Stagnating in Spain: Where Does Barcelona Go from Here?

For the second straight year, Tomas Satoransky (13) and FC Barcelona came up short in the Euroleague and ACB.

“It’s clear that we didn’t know how to take advantage of the home-court advantage we had to close the series. We had that opportunity in the fourth game, after winning the second one here, but like today, we couldn’t make shots in the last quarter. It has been a beautiful series, as I said, and we had our options to win it.” –Xavi Pascual after their Euroleague Game 5 loss to Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador

For the second straight year, proud European basketball club FC Barcelona will not be hoisting any major trophies this year, and there are major questions that need to be answered this summer when it comes to the future of this Spanish basketball power. In the Euroleague playoffs in late April, despite a 2-1 series advantage with Game 4 at home, the Catalan franchise fell 3 games to 2 to Russian club Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnador (a club that was playing in the Eurocup a year ago) for the remaining Final Four spot in Berlin. The loss marked the second year in a row Barcelona failed to get out of the playoff round in the Euroleague, a rare and remarkable occurrence since they had only missed the Final Four once from 2008 to 2014 (in the 2011 playoffs they lost to Panathinaikos 3-1).

Things did not fare much better in the ACB league in Spain. Sure, one could say that the season overall turned out to be a success in the Liga Endesa. Barcelona had the best regular season record at 29-5, and they made quick work of a scrappy Fuenlabrada team in the first round, 2 games to 0, and in the second round, outlasted a strong Laboral Kutxa Baskonia team that had made the Euroleague Final Four, 3 games to 1. Furthemore, according to Eurobasket.com’s Top 100 Club ratings, Barcelona ranks No. 3 in the World behind only Euroleague championship participants CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Istanbul, respectively.

But regular season records and preliminary ACB playoff rounds do not matter with the Catalan basketball fans. Much like the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball, the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA or even their own futbol franchise, what matters at the end of the day are championship trophies. There are no such things as moral victories or consolation prizes with a fanbase that demands the highest degrees of success on an annual basis.

And once again, for the second straight year, Barcelona fell to their Clasico rivals Real Madrid.  After Barcelona’s thrilling Game 1 victory at home 100-98, Real Madrid cruised to the three straight victories in the Liga Endesa Finals, outscoring their rivals by a combined 44 points over the three-game span. The loss was particularly humbling for the Catlan squad considering their ACB first place finish in the regular season as well as stronger performance in the Euroleague, where they had a better record in the Top 16 (8-6 to Real Madrid’s 7-7 mark in Top 16 play) and Playoffs (Real Madrid was swept by Fenerbahce).

And now, after a second straight season where Barcelona fell short to their rivals in a myriad of ways (in 2015 Real Madrid not only swept the Finals series, but Barcelona also had to watch Real Madrid hoist the Euroleague championship trophy), a massive wind of changes seem to be brewing in the Eastern Spanish countryside. Already, Barcelona General Manager Joan Creus has stepped down from his position, and there are circulating reports that former Barcelona and NBA player and current Zalgiris Kaunas coach Sarunas Jasikevicius is expected to take over as the new head coach.

Nothing is official in the latter’s regard of course, as Xavi Pascual, who has been the head coach since 2008, is still officially the coach of Barcelona despite another disappointing season. Nonetheless, things have stagnated for the Spanish basketball power, and it is clear amongst basketball fans that all kinds of changes need to be made, not just in terms of coaching, but talent as well.

Head Coach Xavi Pascual couldn’t finish the job the past couple of years in Barcelona, and, despite a history of success in his eight-year tenure, could be on his way out.

Pascual has been the head coach of Barcelona since 2008 and probably has had one of the most successful tenures of any coach in Europe in that time span. In his coaching career, they have won four ACB Championships, and have been runner up in seasons when they have not won it all domestically. In the Euroleague, he led them to a 2009-2010 championship, and has seen his club participate in the Final Four on four other occasions (2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014). He is a four-time ACB coach of the year award winner as well as a Euroleague coach of the year winner in 2010 when Barcelona won the Euroleague Championship over Olympiacos. Quite simply, it would be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of others coaches in Europe that have been as accomplished as Pascual as of late.

Unfortunately, the past two seasons haven’t been kind to him, as Pascual has been widely criticized for his coaching style and strategy which have included an emphasis on methodically playing in the half court, and an over-reliance on aging veterans past their prime. Despite other Spanish clubs like Baskonia and Real Madrid pushing the pace and producing an exciting brand of up-tempo basketball to various success, Pascual employed a much slower pace this past season that involved draining the shot clock and putting less of an emphasis on transition. In the Euroleague, Barcelona was the slowest team in the Euroleague Top 16 in pace at 70.4 possessions per game (in comparison, Baskonia ranked third-fastest at 74.7 and Real ranked sixth-fastest at 73.4). While that was not necessarily a bad thing (Barcelona’s net rating was actually better at 3.6 than Baskonia’s 1.9 and Real’s 0.1 in Top 16), it didn’t endear them to general European basketball fans who were used to seeing much more exciting styles of play from other Spanish squads in Europe’s premier club competition.

And the slow pace wasn’t the sole wort for this Barcelona squad this season aesthetically. Pascual emphasized a rather conservative defensive approach, as his teams tended to rely heavily on zone looks against much better competition and de-emphasized producing turnovers (they had the 6th-lowest opponent turnover rate in the Top 16) and blocking shots (they had the fourth-lowest block rate in the Top 16). The rather risk-averse approach had its advantages, especially if opposing teams were not shooting well from the outside. That being said, if players or teams got on hot shooting streaks (as evidenced by Loko’s Anthony Randolph and his 28 point on 11 of 17 shooting performance in Game 4 of the playoffs), Barcelona found themselves on the losing end, sometimes badly, because they didn’t have the kind of defensive system that would generate extra turnovers and extra possessions necessary to produce big-time comebacks.

Of course, Pascual hasn’t necessarily been this kind of coach, as if you look in years past, he has always been around league-average when it comes to pace. Hence, this year may have been an anomaly. But why? Well, it’s hard to play up-tempo with an aging roster that not only struggled through various injuries, but also couldn’t compete with quicker and more athletic teams.

Which leads us to our next issue: the roster change needed in Barcelona. Despite his legendary status, Juan Carlos Navarro suffered a horrific season by all accounts. At 36-years-old, Navarro doesn’t have the speed and athleticism anymore to compete with Europe’s top guards and wings. Additionally, his shot also deserted him, especially in Euroleague play. In the Euroleague, Navarro shot only 44 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from beyond the arc, some of the worst percentages of his playing career. The combination of his age and poor shooting was a reason he played under 20 minutes a game in Euroleague competition and sat out during key stretches of many big games. In ACB league play, Navarro wasn’t much better, and he was utilized less, as he shot only 35 percent from beyond the arc, and 42.7 from the field. Hence, after such a regression this season, it made sense why Navarro only played 17.8 minutes per game, and was replaced in the rotation by younger wings such as Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines.

But Navarro wasn’t the only one who failed to live up to expectations. Carlos Arroyo, a former NBA guard with the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat failed to live up to his billing as he struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness to only average around 15 minutes per game in both ACB and Euroleague play. Guard Brad Oleson was a mess in Euroleague play, as the usually reliable outside shooter, shot a disastrous 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, and had the lowest PIR of any player that averaged 10 or more minutes on the team at 2.6. And Ante Tomic, who was deemed the center of the future for Barcelona after signing a three-year extension last June, struggled to have any kind of impact, as he averaged a paltry 10.9 ppg and 5.4 rpg in about 20 mpg and 0.95 points per possession. To make matters worse, he was a liability on defense who was subbed out in favor of backups Samardo Samuel, Shane Lawal and Joey Dorsey, who often needed to make up for his defensive shortcomings.  Tomic was often exploited by opposing guards in the pick and roll as he was neither quick enough to switch or consistently hedge and recover, and his block rate of 0.8 percent was lower than guards Alex Abrines, Tomas Satoransky and even Carlo Arroyo. In all honesty, that is pretty lackluster, if not embarrassing, for a seven footer who was once a NBA Draft pick.

One could sum up Barcelona’s roster in three words: old and fragile. In the ACB, where there is a much bigger talent gap between the top teams (Barcelona, Real, Valenica, Baskonia, etc.) and the rest, it worked out okay, until the championship against Real of course. But in the Euroleague, where the competition is much better week after week, Barcelona just couldn’t keep up, and it made sense that they fell to a Loko team that had little history of success in the Euroleague prior to this season. Experience is important, but experience can’t make up for lost shooting, an inability to consistently defend the pick and roll and being muscled out by more athletic and physical opponents. And not only did that happen against Loko in the playoffs, but throughout the Euroleague campaign, especially in losses to Khimki Moscow, Baskonia, Zalgiris and Olympiacos in the Regular and Top 16 season. Barcelona just looked like a team over the hill, that had to rely on miracle shooting or lackluster execution from their opponents to pull out victories.

Yes, Barcelona had a mediocre roster, but that wasn’t to say that there wasn’t hope or some youth on the team. Abrines, Satoransky and Ribas were all young players who had pretty good seasons, and looked capable of carrying this team in ways Navarro, Oleson and Arroyo couldn’t. But, Pascual, being a veteran coach, couldn’t seem to part with his veteran players in the lineup, even though all indication statistically said he should have. As detailed in this excellent piece from Rob Scott of Euroleague Adventures, Pascual’s reliance on Navarro and Oleson, over younger and more effective players like Abrines and Ribas, especially in key games, could be one of the reasons for his departure. Here’s an eloquent piece that sums up Scott’s point about Pascual:

Pau Ribas was supposed to be the marquee signing of the summer, but he was underused as Pascual refused to let go of Navarro and Oleson, even Arroyo. The stubborn commitment to ‘his guys’ is probably great for motivation, and every indication is that his players love him. But there must be a point at which the team makes a clean break with the past. It looks like that has just begun

 

After half a season and a Lithuanian championship with Zalgiris, Jasikevicius could be the coach to turn around fortunes at Barcelona immediately.

Not a lot of players seem to be safe on this Barcelona roster going forward, not even Justin Doellman a big signing a couple of seasons ago from Valencia, who averaged 9.6 ppg and shot 43.5 percent from beyond the arc in Euroleague play, and 11.9 ppg in the ACB this past season. At 31 years old, Doellman isn’t exactly in that boat of Navarro and Arroyo age-wise, but his style of play (more of a stretch 4 who excels as a spot up shooter) and lack of agility and gifts defensively don’t fix the glaring flaws Barcelona has in terms of speed and athleticism. Doellman, much like other import Samardo Samuels, may not have been a part of the problem in 2015-2016 for Barcelona, but he doesn’t seem like he would be part of the solution in the future either, as what he brings to the table could easily be replaced by someone currently on the roster or another signing.

