REGENSBURG (David Hein's Eye on the Future) - The Turkish Airlines Euroleague tips off in earnest tonight and if you're a fan of young talent, there are definitely more than a fair share of up-and-coming stars to keep an eye on over the course of the season.
Before we get going, let's define up-and-coming. Let's take out 20-year-olds (or players born in 1993 or later). That would mean 1992-born guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Leo Westerman and Davis Bertrans from Partizan and Milan captain Alessandro Gentile as well as 1993-born studs such as Alex Abrines from Barcelona (yeah, he’s still only 20), while the pair of Luka Mitrovic and Aleksandar Cvetkovic from Red Star are too 'old'.
Obviously, the most-talked about name on the list is Barcelona's Mario Hezonja. The 18-year-old did not play for Croatia at all this summer - junior ranks or senior level - and worked hard in the pre-season in getting more comfortable in coach Xavi Pascual's system. And the work has paid off as Hezonja has already worked himself into the rotation with the Spanish giants - though of course he won't get big minutes in the stacked Barcelona team.
Mouhammadou Jaiteh, meanwhile, will likely be seeing a lot of playing time for Euroleague debutants JSF Nanterre. The 18-year-old French center made the jump to top flight basketball with the Pro A champions from last season after a strong 2012-13 campaign in the Pro B second division.
Jaiteh played a leading role for France at the 2013 U20 European Championship and turned down a chance to go to college in the United States to play professionally in France. In Nanterre's first three Pro A games this season, Jaiteh has averaged 9.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals in about 21 minutes of action. Prepare to see plenty of him in the Euroleague.
If the numbers in the Turkish TBL league are any indication, then maybe some decent things could be expected from Fenerbahce's 1995-born duo of Kenan Sipahi and James Birsen. The 18-year-old talents led Turkey to the gold medal at the 2013 U18 European Championship and the U18 MVP Sipahi even got a brief invite to the senior national team training camp before EuroBasket 2013. Both youngsters got some good burn in Fenerbahce's convincing win in their season-opener against Mersin. Sipahi collected eight points and six assists in 19 minutes of a 25-point blowout win while Birsen had three points and two rebounds in 16 minutes.
Looking at Unicaja Malaga's roster, one name definitely stands out - Domantas Sabonis. Yes, that's the 17-year-old son of Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis. Domantas was actually born in 1996 in the United States during his father's time with the Portland Trail Blazers. The younger Sabonis was the youngest player to debut in the Liga Endesa for Unicaja in September 2012 as a 16-year-old.
He averaged 14 points and 11.4 rebounds for Lithuania at the 2013 U18 European Championship as the team's only under-class player and appears to be in the plans of Unicaja coach Joan Plaza.
Sabonis scored six points to go along with three rebounds and one block in 15 minutes against Estudiantes in Malaga's season opener.
Another Lithuanian youngster who might see some playing time is 1994-born Tomas Dimsa with Zalgiris Kaunas. The Kaunas native played at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit and followed that with a leading role in Lithuania's bronze medal-winning showing at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship.
Zalgiris pulling out of the VTB League might limit somewhat Dimsa's chances of playing more but look for Kaunas coach Ilias Zouros to give the youngster some minutes as the club is clearly looking to build something for the future with a roster full of young players.
Partizan have an even younger roster with eight players born in 1991 or later. The aforementioned Westermann is just 21 years old but already is considered a veteran leader on this team. The French point guard is also serving as a great mentor to 19-year-old compatriot Boris Dallo. The Nantes native moved to Partizan this past summer and has already averaged nearly 13 minutes in Belgrade's first three games this season - with averages of 2.0 points, 2.3 assists and 2.3 rebounds. Look for Dallo to really excel as he plays top level competition with similar-aged players while also getting tutelage from a true star in the making in Westermann.
Here are a couple of other names to keep an eye on a bit this season but definitely down the road: Ilimane Diop of Laboral Kuxta Vitoria (1993-born, Spain); Dimitrios Agravanis of Olympiacos (1994-born, Greece) and Cedi Osman of Anadolu Efes Istanbul (1995-born, Turkey).
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