By Artau Pascual

We have already surpassed the group stage mark in Nis, Serbia. The U18 Division A European Championship is about to enter the win-or-go-home rounds, so we are getting closer to learning who’ll grab the first place in the tournament. Before the round of 16 starts, it’s a good moment to take a look at what has been happening during the first days of competition.

Nikola Topic (6’5, PG, Serbia)

The Serbian NT has clinched two blowout wins in the three first games against the Czech Republic and Finland and did a good job containing Slovenia’s ambition in the the the other match. A big reason for it is, undoubtedly, Topic: the Serbian PG has the perfect mix of poise, athleticism and leadership skills to handle the type of high-usage Guard role he’s been assigned.

The 2005-born Serbian PG puts an impressive amount of rim pressure on the game. His slashing skills are really above-average for European standards, and he’s polishing his ability to understand how much attention of the opponent he draws when putting both feet in the paint. He has the passing vision to hit open shooters, rollers or cutters, and he also has the mindset and physicality to initiate contact and take advantage of it. If we add to the mix how well he controls the pace and distance in pick&roll situations, the resulting product is a player who constantly puts his team in a better position on the offensive end. This skill that clearly benefits the Serbian NT given the profile of his teammates. Once outside shooting, which is a minor issue for Topic at this point because of the improvements he’s done in this area during this last season, starts to click, he’ll be the complete package of an offensive engine.

Noa Essengue (6’9, PF/C, France)

The French NT has an enormous amount of promising prospects to discuss, but now we’ll focus on Noa Essengue. The 2006-born French Forward, Ratiopharm Ülm newest signing, has put on display some major physical improvements during the season: he looks stronger and more assertive in his moves. Noa Essengue has thrived at jumping passing lanes and switching: thanks to his size, hands activity and speed on straight lines, he’s been able to turn defense into offense and create easy buckets for his team. In addition, he also looks better at handling matchups against forwards and bigs close thanks to his strength development.
Noa is a threat in transition and has the perfect feel to produce with baseline cuts and short moves. He does well both with a passing big on his side or reading the moves of the slashers. His main area of improvement is outside shooting in both volume and shooting form. 

Johan Munch (6’9, C/PF, Denmark)

The Zentro Basket C/F has left some eye-popping moments in the first games in Nis on the offensive end. The Danish player can fill both roles in the frontcourt, and he has all the qualities of a stretch player. He can put the ball on the floor against forwards and bigs, his shooting indicators and results are pretty solid, and he’s even brave enough to push the pace after grabbing the defensive rebound. At this point, the only thing that has stopped him from being even more productive is his defensive impact: he’s a little stiff to guard forwards, and lacks the strength and legs activity to handle matchups against bigs. Results could have been better if the Danish NT had more reliable perimeter defender, but he has big room for improvement from an individual standpoint.

Kasparas Jakucionis (6’4, PG/SG, Lithuania)

The 2006-born FC Barcelona player has been one of the best players in his generation in Europe this season in terms of both development and results, and he’s keeping it up in this European Championship. Being a year younger than most of the players, Jakucionis has been able to impact the game with his outstanding shotmaking ability from the deep range. 

Jakucionis is starting to put all the pieces of his game together. His body improvements since September 2022 are huge. His lower body already allows him to get to the rim off two feet and he’s smart enough to find open teammates because of the attention he draws. He’s also skilled enough to create some shooting windows that lead to crafty finishes or good fouls. Kasparas Jakucionis is a solid scorer at multiple levels and the game is starting to slow down for him when he’s creating halfcourt offense.

Dame Sarr (6’6, SG/SF, Italy)

The Italian wing Dame Sarr, another 2006-born player, is one of the most challenging players to evaluate in Nis. Sarr’s shotmaking skills when he’s unbalanced have been surprising for the whole season, and they have shown up in Serbia too. In addition to this, the best part of Dame’s game is he’s completely fearless: he never avoids contact, constantly trying to catch bodies and to put himself in good positions. Also, he’s capable of facing mismatches on the defensive end and solving them with guarantees: he collects a good number of deflections, has the instincts to read the game from the weak side and has nice vertical leap.

Sarr’s body suggests he has potential as a slasher. He’s long, still has to bulk up and has the frame to be an above-average wing for European standards. He understands the game like a player who needs the ball to create situations for himself, but he’s also useful attacking off screens or second side actions. In this tournament, we’ve seen everything about his game: what he does well, what he wants to be and what holds him from it: he needs to add to his game more tools off two feet and to improve his ability to turn directions with the ball and also his handles, which will come naturally once he lowers his center of gravity. The competitiveness and productivity are already there.

Hugo González (6’6, SF/SG, Spain)

Hugo González is the player with the highest ceiling in Nis, but he’s too the player with the highest floor. He’s ready to play at pro basketball levels, and it’s difficult to project his best-case scenario because he keeps improving day after day at an unexpected speed. He’s done vast improvements as a shooter during the season both in form and results, he’s added to his game many tools to produce off curls that make him a dangerous threat as a scorer or a passer when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands and he can also do solid reads as a ball handler for his teammates -although this Spanish NT gives the ball to other decision-makers to initiate the game-.

But the best of Hugo’s game is in the margins. He’s undoubtedly an NBA athlete, but what stands out the most is the use he does of his tools: he’s able to act at a really high level locking up ball handlers or from the help side, and his motor allows him to make up for tactical mistakes of him or his teammates. He’s also the first player to hustle back in transition, a player who leads in a positive way cheering for his teammates and a great communicator on the court. It’s hard to find players who lead by example like he does at this age.