The NIJT is underway in Istanbul, Turkey. I’ll be here covering both the under-18 event and the European Final Four.
Day One saw what probably should have been the Championship game with KK Zagreb eeking out a close 79-76 victory over hometown Ulker Fenerbahçe. Unfortunately these two teams were placed in the same side of the bracket so we won’t get to see them play again, making this first match up the likely "early title game".
The game featured an excellent match up of two of Europe’s premiere young talents with Dario Saric squaring off with James Birsen. We’ve covered Saric numerous times and while he struggled shooting, he once again showed his toughness and competitiveness.
Birsen hit two 3 pointers late in the game and showed off his ability to find teammates on drives. He’s a huge talent as a 1995 born 17 year old with tremendous length and skills. Expect to hear a ton more about him. We saw him in the same event last year in Barcelona as a 16 year old and his body has gotten stronger and he has embraced the role of the star of the team.
This game went down to the very end with another standout, Zagreb’s Dominik Mavra taking over late with his blow by speed getting to the basket and/or getting to the free throw line. Mavra appears to be the third best prospect in the event (after Saric and Birsen) and was a standout last year in Barcelona as well. Mavra’s two key free throws with 3 seconds left clinched the game for Zagreb.
Saric had 26 points on 8-19 shooting but really struggled shooting from the field. He was 0-3 from 3 point and couldn’t find the basket late in the game from the perimeter, drawing some complaints from scouts in attendance. The question scouts were debating was whether he can play the 3 or if he will have to become a 4 to play in the NBA. He lacks foot speed and shooting ability and he’s most effective facing the basket with the ball in his hands, making him a tweener.
Birsen is a small forward in the mold of Hedo Turkoglu. He is listed at 2.05 so around 6’9 and has great agility and ball skills for a 17 year old. 1995 born, he’s a year younger than Saric. Birsen finished with 23 points knocking down 4-7 from 3, including the aforementioned two huge 3s in the closing minutes. He also made a very nice drive which was nearly an and one as he ran Saric off his own man on a drive right but the ball lipped out. Birsen is one of the most promising rising stars in Europe.
Mavra is an aggressive lead guard with good size and excellent speed and driving ability. He’s very competitive and has no problem taking big shots and making plays at key moments. He’s more of a scorer than a facilitator and continues to remind me of Nolan Smith. He ended up the game’s high scorer with 30 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 turnovers and seemed to be on the line constantly in the closing minutes. He was 10-12 from the line and looked very confident shooting with the game in the balance.