Pascual returning is probably a miracle (if not impossible really considering the “leaking” of these reports about him going), and all indications seem to point to Jasikevicius being the guy to help Barcelona get out of this “stagnation period” Barcelona has been in the past couple of seasons. Jasikevicius would be an interesting hire, as he certainly is a big name due to his time as a player not just in Barcelona, but all over Europe including Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos, and Zalgiris. However, he only has been a head coach for about half a season, and while he did lead Zalgiris to a Lithuanian Championship, his team didn’t particularly do well in the Top 16 under his watch, as Zalgiris went 2-12 in the Top 16, which was the worst record of any team in that round, and had a net rating of minus-16.2, which was also the worst mark of any team in the Top 16 in that category. Granted, Zalgiris was at a much bigger talent disadvantage than the competition (Paulius Jankunas was really the lone bright spot of that club last year), and by the time Saras took over Zalgiris in January, they already were on the outside looking in when it came to a playoff berth. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake, Jasikevicius has grown as a coach (and his Lithuanian Championship was a step in that direction) and learned some things from his “trial by fire” with Zalgiris that will help him avoid mistakes that led to such a poor record and net rating in the Top 16 last season.

At the very least, Jasikevicius will bring a more “up-tempo” style (Zalgiris was around league average in pace at 72.8) and he will bring a much fiery personality to a club that seemed to grow fatigued with Pascual’s more “subdued” and “political” demeanor. Pascual will not be easily replaced, especially when one reflects back about his eight years as coach there, and the multitude of awards, both team and individual, he accumulated with Barcelona. That being said, Jasikevicius is a fresh, but familiar face that should help bring the kind of new energy on the sideline this club needs to compete again with Real Madrid.

Of course, a team can only go so far with coaching. The talent needs to upgrade if Barcelona wants to be more competitive. Satoransky, Abrines and Ribas are a good core, Stratos Perperoglou and Alexander Vezenkov could grow into their roles, and maybe Tomic can rebound after a season of regression. However, Barcelona needs to get more athletic on the perimeter, and stronger and more physical in the post, and it will be interesting to see what Barcelona’s new GM will do to address both those issues.

Because a third-straight season of deference to Los Blancos in ACB and Euorleague play?

Well…that may be too much to take for Catalan basketball fans.

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Club Profile: KK Mega Basket (Mega Leks) of Serbia

Timothe Luwawu (23) was one of three draft picks from the Serbian basketball club Mega Leks that was one of the more interesting clubs to follow last year…mostly due to their uniforms.

The big story of the 2016 NBA Draft on Thursday night was the record 14 foreign-born players that were selected in the first round, a NBA record in that category. Considering the lack of top-shelf talent beyond Top-2 picks Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, many teams holding a plethora of draft picks (the Celtics, Nuggets and Sixers just to name a few), and with the cap looking to go up considerably over the next two years (meaning more room to spend on potential free agents), it makes sense that many NBA teams decided to take some risks on some European talents that are not only unknown with the typical American basketball fan, but also might not dress for their team in a year or two (ala Dario Saric and Ricky Rubio). Nowadays, letting talent develop overseas for a year or two against top European competition while still keeping that player’s rights has been a more accepted route to player development in NBA front offices, as it allows teams to save money in the draft (because they are not on their active roster, they do not have to pay them), while at the same time, allowing them to be patient with players who probably are a couple of years away anyways from making impact at the NBA level. Dirk Nowitzki and Ricky Rubio are quintessential success stories of such a strategy, and the Sixers are hoping to strike gold in the same way with Dario Saric this season.

Whether American basketball fans agree with drafting “unfamiliar” European players who are a couple of years away from contributing (if they contribute at all) over well-known college stars, this much is clear: the demand for talent from Europe in the NBA is greater than ever, and it’s going to be more and more difficult as the years go by for European clubs to be able to keep their best young players from jumping to the NBA, especially after the success of Kristaps Porzingis with the New York Knicks. Yes, dumb and ignorant fans in NBA jerseys on draft night will still boo them because their team drafted a teenager from France over some player who was Honorable Mention All-SEC his senior year (Bravo!). But the boos are becoming less common (Porzingis helped silence that last year), and front offices are becoming more open about building their roster with younger European players, who offer different and in some cases more refined skill sets that mesh better in today’s more “wide-open” NBA game.

Of the players picked, there were a lot of different angles taken when it came to covering the European players drafted. Some focused on Dragan Bender, the No. 4 pick overall in the draft, who was one of the few players in European history to go in the Top-5 in the NBA Draft (Porzingis went last year, making it two years in a row). Some focused on the Kings’ surprise selection of Georgios Papagiannis, an 18-year-old Greek center from the Greek power Panathinaikos who went far above what most people expected in mock drafts. And there was some experts focusing on the Global diversity of talent represented in this latest draft, as Croatia (3), France (5) and China (2) had multiple players from their country selected in the draft (Spain, Germany, Serbia, and Greece were also represented as well).

However, one of the fascinating stories of this draft in my mind, as a newly-christened European basketball fan, was the tremendous representation from one club in Europe in this latest NBA Draft. And surprisingly, it was not a commonly-known European power that participates in the Euroleague or even Eurocup. Yes, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos, and FC Barcelona were all represented, as they commonly are because they tend to be able to outbid for the best young talent in the world to play for their developmental and senior club teams. That being said, there was one club that did better than those clubs by having as many players drafted in this draft as those three combined.

Who was that club? KK Mega Basket, or better known as Mega Leks, out of Serbia. Not quite the common household European club name, I know, but they are a fascinating club in Europe that is slowly rising after one of their best seasons yet.

So, let’s find out more about this Serbian club that produced THREE draft picks in the latest NBA draft.

Who were the players drafted from Mega Leks?

The three players drafted who played for Mega Leks last season were as follows: Wing Timothe Luwawu, who hails from France (he went 24th overall in the draft to the Sixers); Center Ivica Zubac from Croatia (who went 32nd overall to the Lakers); and wing Rade Zagorac from Serbia (who went 35th overall to the Celtics, but was traded later to the Grizzlies).

Luwawu has the most upside of the three, as he averaged 14.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 1.7 spg for Mega Leks in ABA (Adriatic Basketball Association) play through 28 games, and 13.6 and 3.6 rpg in Serbian League play, though he only played 5 of the club’s 13 games. Luwawu has tremendous potential with his 6’6 athletic frame, and has proven to have a strong ability to score, as evidenced by his solid ppg averages in his year-long tenure with the Serbian club. Furthermore, there may not be a whole lot of players from this recent draft who can match Luwawu’s speed in the open court, as he excels in transition, whether off the ball or on the dribble. However, his shooting is still in some need of work, as he only shot 41.9 percent from the field in ABA play (he shot 54.6 percent in Serbian League play, but as said before that was only 5 games, and against lesser competition).

The 19 year old Zubac from Croatia posted a solid campaign in the Serbian League, which he primarily played in (he did not make any appearances in the ABA for Mega Leks). He averaged 10.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and a team-leading 1.5 bpg in 22.5 minutes per game during the 13 game season. Zubac primarily stays around the post, as he shot 50 percent for the year, and took ZERO shots from beyond the arc. Zubac displays mature footwork for a player his age, some good moves off the pivot in the post, and he as the kind of body (7’1, 265 pounds) to bang down low in the post in the mold of a Dino Radja or Zan Tabak, both centers who hailed from Croatia and played in the NBA.

And lastly, Zagorac doesn’t have Luwawu’s raw athleticism, but he is a more polished shooter and is better at creating opportunities off the dribble for himself and his teammates. As you can see from the highlights below, Zagorac plays well in the pick and roll for a combo/wing and is able to find teammates on the roll or pop either for layups or short jumpers. Zagorac was Mega Leks’ best overall player in the Serbian League as he averaged a team-high 14.7 ppg and also contributed 3.1 apg, and 6.2 rpg in 27.4 mpg. One of the most impressive aspects of his game is his ability to shoot off the dribble, especially in the mid-range. He shot an incredible 64.7 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from beyond the arc in Serbian League play. His game shows flashes of former Serbian NBA player Peja Stojakovic, which could be good news for the Grizzlies who got him in the Second Round.

How did Mega Leks Do Last Year?

Mega Leks has only been around since 2008, but last season was a historic one for them in their young history as a professional basketball club. According to Eurobasket.com’s Top-100 ratings, Mega Leks finished the season ranked 88th, a sterling accomplishment considering that they are the “new kids on the block” in the European basketball scene. They were one of four teams from Serbia to play in the ABA last season, and they actually finished as a runner-up to Crvena Zevezda in the playoffs, the top Serbian club that has played in the Euroleague the past two season. In KLS (Serbian League) play, they finished 4-2 in regular season play, and were swept in the semifinals by Crvena Zevezda. However, they beat FMP Beograd 3 games to 2 to not only win the third place consolation prize of the KLS playoffs, but also qualify again for the ABA.

The biggest achievement though for the young club was during the Serbian Cup (or also known as the Radiovaj Korac Cup), a single-elimination national tournament played in February and put on the Serbian Basketball Foundation. The upstart Mega Leks team, with only 1 player on their roster over the age of 30, won the Serbian Cup championship beating longtime Serbian power Partizan Belgrade 85-80 in the championship game. 22-year-old Macedonian Nikola Ivanovic was named the Tournament’s MVP, especially after his 24 point, 5 assist performance in the championship game. The Korac Cup victory is the first trophy acquired in Mega Leks’ eight-year club history.

What Makes Mega Leks Worth Knowing About

The club is a pretty “hip” club in a country that is as basketball-crazed as any in the world. For years, the Serbian basketball scene has been dominated by Partizan and most recently Crvena Zvezda. However, Mega Leks has come on as of late by building their team not with veteran free agents, but through young players they develop through their own 18U team (which does participate in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament). The average age of last year’s roster was 20.87 years and they only had 1 player on the roster who was over the age of 23 (34-year-old Serbian Aleksandar Rasic). This strategy of building through a young, mostly Serbian roster (11 of the team’s 16 players were from Serbia) not only endeared themselves to fans who liked young, exciting basketball, but as you can see above from the results, it also produced a squad that got better and developed more chemistry as the year went on. Head coach Dejan Milojevic has been coaching the team since he retired as a player in 2012 and has done a phenomenal job building this Mega Leks club into a stronger program each and every year.

In addition, one of the other major reasons to like Mega Leks is their uniforms and club color scheme. Saying the scheme is bold is putting it lightly: nobody in the world from my knowledge can match their hot pink and neon green ensemble. At first, it was a little weird, as no other basketball, or sports team in general, has ever sported such a scheme with so much bravado. But after repeated viewings, I have begun to dig their uniform duds. It’s bright, it’s bold and it definitely shouts “future” in a uniform fashion world that is in dire need of some change at times. There pink and green combination might not be for everyone, especially traditionalists that still pine for the days of the “short shorts.” That being said, considering Partizan’s all-black look (blah), and all-white scheme that mirrors Real Madrid somewhat, and Crvena Zvezda’s nearly identical look to Olympiacos, it is refreshing to see Mega Leks go against the grain of what it is to be expected from a basketball uniform not only in Europe, but worldwide as well.

