Rodez and Toulouse, France, were hosts of the inaugural FIBA U17 World Championships. In addition to showing how America's best and brightest stacked up against the rest of the world, the tournament also provided four alternative themes in an exciting 10 days.
The Crowned Jewell
You've probably heard the cliché numerous times, that something was a "blessing in disguise." For USA Basketball's U17 national team, the injury to Alexyz Vaioletama during training was heart breaking. But the injury allowed the selection committee to shore up an area of grave need as Jewell Blessing Loyd was named to the team to replace Vaioletama.
Perhaps the middle name was an omen.
Loyd was a spark plug off the bench for USA, providing the additional ballhandling needed as well as a knack for knocking down big shots. She showed no fear and no hesitation once she checked in. She was fifth on the team in scoring but when it came to killing the opposing team's run she did her best Robert "Big Shot Bob" Horry impression.
For Team USA, Loyd was able to play either guard spot and she was often deployed with Jordan Adams so that the bigs could outlet to either one and push the throttle forward.
Much has been made of the selection committee giving USA coach Barb Nelson only one true point guard, but, replacing Vaioletama with Loyd may have been the smartest move of all the selections as she fit her role as well as anyone on the team.
The Gap Is Closing, But
The assumption that a blowout victory was guaranteed for Team USA is completely false. The 1992 men's Dream Team was a long, long time ago. The game is global now, for both men and women. Though every game Team USA played in the FIBA World Championships was decided by at least 20 points, the road was far from easy in each contest.
Depth inevitably made the difference for USA. The Americans found opposition at times that was quicker, stronger, more physical and better shooting, but never all of it at once.
The combination of Olivia Epoupa and Esther Niamke, both 5-foot-4 guards, gave the French lineup an advantage of quickness at the guard spot. Though only used together in small spurts, the combination gave the U.S. major problems, as they were able to apply ball pressure on multiple positions.
France was arguably more physical for large stretches of both contests against the USA.
Speaking of physicality, the USA didn't play the most physical team in the field because France beat Australia in the quarterfinals. The Aussie duo of Gretel Tippett, a 6-4 wing who averaged 18 points per game, and Tayla Roberts, a 6-3 bruiser of a post, provided the power in the starting five. The two combined for 34.1 points and 16.6 rebounds per game.
As for shooting, Ariel Massengale and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis hit 50 percent and 48.7 percent, respectively, from behind the 3-point arc, but both China and Spain as teams let it fly more often and both made more than a third of their long-range attempts.
China was led by the tournament MVP performance of Meng Li, who made 42.9 percent of her 49 attempts from three, accounting for more than half of her scoring. The 6-1 wing showcased her awkward yet high release, which she got off with ease, even with defenders draped on her.
Both China and Spain shot nearly twice as many threes as the USA, though the Americans led the tournament in 3-point percentage, converting 40 of their 98 attempts. The USA shot the third fewest attempts from 3-point range in the championships.
Keeping with the Odds
The traditional American style of basketball has five defined positions, one through five, or point guard, guard, wing, forward and post. Picture the European style as a starter set of golf clubs with only the odd numbered irons.
Most of the Europeans hit the floor with a point guard, two wing players and two posts. Because they penetrate with the point guard and pitch out to either of the two wing scorers, there is little need to rub a shooting guard off several down screens or single-doubles to get them open shots. The other common play is the high ball-screen, with one of the shooters and either of the posts. The result is either a pick-and-pop if the defender gets over the screen or a stop and pop if the defender goes underneath the screen.
Because the European style isn't based on pounding the ball into the five position, as was the style the USA played with, they have two, nearly interchangeable posts on the floor who play almost nothing like either forward position in the American game.
The teams that played the most American, besides the U.S., were China and Canada. China had much success because of Dong Yu's scoring in the paint, complemented by the shooting of Li as well as combo guards Liwei Yang and Hongyang Cui. Canada on the other hand, struggled to score with its style outside of spreading the floor for the dynamic shooting guard Nirra Fields, who attends high school in Ohio. Fields led the tournament in scoring but didn't get the help from her teammates that Li did and the result was China in the semifinal and Canada not making the medal round.
While "proness" isn't a word in Webster's dictionary, it is a word in the international basketball version of the book as American college coaches flocked to France to check out the talent. The collegiate coaching attendance was a bit shocking, as a majority of the schools in attendance aren't recruiting any of the players on Team USA. Some didn't even watch the USA during pool play, opting for the Toulouse pool where they could see Argentina, Australia, Belgium, China and Spain.
After the first day the coaches were hunting for any information they could get on the international players showing promise. Some players, like Tippet and Russia's Ksenia Tikhonenko, are locks to sign pro contracts.
One disadvantage the recruiters have is that while the NCAA allows attendance by its coaches, it is not a certified viewing event and there are no packets with contact information. Add to that a language barrier in most cases and the frantic job of assessing and confirming the foreign players' "proness" was an interesting subplot to these inaugural championships.
Players like Belgium's Julie Vanloo, a 5-7 point guard who is tailor-made for the college game, or teammate Emma Meesseman, a 6-3 forward, will have to decide between the value of a bachelor's degree from an American university and getting further preparation for a pro career in the NCAA over a contract that could vary from $30,000-$90,000 over several years, right now.
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.