Notes on Berke Büyüktuncel’s Offence

Berke Büyüktuncel is an 18-year-old combo forward playing for Tofaş. 22-23 isn’t his first season as a pro, but it’s the first season in which he’s been a full-time pro. He hasn’t participated with Tofaş’s youth academy since the beginning of this season. Büyüktuncel has intriguing potential and his floor level is high enough that he can register consistent and plenty of minutes for a team on the calibre of Tofaş. He’s averaging almost 18 minutes of playing time in 22 appearances in the Turkish top flight, missing a few early season matches to a wrist injury. In Europe, he averaged nearly 23 mins of playing time in 5 apps over at FIBA’s Basketball Champions League. He is adjusting to a high level basketball, but he’s already a very capable forward defender, strong at multiple aspects of defence. He is a better, more productive player on defence than on attack. And this isn’t a symptom of his first full-time professional season, that has been Berke Büyüktuncel’s game at youth levels as well. There’s not that much room for growth for his defending. Given his age and inexperience, he’s having nothing short of a special defensive season with Tofaş. His offence though, there is more to that story… Let’s talk about it.

I suppose the biggest gripe with Berke Büyüktuncel’s season on the attacking side has been a lack of progression. For an 18-year-old getting acclimated to professional basketball and the high levels he’s playing at, you’d expect him to perform better in comparison to earlier months and showcase a more promising game in these late stages of the season. That has not been the case. Then again, Büyüktuncel isn’t your typical teenager getting adjusted to the pro game. He’s 206 cm tall and doesn’t have a slim frame typical of 18 year olds. Nothing with his physique or the way he moves on the court suggests he’s 18 when you watch Tofaş play. The mistakes he makes aren’t the kind of errors committed by youthful inexperience. He has a high floor level as a player which is atypical, because the number one reason most highly-touted teenagers don’t have established roles and consistent minutes when they embark on a career, is not that they’re prone to making mistakes, but their floor level and thus reliability as a player are not desirably high. If I were simply unaware of his age, aside from when the cameras zoom on him and his face, there was nothing I could tell this entire season with his performances, errors, tendencies and game style that Berke Büyüktuncel is 18 years of age. He doesn’t play like that. This is to say I’m not surprised with his lack of progression throughout the season. But I agree that it’s a little concerning.

When you have a rare talent like Berke Büyüktuncel who doesn’t make obvious mistakes on the court, people’s concerns along the way aren’t usually directed towards the player but become criticisms for his team, his coach and other parties depending on the situation. Some criticism have been directed at how he’s used at Tofaş. I don’t find it right to say Tofaş doesn’t use his game in ways he could be more of a scorer. I don’t believe Tofaş or coaching have been the factors limiting his game or role. Tofaş has sets for his attacking game and despite his partial passivity, they still run sets for him in late April.

Last week Tofaş ran an ATO (After TimeOut) set for Berke Büyüktuncel, to kickstart the 4th period vs Anadolu Efes:


Five elements to keep in mind from this play:

  1. ATOs are highly efficient half-court plays because they are prepped, often in detail, during a timeout. They are not called to play in a hurry during the natural course of the game like other sets are.
  2. Büyüktuncel rejects attacking Will Clyburn in space. Passes back to Tyler Ennis. Efes is lazy to switch that ball screen and Büyüktuncel ends up posting Vasilije Micić.
  3. It’s important that Büyüktuncel’s partial passivity means he may waste valuable ATOs for Tofaş where they may have otherwise scored, but Tofaş still opts to run these sets for him.
  4. Büyüktuncel doesn’t attack Will Clyburn because there is no separation gained from the stagger exit. He moves onto a secondary action to gain an advantage over the defence instead.
  5. As a general principle, once the set is abandoned, ATO gets wasted.

In light of these five elements, ATO for Büyüktuncel is abandoned with the pass to Tyler Ennis. ATO gets wasted. If Büyüktuncel attacked Clyburn, this ATO could have been wasted with a failure in execution. Either Büyüktuncel attacks Clyburn from a static position in space, fails to score/assist; or ATO is wasted because he doesn’t even try attacking. Precisely because result is the same, and Tofaş gives him this leeway, Berke Büyüktuncel should seize his opportunities instead of going to a secondary action and relinquish the designed set for him.

I suspect this is a lack of confidence, and it affects the shot over Vasilije Micić too. When Efes does the lazy switch, the moves Büyüktuncel deploys on Micić are poised, it shows his attacking potential. When those moves get him in position to score, his shot attempt shows a hesitation, a lack of confidence. That’s expected. He’s a teen adjusting to high level basketball.