Take a look at a few shots below and simply digest and enjoy. (Or at the very least digest…)

What does the future look like for Mega Leks?

As stated, this is a very young club with a very bright future, even with the possible departure of their 3 young stars to the NBA. Mega Leks also lost Macedonian and Serbian Cup MVP Ivanovic to AEK Athens this off-season, so it wasn’t just the NBA that hurt Mega Leks’ roster this offseason. That being said, that is the reality for ALL clubs in the Serbian League, as even Crvena Zvezda was hurt this offseason by other bigger and much wealthier clubs poaching their talent (Red Star lost Maik Zerbes and Quincy Miller to Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv).

Despite this massive loss, it is possible that Zagorac and Zubac may stay in Serbia (Luwawu is good as gone to the NBA as a first round pick to the Sixers, a team that could use his talents immediately), as they probably are a year or two away from really having an impact at the NBA level, and their status as second round draft picks could further heighten that possibility. The return of those two will make them a dark-horse favorite in the KSL and ABA, especially if Partizan and Crvena Zvezda cannot adequately replace the talent they just lost this offseason. Whatever happens with those two is yet to be determined, but considering Milojevic’s track record of success, I think he’ll be able to succeed with this Mega Leks club next season with or without the NBA Draftee pair.

Another major development for Mega Leks is they will participate in the inaugural FIBA Champions League, which is supposed to compete with the Eurocup as a second-tier competition to the Euroleague. FIBA is hoping the Champions League will develop eventually as an alternative to the Euroleague, but with it in its early stages, and considering the failures of FIBA’s past “European Club” efforts after they lost the Euroleague-brand in 2001, that is still a long ways away from being realized. However, Mega Leks seems to be the most premiere club to join FIBA’s league and could be the favorite to win it. A championship in the new FIBA league and perhaps some strong performances in the KSL and ABA, and it is totally possible that Mega Leks could jump their 88th Eurobasket.com club rating and then some by the summer of 2017.

And hopefully, basketball fans will know them for more than just producing three NBA Draft picks in one year and the wild and funky uniforms by then.

Grading the International Talent in the NBA Draft Over the Past 15 Years

How will Dragan Bender and the rest of his international 2016 NBA Draft classmates fare in the NBA? Let’s take a look at previous ones to get some perspective.

With the 2016 NBA Draft coming up tomorrow, there has already been a lot of discussion about some of the European and International talent that can be taken in the draft. With Kristaps Porzingis having a sterling year with the New York Knicks last season, and the precedent set by European-born NBA superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, and Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, demand for foreign basketball talent is higher than ever. And for good reason, as basketball development in Europe has garnered high praises for focusing on “developing” skills in their youth academies rather than trying to win games (as is the issue with the current AAU landscape), and competition both at the youth and senior levels has significantly raised internationally, especially in Europe, over the past decade or so as well. Players coming from Europe are more prepared than ever in making the adjustment across the pond and in the NBA.

Most of the talk this draft is centering on Croatian Dragan Bender, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past season, and potentially could be a Top-5 pick. However, other international players of note who could be drafted include Jakob Poeltl (who played in college at Utah but is from Austria), Domantas Sabonis (who played at Gonzaga, but is from Lithuania and played in juniors with Unicaja Malaga), Timothe Luwawu (Mega Leks), Ivica Zubac (Mega Leks), Juan Hernangomez (Estudiantes) and Zhou Qi (Xinjiang in China), just to name a few. To put it quite frankly, it should be expected that at 3-5 international players could go in the first round, and perhaps 10 or more could be drafted overall in this upcoming NBA Draft.

But, I’ll take a look at who was drafted and what the outlook will be for them in the NBA on Friday, after the Draft. Today, I wanted to take a look at former international picks in the NBA Draft over the past 15 years, and whether or not they panned out. So, I’m going to break down each draft year-by-year, rating the NBA success of international players from this draft on an A-F scale. Here are a couple of key notes to keep in mind before you start reading the analysis:

  1. Usually, my ratings are based on how many “successful” international players came from this draft. Success varies, but what I am looking for is that they played a decent amount of time in the NBA and that they had some kind of regular playing role as well. A guy who plays one year on the bench does NOT have a successful year, but if you played 3-4 years and had a regular role, then I would consider that somewhat successful. It gets a little trickier with recent draft picks, as you can’t have more than 1 year if last year was your rookie year. In that case, I project based on that year if they will qualify under those parameters.
  2. I do not count “international guys” who played in college in the United States. The reason I disqualify them is that “international” guys who play in college can have a bit “murky” backgrounds: are they really International? Have they lived in America most of their life or just for college? There is a lot of background work that needs to be done, so in the case of this analysis, I kept it to just players who came from international club teams (though there are some exceptions, which I will explain when I get to them).
  3. I only count players who had successful careers in the NBA, not in Europe or the Euroleague. Just to put this out there: I do not think the NBA is the only way of determining whether or not you had a successful professional basketball career. I think that success in the Euroleague is worthwhile on its own, and some players, especially European-born ones, are simply better fits in the European game than the NBA. That being said, this analysis focuses on NBA success, not professional success in general. So, I do not list players who were drafted that had good European club success, but not NBA success. If that was the case, I would have to find American talent who did the same, and that is a post for another day.
  4. Grades go as follows in number of players successful from each class, though pluses/minuses are given out in discretion depending on how successful the talent was: F (0-1), D (2-3), C (3-4), B (4-6), A (5-7).

Okay, with those parameters being set, let’s take a look at each draft.

 

2001 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic, Tony Parker, Mehmet Okur.

Notable ones drafted: Raul Lopez.

Grade: B

Reasoning: It technically falls in C category in number, but the quality of these four guys push it up to a B. Gasol and Parker have Hall of Fame cases, and Mehmet Okur was an All-Star with the Jazz and won a title with Detroit Pistons. Vladimir Radmanovic also had a long career that involved stints with the Seattle Supersonics, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Even Raul Lopez, who didn’t make the cut in the “successful” criteria, played a couple of years in Utah and ended up having a good career in Europe in the ACB. Solid class, but the low number prevents it from being better than a 85 percent class.

2002 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Yao Ming, Nene, Nenad Krstic, Luis Scola.

Notable players drafted: Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Bostjan Nachbar, Jiri Welsch, Juan Carlos Navarro.

Grade: C+

Reasoning: Same amount of players as 2001, but the busts color this class unfortunately. Tskitishvili is the poster child for any ignorant NBA fan when it comes to not drafting European players. (“Rabble…Rabble…they could be that Tskitish-vil-guy again! Europeans players can’t play in the NBA! AMURICA!! VOTE TRUMP! DURRR!) Nachbar and Welsch were first round picks who didn’t pan out, and Navarro left after only one season in Memphis. It’s sad that this class is known for the busts because Yao was on pace to be a hall of fame player until injuries derailed his career, Krstic had some good moments with the Thunder and Nets, and Scola and Nene are still playing key roles with the Raptors and Wizards, respectively. But like I said, you can’t mention international players in the draft without someone mentioning Nikoloz and that’s what keeps this class in the C-range.

2003 NBA Draft

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Successful players drafted: Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic, Boris Diaw, Carlos Delfino, Leandro Barbosa, Zaza Pachulia.

Notable players drafted: Darko Milicic, Zarko Cabarkapa, Zoran Planinic, Maciej Lampe, Sofoklis Schortsanitis.

Grade: B+

Reasoning: Unlike the previous two drafts, there are no superstars here like Pau or Yao. However, six players ended up having pretty good careers as role players, with three (Diaw, Barbosa and Pachulia) having major roles with their NBA squads. There is something to that, and that should not go unnoticed. Much like 2002 though, this international class is forever tainted by Darko, who failed to live up to expectations in a draft class that also included Lebron, Carmelo, Bosh and Wade. So, you can’t rate a class an A with Darko in it, but I think this class gets less love than it deserves because of the amount of good role players it produced. Another notable pick was Big Sofos in the second round, though he never did arrive to the States.

2004 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Andris Biedrins, Sasha Vujacic, Beno Udrih, Anderson Varejao.

Notable players drafted: Pavel Podkolzin, Victor Khryapa, Sergei Monia, PJ Ramos, Ha Seung-Jin, Vassilis Spanoulis, Sergei Karaulov

Grade: C-

Reasoning: Not a great class, with Varejao probably the best of the bunch. A lot of weird draft picks who didn’t turn out. There were four Russian players picked in this draft and with the exception of a cup of coffee from Khryapa in Portland, they didn’t have much impact in the NBA at all. Also, Ramos from Puerto Rico and Seung-Jin from Korea, represented countries in the draft for the first time in the modern era in 2004, though they hardly had any impact in the NBA.  And lastly, Spanoulis is represented here, but like Big Sofos, he never made it to the States.

2005 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Ian Mahinmi, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcin Gortat

Notable players drafted: Fran Vazquez, Yaroslev Korolev, Johan Petro, Roko Ukic, Martynas Andriuskevicius, Mickael Gelabale

Grade: C-

Reasoning: I like the players in this class a little better than 2004, but only 3 came out with really successful careers. Much to their credit, they are still continuing their careers, but neither of these guys have had real major impact, though Ilyasova and Gortat have flirted with being breakout players. Notable ones include Vazquez and Korolev who teased teams for years in terms of “when” they were coming over, only to stay in Europe on an annual basis. Petro and Gelabale are French nationals who played together briefly with the Sonics, and Petro had the honor of a fantastic Kevin Calabro “Sacre Bleu!” call whenever Petro dunked.

2006 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Andrea Bargnani, Thabo Sefolosha, Sergio Rodriguez

Notable players drafted: Mouhamed Sene, Oleksiy Pecherov, Joel Freeland, Kosta Perovic.

Grade: D+

Reasoning: Bragnani has had an okay NBA career, but he was the No. 1 pick and hasn’t lived up to that expectation in the slightest. If he went 3 or 4, he probably would rate a bit higher with me, not to mention general NBA fans. Sergio had some flashes of a good NBA career, but it was hardly complete, and it was a real challenge for me to put him in the “successful” NBA career category. Sefolosha is the only the carries much salt for this class, but he is a defensive-oriented player, not exactly one you want representing you as the “poster child” of this NBA class. Even the notable players drafted fail the enthuse, with Pecherov and Freeland both having mediocre NBA careers before heading back to Europe.

2007 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Marco Belinelli, Rudy Fernandez, Tiago Splitter, Marc Gasol

Notable players drafted: Yi Jianlian, Petteri Koponen, Kyrylo Fesenko, Stanko Barac, Georgios Printezis

Grade: B-

Reasoning: Yi was a bust sure, but it’s not as bad as the 2002 busts, which helps it get the B- rating. Gasol is an All-Star and Franchise player which helps carry this class, and Belinelli and Splitter have been excellent role players in the NBA. Fernandez plays in Spain currently, but I think he had a good NBA career, and probably could still be playing in the NBA if he truly wanted to (better pay and more glory in the ACB). Even Fesenko had some good moments with the Utah Jazz as a backup center to Carlos Boozer. Not an awesome class, but not bad either.

