Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

12 Dev Adam (12 Giant Men) is an overly exhausted brand. First introduced as 2001 EuroBasket campaign embedded in a widely popular song by Athena (the band), it was intended to symbolize the glorious future of Turkish basketball. Over the last 20 years, this self-imposed image of being a "giant" witnessed only occasional celebration, few rare moments of euphoria, like the finals reached at the 2001 EuroBasket or the 2010 World Cup.

But most of Turkish basketball history is filled with disappointment and sorrow. The day the Olympic dream was shattered with a heart-breaking loss against a not-so-shiny Greece was just another piece in a long chain of events. Like the brand itself, it looked somehow the national team was exhausted too. 

BasketNews finishes its series of articles about strong basketball countries, that have seen their success fade lately, with Turkey. Overviews of Greece, Croatia, Lithuania, and Serbia can be found here.

Historic Opportunity 

How could we define the occasion? Perhaps the best choice of words could be: "historic opportunity." Turkish national team hasn't reached the Olympics with men's basketball since 1952, and no other year it seemed more doable than in 2021. Despite an early exit at the 2019 World Cup (Turkey was a free throw away from defeating the USA), Ufuk Sarica's men managed to capture at least one consolation prize: a spot in the Olympic Qualifier. In retrospect, this was Turkish basketball of the last 20 years in a nutshell. One step forward and two steps back. Who knows which direction the next one will go? 

Qualifiers in Victoria were a historic opportunity for many reasons. First, Turkish NT had a new beginning after a very rough 2022 EuroBasket Qualifiers campaign. At one point, missing the tournament's final stage was a real threat, as Turkey lost to Sweden and the Netherlands. The storm was weathered eventually, but something had to change, and it had to change quickly. So the coach had to go. Orhun Ene, one of the heroes from the 2001 EuroBasket team, was appointed as the head coach.

Despite not having the luxury of extravagant budgets, Ene had remarkably successful runs with Banvit and Tofas. His experience regarding the domestic sphere, especially the young talents or the late bloomers, could be helpful. With Furkan Korkmaz and Cedi Osman extending their minutes and roles in the NBA and ever consistent and reliable Ersan Ilyasova kept himself still available at an advanced age, the odds could not be so low. Sertac Sanlı (who just signed a well-deserved contract with Barcelona) and Bugrahan Tuncer just won EuroLeague with Efes. Besides, emerging talents were coming of age, too. At the center, Alperen Sengun, who is expected to be a first-round pick during the next NBA Draft, or his Besiktas teammate Sehmus Hazer at point guard, the mainframe and auxiliary parts looked solid and juicy. Shane Larkin's injury was a significant blow, but things could have worked despite that.  

The group compositions with hosts Canada, Greece, and perennial underdogs in the Czech Republic did not look too overwhelming at first. Getting to Victoria was a long trip, and the jetlag could have caused problems. Besides, COVID-19 related cancellations of preparation games hurt practice efficiency. Turkey was made of quality components on an individual level, but the team did not have the luxury of players being together for a long time, like the Czech Republic had, for instance.

Nevertheless, it did not start badly at all. Two wins against Uruguay and the Czechs raised the expectations. Besides, even Canada, with all their NBA stars, looked vulnerable, too. With the Czech Republic shocking the hosts at the semis, all Turkey needed was a win over Rick Pitino-led Greece. Greece was without Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Papapetrou, Papanikolau, Printezis, and Spanoulis. There was a team that Turkey managed to beat relatively comfortably just a few days ago, waiting for them in the final. Exciting, isn't it? 

A Dream Deferred 

Expectations. That could always be an issue. The problem with the Turkish team is their inability to cope up with it. It was evident in the 2002 World Cup in Indianapolis. It repeatedly happened over the years and once again at the Victoria tournament last week. 

From what could be drawn from Orhun Ene's pre-tournament statements, some implications could lead to the idea that the main goal was the 2022 EuroBasket and not the Olympic quota. While not ruling out the fight for one last Olympic ticket, the subtext perhaps pointed to mid-term targets. Furkan, Ersan, and Cedi came after their NBA seasons, Larkin was injured, Tuncer, Sanlı, and Mahmutoglu arrived from domestic finals, while Yurtseven, Sengun, and Hazer were newcomers to the national team. An incongruent and unequal combination of fatigue, lack of practice, and inexperience could be susceptible to panic and disorganization, which combusted with tournament contingencies, tension, and finally, expectations. And panic it was, as Orhun Ene lamented after the loss against Greece: "We lost our organization when they put aggressive defensive pressure on us. We panicked, and that is why there was such a huge score differential at the end of the game."

Regarding on-court level organization, the Turkish story reminded the "Curious Case of Benjamin Button," albeit in an ultra-shortened version. It was going alright during the first two games. The first quarter of the semis against Greece was ok, too. Then, boom! Everything started to fall apart. No coaching move could turn the tide after the first 10 minutes while the panic was escalating minute by minute, possession by possession. Rick Pitino maybe be an old wolf now, but he's still the most cunning when it comes to turning these sorts of games in his favor.  

It is impossible to analyze what went wrong in all aspects of the game, but maybe a quick display of some offensive disruptions would suffice to exemplify. The Turkish team lacks a true point guard who could provide offensive organization. This was perhaps the most extensive discussion on social media after the failure against Greece, "How on earth do we not have a playmaker?" 

