With two first round draft picks in this June's NBA Draft, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was in Belgrade scouting the Adriatic League Final Four. Potential first round prospects Dario Saric, Jusuf Nurkic, and Bogdan Bogdanovic all played over the course of the weekend and put on good showings in front of Ainge.
On Sunday, forward Dario Saric won Finals MVP after leading Cibona to a dominant 72-59 victory over Cedevita. Saric played all 40 minutes and had 23 points (7-of-17), 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and 5 blocks, solidifying himself as a lottery pick if he decides to declare for the draft.
Cedevita center Jusuf Nurkic also played in the championship, totaling 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 drawn fouls. Nurkic's stat line doesn't do him justice though, as Cedevita suffered defensively anytime Nurkic was on the bench.
Here is my analysis and reaction to this weekend's exciting games, as well as the possible NBA Draft implications:
My opinion has wavered on Dario Saric over the course of the past 18 months, but it's now settling: he's a legitimate NBA prospect and has the potential to be a very good player. With two double doubles, including a 21-point performance against Red Star Belgrade (the best team in the Adriatic League) and 23-points in the championship, Saric showcased his abilities as an all-around threat.
Saric's three-point stroke was especially on point, shooting 8-for-16 in the Final Four. When spotting up, the 20-year-old Croatian displayed good technique by utilizing the hop to elevate and get the shot off quickly. Though the ball occasionally comes out flat (which may explain his poor free throw percentage), it seems to be a correctable problem since his mechanics are very smooth.
But Saric isn't just a catch-and-shoot threat, as he showed the ability to hit threes off the dribble. This will be especially important in the NBA, when close outs will come more quickly, and he will have to utilize a pump fake followed by a side dribble to create space from behind the arc.
During the fourth quarter of the championship, Cedevita had a quick 8-to-2 run to cut the lead to 10, but Dario Saric showed off his knack for the clutch by draining a deep three off the dribble. After the play, he pounded his chest and waved his arms, exhibiting the raw emotion you like to see from a leader.
This exuberant personality became even more apparent late in the game, when Cibona led 68-53 with only 90 seconds remaining. Cedevita guard Luka Babic drove through a wide-open lane but Saric skied out of nowhere for a dramatic weak side block. The play will be recorded as only one block in the box score, but this "baller mentality" is what sets some players apart from others, and Saric has it.
As a passer, Saric made some exceptional plays over the weekend. His court vision is outstanding, and he also has the technical ability to pass equally well off the dribble or catch. Despite standing at 6-foot-10, Saric passes and reads the floor like a point guard, which will be a valuable to skill to have in the NBA, where he won't be able to score at will like he can in Europe.
The Croatian forward does get himself into trouble by trying to do too much with the ball though. He had an impressive 13 assists, but they were balanced out from his 10 turnovers, almost all of which came from forced passes. But Saric is an intelligent 20-year-old playing in a league full of men, so it's reasonable to assume these turnovers will shrink as he grows as a player.
Saric is definitely a better defender than I originally gave him credit for, but it's still difficult to project his position in the NBA. Since he lacks potential as a pick-and-roll rim protector due to his lack of length and size, I'm led to believe that he should defend the three.
Even though Saric's poor lateral quickness may be problematic, this role will highlight is intelligent instincts as a "shower" on the pick-and-roll, and he'll be in a better position for more weakside blocks. No matter where he plays, he may struggle individually as a defender, but the team defense may be better off with him as a three, as it emphasizes his strengths.
I would imagine that Danny Ainge is extremely high on Dario Saric. As Ainge looks for players to plug into his "championship formula," Saric may be a fit since he can run a team similarly to Paul Pierce as a point forward who passes, rebounds, and scores.
Though Saric doesn't have the Hall of Fame talent Pierce had, he still has potential as a go-to scorer. Saric is also a winner and a leader, achieving the honors of Adriatic League Most Valuable Player, Most Improved Player, and Finals MVP, in only his second year in the league.
I'm convinced that Jusuf Nurkic would be a consensus lottery pick if he were playing in the NCAA as opposed to the Adriatic League. Nurkic was a man amongst boys in the Final Four, and while his stats might not be impressive, the film doesn't lie. Nurkic's 6-foot-11, 280-pound frame was too much for his opponents to handle, as he got to the free throw line with ease, drawing 14 total fouls.