2008 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum, Alexis Ajinca, Nikola Pekovic, Omer Asik, Goran Dragic

Notable players drafted: Nathan Jawai, Ante Tomic, Semih Erden

Grade: A

Reasoning: Great combination of quantity and quality here. Ibaka, Dragic and Batum are high level players who will start on any NBA roster, and could be anywhere from the 2nd to 3rd best player depending on where they go. Gallinari is in the same boat, and has carried the Nuggets at times throughout his career, and Asik is one of the most valued post players in the game due to his physicality and skills around the basket. Ajinca has come back strong in the NBA after a brief stint in France midway through his career, and Pekovic, though probably near the end of his ropes in the NBA, put up some solid seasons with the Timberwolves. Very good depth, very good class, probably the best in the past 15.

2009 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Ricky Rubio, Omri Casspi, Jonas Jerebko.

Notable players drafted: Victor Claver, Rodrigue Beabouis, Christian Eyenga, Sergio Llull, Nando de Colo, Emir Preldzic, Nick Calathes

Grade: C

Reasoning: Rubio is a NBA starting point guard and continually getting better and Casspi and Jerebko have revitalized themselves in the NBA as streaky off-the-bench gunners. But not a lot of depth here keeps them dead set at a C rating. That being said, amazing how many current Euroleague studs came from this class. Former Euroleague MVPs Llull and de Colo stand out the most from this draft as major Euroleague success stories with Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow, respectively.

2010 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Kevin Seraphin

Notable players drafted: Tibor Pleiss, Ryan Richards, Pape Sy, Nemanja Bjelica

Grade: F

Reasoning: Kevin Seraphin is your class’ most successful draft pick. Yikes (nothing against Seraphin of course). To be frank though, not a lot of international players were drafted though, as John Calipari’s Kentucky squad (John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson) seemed to flood the draft along with a lot of one and done college talents this year. Tibor Pleiss and Nemanja Bjelica saw some time in Utah and Minnesota respectively, but I do not see them being in the NBA much longer.

2011 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Donatas Motiejunas, Nikola Mirotic, Bojan Bogdanovic

Notable players drafted: Jan Vesely, Davis Bertans, Tanguy Ngombo, Ater Majok, Adam Hanga

Grade: A

Reasoning: Some very, very good big international men came from this draft. Every successful player listed above plays a major role for their team, and is one of the better paid post players in the league (with Biyombo due for a bigger paycheck after his sterling performance in the playoffs). I counted Kanter in this category because he never played a game for Kentucky, and I think his time with Fenerbahce helped him more than his time with Calipari. Bogdanovic is a nice stretch big who is coming off his best season in New Jersey after averaging 11.2 ppg, and he could be primed for a big season as he enters the last year of his three-year deal with Brooklyn. Another aspect that puts this class in the A range is the fact that Bertans and Hanga, both of Baskonia, could be making their way to San Antonio this year, and thus enhance this class even more. Even Vesely, considered a NBA bust, has rebounded his professional career with Fenerbahce, as he led them to two straight Final Fours and a second place finish in the Euroleague last year, and also made the All Euroleague First Team as well.

2012 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Evan Fournier

Notable players drafted: Tomas Satoransky, Jeff Taylor, Ognjen Kuzmic, Furkan Aldemir, Tornike Shengelia, Tomislav Zubcic, Ilkan Karaman

Grade: F

Reasoning: I like Fournier, but that was it. He didn’t go until 20 and no other international player went in the first round. Some interesting talent taken in this draft, especially Satoranasky who is carving out a good career with Barcelona in Spain. But yeah, not a lot to really get excited about internationally from this class.

2013 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dennis Schroder, Rudy Gobert, Raul Neto

Notable players drafted: Lucas Nogueira, Sergey Karasev, Livio Jean-Charles, Nemanja Nedovic, Alex Abrines, Marko Todorovic, Bojan Dubljevic, Jannis Timma

Grade: A-

Reasoning: It is looking more and more that two best players from this draft will be the “Greek Freak” and “Stifle Tower”, who have long-term All-Star potential. Schroder probably is in the Top-10 currently of players from this draft, with potential to be a Top-5 players from this draft if he inherits the starting position from Jeff Teague (whom the Atlanta Hawks seem to be shopping around this off-season) next year. And Raul Neto started more than half the games this year for the Jazz and at the very least looks to be a serviceable back up point guard if his shooting doesn’t come around. What helps boost this class too is the potential of Nogueira who could be better next year with another year of experience and more opportunity (he has mostly played in the D-League). I also like Alex Abrines, a Euroleague Rising Star this season, who is coming off his best season for Barcelona this season. At 22 years old, I would not be shocked to see him explore a NBA opportunity within the next few years.

2014 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Dante Exum, Jusuf Nurkic, Clint Capela, Nikola Jokic

Notable players drafted: Dario Saric, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Damien Inglis, Walter Tavares, Alessandro Gentile, Nemanja Dangubic

Grade: B-

Reasoning: A whole lot of potential here, but still relatively unproven. Capela and Jokic had good seasons last year, but they have to display that they can do it on an annual basis. Nurkic and Exum had injuries derail their seasons last year after promising rookie campaigns, but they seem young and early enough in in their careers to recover. Saric will be making his much anticipated debut in Philadelphia this year for the Sixers, and Inglis and Taveras might see more time in the NBA next year after mostly languishing in the D-League over the past couple of seasons. Thus, this class could either be pretty good or pretty bad, it’s too early to tell at this point. Nonetheless, I like its potential, and give it a B- rating for that, as well as for solid Euroleague stars like Bogdanovic of Fenerbahce, Gentile of EA7 Milan and Dangubic of Crvena Zvezda.

2015 NBA Draft

Successful draft picks: Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja

Notable draft picks: Nikola Milutinov, Willy Hernangomez, Juan Pablo Vaulet, Arturas Gudaitis, Dimitrios Agravanis, Luka Mitrovic.

Grade: C+

Reasoning: Porzingis obviously captured the basketball world by storm, and was the second-best rookie of this latest draft class behind Karl Anthony Towns. Hezonja struggled to find minutes in his rookie year, but with Frank Vogel now in charge, he will have a better shot to see time on the court (Scott Skiles notoriously did not like playing rookies or young guys). I think Mitrovic and Hernangomez have potential to make it to the NBA, but they still are 2-3 years away, and need to get stronger if they want to make that adjustment.

 

All of Ioannis’ Men: Baskonia’s Cinderella Run and the Challenge of Doing it Again

Despite modest expectations, Laboral Kutxa Baskonia was one of the best stories of the Euroleague in 2015-2016.

“Like a flash of lightning between the clouds, we live in the flicker” -Joseph Conrad

There really wasn’t a better story this year in the Euroleague than Greek center Ioannis Bourousis and Laboral Kutxa Baskonia’s run to the Euroleague Final Four. Baskonia, a basketball-centered club in the Basque capital of Vitoria, typically gets lost among other Spanish teams in the ACB Liga Endesa in terms of the global perspective. They are not as well-known among basketball fans beyond Europe because they do not have any big names or former NBA players on their current roster, and they do not have the major “Futbol” partner like Barcelona and Real Madrid. Yes, they have had some history producing players, as NBA players like Luis Scola, Jose Calderon and Tiago Splitter did suit up for Baskonia in the early 2000’s. That being said, in the past few years, Baskonia has remained a bit anonymous, usually getting passed over in the standings as well as the spotlight in the ACB and Euroleague by their Spanish counterparts in the east (Barcelona) as well as in the Spanish Capital (Real Madrid).

Going into this season, there were mixed opinions in terms of how Baskonia was going to perform in the Euroleague. Head coach Velimir Perasovic, a Croatian national in his first full season with the Basque club, had a young squad which included a bevy of quick, athletic and sharp shooting players who could play multiple positions. With such a roster, Perasovic decided to mold his team into a fast-paced, outside-shooting oriented team in the mold of successful NBA teams such as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in America, and Real Madrid in their home country. Darius Adams and Mike James were the kind of quick, combo guards who could hurt teams off the drive and from beyond the arc, and they had a strong collection of shooting guards and forwards such as Davis Bertans, Fabian Causeur and Jaka Blazic who could help stretch the floor and create space for Davis and James. And in the interior, while young, they had long, defensive oriented post players such as Illmane Diop, Kim Tillie, Darko Planinic, and Tornike Shengelia who could bring energy and hustle to make up for their lack of big game experience. And lastly, add Hungarian wing Adam Hanga, who could guard multiple positions on the perimeter, and Baskonia had the pieces of a promising, though relatively anonymous, squad for the 2015-2016 season.

However, the team was missing “big game” experience, and a couple of weeks before the season started, Baskonia signed Greek center Ioannis Bourousis from Real Madrid. At 32-years-old, the 7-foot, 270 pound Bourousis was coming off a year where he averaged around 11 minutes a game and took a back seat to Gustavo Ayon on the 2015 Euroleague champion team. After years of success with Olympiacos, EA7 Milano and Real Madrid, Baskonia was a bit of a project for him. Yes, they would need his presence and ability in the post, especially since Diop and Planinic, the two main centers, were still a couple of years away from being dependable, major minutes players. But Perasovic need Bourousis to mentor the young club, to be an example of what it took to be a major winning basketball club in Spain as well as Europe. Bourousis could have avoided the challenge, or not taken it seriously. After all, he was coming off a championship season and had a legacy in Europe that was already well-established. Instead, as displayed in this interview with him during the season, Bourousis accepted the challenge and made immediate inroads in developing the culture in Baskonia into a winning and professional one.

For the most part, the Spanish and European basketball critics felt Bourousis would make an impact, but they figured it would be a minor one at the most. Bourousis would put up better numbers and get a little more playing time from the previous year, and Baskonia would make the Top 16 and compete for a playoff spot, but most likely fall short. After all, how could a guy, who was coming off a reserve role, carry a team that hadn’t experienced major success on a domestic or inter-continental level since 2010 (when they won the ACB title), nearly six years ago?

Boy, did Bourousis and Baskonia prove their critics wrong.

Despite his age and reserve status a year ago, Ioannis Bourouris carried Baskonia to a magical season and had the best individual season of his career.

If you look on paper, Bourousis’ year in Baskonia doesn’t seem all that impressive: he didn’t start a game all year for the Basque club, and he only averaged 13.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg in ACB play and 14.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg in Euroleague play. However, then you take into consideration the 40 minute games in Europe and the fact that Bourousis only played 23 minutes per game in ACB play and 24.6 minutes in Euroleague play, and his impact becomes more noticeable. Quite simply, there was on player as efficient or more valuable to their squad in Europe than Bourousis.

