By Artau Pascual

2022 U17 FIBA World Cup MVP. 2022 U18 FIBA European Championship MVP. 2023 U19 FIBA World Cup MVP. Izan Almansa has been able to dominate every competition he’s played at during the last two summers. The 6’10 Big, who spent the last two seasons playing with Overtime Elite and next season will dress up for Ignite in the G-League, has turned into one of the biggest names in the European scenario and has made a crucial, winning impact for his NT on a daily basis.

The U19 roster Spain brought to Debrecen for the World Cup was talented, tough and competitive in equal parts. The main part of the 2004-born players put on display their self-pride and resiliency. Meanwhile, the 2005-born ones were more known for their upside and potential and have been lucky enough to live firsthand the experience of winning a Final game in a neck-to-neck clutch time. And Izan was quite in the middle of the path.

This event has been ideal to take a close look at a player who has been more difficult than most of his 2005-born European peers during the season. We’ve been able to figure out how his development is going, how he looks like in comparison to the last time we saw him live and how we could project his status for his foreseeable future and the upcoming NBA Draft.

Almansa's offensive growth

What we’ve seen from Izan Almansa in the 2023 World Cup is mostly the same that we saw in last season’s FIBA events, but he’s simply better at executing his game. Without these improvements, he’d probably still find ways to have an impact, but he has polished his tools and his jump and overall motor look better. Almansa projects himself as a face-up big with awesome instincts to grab boards and an impressive feel to fill the lanes and produce in transition who won’t need tons of self-creation to be a contributor to the higher levels. He’s on the right track to translate some efficient and useful tools to every category.

Almansa already was an efficient pick&roll executor: in the FIBAU17 he struggled to finish at the rim, but he showed an encouraging level of chemistry with a poised ball handler like Conrad Martínez. In the U18 European Championship he operated at a great level playing alongside functional passers like Rafa Villar or Jordi Rodríguez in a team that worked differently. In Debrecen, playing again with Villar and Rodríguez among other secondary options, Almansa crowned himself as the most efficient pick&roll big of the tournament thanks to his ability to choose the level where he was rolling -deep roll, short roll for a pass/floater/push shot-, the speed to execute his movements in straight lines and, also, his ability to protect the ball and find angles to get the shot up. Izan’s potential when he’s involved in screen actions is especially interesting for himself and his team because he’s a fluid and instinctive screener with the ideal feel and mobility to step up, flip and create space for the ball handler without committing fools or breaking the flow of the action. Next season, in Ignite, he’ll be sharing minutes with a mix of experienced and high-ceiling on-ball creators that will help him to keep improving in this area, and we’ll get an approximation of how he would interact with these actions in an environment more similar to the one he’ll live in the NBA.

A skill that jumps off the page of his game from what we saw in Debrecen and looked vastly improved in comparison to the previous season is his game at the top of the key. Almansa doesn’t have advanced, tight handles, and he’s either an explosive athlete with the ball in his hands, but he knows well enough how to provide himself with advantages, and he took profit of it in the World Cup. It’s not that he seeks opportunities to beat his opponent off the dribble, or he attacks the closeout at a great level, but he doesn’t hesitate to put the ball on the floor in handoff situations or if his defender doesn’t respect his range. Obviously, he’ll need to work on his shot to add more counters to his game, but it’s already good to see he has a translatable skill to use when he’s far from the paint. Izan’s go-to-attribute in these situations is a mix of footwork in wide spaces and the ability to take advantage of his body and size in face-up. In the group stage game against France, he produced many points with spin moves, eurosteps and other similar tools.

In addition to the shot, that many ways to go in terms of both building and volume, the skills that will make a difference to determine Almansa’s ceiling are playmaking and post-up production. They are heavily related since most of the glimpses we saw of his passing were after drawing the attention of multiple defenders and understanding where the free teammate was. Izan’s ability to react to the defense was solid enough, and there are strong inputs to believe he’ll benefit from playing alongside active, sharp off-ball players because he’ll find out how to reach out to them. If he’s able to gain enough strength to move the defender when he’s posting up, and he adds some variability to his moves, which today mainly rely on what he can do right-oriented, he’ll improve as a passer and also as a scorer. As of right now, he loves to finish with a right hook that sometimes can look like a forced shot.

Defensive behaviour in an elite scheme
If there’s some reason why we’ll remember for years to come the 2004-born Spanish generation is for the insane amount of committed and versatile defenders with an ideal mix of competitiveness and toughness it included. Playing alongside teammates like Rafa Villar, Sediq Garuba or Isaac Nogués makes life easier for everyone, and it wasn’t different for Izan Almansa.

Almansa did a solid job on the defensive end during the tournament. It’s true that most of the athletes Spain faced were below their level, but if we take a look at the whole picture of the World Cup we see Almansa has the fundamentals to be a reliable defender if he follows the right development: he has the length and activity to stay in front of ball-handlers in the European scenario, and hopefully, he’ll be able to demonstrate he can translate these skills to a good enough level in the NBA. In addition to this, he’s good enough to buy time for his team in drop coverage, and he can backpedal at a good speed. Izan was able to deter the shots of the slashers of the opposing teams, and he moved in the right way to adjust to the needs of his team. He’s not expected to be the kind of anchor/communicative leader that turns into a cornerstone on defense, but surely, he’ll be able to hold up against most of his matchups if his development follows a logical path.

As for the offensive end, the biggest area of improvement for Izan Almansa on defense will be adding some strength to his game. In the World Cup he was able to solve some disadvantages because of his length and fluidity, but in the next levels, he’ll need to adjust them by not getting moved so easily in the post. It’s normal for an 18-year-old player, especially when facing older, stronger opponents with a lower center of gravity, to struggle in this area, so it’s not much of a concern right now. Just something to keep in mind and keep evaluating for the upcoming months.

How does he compare to Alexandre Sarr?

This is a tough question to answer. Spain’s team building was prepared to put Izan in a good position for success, and his OTE mate didn’t have the same scenario in the French NT. This being said, we could appreciate a clear difference between the two players: while it’s already easy to figure out how Izan will look in the upcoming pro future, Sarr, who has an undeniably high ceiling, is still raw. The future NBL player had nice-looking stretches on the defensive end and showed some glimpses of uncommon ball-handling and coordination for a 7-footer, but he wasn’t able to turn these flashes into real production in a consistent way. Izan did.

In fact, this might be Izan’s biggest strength: his floor is solid enough to be a good contributor in almost every scenario, and this could turn into a key factor for the 2024 NBA Draft, which is expected to be weaker than the last ones. We can imagine what type of player he’ll be, and we can also detect easily which are his most coachable flaws and areas to develop. 

Izan Almansa was the most dominating player in the U19 World Cup and, at the same time, he’s the safest bet for the future.