Rice's Kazemi has biggest impact among collegians at FIBA worlds
Gonzaga had 3 front-line players at the tourney, with Kelly Olynyk playing the best
The most intriguing collegian was Midland Junior College's Guy Edi
BYU's Charles Abouo was a solid role player for Ivory Coast
While the most important college basketball news out of Turkey this week was the report that Kentucky's top recruit, Enes Kanter, allegedly received a salary from his Istanbul club team that would make him ineligible in the eyes in the NCAA, there were seven current, eligible college players competing there in the FIBA World Championship. The last of them, Cal's Max Zhang, was eliminated on Tuesday when his Chinese national team lost to Lithuania, allowing us to do a complete assessment of what -- if any -- impact our collegians had in the FIBA tourney:
Arsalan Kazemi, Rice (Iran, 1-4)
6-foot-7 sophomore forward
FIBA Stats: 12.0 ppg (46.8% shooting), 7.4 rpg, 2.8 spg
On the back of the door of his residential-college room at Rice, Kazemi plans to hang his framed senior national team jersey, which he had autographed by all of his teammates. When I visited him in the fall of 2009, in anticipation of his breakthrough as the first Iranian player in Division I, he had Iran's junior national-team jersey hanging on his door, and no one was sure, back then, what kind of impact he'd be able to make as a rookie at Rice. He finished that season as a member of Conference USA's all-freshman team (with averages of 10.3 points and 9.1 rebounds), made the Iranian senior team this summer, and started all five games at small forward in Turkey, doing nothing to dissuade evaluators of the opinion that he'll grow into a star as an upperclassman with the Owls.
None of the college players in the FIBA tourney had starring roles -- this was an event for hardened pros -- but Kazemi put up the most impressive numbers, including a 14-point, five-rebound and five-steal effort against the U.S. team. He also had a double-double (13 points, 14 rebounds) against Slovenia in the Iranians' final game. Kazemi thought that he was, in a way, evangelizing college basketball to the Middle East. "Once other players in Iran saw how much I improved my game in one year at Rice," he says, "I think they started getting interested in what the NCAA was about."
The Zags are D-I's most prominent international squad, with two players on the Canadian FIBA team and one on the German side. The most impressive Zag in Turkey was somewhat of a surprise:
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga (Canada, 0-5)
6-11 sophomore forward
8.2 ppg (55.6% shooting), 2.8 rpg
Olynyk, a lanky British Columbian, had a small role for Gonzaga as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.7 rebounds in just over 12 minutes per game. But he made huge progress in the offseason. "Kelly had the best spring of all of our guys, as far as individual work, lifting and really changing his body," Zags coach Mark Few said. "And then this summer [for Canada's junior development team], he played so well that they decided to bring him up."
The plan, initially, had just been for the Canadians to use Olynyk for senior team practice and exhibitions, but he earned a roster spot -- and then scored 13 points in 19 minutes when he was subbed into Canada's third game against France. He followed that up with 14 points in 22 minutes against Spain, which had to please Gonzaga coaches, who'd like Olynyk to have more of an offensive presence in '10-11. "He has a great feel for the game," assistant Tommy Lloyd said of Olynyk, "but he was sometimes too unselfish as a freshman. He has to have a scorer's mentality."
The other Zag on the Canadian team had a lesser role:
Robert Sacre, Gonzaga (Canada, 0-5)
7-0 junior center
2.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg
Sacre only saw double-digit minutes in one game, against Spain, scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds. He's still the projected starting center for the Zags next season, giving them a rare 7-foot force in the West Coast Conference, but his low-post, camp-under-the-rim game isn't well-suited for international play, and he was stuck in Canada's rotation behind Miami Heat center Joel Anthony.
Gonzaga's likely offensive star in '10-11 was a role player for the Dirk Nowitzki-less Germans:
Elias Harris, Gonzaga (Germany, 2-3)
6-7 sophomore forward
3.4 ppg (53.8% shooting), 2.0 rpg
Harris averaged 17.2 minutes per game for a more veteran German team that upset Serbia but couldn't make it into the knockout round of the FIBA tournament. While the Zags used him mostly at the four position last season, Harris is a "hybrid" forward who's also comfortable on the perimeter, and Few said he would consider playing an oversized front line of Sacre, Olynyk and Harris together next season. "That [lineup] will be predicated on who they guard," Few said. "It's important that Elias expand his game in that regard, so he can step out and defend twos and wings."
The only potential downside to having three Zags in high-profile international competition, Few said, was the burnout factor; players who compete all summer might hit a wall in January or February. He plans to give Harris, Olynyk and Sacre two weeks off this month in hopes of preventing an early crash.
Guy Edi, Midland Junior College (Ivory Coast, 1-4)
6-5 sophomore guard
10.2 ppg (35.4% shooting), 2.6 rpg
The most intriguing collegian in the FIBA tourney was Edi, who was difficult to identify until I realized he goes by "Guy Landry" in the U.S. -- the same Guy Landry who'd been mentioned in West Coast recruiting circles as a sleeper prospect out of Van Nuys (Calif.) High School in 2008. I talked to him by phone from Paris (his hometown) this week, and he explained that he went to Stoneridge Prep in '08-09, committed to USC but didn't qualify, and ended up in West Texas, at Midland. He was visiting his mother in France this June when Ivory Coast's basketball federation, who found out his father was born there, called and invited him for a national-team tryout.
"I just said, 'Why not?' " Landry recalled. "At first I was just trying to get a spot, because everyone other than me and Charles Abouo [from BYU] was a pro, and they had played in the Africa Cup qualifiers. But the coach gave me a shot against Turkey, I played well, and he put me in the starting lineup after that." Landry ended up starting three games, and scoring 14 points against Russia and 10 against Puerto Rico.
Ross Hodge, Landry's coach at Midland, said he's getting attention from major-conference teams "and will definitely have an opportunity to play at that level." Landry said he's still wide-open recruiting-wise, but would like to see, at the very least, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Utah State and Colorado.
Charles Abouo, BYU (Ivory Coast, 1-4)
6-5 junior guard
6.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg
Abouo averaged 4.6 points and 3.1 rebounds (in 12.9 minutes) for the Cougars last season, and was a solid role player for Ivory Coast. In the one game he was given major minutes, against Puerto Rico, he scored 19 points and helped key his country's lone win of the tournament.
Zhaoxu Zhang, Cal (China, 1-5)
7-3 junior center
4.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg
Zhang was the only college player whose team reached the bracket rounds at FIBA ... but he also played less than any college player in the event. Going by his official name, Zhaoxu, rather than the "Max" he uses in the U.S., Zhang only appeared in one game for China, logging 21 minutes in a blowout loss to Turkey. He had four points, two rebounds and three blocks. Shot-swatting is mostly his thing for the Bears; his block percentage of 13.2 last season was among the nation's best, although he averaged just 10.6 minutes per game.
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