Postcard from Riga: Wrapping up the FIBA U19 championships
The Cavs will likely regret passing on Jonas Valanciunas to take Tristan Thompson
Jeremy Lamb emerged as the U.S.' go-to scorer throughout the tournament
Butler's Khyle Marshall showed his offensive rebounding skills once again at Riga
RIGA, Latvia -- All quiet here on the morning after the FIBA U19 World Championships, except for the footsteps of scattered tourists making their way over the cobblestones, admiring the Medieval and Gothic architecture. Riga is Europe's more underappreciated destinations, a beautiful Baltic capital famous for its Old Town (where I'm sitting outside, writing my final missive), its wealth of Art Nouveau buildings in the city center, and its night-time mix of sprawling summer beer gardens and sweaty Euro-clubs. Its latitude is so far north that it only gets truly dark for a few hours each day, and so the drunks go home around 6 a.m. and give way to the camera-toters only a few hours later.
Riga's population is almost split between Latvians and Russians, but yesterday it had a Lithuanian feel, as thousands of the country's green-and-yellow clad fans descended on the city for the gold-medal game between their top junior national team and Serbia. They filled the bars, they lined up outside Arena Riga three hours in advance to secure choice seats, and they spent much of the game banging drums and chanting. (In my ears, faintly, I can still hear the incessant "LIE-TU-VA! LIE-TU-VA!")
As I took a cab home from the arena last night following Lithuania's 85-67 victory, a pack of fans was waiting in a back parking lot to send off the team bus, and others were hanging out of cars in traffic, waving flags to a soundtrack of honking horns. I came here thinking I might follow the U.S. team on a gold-medal run, but this was Lithuania's tournament and Lithuania's moment. Its fans nearly sold out an 11,000-seat arena in a neighboring country for a junior event that wasn't on TV in America, its team dominated its final three games, and its star, Jonas Valanciunas, was the U19 Most Valuable Player.
The U.S. beat a short-handed Lithuania team (sans its excellent point guard, who was nursing an injury) in the second round and was 5-0 in the early stages of the event. But the Americans were stunned by a middling Russian team in the quarterfinals and fell out of medal contention, escaping with a one-point win over Australia on the final day to earn fifth place with a 6-2 record -- a serious setback for a program whose senior team won gold last summer in Turkey.
As the lone college hoops writer in Riga, it's my responsibility to share with you the good, the bad and the weird from the U19s, so herewith are 19 observations:
1. When I covered the NBA draft a few weeks ago, there was some surprise over the fact that the Cavs took Texas' Tristan Thompson at No. 4 -- mostly because every mock draft had Valanciunas in that spot, not because the assembled press strongly believed the 6-foot-11 Lithuanian was the better player. I've seen Thompson in person and on TV many times, and like him despite his offensive limitations, but after seeing Valanciunas' final five games here, I think the Cavs will deeply regret passing on him due to the year remaining on his Euro contract, and the Timberwolves and Jazz may as well. Raptors assistant GMs Maurizio Gherardini and Marc Eversley, whose team landed Valanciunas at No. 5, were in the building for the U19s, and his total dominance had to reassure them they made the right selection.
After posting stellar per-minute numbers in Euroleague, he averaged 23.0 points and 13.9 boards in the tournament, including 30 and 15 against the U.S., and 36 and 8 against Serbia in the final game. His player efficiency rating (29.0, on a pace-adjusted, per-28-minute formula) blew away the rest of the field. He's the opposite of a soft Euro big man -- "he never stops battling on the inside," one NBA scout said -- and he knocked down 81.1 percent of his free throws after drawing constant whistles. He also followed up his "I have not so strong body" gem-quote from the draft with one in the post-tourney press conference, when asked if he would now turn his focus toward his potential career in the NBA.
"Right now," Valanciunas said, "I focus on celebrating."
2. On Friday, I had a column looking at what doomed the U.S. team against Russia, and coach Paul Hewitt took offense to comments from NBA scouts about the team not caring enough about the tournament. "It's B.S. to say these kids didn't care," he said, while reviewing tape of the game a day later at the hotel. "These guys all cared -- they may have hung their heads a little after missing shots, but to say they didn't care enough is wrong. ... They took that loss really hard."
The U.S. was 0-of-9 on threes in the game that derailed their tournament, and shot just 29.5 percent (45-of-156) from long-range in the tournament. Creighton's Doug McDermott (39.5 percent) was the only player on the team over 32 percent, and the guy who most thought would be the Americans' featured gunner, Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr., only connected at a 27-percent clip. In his final press conference at the tournament, Hewitt said he regretted not getting his shooters in the gym on the day before the Russia game. The coach had wanted to rest their legs in hopes of improving their shooting -- because their previous two best shooting performances had come after off-days -- and so they didn't practice, opting for two meetings to discuss game-planning and then an excursion to a nearby beach.
They came out cold, and the Russians went 12-of-29 from deep to pull off the upset. The previous U.S. Under-19 team, which won gold in 2009 under Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, had better shooters, but was also more defensive-minded; in this tournament, the Americans didn't exert much ball pressure on weaker opposing guards, and were constantly getting caught under screens while trying to defend the perimeter.
3. The Americans' best memory will certainly be their second-round win over Lithuania in overtime, in which Jeremy Lamb had 35 points and just one turnover in 37 minutes, and Florida's Patric Young had 15 points, including two of the best dunks of the entire tournament. One of them came over three Lithuanian players, and the other came over Valanciunas, whom Young relished facing in one exhibition and one real contest. "He's the No. 5 pick," Young said, "and I'm trying to go No. 5, too."
FIBA was enamored enough of Young to cut a highlight reel of his dunks and accompany it with some tribal flute music (the video can be found below). He was pleased of its existence but had a mild complaint about one of his best slams, on a breakaway in a loss to Croatia. "I wish it was a different angle," he said. "It's still pretty nice, but it's shot from the opposite basket."
4. Despite the games not being televised anywhere in the U.S., we weren't allowed to shoot any video in the gym -- but I did record a pregame routine unlike anything I've ever seen at a basketball game. The Argentine team, which played its way to a surprise fourth-place finish without a true NBA prospect on its roster, would go through an intense series of exercises in the hallway about 30 minutes before tip-off, in front of a nice backdrop of concert posters (Rihanna, Rammstein, Depeche Mode, etc.) It seemed to be more than what I would do in an entire, regular workout at the gym -- and then they'd go play 40 minutes of hoops. Behold:
5. Since college fans on Twitter were clamoring for individual assessments of their home teams' players, here are quick thoughts on the U.S. personnel in the four and half games I saw (I arrived straight from the airport halfway through Tuesday's win over Lithuania), starting with the point guards:
Joe Jackson, Memphis (23.7 mpg, 11.6 ppg, 37 assists / 30 turnovers): He was the primary point guard and second-leading scorer, and none of the international defenders could contain him off the dribble -- he's that fast. But he showed he has a long way to go to be an effective distributor at the college level, struggling to create shots for teammates and hurting the U.S.' offensive flow.
Keith Appling, Michigan State (10.3 mpg, 4.1 ppg, 11 assists / 7 turnovers): He was the steadiest of the U.S. point guards in short stretches, and had to be called on to right the ship when they were struggling against Russia and Australia, but Hewitt insisted on sticking with Jackson for most of the minutes.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State (8.5 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 19 assists, 10 turnovers): He was the lone high-school player on the roster, and probably wasn't ready for the intensity of high-level, international competition, but should be a serviceable Pac-10 point guard 2-3 years down the road.