Watching Bourousis play this year was like watching Vlade Divac during his glory years with the Sacramento Kings. Bourousis lacked any kind of athleticism and it was certainly possible that he had the lowest vertical on the team. He struggled to defend quicker players, and he was often exploited in the pick and roll when he switched on speedier point guards. But what Bourousis lacked in athleticism, he made up for in terms of skill set and basketball IQ. He dazzled fans and his team with dynamic moves in the post, as he killed opponents with excellent back to the basket moves, as well as a reliable jump hook and sweet fade away jumper in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki’s that buried teams time and time again in the block. When he didn’t score, his ability to see open teammates all over the floor led to easy buckets off the cut or open 3-point looks when defenses tried to collapse and double down on him. And Bourousis destroyed teams in pick and pop plays with Adams and James. If they tried to trap Baskonia’s quick guards, they were able to hit a popping Bourousis who would regularly damage defenses from the 3-point line (Bourousis shot 40.8 percent from three in ACB play and 38.8 percent in Euroleague play). If they tried to switch, Adams and James would get to the hoop with ease for the layup or the dunk. There probably was no more effective pick and roll combination in Europe than Baskonia’s Adams/James and Bourousis combo, and Bourousis was the key cog that made it happen, as his versatile skill set and pristine ability to read defenses made him one of the best offensive players in all of Europe last year.

As the season wore on, Bourousis seemed to come through in the biggest of moments, especially in the Euroleague. In a January 29th game against Barcelona, who had been 39-1 in their last 40 games on their home court in Top 16 play, Bourousis put up a sterling performance that displayed Baskonia was to be taken seriously in Euroleague play. In Baskonia’s 81-78 overtime victory, the Greek center scored a game-high 24 points on 9 of 16 shooting, had 8 rebounds, 3 assists and zero turnovers for a PIR of 28, which was the second highest mark for the week (behind only Tyrese Rice of Khimki’s 35, which he garnered against a lesser Zalgiris team in Moscow). Yes, Adams also had a strong game, as he scored 17 points and hit the game-tying 3 at the end of regulation, and Alex Abrines of Barcelona had a coming out party of sorts as he scored 21 points off the bench and nearly carried Barcelona to a come back win despite lackluster performances from their regular starters (Juan Carlos Navarro was shut out in 12 minutes of play and Justin Doellman only scored 5 points). But no player shined more in Europe and garnered more attention that day than Bourousis. After handing Barcelona their second loss at home in the Top 16 in their last 41 games, this much was clear going forward in the Euroleague: Baskonia was a force to be reckoned with, and Bourousis was the one to lead them.

The most endearing non-basketball moment from Bourousis though came when a reporter immediately after their win on the court asked him if he was “happy with his performance and the team’s win in the Top 16.” Bourousis, who came to install a sense of professionalism on this young squad, responded in the most work-man like way possible:

“I am not worried about how big this win is. All I am worried about is working hard and winning games.”

 

It was the kind of answer a veteran star of a veteran team would give, not one whose squad has been the routine underdog to other major European powers over the past half decade or so. And from that game and moment, Baskonia continued to play like a team who expected and knew how to win, and Bourousis continued to shine, proving that at 32 years old, he was one of Europe’s best players, if not best overall.

Throughout the season, Bourousis continued to raise his stock as a player week after week. He posted the highest PIR of any Euroleague player in 2015-2016 (44) in Week 2 of the regular season in a 96-89 overtime win over his former club Olympiacos. In the game, his marvelous performance included 28 points on 8 of 14 shooting, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and once again ZERO turnovers. Take a look at how Bourousis dominated the Greek power below in a monumental win Fernando Buesa Arena in front of a raucous Baskonia home crowd.

Over the course of the year, Bourousis was named sole Euroleague MVP of the week twice (Week 2 regular season and week 10 of the Top 16 in a crucial 98-83 win over Khimki Moscow) and shared MVP honors another two times (Top 16 Round Week 4 with Jan Vesely of Fenerbahce, and Top 16 Round 13 with Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). He also was named the Euroleague’s MVP for March, after averaging 18.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.8 apg in 27 MPG during a crucial stretch in the Top 16 which Baskonia qualified for the playoffs. And at the end of the year, Bourousis was named to the Euroleague All-First team, narrowly missing out on MVP honors to Nando de Colo (though Bourousis was named the ACB’s MVP a little bit later).

And all these accomplishments didn’t just stand out on their own, as Bourousis, in his professional, workman-like way, continued to lead the charge to Baskonia’s success in Europe. In the Top 16, Baskonia went 9-5 which included only 1 loss at home (to Olympiacos in round 2). In the playoffs, against Greek power Panathinaikos, a team that had former NBA players such as Sasha Pavlovic, Nick Calathes, and Elliot Williams as well as European and Serbian standout Miroslav Raduljica, Baskonia swept the Greek favorite, which included a defining 85-74 victory in Athens in the deciding Game 3. And to further show the development of Baskonia’s team? In the clinching Game 3, Panathinaikos shut down Bourousis, as he only scored 9 points. However, the team stepped up to cover him as Adams and James scored a combined 44 points to help them earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2008.

Bourousis didn’t have to carry his team individually in the playoffs, and that was a further sign of the legacy and leadership he left with his young Baskonia colleagues this season. He had led the way so much in the season to the point that he had instilled confidence in his team to step up on an off night for him on such a big stage. Would Adams and James stepped up in such a crucial moment of the playoffs without Bourousis’ mentoring? Perhaps, but I find it highly unlikely.

In the Final Four, Baskonia ran out of gas unable to carry the magic from the Top 16, though they were certainly close and showed flashes of making a miracle championship run. In the semifinal, they were unable to stop a furious Fenerbahce comeback led by Bojan Bogdanovic and Gigi Datome, whom both led the Turkish power to win 88-77 in overtime, helping Fenerbahce to a 16-5 scoring difference in the overtime period. But despite the loss, the performance was typical of what Bourousis did all year: 22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and a game high PIR of 24. Even in a loss on the biggest stage in European basketball, Bourousis failed to disappoint by hitting several big shots (though not enough unfortunately), as evidenced in the highlight compilation below:

In many ways, it was a shame Bourousis was not named the Euroleague MVP. Yes, de Colo won a championship with CSKA, and yes he had his share of highs this year, as well as importance to CSKA finally getting over the hump after numerous Final Four chokes. But, no player in Europe was more entertaining than Bourousis. No player did more to change his team’s fortunes this year than Bourousis. Nobody had more impact or inspired or led his team better throughout all the rounds of the Euroleague than Bourousis. Yes, de Colo has a Euroleague championship, but CSKA is getting to the Final Four still without him. They have Milos Teodosic still, who would make up his absence. But Baskonia? Are they making it to their first Final Four in eight years without Bourousis? Are they getting out of the Top 16 or even Regular Season without Bourousis? It is a shame that the Euroleague committee didn’t recognize what Bourousis did for this team this year and didn’t give him the Euroleague MVP award.

And I am not alone in this thought either. I’ll also let this nice highlight “MVP Campaign” video further show why Bourousis was deserving of the Euroleague’s top individual honor.

Bourousis has about as much beef with the Euroleague as LeBron James does for not getting any MVP consideration this year. That’s how good Bourousis’ campaign this year was.

Baskonia head coach Velimir Perasovic had the right temperament and strategy to maximize the talent on this Baskonia roster.

One of the aspects of Baskonia’s Cinderella season that gets lost in the Bourousis hype is the job that Perasovic did. While most coaches would be out in the forefront of such success, Perasovic, with his quiet demeanor, seemed to shy from the spotlight and let it focus more on his Greek superstar as well as his young and upcoming players. But even though he was not in the forefront media-wise like Zeljko Obradovic from Fenerbahce or Dimitrios Itoudis from CSKA (though they get a lot of attention for their fiery personalities), Perasovic was just as crucial to his team’s success like the coaches listed above.

For starters, convincing Bourousis to not only come to Baskonia, but take the role he did was not an easy task. After all, as mentioned before in this post, Bourousis was coming off a title, and had settled into his role as a reserve in Real Madrid. To convince him to not only play more minutes, but be a crucial part of this team was a risk that not many European coaches would take, especially with the fight to stay in the Euroleague an annual slog. And yet, not only did Perasovic convince Bourousis to be a valuable mentor on this team, but he was able to put him in the position to have arguably the best season of his career. Just a year ago, European basketball fans thought Bourousis was on the verge of retirement. Now nearly a Euroleague and ACB campaign later, thanks to Perasovic and his style of coaching and offensive system, Bourousis has rejuvenated his career, so much so that there is talk about San Antonio trying to bring him to the states.

That being said, Bourousis is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the major things that happens in Euroleague play, especially during the Top 16 when teams are positioning themselves for playoff spots, is the tinkering of rosters, through mid-season loans and acquisitions. Panathinaikos added wing Elliot Williams. Real Madrid added sharpshooter KC Rivers from Bayern Munich. Crvena Zvezda added guard Tarence Kinsey. It’s what European teams do to try and get a late push in their run to the playoffs and hopefully a Final Four.

Unfortunately, the mid-season additions don’t always work, and have mixed results. They can mess with team chemistry, and sometimes the talent doesn’t respond well in their new environment. Much to Perasovic’s credit, he pretty much kept and played the same roster and rotation from Round 1 of the Regular Season all the way to the 3rd place game of the Final Four. He continued to start young players like Diop and Planinic at center over Bourousis to help boost their confidence, and he showed faith in his young perimeter players like Blazic, Shengelia and Bertans who are all 25 and under. Not a lot of coaches would show the kind of roster faith that Perasovic did this season Baskonia. Most would have resorted to a veteran free agent from a lesser-tier club to solidify their playoff chances. But by maintaining roster consistency, Perasovic’s Baskonia squad developed game-by-game as a team, and ended up playing their best basketball by the end of the season because they had played so much together and consequently, matured as a team in the process.

And lastly, the style Baskonia played under Perasovic was a bit unorthodox, but proved to be entertaining and effective. They weren’t exactly the best shooting team, as their 52.3 eFG percentage was exactly league average for the year. Furthermore, they weren’t exactly a great “ball movement” team, as their 52.9 assist rate was lowest in the Euroleague (and this is out of 24 teams). And lastly, they didn’t generate a whole lot of second chance shots, as their offensive rebounding rate was 7th lowest in the league (of the six others, only Brose Baskets Bamberg made the Top 16). Combine all those factors with an offensive rating of 105.5 (11th best; below non-playoff teams like Khimki, Anadolu Efes and Brose Baskets) and one could ask this: how did Baskonia experience so much success?

