Turkey’s Time: How the four Turkish clubs look to compete for a Euroleague title

Fenerbahce came up short to CSKA Moscow in last year’s Euroleague Final. Will this be the year Fenerbahce or another Turkish club brings the first Euroleague title to Turkey?

This transfer season has had plenty of stories, mostly centering on the mass exodus of European talent to the NBA through the draft and free agency. Safe to say, almost every club participating in the Euroleague next season has been affected by the NBA, as if they did not lose talent directly, they either lost out on a potential signing to a NBA team or at risk of losing their current players in a year or two, should the player decide to change their tune about making the trip to North America. It is a difficult place for European clubs to be in, as even the biggest clubs in Europe don’t have the kind of money to throw at players in comparison to their American competition, making the ability to keep their best, young, in-their-prime talent more arduous (though not impossible) than ever before.

However, beyond the “exodus” narrative this off-season, the other big story this off-season has been the activity of the four Turkish Euroleague clubs who have dominated the off-season with big moves in terms of boosting their rosters and organizations. In summers that are typically dominated by traditional A license powers such as Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, and Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, the four Turkish clubs have stolen most of the spotlight when it comes to garnering new talent (though Maccabi TA and Panathinaikos have made some key moves themselves). And that is peculiar and a sign of the changes in power going on in the Euroleague, as Turkey doesn’t necessarily have the kind of history in the Euroleague that other European countries have.

In modern Euroleague play, only two teams from Turkey have qualified for the Final Four (Anadolu Efes and Fenerbahce Ulker). Last year, Fenerbahce’s overtime loss in the championship game to CSKA Moscow was the best finish a Turkish club has ever had in the Euroleague (Efes finished third in both appearances in 2000 and 2001; Fenerbahce finished fourth in 2015). And, in the modern Euroleague-era, there was a 14-year gap between Turkish club appearances in the Final Four (after Efes made back-to-back Final Fours, no Turkish club made the Final Four until Fenerbahce broke that streak in 2015). While clubs from Greece, Spain, Russia, Italy, Serbia, France and even Lithuania have hoisted the Euroleague trophy at the end of the year, such an honor as evaded Turkish clubs in the 28-year-history of the modern Euroleague.

However, that history of “missing out” seems primed to change as soon as a next year. The four Turkish clubs (Anadolu Efes, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka) looked determined to make their mark through aggressive management this summer, and hope 2016-2017 is the year when Turkey will finally be able to bring home a Euroleague trophy to Istanbul. Who is the most likely to do so? Well, let’s break down each Turkish team and what they did this summer thus far in terms of strengthening their team.

Velimir Perasovic returns to Efes (here in his first tenure there in 2011) to duplicate the Final Four success he had last season with Laboral Kutxa Baskonia.

Anadolu Efes: New coach, New (Younger) Approach

Prior to the last two seasons, Efes had been one of the strongest Turkish clubs in Europe. After all, until Fenerbahce burst onto the scene under Zeljko Obradovic, Efes has been the only club to make the Euroleague Final Four. Add those Euroleague credentials with the most domestic championships (13) in the history of the Turkish Basketball Super League, and it easy to see why that Efes has been the “face” of Turkish basketball in the European club scene for quite some time.

However, much like the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball or the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA, a rich history of success doesn’t always guarantee continued success in the current day. That has been the case for Efes, as they have taken a back seat in both domestic and Euroleague play to their local rivals. After winning four straight BSL titles from 2001-2005, Efes has only one BSL title (2009), the same number as local Istanbul rival Galatasaray, and Besiktas and Karsiyaka, smaller clubs who are not even in Istanbul. To make matters worse though, their one title is paltry in comparison to chief rival Fenerbahce, who has won 6 BSL titles since 2005 (and you could count it as seven, as Ulkerspor was a club run by the same sponsor as Fenerbahce currently).

