fibaeurope.com examines five players who are likely to have a major impact on proceedings in Matoshinos over the coming two weeks.
Kseniia Levchenko, Russia and Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje
Small in stature but big on impact, Kseniia Levchenko throws out the notion that height matters in basketball. Standing at 1.65m, Levchenko will enter the U18 European Championship Women as arguably the most experienced player in the competition. Earning a spot on the 12-player roster of EuroLeague Women Final Eight participants Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje last season, the diminutive guard picked up a useful 5.9 minutes a game against the best backcourt players from both sides of the Atlantic. Following on from that, Levchenko earned a call up to the Russian senior women's team for their EuroBasket Women 2015 2nd Qualification Round campaign. Now, in her second trip to the U18 European Championship Women, the guard will look to use this distinct advantage against players of her own age and look to move her points production into double figures based on a solid shot from beyond the perimeter. Last time around Levchenko averaged 6.2 points and 3.8 assists a game, the fourth-highest number of assists in the tournament.
Aleksandra Crvendakic, Serbia and UE Sopron
One year ago in Croatia, Aleksandra Crvendakic was already a shining star of this tournament despite playing against peers a year older than herself. Displaying an athletic, aggressive inside game with a long stride going to the basket, the 1.87m power forward saw the most minutes in the tournament (39.9 per game) on the way to finishing second in both points (16.1 per game) and rebounds (10.9 per game). Completing the Championship with a tournament-best five double-doubles, it came as a surprise to no one to see her posing for the All-Tournament Team photograph, a pose she will be hoping to strike once more this year. Following summer, the U18 standout looks set to make her EuroLeague Women debut with Uniqa Euroleasing Sopron, with whom she recently signed a three-year contract.
Emese Hof, Netherlands and CTO Amsterdam
Spurred on by the agony of a last-gasp defeat in the bronze medal game 12 months ago, Dutch center Emese Hof will be out to right this in her second appearance at the U18 European Championship Women. In conjunction with fellow 1996-born player Laura Cornelius, the duo provided the steering wheel to drive the Netherlands into the semi-finals in Croatia. Standing at 1.88m, Hof uses her comparative tallness at this level to be a rebounding force at both ends of the court. She also displays great agility for a center, displaying nifty footwork inside the paint to create point-scoring opportunities on her own account. Should Hof, as she is expected to do, push on from last year (9.0 points, 7.7 rebounds per game), she has it within her ability to produce double-double performances regularly.
Cecilia Zandalasini, Italy and San Giovanni
At 1.81m Cecilia Zandalasini is in ownership of a skillset that sees her touted as one of the hottest prospects of not only Italian, but European basketball. Every time the 1.81m swingman pulls on an Azzurre jumper, be prepared for something big to happen. With a love for shooting off-the-dribble, Zandalasini twice stepped on the podium at U16 European Championship level, winning a bronze medal in 2011 before going one better a year later, producing a tournament MVP performance to get her team into the gold medal game where they lost out to Spain. Her transition to U18 level last season (13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game) was not as seamless as most had predicted, but back playing with her own age group this year, expect a Zandalasini-powered Italy to be making a run for the podium.
Maria Kostourkova, Portugal and Lombos Quinta
This tournament marks the first time that Portugal will host a Division A youth tournament, in no small part thanks to the role of Maria Kostourkova who has been a linchpin in the changing fortunes of Portuguese women's youth basketball over the past three seasons. Having played a key role (9.3 points, 7.3 points per game) in getting Portugal out of Division B for the first time in 2012, the 1.91m center was there in Croatia last year (9.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game) to assure her team remained in Division A and remarkably, is now set to make her third appearance at U18 level. Keeping busy through the summers, Kostourkova also has two U16 campaigns to her name, earning tournament MVP honours at the U16 European Championship Women Division B right here in Matosinhos last summer.