-19 in 10 games), he was better in his Domestic League, but still wasn’t great – shooting just 14-41 (34% 3PT) in 21 games. The pre-qualifiers were a completely different story: he was arguably the best shooter of the championship. Whenever his defender went under the screen, Musa would confidently rise up for the three-pointer off the dribble or in spot-up scenarios, often making the defense pay. In the final and most important game, Musa struggled to get in rhythm as a scorer, and it was his shooting (5-10 from 3PT) that helped his team get the win.

While we only saw him play 6 games, Musa made 18 of his 40 3PT attempts, despite being the focus of opposing defenses. This is a sign Musa has made great strides as a shooter during this Summer, and it will be interesting to watch how this carries over to Musa’s play during the season.

2. All-around Offense (22.8 ppg on 53.2 FG% + 2.5 apg and only 2 topg)

Musa excelled in the pick-and-roll as a ball handler. His shooting kept defenders from going under the screen, and when the defense switched or went over the screen, he drove to the basket, resulting in a trip to the FT line (on nearly a quarter of his pick-and-roll possessions), a crafty floater, or an accurate pass to his teammates (which his teammates much too often failed to convert). Musa showed his passing ability in other situations as well, finding cutters and making the extra pass to get his team the best available shot.
Musa was also one of the best players of the tournament in transition, showing good awareness of when to stay on defense and when to leak out to get an easy basket. When one of the other team’s players was back on D in time, Musa was able to use his size and quickness to finish over the defender.  While not incredibly explosive, he still managed to finish above-the-rim at times, though the thing that really stood out was his attention to spacing. He was able to often find the corners or find ways to get the defense out of the picture to get solid scoring opportunities.

Overall, the young wing had a great tournament as a scorer shooting 23-37 (62.2%) on 2PT FG’s, 18-40 (45%) from 3PT and 37-45 (82.2%) from the FT line on an impressive 7.5 FTA per game.

3. Defense (3.3 rpg; 1.7 spg and 0.5 bpg)

Perhaps most impressive for a such a young and slender scorer was Musa’s performance as a defender. He has already been praised for his improvement on D during 2017 Eurocamp (where he was chosen the most improved player) and showcased these skills during the tournament. He did not take plays off and worked hard to stay with his man; showing his ability to stay in front of faster guards (on several occasions forcing Ryan Boatright to give up the ball because he could not get past Musa). Musa also demonstrated good instincts by getting into passing lanes which often resulted in easy transition points.

Still, Musa’s lack of experience showed – he sometimes went for pump fakes and got caught off guard by a spin move or crossover. Dzanan’s lack of strength wasn’t an issue defensively in this tournament because he never went against players with the ability to bully weaker players, hopefully the upcoming season will give us an idea of how Musa defends against skilled players that are stronger than him.

Musa was not much of a contributor on the defensive glass, as he usually preferred to let his teammates get the board while he ran out on the fast break. However, he was able to use his size to get offensive rebounds (averaging 1.5 orpg) showing some potential as a rebounder.

Regardless of the fact that he is a strong defensive performer in his age group in Europe, defense is a real concern facing American athletes. He will have to continue to work hard to make this a strength of his game at the NBA level.

4. Body development (height: 6’9’’, wingspan: 6’8,5’’, weight: 195 lbs)

As is natural for a player his age, Musa’s body has been steadily developing over the past two years; as he has grown an inch and added approximately 8-10 pounds. Another bright side is how much better his posture looks compared to a year ago. Musa used to have a very hunched back (his posture resembled that of former Baylor prospect Isaiah Austin), and it was hard to imagine a forward with such back problems ever making it to the NBA. Now Musa stands much more up right, making his hunch virtually unnoticeable.

The Bad

1. Playing against physical defense

While Dzanan Musa had a great tournament, he struggled in two games against Sweden, the only two losses for his team. In the second game, Sweden seemed to have figured out the best way to exploit Musa’s weaknesses as a scorer, which resulted in him having his worst game of the tournament (12 pts on 4/10 FG, 3 assists, 3 TO).

For much of the tournament, Musa was fouled whenever he tried to get to the basket. In this game, however, Sweden was very careful not to foul him and let him try to convert his attempts. Musa showed that he lacks the strength and length to get all the way to the basket effectively. Even when he got past his defender, the defender would recover and challenge his shot, one time resulting in a blocked shot and another in a miss. Not being able to get to the line frustrated Musa, which led to him over-dribbling and committing unnecessary turnovers.

2. Playing off the ball

Musa did not show much of his ability to play off the ball during the tournament. Whenever he was not the primary ball handler, he would usually simply stand in the corner with his hands down looking disinterested and waiting for the clock to run out. Perhaps, this can partly be attributed to the coach’s inability to run plays with Musa off the ball or to the fact that Dzanan was tired after exerting himself on both ends. It is still quite rare to see a team’s leader take themselves out of plays during important stretches of games, which at times happened with Musa.