The keys to Baskonia’s sterling season could be credited to Perasovic’s focus on pace, the high ball screen, the 3-point shot, and a defense that put a premium on NOT fouling. Let’s break down each point:

  • Baskonia had the second fastest pace in the league at 75.5 possessions per game, which was only .1 possession lower than Strasbourg  (who only played 10 games because they didn’t qualify for the Top 16). This emphasis on pace led to quick shots and more possessions. Because they generated quick shots, this resulted in less assists, hence why their assist rate was so low. But, on the flip side, though their assist rate was low, (the bane of every “traditional” coach who believes in Norman Dale basketball), they also had a low turnover rate, which was 10th lowest in the Euroleague, due to their ability to get shots up early in the shot clock.
  • Another reason their assist rate was so low was that Perasovic really focused the offense on his his points James and Adams as well as Bourousis through the high ball screen. This led to a lot of dribbling, and thus, not a lot of chances for assists. But the high ball screen was so effective because Adams and James could take advantage on switches and either finish at the rim or kick out to open shooters on the perimeter, or they could hit Bourousis on the roll or especially the pop beyond the arc. Perasovic also let them freelance from the high ball screen and didn’t call many set plays due to his emphasis on keeping that quick pace, which was much different from their competition, especially clubs like Barcelona and Loko, other playoff teams who ranked in the bottom five when it came to fastest pace.
  • The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets aren’t the only professional teams in the world that relies on the 3 ball, as Baskonia made the 3 a key part of their game in 2015-2016. Their 3-pt attempt to field goal attempt was 0.41, fourth highest in the league, and they could do so with knock down shooters like Bertans and Bourousis. Another thing interesting about the 3-point shot was that they put a premium on defending that shot as well. Their opponent 3FGA/FGA was 0.32, the lowest rate in the Euroleague. And hence, while Baskonia hurt teams with the 3-point shot, they weren’t allowing others teams to do so, and by doing that, they put themselves in many possessions exchanges where they were trading 3’s for 2’s, which has proven statistically to have value over the long course of a game and/or season.
  • And speaking of defense, another interesting aspect of their defense was how they did not foul a lot or allow opposing teams to get to the line. Baskonia actually had the eighth-highest FTA/FGA ratio in the Euroleague, which was usually due to their fast guards and athletic wings like Hanga getting to the rack off the high ball screen. But, on defense, Baskonia actually had the seventh-lowest rate in the Euroleague in Opp FTA/FGA, meaning that they weren’t fouling and letting opposing teams get easy chances for points at the free throw line. This is a sound strategy and a credit to Baskonia’s defensive discipline, as they relied on contesting shots on defense getting rebounds off of missed shots, rather than relying on steals or blocks, which have a higher risk when it comes to fouling. But that wasn’t to say they completely abandoned “high risk” defense, as they were in the top-10 in both fouls and blocks, which again is credit to their defensive discipline. Perasovic and the Baskonia players deserve a lot of credit for this, and that was especially evident in their 101.1 defensive rating, third best in the league, and 48.8 opponent eFG percentage, which was best in the league. Bourousis and Baskonia was known for their ability to score and play up-tempo, but their defense was underrated all year, and was one of the key reasons why they made the Euroleague Final Four.

 

Due to the Euroleague’s free-market structure, it will be hard for Baskonia to duplicate moments like this, taken after they qualified for the Final Four.

The combination of Bourousis’ career renaissance, the young roster gelling over the course of the season, and Perasovic’s fine job coaching this eclectic group of talents made this year extremely special for Baskonia and European club basketball fans across the globe. And yet, as wonderful as this season was for the Basque club, it will be difficult to duplicate next year. After such as successful season, Turkish power Efes came calling and was able to lure Perasovic with a major deal to coach their squad next year. Adams is back in America, added to the Spurs’ Free Agent camp, and looks less likely to be back with Baskonia next season, with the same looking to be true of James. And Bourousis’ future seems a bit murky, as it is likely that a big name European club will throw a lot of money at him if he decided to not make the jump across the pond to the NBA. Just like that, in a matter of weeks, Baskonia’s dream season seems to be just that: a one-time dream, not the foundation for something special.

And that is the challenge with smaller European clubs like Baskonia: it is hard for them to build something sustainable on an annual basis because they cannot compete in Europe’s free market player economy. Rich clubs like Efes can woo their coach with bags of money. Traditional powers like Olympiacos, or Real Madrid, or Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv can outspend them for their own players. The NBA will always be the primary option, especially for American players, if the opportunity presents itself. That is the reality for Baskonia, and though they are not alone in this system, it is a bit more painful because they have a fanbase that really is basketball-crazed. If the financial caps and confines in the NBA were present in Europe, Baskonia would have the chance to develop into a club like the San Antonio Spurs, a small market team that can compete due to good player development and shrewd player acquisition. But, in the current European landscape, they are forever building their club year-to-year, hoping for home run seasons like this past one.

So, we probably won’t see another season like 2015-2016 from Baskonia for a while, though they are better suited to catch lighting in a bottle sooner than most in the European landscape (they are in Spain, a major country and in probably the best domestic league in Europe in the ACB, all factors which help their chances in acquiring talent). Bourousis’ Baskonia tenure most likely will be a one-year show, and most likely he’ll be dazzling for another European club next year. Hopefully, the young talent that got valuable minutes and playing experience this year will parlay that into bigger roles in 2016-2017 and keep the team competitive in the ACB and Euroleague, though I do wonder if a new coach will want to keep the same core intact.

It’s the cruel nature of European basketball: the big teams feast and continue to get fat year after year while the others fight for scraps, and Baskonia, though not on the lower end, probably is closer to the latter than the former. But we shouldn’t forget this season from Baskonia. We shouldn’t forget about their Final Four run, Bourousis’ unofficial Euroleague MVP, the sensational plays of guards Adams and James, and the stoic nature of Perasovic on the sideline.

It’s teams like Baskonia that make the Euroleague worth following, especially for newer American fans like myself.

Under-the-Radar: Musa of BIH and Vasiliauskas of Lithuania are Talents from Unlikely Places

Dzanan Musa of Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the top talents in Europe that comes from a country that isn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse.

When it comes to European basketball development, certain countries and clubs have a stronger reputation for developing talent than others. If you are from Serbia, you have a strong basketball talent history that includes players like Vlade Divac and Milos Teodosic. If you played for Real Madrid B (Real Madrid’s developmental team), you also played for a club that developed talent such Nikola Mirotic and Bojan Bogdanovic. Certain countries and clubs in Europe have a more illustrious history when it comes to producing basketball talent, and thus, there is higher attention on players from those countries and clubs when it comes to finding “the next big stars” in European basketball.

However, there is a tendency sometimes for talent to come from unexpected European countries and/or club programs. That is the case with two players who faced off against each other in the 2015 U16 FIBA European Championship last year: Dzanan Musa of Bosnia/Herzegovina, who played for Cedevita Zagreb during the Euroleague and ANGT, and Grantas Vasiliauskas of Lithuania who played for his home club of Alytus SRC during the domestic season, and on loan for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in the ANGT. Despite the fact that they did not come from a “power” country or club in the European basketball scene, these two versatile talents are rising up quickly in the youth scene, and could be major contributors to upper-level clubs in the next couple of years.

Let’s take a brief look at each player, as well as check out some of their highlights.

 

Dzanan Musa, Forward

Dzanan Musa not only played for Cedevita during the ANGT, but also spent some time with the senior club during the Euroleague season.

Country: Bosnia/Herzegovina; Club: Cedevita Zagreb; Height: 2.03 meters

2015/2016 ANGT Stats: 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.2 apg, 2.4 spg, 52.9 2-pt FG %, 40 3-pt FG % (5 games).

Bosnia and Herzegovina is developing as a country in basketball, but by no means are they up there with traditional “former-Yugoslavian” powers such as Serbia and Croatia. In the 2015 Eurobasket, BIH failed to get out of the group round, and only went 1-4 in group play, their lone win being a 1-point win over Israel. Granted, they do have some recent talent who have made a name for themselves in the global basketball scene as of late. Sharp shooting forward Mirza Teletovic of the Phoenix Suns, and formerly of the Brooklyn Nets, has carved out a good career in the NBA, and center Jusuf Nurkic seems to be following his lead with the Denver Nuggets, though he suffered some injuries that set him back a little last year.  Furthermore, guard Nihad Dedovic of Bayern Munich, Milan Milosevic of AEK Athens, and Elmedin Kikanovic of Alba Berlin, have represented the BIH well by playing for clubs that participate in the Euroleague and Eurocup scene. But if you go back further or look beyond those names, there is not a lot of extensive history of basketball players from Bosnia and Herzegovina making a major impact in Europe or in America.

Musa however seems to be the exception to that rule. Last summer, during the U16 European Basketball Championships, Musa earned MVP honors in leading Bosnia and Herzegovina to their first Gold Medal in any kind of FIBA competition (be in European or World). Musa averaged 23.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 6.3 apg for BIH and scored 33 points and had 8 rebounds and 7 assists in BIH’s 85-83 victory of Lithuania, who was playing the Gold Medal game in front of their home country fans in Kaunas.

During the tournament, Musa displayed a versatile and explosive game, as he is able to beat defenders off the dribble, but is skilled enough to step back and hit the mid-range and 3-point shot. If there is one word to describe Musa’s game it is “active”. Musa is a multi-tool players and a legitimate “triple double” threat that can carry a team, as was obvious last year with his home BIH squad. Check out the highlights below and see how Musa torched the competition during the U16 European Championship, especially against global powers like Lithuania in the Gold Medal game and Spain in the Semi-finals (he also scored 24 points in their 86-78 OT win).

Since the European championship, Musa has kept the momentum going after signing with Cedevita Zagreb. He put up a strong overall performance in the ANGT, averaging 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 7.2 apg, once again showing that multi-faceted ability that makes him so intriguing as a player against the best under-18 talent in Europe. However, his success and impact wasn’t simply limited to the ANGT, as Musa also appeared in 10 games for Cedevita during the Euroleague campaign. Though he only averaged 2.7 ppg, Musa was the ninth-youngest player in Euroleague history to make his debut, and he held up well considering he was only 16 years old and playing against some of the best veterans in Europe (in his debut he matched up against Olympiacos guard and Greek legend Vasilis Spanoulis).

Musa has the chance to be a real impact player not just in Europe, but abroad as well. He has a well-rounded game (he can create for others as well as himself), an excellent shooting stroke and the kind of competitive fire that can carry a team, even one that may not be as talented. Musa does have times where his game can be streaky. In the ANGT, he started off strong in the qualifying round with a 37 point performance against Bayern Munich and a 24 point performance against Partizan Belgrade, but he struggled to find his rhythm in the following 3 games, as he scored only 9 points in the final qualifying round game against Zemun Belgrade, 13 points against Spurs Sarajevo in the first Belgrade Final Round game, and zero in 9 minutes of play in a re-match with Partizan with a trip to the Finals in Berlin on the line (though an injury was a reason for his limited time).

Granted, while Musa couldn’t carry Cedevita to the ANGT Finals in Berlin, and didn’t have as strong a finish to the tournament as his start, he definitely displayed that he has the potential to be one of the best overall players and pure scorers in Europe. And furthermore, he’s doing it from a country whose national program has only been established since 1992.

Yes, Teletovic and Nurkic may be the figureheads for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s basketball program now, and rightfully so considering their status in the NBA. However, expect Musa to inherit their place on that mantle within the next five or so years.

 

Grantas Vasiliauskas, Forward

Grantas Vasiliauskas had a strong performance for Lithuania in the 2015 Euorpean Championships as well as the ANGT for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius

Country: Lithuania; Club: Alytus SRC and Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius; Height: 2.00 meters.

