National basketball federations often promote their youth players to older age groups during the summer European Championships season to get a taste of the levels of competition awaiting them.
But a trio of players at the U20 European Championship for Women have shown that they more than belong at this level already - despite all three being the tender age of 17.
|Olesya Malashenko (Ukraine)|
Belarus power forward Olesya Malashenko, Latvian low post presence Sabine Niedola and point guard Lenka Bartakova are all playing a major part in their team's success in Italy - just one summer removed from anchoring their nation's sides at the U16 European Championship of Women in Valmiera, Latvia.
Niedola is the U20 tournament's leading rebounder with 14.7 boards per game while also adding a team-high and tournament third-best 19.0 points per contest as well as 3.0 steals in helping Latvia to a 2-1 record and second place in Group B.
"This is a good experience for me. It provides me a challenge but really helps me to improve my skills," said Niedola.
The Liepaja native came off the bench in the first game and led Latvia's comeback victory against Turkey with eight points and seven offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter alone.
"She killed us," Turkish coach Akkaya Aziz said of Niedola. "She's strong. She's going to be a good player. But she needs to work on her shoooting. If she can improve her shooting she can be a great player."
Latvian coach Aivars Vinbergs was almost forced to bring Niedola to Italy since the star of the age group, Aija Putnina, is playing with the senior national team.
"Sabine is one of the best rebounders in the Latvian league. And we don't have our leader Aija here, so we needed her. But she is a positive person on and off the court. She has a great attitude during the game. And she has great skills," said the coach.
Niedola said the transition into the U20 age group was not that difficult, adding: "Latvia is pretty small, so I knew most of the girls on the team from the national youth league."
Niedola's team-mate Liene Jekabsone added: "It's really good that there's a new girl on the team, and she is only 17. She can do such a great job and really leads the team. She is encouraging and really works very hard to get better."
The Liepajas Metalurgs power forward is already quite far in her development. She dominated the U16 circuit last summer in Valmiera, averaging 19.9 points, 15.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks.
As difficult as it may seem, Niedola was not even the most dominating U16 player last summer. That was Malashenko, who averaged tournament highs in points (25.6 ppg) and rebounds (15.6 rpg) while also adding 1.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.9 blocked shots and hitting 86.1 percent of her free throws. The highlight last summer was a 38-point, 23-rebound showing against Belgium.
Malashenko, who played last season at Belgian Euroleague side Dexia Namur and averaged 2.0 points and 2.0 rebounds in two Euroleague games, finds it hard to believe she is in Italy for the U20s.
"This is something unbelievable for me. I am just in shock. I think that I am not so good. But the coach said yes I am so I came here," said Malashenko, who has averaged 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in helping Ukraine to a 2-1 record in Group C.
But Malashenko will give other European basketball fans a chance to watch her starting later this week. The Ukrainian team said that they will be sending her to Nitra, Slovakia for the U18 European Championship for Women, which begins on Friday, because the tournament will serve as qualifier for the 2009 FIBA U19 World Championship for Women in Thailand, next year.
|Lenka Bartáková (Czech Republic)|
The third 17-year-old at this tournament is Czech point guard Lenka Bartakova.
The Sokolov native has been coach Marian Svoboda's first playmaker option off the bench and has averaged 4.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 1.3 steals in 16 minutes in leading the Czechs to the Qualifying Round with a 2-1 record in Group B.
"It's a big opportunity for me to get experience playing against older players. I am so happy to be here. I was so excited to be selected. I didn't know what to think about the coach giving me this opportunity. I knew it was going to be a big challenge," she said.
Bartakova last summer helped the Czech Republic surprise Serbia in the U16 Game for Third Place, averaging 10.6 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 3.0 steals in 23 minutes in Valmiera.
Still, unlike Niedola, the Czech youngster said it's been challenging coming into an older age group which is tight knit already, adding: "It was really hard to join this team since they were all friends and knew their age group."
But Bartokova's team-mate Karla Gergelova said it's been refreshing having the point guard at the U20 group.
"I think it was good to bring her in. She is really hungry and can help our team. She's young and quick and helps us play fast because she's young."
Bartokova, Malashenko and Niedola will likely be playing at higher levels for quite a few years to come.