In Euroleague play, Efes has been a consistent participant in Top 16 play, with the occasional appearances in playoff play (they have made the playoffs four times since their last Final Four appearance), but they have not been able to break through to the Final Four like Fenerbahce has the past couple of seasons. To address this recent trend of underperformance in the Euroleague is new coach Velimir Perasovic, who used to coach Efes back in 2010-2011 and comes over recently from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, whom he led to the Final Four and a fourth place finish a season ago (and they were an overtime period away from earning a spot in the championship game). Much like Bartzokas with Lokomotiv Kuban last year, Perasovic is a coach who has the ability to turn around clubs quickly, and maximize the talent on his roster. He helped Ioannis Bourousis go from a bench player averaging about 10 minutes a game with Real Madrid in 2015 to a first-team All-Euroleague player and ACB League MVP who was garnering interest from NBA clubs before signing with Panathinaikos. He coaxed breakout years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, and helped get Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga Summer League looks with the San Antonio Spurs. And he did all these individual things for players while helping Baskonia get to their first Final Four appearance since 2008. It is one thing to help players achieve a bunch of individual accolades (Rick Barnes at Texas was able to do this all the time), but to also create an environment where those individual accolades produce team success is the sign of an excellent and special coach, which Perasovic is and has proven to be in the past.

Unfortunately, Perasovic will be inheriting a different roster than the one Dusan Ivkovic had in 2015-2016. Dario Saric will be heading the 76ers, and Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus will be moving to Turkish rival Galatasaray as well. And unlike in years past, Efes hasn’t really added any free agents as of note, as the biggest signing has been Slovenian Alen Omic from Gran Canaria. Instead, it appears that Efes will build their team with a new approach: relying more on what they currently have under contract, as well as young Turkish players with plenty of upside.

While Efes at this time will return important imports such as Derrick Brown and Thomas Huertel, who both contributed significantly to Efes a season ago, this team has many young Turkish players who are expected to have increased roles from a season ago. The biggest one is Furkan Korkmaz, who most likely will replace Diebler as the main threat on the perimeter for Efes. Korkmaz was a first round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers this year, despite only averaging 8.6 minutes per game in Euroleague play and 12.8 in BSL competition. However, Korkmaz offers significant athletic upside from the wing, and is a fan favorite thanks to his Slam Dunk contest appearance where he dunked in a Darth Vader mask, as evidenced below.

Korkmaz is probably the most high profile Turkish talent, but he isn’t alone on this roster. 20-year-old Ogulcan Baykan will join him on the perimeter, as well as Dogus Balbay, who could receive an increased role if Jayson Granger goes elsewhere through transfer. Also, 21-year-old Cedi Osman showed some promise after averaging 9.5 ppg in Euroleague play and could really break out this season as a more concentrated option in Perasovic’s offense. And lastly, Ahmet Duverioglu is a project big who will get more time and touches in the paint now that Saric and Tyus are gone.

The expectations are high amongst Efes fans and management, but Perasovic has a nice young core of Turkish talent to work with, as well as some veterans (like Brown and Huertel) who could provide good leadership for this squad, especially during the early part of the season. This will be a bit of a tougher task than last season with Baskonia, but Efes has the horses to compete, though they are young and will need to grow up quickly. This focus on “Turkish youth” is a bit of a different approach for Efes from the past couple of seasons, where the outlook was more focused on the short term. However, if it is successful, it could provide long-term benefits for Efes competitively down the road.

Darussafaka has a new image (Under Armour as a sponsor), a new coach (David Blatt, formerly of Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Cleveland Cavs) and new players to help them compete at the top with Turkey’s best clubs in BSL and the Euroleague.

Darussafaka: The “New Kid on the Block”

Darussafaka has had a tough hill to climb in their basketball history. They are located in the same city (Istanbul) as basketball powerhouses such as Efes, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce, and for the most part have been a third-rate option for basketball fans in that area. Since being founded in 1914, the club has only won two BSL championships (in 1961 and 1962) and had been regulated for a good while until 2013-2014, when Dogus financial group bought the team and immediately invested money in the club to not only bring it back into first-tier Turkish competition, but with the plan to be a competitor on the European stage. In many ways, the Dogus group story with Darussafaka is similar to the story of NBA teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings where a young ownership group comes in and tries to buck the trend of constant losing with strong investment in coaching and talent, as well as marketing to make their club a more “progressive” brand with the local fanbase.

The Dogus group so far has been successful in that plan, avoiding so far the pitfalls that have hurt new ownership groups like the Grizzlies and Kings (inner turmoil, inability to make consistent decisions). They have put a strong emphasis on changing the culture of the club, focusing on Darussafaka being a “modern” and “cool” club for younger Turkish basketball fans, whether it’s in their sleek, new uniforms (they have Under Armour as a sponsor; rare for European clubs), marketing, or in-game atmosphere. However, the biggest waves they have made has been on the court. In 2014-2015, they finished third in the BSL and made the quarterfinals of the BSL playoffs. After moving into a bigger arena in 2015, Darussafaka participated in the Euroleague for the first time in club history, where they made the Round of 16. In BSL play last season, they finished fourth in the regular season, and made the semifinal round of the playoffs (where they were swept by Anadolu Efes).