2015/2016 ANGT stats: 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.7 apg; 47.5 2-pt FG%; 30.8 3-pt FG%.

Vasiliauskas comes from Lithuania, which is a pretty big hotbed when it comes to basketball talent. NBA players that have come from the county include Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors, Sarunas Marciulonis, formerly of the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, Sarunas Jasikevicius, formerly of the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors (not to mention numerous European clubs like Maccabi Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Fenerbahce, Zalgris, and Panathinaikos), and of course, Arvydas Sabonis, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers. So, Vasiliauskas doesn’t exactly come from a less-developed basketball country like Musa.

However, what makes Vasiliauskas different from other Lithuanian basketball players is the fact that he doesn’t come from a big program or town. He isn’t from Vilnius or Kaunas (the two biggest cities in Lithuania), nor is he in the systems of Lithuania’s premier clubs, like Zalgiris, Lietuvos (more on this later) or Neptunas. Instead, Vasiliauskas played for his hometown club of Alytus SRC, based in his home town of Alytus, which has a population of less than 55,000 residents, according to this feature piece on Vasiliauskas on the Euroleague web site. Vasiliauskas went under the radar in his home country by the major clubs, mostly because of where he lived, and the fact that his father was a champion rower, not basketball player.

However, while his background may be anonymous in Lithuania, his game certainly is not. Lietuvos sought the “under-the-radar” talent from Alytus, after his strong performance in the European Championships where he averaged 10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 2.4 apg in 9 games, which included a 12 point-6 rebound performance in the championship against BIH. Vasiliauskas did not disappoint for the club based out of Vilnius, as he averaged 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg and 3.1 apg while averaging 29 minutes per game. Vasiliauskas’ best performance came in the qualifying round, where he averaged 16.7 ppg and put up a 25 point-9 rebound stat line against VEF Riga. Furthermore, he did have some strong performances against much better competition in the Final Round in Berlin, as he scored 15 points against ANGT runner-up Crvena Zvzeda and 15 points against Alba Berlin.

Vasiliauskas doesn’t have the dynamic scoring ability or explosiveness of Musa, but if there is one word to describe his game it is “consistency”. Vasiliauskas plays within himself on a regular basis, and displays a solid overall skill set that mirrors Musa’s, though he doesn’t have the ceiling that Musa has as a player. One of the most impressive aspects of Vasiliauskas’ game is his heightened-sense of awareness on the court. He finds open pockets of the defense naturally, which leads to a lot of easy baskets; has a nose for the ball on lose balls and on rebounds, both on the offensive and defensive end; and is a strong passer, able to hit cutting teammates through tight windows with relative ease. Check out his highlights below, and though he doesn’t blow one away like Musa, he certainly does impress with his consistency and overall skill set displayed.

If there is one issue with Vasiliauskas’ game is that his shooting isn’t consistent and still is in need of refinement. Most of the buckets we see for him in the highlight tape are finishes around the hoop (layups and dunks), and his lackluster shooting percentages (47.5 from 2; 30.8 from 3) during the ANGT display that he doesn’t have the kind of outside game to make opponents play him honest on the perimeter (teams can sag to stop his drive or push him off the block, which is where he seems to prefer to play in the half court: moving from high to low post and creating from where he receives the ball). Vasiliauskas’ shooting form looks good in terms of elbow positioning and footwork, but it appears that his release is a little slow, which may be a reason why he struggles to find a consistent stroke on the floor.

It will be interesting to see if the “small town” kid will find a bigger club to participate with next year. His impressive performance with Lietuvos has the big club (which finished second in the Lithuanian league at the senior level) thinking about buying him out from Alytus and developing him year-around, which would be crucial since he still has parts of his game that need work (mostly his shooting). However, they are not the only club in Lithuania with interest: defending Lithuanian champion and Euroleague participant Zalgiris is also thinking about buying his rights as well.

Vasiliauskas hasn’t necessarily hinted what club he is leaning toward, and he seems to not have ruled out staying with Alytus SRC for another year as well, though I think the need to face better competition will be better satisfied if he played with Lietuvos or Zalgiris. Whatever the young forward chooses, he is certainly rising in the radar of players to watch out for, not just in Lithuania, but in Europe as well. He probably doesn’t have the European superstar potential like Musa, and I don’t even know if he has the kind of game that would translate to the NBA. While he certainly has the maturity and intensity to perhaps compete at that level down the road, I just don’t know if he will develop the size and athleticism to match up against NBA players (Musa on the other hand has all those characteristics).

That being said, Vasiliauskas is a very talented player with a polished skill set and considerable upside that would be beneficial to a major European club’s current developmental team and senior team down the road. Don’t be surprised to see him starting or playing a primary bench role for a major club team in the Euroleague or Eurocup within the next 10 years.

Nando de Colo Returning is Good News for CSKA Moscow and European Basketball

Nando de Colo was key in CSKA Moscow’s Euroleague title game victory over Fenerbahce, and he will be key to a repeat in 2016-2017.

The eighth time was the charm for CSKA Moscow in 2016, as CSKA finally sealed the deal and won the Euroleague championship after eight straight appearances in the Final Four since their last championship in 2008 under former coach Ettore Messina (now with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant). And though it is early in the off-season, CSKA once again is loading up their roster and making key moves, aiming once again to make the Euroleague Final Four in 2016-2017 (they have made it every to the Final Four every year since 2001).

No other Euroleague team, with the exception of maybe Maccabi Tel Aviv, has been as active in acquiring and re-signing talent this early in the off-season as CSKA. They re-signed role players such as Ivan Lazarev and sharpshooter Vitaliy Fridzon to bolster their bench, and they also signed power forward Semen Antonov from Nizhny Novgorod to help add some depth in the post. Add that with re-signing of captain and veteran Victor Khryapa, as well as swing man Cory Higgins, who averaged 9.2 ppg in Euroleague play and shot over 50 percent from beyond the arc, and CSKA could have been satisfied with their roster composition for 2016-2017 and considered themselves done for the remainder of the off-season or for a least a good amount of time.

However, they pushed it up a notch and also re-signed Euroleague and Final Four MVP as well as VTB League MVP Nando de Colo to a 3-year extension.

And with that move, the chances of other Euroleague teams knocking CSKA Moscow from the top of the Euroleague just got a whole lot dimmer.

Despite some interest from some NBA teams, Nando de Colo re-signed with CSKA for 3 more years.

It was interesting how CSKA was able to re-sign their star point guard so quickly in the off-season, let alone to a 3-year extension. After two successful seasons with CSKA, which culminated in multiple MVP awards both in inter-continental as well as domestic play, there was some consensus that de Colo would try it again in the NBA, as some NBA teams, including the Brooklyn Nets, were interested in him at least coming out to Summer League to display how his talents have grown since he went back to Europe. De Colo was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2009, but he instead signed and played with Valencia Basket for three seasons before coming to the States. When he did come to the NBA, he played two seasons with the Spurs and a season with the Toronto Raptors before signing with CSKA Moscow after the 2014 season.

There was some incentive for de Colo to come back to America: he is only 28 years old, still relatively young and in the prime of his career, and he is coming off his best European campaign yet. In VTB play, he helped CSKA cruise to another league title, this time over Unics, as he averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.0 rpg while playing 22.6 mpg and shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. However, his Euroleague play is what attracted the attentions of so many American scouts and general managers: he averaged 19.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, and 3.6 rpg while playing 27.2 mpg and shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc. While CSKA was also loaded with other key contributors like athletic center Kyle Hines and wizard combo guard Milos Teodosic, the numbers above show not only why CSKA went 24-5 overall in Euroleague play and won the Euroleague championship, but why de Colo also made All-Euroleague first team in addition to his Euroleague and Final Four MVP awards.

Add that incredible year, as well as a more openness to acquiring and playing international players by most NBA teams (especially after the breakout of Kristaps Prozingis last season in New York), and de Colo seemed to be in the perfect situation to at least test the waters in the United States. However, whether it was CSKA’s offer, the chance to repeat as Euroleague champs, or the lack of attractive NBA destinations, de Colo not only will be back at CSKA next year, but for the next three seasons as well.

And while that may be disappointing to some NBA fans who wanted to see the French point guard get a better opportunity the second-time around in the NBA, his return should bolster the Euroleague overall next season. De Colo is a fascinating and exciting player to watch. At 6’5, he has the shooting acumen of a shooting guard, but he can create off the dribble not just for himself, but for his teammates as well like any sound point guard. And with his size advantage, de Colo is able to post up smaller point guards and take advantage in the post, which was the case many times last year, as there aren’t many point guards in the Euroleague (or in Europe in general) that have the combo of size and speed to match up with de Colo.

If there are any doubts about de Colo’s impact and his ability to come through on the big stage, reference his performance in the Final Four, as de Colo proved to be a nightmare for opposing teams en route to the championship. In the semi-final, CSKA and de Colo faced Russian rival Lokomotiv, who only allowed 100.2 points per 100 possessions, which was second best in the league by only .1 point. What did de Colo do? He scored 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting, and also had 4 assists as well. Take a look at his performance in the highlights below.

And de Colo wasn’t finished that weekend either. In the championship game, CSKA faced Fenerbahce, who had the best defensive rating in the Euroleague last year at 100.1. (Remember, just .1 better than Loko!) And though de Colo was facing a tough, defensive Fenerbahce club, a seasoned coach who had won countless Euroleague titles before in Zeljiko Obradovic, and a well-traveled fan base from Turkey that packed the title venue in Berlin, de Colo didn’t miss a beat. The 28-year-old French national scored a team-high 22 points and had 7 assists and three steals in the 101-96 overtime victory. And though he and CSKA had some waves of inconsistency, de Colo came through when it counted in crunch time, as evidenced in the video of his performance below:

Is de Colo the best player in Europe? Right now, the argument is very tough to prove that he isn’t as of this moment. Yes, you could argue Ioannis Bourousis of Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) probably has the most impact to his team, as Bourousis’ combo of post scoring, rebounding and leadership was a key reason why Baskonia made the Final Four. You could also argue that teammate Teodosic might be the most entertaining player, even if he doesn’t have de Colo’s consistency. And lastly, you could argue that Quincy Miller, who will be with Maccabi next season, has the potential to be the most dynamic player in the Euroleague next year, not only terms of scoring, but defense and athleticism as well. He was crucial to Crvena Zvzeda’s success last year, and being with a bigger club and around more talent in Maccabi could put him in the discussion of the best players in the Euroleague next year.

However, until it is proven otherwise, it is de Colo’s title to lose in 2016-2017 when it comes to who is “the best current player in Europe.” And that makes CSKA so scary next year. The idea of Teodosic and de Colo once again terrorizing opposing defense on the perimeter is going to be beautiful and entertaining for Euroleague fans to watch, and harrowing for opposing coaches who will be game-planning to try and stop that combination. And de Colo is just the tip of the iceberg: his ability to score and dominate opens things up for the other players. One of the reasons Hines was so successful was that he was able to finish baskets on put backs or off of easy passes because there was so much attention on de Colo and Teodosic. Would Hines have had the kind of big-time year, despite being under-sized as a center, if it weren’t for de Colo? Perhaps, but it would have been a lot harder to imagine.

