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Hezonja, Zhou Qi and Inglis add firepower as wild cards for NIJT finals

REGENSBURG (David Hein's Eye on the Future) - The Nike International Junior Tournament received a strong boost of firepower as the eight-team field at the 2013 Euroleague Final Four in London was completed with the three remaining wild cards going to Spanish giants FC Barcelona Regal, the French star-producing academy INSEP and Team China.

That trio joins fellow wild card recipient Team England - which will be the represented by the U18 national team - and the four qualifiers KK Spars Sarajevo of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Spanish side FIATC Joventut Badalona; last year’s winners Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius of Lithuania and Serbian club Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade in the competition at The London Soccerdome.

While it was clear that an English team must be on board - given that the Euroleague Final Four is taking place in London from 9-12 May 2013 - the Euroleague organizers definitely gave the NIJT finals some top quality up-coming stars for the fans in London.

Euroleague continued its tradition of giving China a wild card in its efforts to expand into that market, with the Asians coming on board for the third straight time. But European fans should have another chance to see one of the top young big men in the international game.

It's unclear what the Chinese roster will look like, but it would seem that 1996-born center Zhou Qi will be included in the squad. Zhou has already been in Europe, playing for China at the 2012 Albert Schweitzer Tournament and then helping China to a seventh place finish at the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship in Lithuania. He should excel at this tournament as well.

Point guard Zhao Ji Wei was also on the U17 Worlds team and the 18-year-old excelled with his gutsy and inspired play. Fellow 1995-born Han De Long was the third leading member of the team in Kaunas and the small forward - should he be included in the team - would be making a return to the NIJT finals after collecting 15.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals for Team China at the 2012 Final Four.

Those who followed the U17 Worlds last summer will remember the superstar showing of Croatia's Mario Hezonja and his inspiring comeback from mononucleosis to lead his team to the bronze medal. He will be in London as the leader for Barcelona, who finished third in the Ciutat de L’Hospitalet qualifying tournament. There's not too much to be said about Hezonja that hasn't been said already. The 18-year-old is an emerging superstar, who has already played in two Euroleague games for Barcelona’s senior team.

The other leaders on the Barcelona team are 17-year-old Marc Garcia, who was the star of Spain's U16 European Championship team last summer and scored 17.4 points in the NIJT qualifiers; Xavier Moix, a member of Spain's U17 Worlds team; Swedish point guard talent Ludde Hakanson, who just turned 17 on March 22; and Montenegro center Milovan Draskovic, who averaged 11.6 points and 10.6 rebounds in the qualification tournament.

The other team receiving a wild card to London was 2010 winners INSEP, which finished third in the qualifying tournament in Belgrade. The main star of the Paris-based team is Damien Inglis, who averaged 19 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.8 blocks in the qualifying tournament.

Inglis also was the leader of the French team that finished a disappointing 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship in 10th place. But his 2012 summer finished on a high note as he teamed with INSEP classmates Charley Pontens, Olivier Yao Delon and Paul Rigot to take third place in the men’s competition at the FIBA U18 3x3 World Championships.

Inglis and Pontens also teamed up with Fleur Devillers and Clarince Djaldi-Tabdi to win the gold in the mixed competition.

Pontens is the second main weapon for INSEP, averaging 14.6 points and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 12 of 24 from three-point range in the qualifiers. And 1997-born Stephane Gombauld, who guided France to the silver medal at the 2012 U16 European Championship, gives INSEP a strong third scoring option after collecting 11.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in the qualification tournament.

European basketball fans looking for future stars can be happy about the three wild card choices.

David Hein


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