My biggest concern is these passivities are not mere growing pains. And that he envisions his attacking game as a polished version of what it is now, ignoring what else he can feasibly do.

Early in the season, he gave an interview to Doruk Karaca of Eurospects and had these to say:

If I’m playing small forward, I can help the team by playing post up with my size advantage in Turkey against most of the small forwards unless my matchup is a player like Dyshawn Pierre. I also feel comfortable with pull ups. Since I started to become a threat as a shooter, I can drive into the paint easier as well, I became more aware of it recently. I can’t run a pick and roll as a guard but when I have to, I do my best. While playing power forward, setting up a solid screen and being a consistent shooter are the two most important things to me. Playing screen and pop or posting up against the undersized player after the switch are my other weapons. I try to make something out of the positions that my guards set up for me.

Those remarks were worrying to me because he describes a limited attacking role. A role typical of PFs that can shoot and have limited ball skills who need to be fed by their guards. It’s actually scary how accurate he is describing his game. Self-awareness of this magnitude must be rare from a teen player. If this is the reality of his role at this initial stage of his career, and he’s perfectly aware of it, how is that worrying? For one, the question that prompted his answer was: “How do you define your game and the things you need to lean on in order to maintain advantage?”. The crucial second part of the question is why I think he’s not simply stating his role at Tofaş this season and conveying how he envisions his game to be instead. For a more material grounding, he has played within the exact boundaries he has set in that answer throughout this 22-23 season whenever I’ve watched him play. I first read this interview months later than it was published, it was already mid-season and if I had read it when it was published, his quotes wouldn’t have drawn my attention. Having watched a solid sample of Büyüktuncel’s season made that section stood out. Even if you are not following much of his season, watch the clip above again and notice whatever he does right in that play is something he mentions in the above quote and whatever is missing is not mentioned. He doesn’t mention off-ball movement, receiving screens, curling to catch & attack. He doesn’t mention dribble drive scoring. In the play, a big reason why the stagger exit doesn’t grant him an advantage on Clyburn is because he’s poor in taking the route and using the screens. With that spacing, he should be looking to curl to the paint, catch the ball and attack the basket foremost. He’s not quick in off-ball movement either, he can’t quickly arrive to the ball and catch a trailing Clyburn with inaccuries in his defensive stance which Büyüktuncel could use to attack the Efes forward. He mentions setting solid screens and he indeed sets a solid screen on Micić. He brings up “posting up against the undersized player after the switch” as his weapon, which he looks to do against Micić, and accomplishes in action by creating a quality shot. I fear this level of accuracy in understanding his own game as a young man, manifests itself on the court as the chief limiting factor of his attacking ceiling.

It’s perfectly fine if he plays with this kind of an offensive role during his full-time professional debut season, but Tofaş offers him more which he rejects. The way he verbally rejects an attacking game that requires more ball skills, he rejects opportunities in match play to improve his ball skills. He doesn’t need to score on Will Clyburn from a static position yet. He doesn’t need to run an efficient 2-man game. Tofaş gives him opportunities to merely try, he has that leeway. He has to seize it.

As insightful and informative as that piece of his interview was, it was also surprising. Berke Büyüktuncel speaks with confidence elsewhere in the same interview, shows how well acquainted he is with what and how his competitors are doing, names Nemanja Bjelica & Toni Kukoč as two basketball role models he watches the tapes of to aid his own development.

After the U18 Eurobasket, he gave an interview to FIBA in which he spoke of the versatility of his game in such high confidence that I was having a tough time to remember if I knew another Turkish player that confident as a teenager:

As his 22-23 season is arriving towards a conclusion though, it appears his unique confidence doesn’t extend to his attacking game and relates exclusively to his defence. I believe the lack of confidence in his ball skills is uncalled for and is going to limit his ceiling as a two-way forward.

I’d love to play devil’s advocate to my own arguments which I think also leads to more precise assessment. And there is something with versatile forwards or wingers who have potential but don’t pan out. Some of these players were dominant at youth levels, got people to rave about their all-around potential but failed to come close to matching the expectations that were set on them. After they reach age mid-20s and beyond, they get described as “never putting it all together” by the people who were high on their potential. Versatile forwards who don’t pan out and “never putting it all together” is a matching pattern. I’m not leading to Berke Büyüktuncel with this to argue he’s going to be one of them. He’s not. He’s too good at his age and has too high of a floor level already that he’s going to be quite a valuable forward in his prime. Rather, when you look at those versatile forwards who never put it all together, maybe setting boundaries to your game style and limiting your game identity is a better pathway, or a necessary one, to actually pan out as a high level player. I think there might be something to that. Maybe this is the method through which Büyüktuncel managed to raise his floor level, by focusing on certain things and ignoring other feasibilities. And it’s the reason he’s able to play this much for Tofaş, be a consistently contributing player and rise above past and current teenage players in that regard. Even if I buy that argument, the thesis doesn’t change.

