Half of the first knockout stage is in the books, and many players have made their presence felt for the good and the bad. Here’s my take on who’s made the best and worst impressions at this point.
- Nicolas Batum does not look like he can ever be a Top-3 guy in any team. His defense is superb, but he just does not appear to have the will to take control on the offensive end. Nic has shown flashes of scoring ability and has displayed very good ball skills, but at no point has he taken over. This was particularly obvious during France’s loss against Turkey, where he didn’t show any signs of life until Turkey was up 20+ and had noticeably turned the intensity down a notch. Much like a lot of high school prodigies of this past decade, Batum has all the tools but clearly lacks the mental makeup to put them to good use.
- Nando de Colo had a pretty awful showing during the qualifying round, but came alive in the Round of 16 after Coach Collet stopped jerking his playing time around. De Colo’s game is predicated upon anarchy, which may seem like a contradiction in the San Antonio organization. However, Gregg Popovich already turned Manu Ginobili from a wild card to an offensive dynamo, and De Colo’s size, ballhandling skills and range can very well turn him into a paler version of Ben Gordon circa 2009.
- I’ll stop mentioning French players, I promise. I just want to say that as soon as Boris Diaw goes on the Larry-Brown-Practice-Your-Butt-To-Death diet he will give the Bobcats the most versatile set of forwards of any NBA team. Diaw’s jumper seems to be better than ever, his passing is as sharp as it’s always been and his post moves are now complimented with a will to plant his wide behind down low and abuse smaller forwards.
- I am very down on Croatian center Ante Tomic. The Balkanic Gasol, as the Spanish media stubbornly calls him, is closer to the Balkanic Dwayne Schintzius. Tomic is undeniably skilled but extremely soft, regularly getting bodied up by the smaller Serbs during Croatia’s Round of 16 loss and not taking advantage of his speed advantage against the equally huge Kosta Perovic. When things didn’t go his way in the paint, Tomic consistently drifted away towards the perimeter instead of fighting through adversity. I thought it was a steal when Utah snatched Tomic in the 2nd round in 2008, but right now I just don’t see it. For every step forward he’s taken, such as his MVP performance in the Adriatic League, he’s taken two back: he didn’t live up to expectations in his ACB debut, and he failed miserably at the Worlds.
- Mark my words: Ersan Ilyasova will have a breakout season. His three-point touch has been spectacular, hitting at a 60% clip thus far, and some of them have come while being guarded by specialists such as Nic Batum or Sergei Monya. His rebounding has consistently been in or near double figures, and his facial injury hasn’t kept the Bucks forward from attacking the rim at every chance he gets. The Bucks will get the player they envisioned when they drafted Joe Alexander, but it will have come in a very different package.
- Hedo Turkoglu is back. After a sluggish start to the Worlds, Hedo has found the joy that his game noticeably lacked in Toronto. Putting him around Steve Nash will send him back to the level that made him the best player in Orlando’s 2009 Finals run. Phoenix brass must be smiling after watching Hedo break France’s back with a series of step-back threes and crafty drives that put an end to Les Bleus’ attempt at a comeback. On this note, I would like to go back on my pre-Worlds prediction that Spain and Team USA were the clear-cut favorites: Turkey, with its powerful inside game and evident homecourt advantage, has now joined the conversation.
- Speaking of Phoenix, their PG position will be in very good hands if and when Nash decides to leave thanks to Goran Dragic. His coming of age during the Worlds has been startling to watch. I was anxious to watch Dragic as The Man for Slovenia, and he hasn’t disappointed thus far. His speed is complimented very nicely with his agression, and he has shown some finishing moves that I hadn’t seen before. As soon as his jumper becomes a little bit more established, we’re looking at a fine NBA starting point guard. Dragic also shows promise as a passer, with two 8-assist games already to his credit. Blazers PG Patty Mills (6-for-16 from the field, only 3 assists) and new Raptors PG Leandro Barbosa (6-for-18, 1 assist, 4 TO’s) can probably tell you a lot of nice things about Dragic’s defense, too.
- For all of its current or future NBA players, Spain still beats to JC Navarro’s drum. His gutsy performance in Spain’s victory against Greece in the Round of 16 (22 points, 10 of them off layups, while injured) rallied the team around him, and the 4th quarter of that game was the first time the defending World Champs have played to their potential during the entire competition. It’s taken a while, but Spain is again firing on all cylinders.
- I don’t like Team USA’s Round of 16 matchup with Angola in the least bit. Yes, Angola will get their butts handed to them by an outrageous margin, but the rap against the US has been its lack of focus. I don’t think that such an easy game will help the Reserve Team’s sharpness at all, and sloppy play can become extremely costly when facing a compact squad such as Turkey, Russia or Spain.