It is almost a tradition in Turkey to question the infrastructure of basketball recruitment after such sporting debacles, but a specific agreement about "we have talents, just can't develop them" is almost unanimous. But somehow, the same problems occur over and over again. Playmaking responsibilities in Victoria were shared by Ozdemiroglu, Osman, Korkmaz, and occasionally, Tuncer. The problem was: apart from Ozdemiroglu, whose contribution was more valuable on the defensive side, none of the others were accustomed to playing with the double responsibility of preparation and finishing. On the contrary, much more sharpened roles were tailored for Cedi, Furkan, and Bugrahan in their clubs. If Cedi is forced to make 10,000 dribbles before he pulls up, most likely, he will fail. The same goes with Furkan, who can contribute as a pick-n-roll ball-handler but excels on catch-and-shoot and off-screen shooting, as his season in Philadelphia showed. Melih loves screen corridors too, and Bugrahan knows how to emulate Krunoslav Simon, his Efes teammate, by making slash cuts and creating space. Honestly, anything goes but those pull-ups. Unfortunately, most of the sets had to finish as such. The ball carrier would have one ball screen at best, while no simultaneous actions of others were happening. 

Intermitting flare screens from Ersan or Sertac were not sufficient; stagger lanes were non-existent; post-up plays following the flex screens were too predictable. All things aside, these multi-layered offensive actions need perfect timing, a certain level of cohesion, and, most importantly, an organizer. Truer point guards like Berk Ugurlu or Sehmuz Hazer remained unutilized when it mattered most. Most of the offensive sets ended like this:

Luckily, we live in a post-modern basketball era where a lack of an actual point guard can occasionally be offset by point forwards or even point centers. Sertac Sanlı improved his accuracy behind the arc and his distribution from the top of the arc, his DHOs, his screen timing, and his spacing adjustments. He is also capable of opening lanes for penetrations from the wing, as Furkan did on one instance.

Many of the high-quality shots were created by the give-and-go or short roll actions by Sertac and Omer Yurtseven. Stretching a big to the outer sphere of perimeter opens new opportunities for Furkan and Cedi from the 3-pointers as in the short clip and the other big, Alperen Sengun.

Curiously, none of these varieties came into force during the crucial game against Greece, apart from some predictable old-school post-up plays, which could be only effective if Turkey had an overly dominant physical center or a good distributor. Admittedly, excessive repetition kills even the most prominent advantages. Hesitation, lack of cohesion, and non-synchronization degrade shot quality, and, unfortunately for Turkey, they checked all boxes.

Eventually, it all came down to two things: hero balling and transition/semi-transition plays. The problem is: the latter becomes effective if one can have defensive stops, which was an entirely different chapter of failure in Turkey's broken Olympic dream. 

Aftermath: A Sleeping Giant 

It is common to start questioning coaching or even management after a losing campaign. Pitino's farewell and Maskoliunas' resignation were not surprising. Regarding Turkey's case, such changes are yet to be seen (or heard). Nobody knows what goes behind closed doors, but since Orhun Ene and his coaching team were only recently appointed (November 2020), an abrupt change is unlikely to happen. Besides, Ene talked about the long road that's ahead for this group of players and expressed belief regarding gradual development during the upcoming tournaments. Ene is known for long stints with teams he coached (Banvit 2009-2013 and Tofas 2015-2020). As the next FIBA international window is scheduled for November 2021 for World Cup 2023 qualifications, it is time for regrouping and soul-searching.

One of the promising player's from the younger generation is Omercan Ilyasoglu, who spent last season with Frutti Extra Bursaspor on loan from Efes. His development would be crucial as the organizational skills at the point guard position are dearly needed. Alongside Ilyasoglu, Mustafa Kurtuldum (SG) and Alperen Sengun were core members of the U18 team who lost to Spain in the 2019 European championship last summer. 

NBA Draft prospect Alperen Sengun is expected to bring a massive boost to the frontcourt. Hopefully, his strengthening process doesn't stall and his development, especially outside shooting, continues to progress. Another member of the pre-qualifiers call-up, Furkan Haltali, can also become a valuable frontcourt force. His U19 World Cup teammate Adem Bona offers an athletic variety, apt for the expectations from a post-modern type of an interior player. U19 team lost to Argentina dropped out of the competition after the first Round 16 game. Still, Arizona Wildcats member Tibet Gorener (SF) and Sarper David Mutaf (SG) from the Gran Canaria showed promising leadership skills. 

On a broader outlook, the main target is to get a solid run at the 2022 EuroBasket. From the current core group, Furkan Korkmaz, Cedi Osman, Sertac Sanlı, Melih Mahmutoglu, and to some extent, Bugrahan Tuncer are offering different skillsets and tons of scoring options. A spicy combination of the frontcourt, with new Miami Heat member Omer Faruk Yurtseven, Alperen Sengun, and Furkan Haltali, could bring a certain dominancy around the rim. With Adem Bona's energy and athleticism, there are not many reasons to have a pessimistic outlook on the giants' future. 

Nevertheless, this group needs a consistent and competitive point guard who would bring elite organization skills, defensive pressure, and perimeter protection. On top of all the priorities is an overall game plan. Merely submitting the ball to some designated players at all costs and wishing to be lucky is not enough. Only time will tell whether the sleeping giants would come up with a new identity, but the opportunity window remains open for the time being despite the Olympic setback. 

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