- National Teams
By Matt Clear | @matt_clear
The England under-18 team could hardly have faced a tougher build-up to the European Championships. A host of key players have been lost, to the point that coach Steve Bucknall held an emergency camp over the weekend to ensure the team had twelve players to take to Bulgaria.
Here’s a look at how the team stands ahead of their opening game tomorrow, and their chances for promotion.
At the Haris tournament, England dispatched Manchester Magic U16s and Cheshire Jets U18s in less impressive fashion than the scorelines would suggest, and squeaked past Luxembourg. Things started to come together in the semi-final against German club side Breitengüßbach, and they easily dealt with the Magic U18s (featuring Josh McGinn and Jack Crook) in the final.
England had a respectable showing at the Cherbourg tournament, finishing third behind Switzerland and Tunisia after notching wins over Belgrade, Manchester Magic and the hosts. Forward Raphell Thomas-Edwards was named to the all-tournament team.
The team played four games in Belgium in July, losing heavily to the hosts (77-38) and beating European championship opponents Portugal 61-58. Most worrying was a 77-57 defeat to Luxembourg, though England did defeat the same opponents 89-84 the day before.
The team finished fourth at the Future Stars tournament but only won one game, against a weak USA Select team (78-72). They hung with the Netherlands and Slovenia at times during their other games, but were ultimately outclassed and lost by more than 18 in each case.
Point guard. Jordan Spencer is not a selfish player by any means, but he is more effective scoring than setting others up. His quick feet and active hands make him one of the best defenders on the team. It is expected Jamie Batish and Simeon Esprit will also spend time bringing the ball up, despite not being natural point guards.
Shooting guard. Jamie Batish’s biggest strength is his spot-up shooting, but with a lack of other strong quality players on the team he will be relied upon to create off the dribble more than usual. Elliott Sentance is another very good shooter who will see time at both the 2 and the 3. Jordan Culley, a late (re-) addition to the roster, brings another long range threat to the squad.
Small forward. With the withdrawal of Josh Ward-Hibbert, Simeon Esprit will become the team’s go-to scorer. The Penn-bound swingman is adept at getting to the line despite his slender frame, can hit the outside shot and handles the ball well. He will probably guard the opposing team’s best wing play. Harry Turner needs to hit open threes to be a factor as he is not great at creating for himself off the dribble. Ross Wilson, the only player on the team with BBL experience, is athletic but unpolished offensively.
Power forward. Raphell Thomas-Edwards is a player who often tries to do too much, which can lead to turnovers and frustration piling up – but it can also lead to periods of brilliance, such as his 19 points in the first half against the Netherlands. His outside game is developing, but he still looks more comfortable using his strength to score on the interior. Late addition Rowell Graham will bring rebounding and athleticism to a side that so far has lacked both. David Sainsbury-Garcia appears to be not quite skilled enough to play on the perimeter, nor strong enough to make an impact inside.
Centre. Zak Wells looked some-what lost at the Haris tournament, but the Barking Abbey product has progressed considerably since then, particularly as a rebounder and passer. He works hard on the court, but is still limited offensively. Jack Crook possesses more offensive skills, including an odd-looking but effective three-point shot, but Wells hit the glass harder at Future Stars which may give him the edge in the battle for a starting spot.
Where to start? John Stewart limped out of Future Stars after one minute, while Josh McGinn lasted until the second day before pulling a hamstring. Point guard depth had already been decimated by the losses of Joe Hart to injury and Devon van Oostrum to the U20s. Athletic power forward Jesse Chuku is staying in the States to play AAU ball, and the multi-talented Skyler White was found to in fact have Scottish roots as opposed to English ones.
But it’s the absence of do-it-all two-guard Josh Ward-Hibbert, the Haris tournament MVP, which may be the biggest blow of all, as it could mean England and GB have lost him for good. Ward-Hibbert is ranked in the world in tennis at the junior level, and splits his time between the two sports, so his decision to play tennis this summer could be a precursor to him giving up basketball altogether.
Wings. Batish and Esprit are the team’s two best players, boasting good size for their positions and the ability to shoot, get to the basket and defend. Esprit is probably the team’s best ballhandler and will be their biggest scoring threat.
Offensive rebounding. Both Thomas-Edwards and Graham are excellent offensive rebounders. Given how ponderous England’s offense looked at times during Future Stars, they’ll need to get plenty of extra opportunities from the offensive glass.
Three point shooting. Every player on the team, bar Wells, Graham and Garcia, is capable of hitting an open three, with Batish, Esprit and Sentance being particularly big threats from deep.
Bigs. In an ideal world the team’s bigs would be concentrating on developing their still-raw fundamentals rather than playing big minutes in an international tournament, however, it will be good for their individual development to be exposed to such a level of competition. Raphell Thomas-Edwards is undersized at the four, but should be able to exploit opponents with his quickness.
Ballhandling. England looked suspect at point guard back at the Haris tournament in December, and that was before Joe Hart and Josh McGinn got injured. Neither of the two points in the squad would have been Bucknall’s first choices at the start of the year, and there is a lack of quality ballhandlers elsewhere on the team, meaning we could see Simeon Esprit bringing the ball up at times – a heavy burden for the team’s primary scorer and wing defender.
Fitness. Even with (or perhaps because of?) the tough fitness regime England have been put through, players frequently looked tired at Future Stars. Sentance, Batish, Wilson and Esprit are all nursing niggling injuries, and the loss of another player would have a devastating effect on the team’s chances.
One thing the U18s have to be optimistic about is that their draw appears to be slightly easier than that of their GB U20 counterparts. Denmark will start as favourites with several players from last year’s U16 Division A team, and Belgium will be tough if their 40-point warm-up victory over England is anything to go by, but neither team appears unbeatable on paper. The other teams in the group are Portugal and Estonia.
If England do advance they will face a stiff test in the shape of hosts Bulgaria. Other possible second-round opponents are Georgia, Hungary or even Luxembourg, who ran England close at the Haris tournament and beat them in Cherbourg.
Based on their warm-up results and performances, England are going to have a tough time in Bulgaria. There is definitely some talent here, but the team’s depth has been severely damaged by the injuries and withdrawals which, given the schedule (four games in four days), will make it difficult to advance. Reaching the second round would be a huge achievement.
How do you think the team will fare? Drop a comment and let us know!