About a month ago I went on a rant of how good his defence is on the Basketbol Süper Ligi (BSL) focused podcast we publish in Turkish. I compared his and Juan Núñez’s seasons. It is an apt comparison because they aren’t too apart in level this season, they are the same age, they are both playing extensive minutes as professionals for the first season ever. It is an interesting comparison because Juan Núñez was considered to be the significantly better player at youth levels. And that still was the case in the summer of 2022. In my rant, I mentioned how they’re both born in 2004 but as Büyüktuncel had a successful U18 tournament this past summer, Núñez not only played in the U20 tournament, he also ended up as the MVP of the U20 tournament. I then claimed Büyüktuncel is having a better 22-23 season, with the caveat that first large step made into professional basketball is tougher for an inexperienced teen point guard than it is for an inexperienced teen combo forward. My argument was the level of his defence is the primary ally of Büyüktuncel’s smooth transition to full-time professional scene and often defensive weakness is the reason why other teen players can’t raise the level of their games to a stable floor and have a smooth transition themselves. I finished by saying Berke Büyüktuncel has an unprecedented luxury of not needing to spend individual training hours on improving his defending. He has the luxury to spend all his individual training and film study hours on developing and polishing his attacking.

That’s why, in his case, the thesis doesn’t change. His game has his base level established. Even if he ever was at any point, he’s not anymore the one who’s in danger of becoming a twenty-something forward described as having never put it all together. Now is to avoid the danger of self-eradicating his high-end potential. Course correction is going to be needed to prevent taking his own high-end potential out of the picture. He’s never going to be an attacker on the calibre of Toni Kukoč, and he’s not going to be a Nemanja Bjelica as things are. But developing off-the-dribble attacking in training and taking his chances in matches with some ball skills will do wonders to maintain his high-end potential as a two-way combo forward. Tofaş gives him opportunities even though he doesn’t seize them. If he starts seizing them, he’ll be given more.

Rim pressure is essential. He is keen on the pick-and-pop, but as he improves his shooting on the pop, he’ll receive more aggressive close-outs and contests. Close-out attacks will become a necessity. Earlier in that Efes match, he had a nice mid-range pull-up basket freeing himself of Will Clyburn’s close-out. But close-out attacks in the form of attacking the paint has been absent in his season. It’s not fair to expect the close-out attacks he’s shown at youth level to immediately translate to professional scene. It is fair to expect some effort in getting to the paint whether it is curling to the paint off a stagger exit, or having a go at an isolation if not, or attacking a close-out all the way instead of looking for another guard to hand the ball off to, or even running a little wing 2-man game when he plays at the 3. Some actions to get in the paint are simply not in his game. For instance he’s never shown himself to be a willing cutter or possessing the qualities to be an effective one. Ultimately rim pressure is essential though, and there are severals pathways he can feasibly use to trigger the help defence.

I can only explain Berke Büyüktuncel’s aversion to attack the paint and to rudimentary ball skills with a lack of confidence. In some ways his talent is on a higher plane than his self-belief in it. The advanced moves that pop out every now and then, like during the mismatch attack on Micić, portray an ability that is getting betrayed. If this was the waning confidence of a teenager having to compete at levels he hasn’t before, there is nothing to talk about. Shaken confidence gets back on track with improvement and time. Being averse to areas of feasible development because his flawless self-assessment sets boundaries that confines his game, pertains to a lack of self-belief which I find to be a concerningly limiting factor with potential to seriously stagnate Büyüktuncel’s productivity. Jerry West said it best:

Confidence is a lot of this game or any game. If you don’t think you can, you won’t.

In teen prospects, enough stagnation over time leads to eventual eradication of high-end potential. It is important to mention I prefer to ascribe high-end potential on a case-by-case basis and don’t judge its realisation by levels of career steps taken. Here, it refers to Berke Büyüktuncel becoming a high-end two-way forward once necessary developments are made for attacking actions that mostly require a certain level of ball skills. Either way, he looks to be a valuable forward in his prime. Can he be a valuable attacking forward in his prime as well? If he doesn’t think he can, he won’t.

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