By Artau Pascual
We have already reached the quarterfinals mark of the 2023 FIBA U19 World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary. It’s been a great opportunity to see together some of the biggest prospects in the world competing against each other, and we’ve also been able to see what some other players are capable of. Today it’s the last rest day of the WC, so it’s a good moment to take a look at the first stages of the event and discuss what some players have brought to the table for their teams.

In this article, we’ll focus on some players who have been impactful for their teams and deserve a mention. They are not necessarily the best prospects of their teams or the players who have stood out the most.

Melvin Ajinca (2004, Wing, 6'7, France): Melvin has been hands down one of the best players for the French National Team on both ends of the court for the whole tournament. The 6’7 Saint Quentin Wing, already well-known for his athleticism and defensive ability, has put on display during the full World Cup his ability to stay in front of ball handlers and has turned into one of the most switchable defenders in the event thanks to his size and mobility.

However, the part of his game that deserves our focus in this World Cup is his offensive development. France didn’t count on his four best eligible players for the event, but Ajinca filled the gap in a big way. He showed vast improvements in the outside shooting area and was brave enough to fill the lanes in transitions and fastbreaks. Like always, he’s always been great at turning defense into offense. It’s not reasonable to ask Ajinca or any other player to keep the shooting efficiency the French wing showed in the tournament. But it’s pretty clear that a player as gifted as him in physical and athletic tools becomes a must for every team to compete. He's been a Swiss-army knife for Lamine Kebe’s team.

Lazar Djokovic (2004, 6'9, Forward,Serbia): It's been great to see Lazar Djokovic adding new tools to his skillset game after game. We all know what Lazar looks like, and it’s undeniable that a player with his frame and fluidity should be able to become a solid forward for years to come, but in this U19 World Cup he’s embraced a key role as an offensive weapon. Lazar has been more efficient than ever in terms of outside shooting. He has also been able to turn his tools into real production in the paint as an inside force, being able to duck in against big defenders and grabbing some offensive rebounds.

Lazar’s ability to put the ball on the floor is remarkable, and his strides and feel are good enough to be a consistent driver for a player of his position. He’s a few details away of reaching the next stage of his development, and these stages are the speed of the release and his self-confidence. In the game against Brazil, a gifted team from an athletic standpoint with active forwards and bigs and a hand of switchable wings, we saw clearly, he can hold himself against everyone in this category.

Ilija Milijasevic (2004, 6'3, Guard, Serbia): smooth shooter, clean release, always under balance. Ilija was probably the best European shotmaker in Debrecen. The Serbian Federation chose to build a roster only with 2004-born players, so he quickly embraced the leader role. Ilija doesn’t hide his identity: he’s a score-first guard with great self-creation skills, and he gives priority to himself. This can lead to some questionable decision-making sequences and brings to the table some debates around his position in the court, but it’s also a valuable skill that makes you win games. While Ilija probably needs another guard that can set up plays and doesn’t need a high usage It’s obvious that he’ll turn into favorable situations for his teammates all the gravity he generates once the game slows down for him. And, also, that if you see him play you’ll find out he has the makings to be a good passer. Just a matter of time.

Melih Tunca (2005, 6'5, Guard, Turkey): the most undeveloped player from a physical standpoint in the event. Melih Tunca has high hips and skinny frame: attributes that suggest he’ll still have to go through some growth spurts, and he’ll bulk up more. Let’s add to the mix he’s an underage player and, used to play as a high-usage guard in Anadolu Efes, he had to adjust to the hierarchy of a team that already had some qualified ball-handlers in multiple positions. This was not his team.

However, his answer has been great and has turned him into one of the eye-popping underage prospects in the event. He doesn’t make flashy plays at any end of the court. His offensive skillset is still not polished, he needs to gain consistency as a spot up shooter and on defense he struggles when switching. However, what we’ve seen from him driving to the rim and anticipating plays on defense, as well as at navigating through screens, suggests we are in front of an intriguing prospect who can impact the game with winning plays. When we talk about late bloomers, it’s difficult to say when they’ll be able to put it all together and how much margin they do have for it, but, Melih is definitely worth of keeping an eye on.

Sergej Macura (2004, 6'8, Forward, Slovenia): Sergej Macura has been quite under the radar this season because of his discrete stint with Baskonia, but he’s finally been able to make some noise in Debrecen. The Slovenian team hasn’t made a long run in the World Cup, but it’s been good to see him impacting the game in different ways thanks to his athleticism at the forward position. He also hit two spot up threes against the USA Team that are a good reminder of how much added value a specialist can provide if he’s able to take advantage of his opportunities. In the end, it can perfectly be the difference between staying or not in the court.

On the defensive end, Macura has been as solid as always. This Slovenian NT has evident weaknesses in key areas such as size and athleticism, and Macura was often used as the player who had to give the balance and switchability to their lineups. Whatever is his next step in the upcoming season, he’ll need to find consistency on the offensive end to raise his minutes quote. From an athletic standpoint, he’s already a forward that suits the European high-level.

Rafa Villar (2004, 6'4, Guard, Spain): Rafa is one of the most experimented players in the Spanish NT, and he’ll probably he won’t receive all the admiration he deserves because his job is not to shine…but to make sure the others do. If we take a look at the 2004-born players in the Spanish list, most of the players are defensive-minded athletes with role duties…and Rafa could be perfectly designed as the key of the engine.

He's been as good on defense as a big guard can be. He has done the appropriate reads to make life easier for his bigs in pick and roll and teammates in transition. He’s been aggressive to get to the rim to score when needed, and he hasn’t been afraid of taking shots when rivals went under against him. It’s pretty like what he’s been doing in LEB Gold this season. Rafa Villar is a pro player playing in a U19 competition.

Dylan Bordón (2004, 6'3, Guard, Argentina): Dylan is one of the toughest prospects to evaluate in the tournament. The Argentinian NT hasn’t been recognizable for an entire game still in this World Cup, and many of their top prospect have gone through significant ups and downs. Dylan’s game jumps off the page: the Gran Canaria player is one of the most aggressive guards in the event. He provides an insane amount of rim pressure and, because of his elite lower body, he’s able to find excellent solutions to get past his defender whenever he wants. He pushes the ball in transition and surpasses the opposition no matter how.

The problem has been the efficiency. The biggest question mark with Bordón is the touch. He needs to put work on it to unleash the next levels of his offensive game, but if he does, he’ll turn into a worthy gamble for high-level teams in a foreseeable future. He’s an above-average athlete for the European basketball guard standards, and he knows how to take advantage of it. His decision-making is sometimes erratic, but he’s already able to get to the rim and put both feet on the paint. When we talk about slashers at these stages, it’s easier to turn a good driver into a better finisher/decision-maker than doing the vice versa process, so there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Bordón’s development.