Nurkic has the body of a classic center, and he plays like one too, with an offensive skillset revolving around his post game. There, Nurkic displayed some superb facets of his game. First off, Nurkic does an amazing job of using his wide frame to establish low post positioning, using his arms as clubs to battle and abuse his opponents.
Once an entry pass is made, Nurkic has proven that he has incredibly soft hands and is able to catch passes down at his knees as well as above his head. Once he has the ball, Nurkic's trademark post move is a spin into a hook shot over his left shoulder. I can see this move translating to the NBA, since his natural strength creates space, and he has the foot speed to get the move off quickly.
Nurkic is also a willing passer, though he only picked up a single assist in the Final Four. Many young big men are "black holes" when they receive the ball on the block, but Nurkic isn't, since he's always looking for cutters or open shooters on the perimeter.
On the defensive end, Jusuf Nurkic gets himself into foul trouble too frequently, but he has fantastic potential as a rim protector. Nurkic is able to quickly side step to hedge on the pick-and-roll, though he needs to improve his technique and reach in less. But for a player that has only been playing competitively since 2009, Nurkic is a good spot at this time.
But when he's not fouling, Nurkic uses his long 86-inch wingspan to deflect passes and cause turnovers. During the second half of Sunday's game, Nurkic successfully hedged on the pick-and-roll by blitzing the ball-handler and deflecting his pass to the popping big man. As he gains experience, these imposing plays will happen regularly.
Almost all of Jusuf Nurkic's warts stem from mental mistakes. Even though the Bosnian big man has potential as a rim protector, he leaps at the hint of any movement on a pump fake. This got him in trouble on Friday, when he fouled out in only 15 minutes of play. It will take a lot of seasoning to fix this, but plenty of teams are in a position to wait.
On the offensive end, Nurkic usually does a solid job of passing out of double teams, but sometimes it looks like he predetermines his passes, which gets them out quickly, but they can lead to turnovers.
When that happened during the third quarter on Sunday, Nurkic was substituted out of the game; as he walked to the bench, Cedevita coach Jasmin Repeša tried talking to him, but Nurkic put his head down, ignored him, and kept walking by. Though this intensity can be a positive thing for the team -- like when he smiled and wagged his tongue after a fantastic block -- it must be something that is controlled, otherwise it could turn toxic. Even after the game, Nurkic tweeted this:
Like most 19-year-olds, Nurkic is a tad immature, so it shouldn't be too concerning when someone whines to the officials after every call or takes the blame after a loss in the championship, but if it's something that hurts his ability to improve his body in the weight room or his game in the gym, then it may hurt his draft stock.
Team interviews with Jusuf Nurkic will reveal a lot his potential -- is he a Dexter Pittman, Kendrick Perkins, or Omer Asik? -- but if his on-court performance is any indication of his ceiling, then I believe teams are making a mistake of they let him slip outside of the lottery.
I never got to watch a full Partizan game before Friday's match against Cedevita, but I came away fairly impressed after keeping a close eye on Bogdan Bogdanovic. At 6-foot-6 with an 83-inch wingspan, Bogdanovic has ideal size for the shooting guard position, but he plays point guard for Partizan, where his true skills aren't accentuated.
Regardless, Bogdanovic showed me the things I wanted to see despite the underwhelming stat line of 15 points (4-of-15), 7 rebounds, 3 turnovers, and 1 assist. Bogdanovic displayed outstanding technique from behind the arc, both when spotting up and shooting off the dribble. He has extremely deep range and will immediately be a threat in the NBA.
The Serbian wing shot only 34.4 percent (106-of-308) for Partizan this season in three combined leagues (Serbian, Euro, and Adriatic League), but that slightly uninspiring percentage is due to the amount of shots he forced considering his featured role in the offense. Once he makes his way to the NBA, his efficiently will assuredly improve.
Bogdanovic doesn't have true point guard skills, but he has the ability to make the proper decision when engaged in the screen game. He will be a shooting threat in the pick-and-roll, which will only open up passing lanes for the rolling or popping big man.
Bogdan Bogdanovic competed defensively and on the boards, which are bonuses you want to see from an expected role player on offense. With 7 rebounds and some solid man-to-man and team defense, Bogdanovic should someday find a role in the NBA despite his appropriate status as a late first round draft pick.
Without a late first round draft picks, the Celtics probably won't be a match for Bogdanovic, but there is always a chance they trade for an extra pick because he would be a perfect sharpshooter to have on Brad Stevens' bench in the future.