The Euroleague once again will be competitive next year. Fenerbahce will be a strong team again if they retain a lot of their talent, and they undoubtedly will add some more unexpected pieces (like Ekpe Udoh last year). Anadolu Efes will be a much better squad next year with new head coach Velimir Perasovic coming over from Baskonia, (even though the future of Dario Saric is in doubt). Maccabi improved their roster and also got a new head coach in Erez Edelstein, and I expect that Greek powers Olympiacos and Panathinaikos will be much improved after disappointing Euroleague seasons.

However, CSKA is the team to beat and de Colo is the reason why. The 28-year-old reigning Euroleague MVP is so key to CSKA’s success and the fact that CSKA was able to re-sign him to three more years shows what kind of lengths financially the Russian power will go to keep their top place in the European basketball scene.

And even if you aren’t a CSKA fan, de Colo coming back is great for European basketball. It shows how far European basketball has come, and that being the best player in Europe is a title worth staying for and worth building upon when it comes to basketball legacy. Success in the NBA isn’t the only indicator of professional basketball success, and perhaps that is what de Colo is trying to do: show that being a legend in Europe is quite a title to have, and that you don’t need to be another Dirk or Tony Parker to validate your existence as a European basketball player.

I applaud de Colo for his decision, and I look forward to seeing him and Teodosic continue to tantalize basketball fans, and tear opposing guards up in the Euroleague next season.

Breaking Down the Last Minute of the FC Barcelona-Real Madrid Liga Endesa Game 1 Final

FC Barcelona celebrated a wild win over rival Real Madrid in Game 1 of the ACB Liga Endesa finals.

The NBA is not the only basketball league having their championship finals right now: in Spain, the Liga Endesa Final series is going on between longtime Spanish rivals (in multiple sports) FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.  The best of five series began today in Barcelona, and wow, what a finish, as the top-seeded Barcelona ousted Los Blancos in a nailbiter 100-99, which ended on a game winning shot.

Luckily for us, the ACB posted the last minute of the game in its entirety on its YouTube Channel. Instead of just posting the video, I decided to break it up into chunks so we can go more in-depth in terms of what led to such an exciting finish in the first game of the ACB’s championship series. So, let’s break it down by each possession from when it was 98-97 Barcelona and about a minute remaining.

(Note: not all commentary will be of the serious variety…so beware).

98-97 Barcelona; Real Madrid ball; 57.7 seconds left

http://swf.tubechop.com/tubechop.swf?vurl=Ritdqb0dDdI&start=6&end=16&cid=8105884

Real Madrid gets a quick shot to give them maximum amount of possessions down the stretch, not something to take for granted given Barcelona’s tendency to drain the clock under head coach Xavi Pascual (in the Euroleague, Barcelona had the slowest pace of any club in the Euroleague). However, this goes about as badly as it possibly could for Los Blancos.

Real Madrid center Gustavo Ayon gets caught in no man’s land after setting the pick, as Ante Tomic plays it well enough to prevent the roll, and Rudy Fernandez is in the spot where Ayon would pop to (though he has really little outside game, so him popping wouldn’t be much good). “El Chacho” Sergio Rodriguez could drive and try to take Tomic to the rack to make the layup behind him or draw the foul, but instead he kicks it to Fernandez, who despite an open look, totally airballs it.

For many Portland Trail Blazers fans, there is little surprise here, as Rudy had his share of disappointment during his time in the NBA with the Blazers. However, Blazers fans do wish Rodriguez would have had this beard in Portland. He would have never left the city after being crowned the “Hipster King Supreme” by 2012.

98-97 Barcelona; Barcelona ball; 43.7 seconds left

http://swf.tubechop.com/tubechop.swf?vurl=Ritdqb0dDdI&start=26&end=44&cid=8106013

I like this pick and roll action by Barcelona. Juan Carlos Navarro and Tomic run a high ball screen and roll action with Navarro hitting Tomic on the roll. You could argue Tomic could take this to the rack and at the very least draw a foul, but with it still being two-possession territory time-wise, Tomic wisely picks up his dribble and hits Pau Ribas who is rolling up at the top of the perimeter after setting a staggered screen earlier for Navarro after he passed it. Ribas’ shot look is contested though by a good closeout by Real Madrid defender Sergio Llull, and Ribas takes a dribble and passes it out on the perimeter to wing Stratos Perperoglou.

This is where it gets pretty, and its unfortunate that Barcelona is unable to finish on this end.  Perperoglou gives it to Tomic in the post who has gotten good position on Ayon in the left block. Perperoglou then cuts toward the middle as if he’s going to set a cross screen for Ribas, but at the left elbow, he cuts in front of Fernandez (who is in bad defensive position by overplaying Perperoglou on his cut) and receives the ball from Tomic on a beautiful “give and go” exchange.

Unfortunately, Perperoglou doesn’t finish the easy layup, though he looks like he was expecting to be fouled, and Fernandez makes some effort to do so, though it’s difficult to tell if Fernandez deked at the last moment and caused Perperoglou to over-compensate on the finish, or if Fernandez did foul and the refs missed it.

98-97 Barcelona; Real Madrid ball; 22.2 seconds left

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The Portland “Hipster God” Rodriguez turns down the Ayon screen and instead dribble penetrates, which forces Tomic to come out and help. This is key because that is one major issue with Tomic: he really struggles when the initial defense breaks down and he has to help, as he has a tendency to get out of position after a lot of switching due to penetration and ball movement. Rodriguez forces Tomic out of the paint, hits Fernandez in the corner, who immediately swings it to Llull on the left wing beyond the arc.

It’s a bit hard to tell here, but Llull really seems to fake out Navarro, as Navarro over-sits on Llull’s right, as if he is going to pass out back to Rodriguez. Instead, Llull drives with his left to the left block, causing Tomic to creep out of the paint to help stop the drive. This causes Tomic to take his eyes off of Ayon, who is rolling to the hoop, and Llull hits Ayon cutting to the right block. Because Tomic had to help for a second on Llull, Tomic can’t recover, though he does an admirable job to use his height to prevent the layup. But the combo of him being a little bit late, and a great athletic move leads to an impressive Ayon finish.

But the best part? Fernandez, who can’t seem to do anything right in this stretch of the game, clocks Ayon in the head while flying into crash the boards. I do not know why Pablo Lasso kept him in at this point. Blazer fans would be throwing almonds on the floor at this point in disgust with Fernandez. (Yes Portland hates him that much).

99-98 Real Madrid; Barcelona ball; 14.2 seconds left

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This isn’t a bad play drawn up by Pascual: get the ball in the hands of your best player (Navarro) and try to cause the defense to switch to get a favorable matchup. Navarro and Justin Doellman set the high screen and roll and Ayon and Llull switch, cross-matching Ayon with Navarro. Navarro resorts to what he does well in this situation: take it to the rack and either score or draw the foul (Navarro has a reputation of lunging into the body to draw fouls).

Remarkably though, Ayon plays incredible defense on this play. He stays off of Navarro so the Spanish guard cannot draw contact for the foul. With the exception of a minor hand check at the top of they key (not to mention a hand check from Navarro in return), Ayon puts on a clinic in terms of how to properly defend the drive, especially in a critical situation. Ayon stays with him with his shoulders square, and he also doesn’t fall for Navarro’s initial head fake when Navarro first picks up the ball. By not falling for the head fake, when Navarro does go up for the finish, Ayon is easily able to block the shot and block it quickly.

Unfortunately, Real Madrid cannot get the loose ball in a scramble, as neither Ayon, Fernandez (God…again!) nor Andres Nocioni (Remember that name? Yes, he’s in Europe now, not on a NBA roster wasting cap-space of your favorite team) can grab it before it rolls out of bounds. A hell of a defensive play by Ayon, but Real Madrid’s inability to grab the loose ball and ice the game gives Barcelona one last shot…

99-98 Real Madrid; Barcelona ball; 3.0 seconds left

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Pascual has Navarro taking the ball out in this situation with Tomic just outside the left mid-post, Perperoglou at the top of the key, Doellman right beneath the free throw line, and Ribas standing on the right wing beyond the arc, there to just scratch his balls or something (but in all seriousness, he just needed to be out of this play to clear space in the middle). Take a look at the action that follows after Navarro throws it in:

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Doellman begins the action by setting the screen for Perperoglou, who will come off of Doellman’s screen and cut to the hoop. Tomic will flare out to the arc. Ribas will do nothing because that is what he’s supposed to do here: nothing. (Pau Ribas is not winning you this game in 98 percent of situations, so why try?)

Navarro predictably passes it to Tomic, and steps out to get the ball. Llull defends him to prevent the dribble hand-off, and in response, this happens:

 

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Is this is a push or not? Watch the clip above and you can be the judge yourself. However, I am not sure why Llull is playing Navarro like this. I get it, you don’t want him to get the dribble handoff and get a clean look for a three off the handoff (which works like a de-facto ball screen). However, there are two reasons why Llull should have let him get the handoff instead of play to prevent it:

1.) Real Madrid is only up by 1. Whether its a two or three doesn’t matter at this point. I get Llull’s strategy if there was a two point lead on the line, but in this scenario, a layup hurts just as much as a three-pointer. Thus, make him take the longer shot.

2.) Navarro this year was a 33.6 percent 3-point shooter this year in ACB play. He’s has not been a dead-eye by any means, and if he makes the three, then luck was on their side. Poor scouting on the Real Madrid staff to not emphasize this point more to Llull in the timeout.

So, whether Navarro pushes Llull off or not is inconsequential. Llull had poor positioning, which led to this:

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Llull is out of position because of the “push off” and Ayon isn’t able to switch so easily off the give and go because of Llull’s lack of positioning. And thus, Navarro gets a clear lane to the hoop. Nocioni has to help and plays to take away the shot by jumping to block it, but as you can see, that leaves Perperoglou wide open, and Navarro recognizes this and instead of playing “hero” ball and going to the rim, he pitches it Perperoglou in the key. And thus…

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Perperoglou layup, though Ayon and the Real Madrid defense do their damnedest to prevent it. Despite all the pressure though, he gets it off, the buzzer sounds, the ball goes through the basket and Barcelona is up 1-0 in the Liga Endesa finals after a 100-99 victory.

Overall, it was a wild last minute, and I look forward to not only watching more extensive tape of this game (I don’t have ACB streaming access so it’s harder to find full games than the Euroleague; hence a reason why I primarily focus on the Euroleague and not other domestic leagues), but also the following games in this series. Real Madrid and Barcelona is a great basketball rivalry, and if Game 1’s finish was any indicator, this championship series should be another exciting chapter in the Spanish basketball rivalry’s heated and extensive history.