Musa’s unwillingness to play off the ball made him somewhat predictable on offense, which is exactly what allowed Sweden to lock him down in their second game against Bosnia. It will be interesting to monitor Musa’s ability to play off the ball for Cedevita Zagreb, where he will very rarely be allowed to be the primary ball handler. His knack for spacing certainly gives one hope, though seeing that he will undoubtedly be asked to play off the ball once he gets to the NBA, this will be key towards his projection to that level.

3. Using his size in the half court

At 6’9’’ Musa was often matched up against guards who were much shorter than him. However, because Musa operated almost exclusively on the perimeter, he rarely used his size to his advantage. He would do basically the same moves whether his defender was 6’8’’ or 6’2’’, while one would hope he would be more cognizant of the mismatch. Perhaps, Musa’s refusal to move off the ball to get into better spots may have hindered his opportunities to show a more diverse offensive game, or maybe he just does not have that many moves in his arsenal at this point.

4. Isolation scoring

Musa really struggled in isolation, which in part had to do with the physicality and superior speed of his opponents. His inability to use his height over shorter opponents or get all the way to the basket, and his lack of explosive speed and creative dribble moves rendered Musa ineffective as an ISO scorer. Ironically, these limitations seem to make Musa’s game perfectly suited for the role of an off-the-ball scorer, which will be key to exactly how one sees him as a NBA prospect moving forward.

5. Length, strength, athleticism

On several occasions when Musa got beat off the dribble, he would recover and go for a chase-down block. It always looked like the block was inevitable, but it never materialized because he lacked lift and his arms simply weren’t long enough. In addition to his lack of length and athleticism, there is a chance that his narrow frame will never allow him to put on much weight, though his overall physical development over the past year gives hope that his body can still change significantly.

Musa’s lack of elite speed and jumping ability coupled with subpar length are the main reason why he is not considered one of the top prospects in this upcoming draft. Right now, Musa’s physical profile does not resemble that of a good NBA defender, although his height, mobility, effort, and instincts at this young age should eventually allow him not to be a liability on that end.

NBA Outlook

International competitions have given us a good opportunity to see what Dzanan Musa can do as the featured player in an offense. Apart from Luka Doncic, the 2018 draft does not have another international prospect with a similar ability to take over games. Unfortunately, this will not be his role in the NBA anytime soon, so Musa still needs to prove he can be effective as a complementary player if he wants to get looks in the first round.

This season in Europe can go several ways for Dzanan Musa. Cedevita Zagreb have five experienced ex-NBA players on their team: Will Cherry, Roko Ukic, Kevin Murphy, Demetris Nichols, and Chris Johnson. The best-case scenario for Musa would be to win a starting spot on this team and adapt his skills to fit an offense where he is not the primary ball-handler or go-to scorer. Worst case – he repeats last season, when, after dominating inferior competition, he cannot be effective in a tougher Eurocup setting.

Musa is a polarizing prospect: he’s a 6’9’’ wing who shoots the lights out, creates for his teammates, plays smart, and goes all-out on the defensive end. His potential to defend against shifty guards means he could possibly become an oversized shooting guard in the NBA. On the other hand, Musa is a below average athlete with below-average length (wingspan and height are the same) and a somewhat awkward body, and he does not know how to utilize his main physical advantage – his height. He also has yet to prove he can be effective at anything but being the first option on offense. Many of the questions surrounding Musa could be answered this season.

As a draft pick Musa will be a long-term investment. At this point he is a bench player in a second-tier European league; 10 months from now he might be a starter in the same league, but that does not mean he will be ready to contribute on an NBA team. The game’s speed and physicality will surely prove overwhelming in his first couple NBA seasons. Still, if all goes well, Dzanan Musa can be a solid instant-offense guy off the bench.

In the long term, granted he puts on weight without losing any of his current mobility and develops his game, he has the potential to be a quality NBA glue guy who stretches the floor and does all the little things to help his team win. With his instincts reading the floor and potential as a shooter both off the bounce and catch, this could make him a great teammate along the lines of a Joe Ingles, or Bojan Bogdanovic.

Musa has done everything possible this offseason to increase his draft stock. Throughout the FIBA competitions this Summer he established himself as the second best international player behind Luka Doncic, and possibly prospect as well. If he has a great season for Cedevita Zagreb and improves upon his weaknesses, he could improve his stock to becoming a first round pick. He’s a cerebral young player, and his ability to shoot the ball in today’s game gives him added intrigue.

*Michael Visenberg contributed to this piece.


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