By David HeinDark and dreary days were dreaded for the German national team after Dirk Nowitzki announced he would not play at EuroBasket 2009.
But a group of talented youngsters has offered more than just a faint glimpse of hope for the future. The likes of Robin Benzing, Elias Harris and Lucca Staiger played a huge role in sending Germany to the Qualifying Round in Poland.
"They have been doing a great job. Their energy is great and it's great to see some young faces in here," said German center Jan Jagla.
|Their were dire presdictions for Dirk Bauermann and Germany, but his team gets a thumbs up so far.|
"It's very positive for German basketball that we have guys like them coming up. Those guys feel very comfortable in the team. And we have good team chemistry which makes it easier for them to play," said veteran 31-year-old Sven Schultze, who like Jagla played at the 2008 Olympics.
The 20-year-old Benzing is probably one of the most talented of a group of five Germans in Poland born in 1988 or later. And the Seeheim-Jugenheim native started all three Preliminary Round games after a successful preparation campaign.
And Benzing has already experienced a highlight saved usually for crafty veterans as he drained a three-pointer with 48 seconds left to secure Germany a 76-73 victory over Russia in their second Group B game in Gdansk.
"It was awesome. I didn't think about anything. I just took the shot and it was in," said the long, slender and lanky Benzing.
"It was a nice feeling. And it was even better that it won the game. The big shot was okay, but winning the game was the important thing."
Benzing's coolness under pressure impressed his coach Bauermann, who watched Nowitzki hit similar shots on more than one occasion over the years.
"He has so much toughness and a lot of guts to take that huge shot. Except for a good thing here and a good thing there, he struggled the whole game. And that's special. To have that kind of confidence and that kind of ability is special," said the coach.
Bauermann drew plenty of media attention mid-way through last season when he called out the German BBL teams for not playing more German players. He also has tried for years to inject the national team with some more youth.
The chance finally came in 2009 after the NBA stars Nowitzki and Chris Kaman declined coming to Poland and long-time veterans Pascal Roller and Robert Garrett retired for the national team.
That left the door for Bauermann to bring with him to Poland the 1988-born Staiger and Tim Ohlbrecht as well as Benzing, Harris and Tibor Pleiss, who all were born in 1989. In addition, the 25-year-old playmaker Heiko Schaffartzik is making his debut with the senior side.
"The youngsters will and have to play. I will try to support them as much as possible and not take them out right away after they make mistakes. They have to learn from their mistakes and not feel the pressure of the world," said Bauermann the eve before the tournament started.
"What we lack in experience we will make up with team spirit and togetherness. I think we are as close a team as any here. They are not really showing the pressure because they have no pressure. They are here to learn."
And it has not only been Benzing, who has shown that he wants to do more than just learn - but also help the team win.
Staiger, who plays college basketball at Iowa State in the United States, has played a total of 27 minutes in three games and scored seven points. But two of them came on free throws with eight seconds left in the victory over Russia.
And Harris, who will be attending Gonzaga this fall, came up with five points and five rebounds in 16 quality minutes in the decider against Latvia.
Jagla fouled out of the Russia contest after collecting 19 points and 11 rebounds and admitted afterwards that it was really tough to watch the youngsters close out the game.
"I mean for a 20-year-old (Benzing) to step up and hit that shot ... unbelievable," said Jagla.
"But it's hard to say that I can sit there and trust these guys. But they have proved over the long year that they have arrived. There's no reason a 20-year-old cannot compete at his level."
And there are more talents on the horizon. The 20-year-old small forward Philipp Schwethelm has already played Euroleague games with Koln 99ers while the 19-year-old powerful center Maik Zirbes appeared in 12 BBL games last season with Trier.
"It's a good generation. We are doing a good job and are very talented. I think we have a good future," said Benzing.
"And I hope that we get the chance to play in the Bundesliga as well."
After three seasons in the second division in Germany, Benzing will debut in the BBL this up-coming season.
But that will have to wait a little longer - when those dreaded days don't seem so dark and dreary after all.