However, 2016-2017 looks to be the most ambitious year yet for the newly competitive Turkish club. After garnering the lone wild card spot in the newly reformed Euroleague, Darussafaka made headlines by replacing the older, more defensive-oriented Oktay Mahmuti with former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland Cavalier head coach David Blatt. Once they got their new, higher-profile coach in place, ownership spared no expense in the transfer market. They signed big-time playmaker Bradley Wanamaker from Brose Baskets Bamberg, and James Anderson, who played some decent minutes and a full season with the Sacramento Kings a season ago. They also solidified their depth with Turkish shooting guard Birkan Batuk from Anadolu Efes, Latvian combo wing Dairis Bertans from Dominion Bilbao, and French power forward Adrien Moerman from Banvit. And, the club narrowly missed out on Mindaugas Kuzminskas from Unicaja, who ended up signing a contract with the New York Knicks over Darussafaka (though the club did get 800,000 euros as a buyout).

The combo of Wanamaker and Anderson should make Darussafaka a legitimate contender immediately in the new Euroleague format. Wanamaker was Brose Baskets’ best player last year, as he thrived as the primary scoring and playmaking option in head coach Andrea Trinchieri’s offense. Brose Baskets, the reigning BBL champions, and a Top 16 participant will miss his presence heavily this season, as evidenced by the highlights below where his strong performance led Brose Baskets to a crucial win over Khimki in Top 16 play, earning him Top 16 Week 11 Euroleague MVP honors.

The big issue for Darussafaka at this point will be the depth of the squad, as well as how they will fare in the post. Already, there are rumors Semih Erden won’t be returning next year (he looks to return to the NBA), and it is still yet to be determined whether or not Luke Harangody, who had a very productive year for Darussafaka, will return as well as the primary post threat. And the futures of other role players such as Marcus Slaughter, Scottie Wilbekin and Reggie Redding are also to be determined, as they could change their minds about returning to the Turkish club depending on their desire to be back in the United States (i.e. sign a D-League contract instead).  If they do return, expect Blatt to really succeed with this club in year one, since they are under-the-radar talent whose intangibles make up for their lack of athleticism or physical gifts (especially in Harangody’s case). If they do not though, it could be a steeper challenge, and may require a lot of experimenting with temporary options during the preseason and early part of the year leading up to the Euroleague season.

But, despite these issues, Darussafaka has an excellent two-star combo to build around (Anderson and Wanamaker) as well as a head coach who is one of the brightest in the game, and is hungry to prove himself again after a bit of a tumultuous debut in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blatt should thrive with this roster, and in this situation: he has succeeded in much higher-pressure positions in the past in Maccabi Tel Aviv and Cleveland, and he was still able to make deep playoff runs in those situations. They may not have the depth to be Final Four-bound or compete with Fenerbahce for a BSL title just yet, but don’t count them out, especially considering Blatt’s tendency to maximize the talent available to him on the roster.

Galatasaray hopes their Eurocup title will transition to further success in the Euroleague.

Galatasaray: Eurocup title down; Euroleague next.

After winning the first major European competition in club history (the Eurocup), Galatasaray is looking to make a move in Euroleague play after an aggressive offseason that rivals Darussafaka in terms of new acquisitions. Galatasaray has a passionate fan base, and is no stranger to the Euroleague either, as they made the playoffs in 2014, and have made the Round of 16 as well in 2013 and 2015.

Galatasaray made big noise this summer, acquiring a mixture of former NBA imports, as well as European talent who will bring much needed Euroleague experience next season. The biggest prize may be power forward Austin Daye, a former Detroit Piston and San Antonio Spur who has spent most of his professional career the past couple of seasons with the Austin Spurs, the Spurs’ D-League affiliate. Daye was a former No. 15 pick by the Pistons, and never really lived up to his potential. He never seemed to get the right opportunities in Detroit or San Antonio, and struggled to find a position as well. He wasn’t quite physical or strong enough to play the power forward position, but he wasn’t quite quick enough or had good enough handles to play the small forward position either. That tweener status was a main reason he ended up being mostly D-League roster filler as of late, and eventually moved overseas, where he played for Consultinvest Pesaro in the Serie A last year.

However, it will be interesting to see how head coach Ergin Ataman will utilize the multi-talented Daye with this Galatasaray roster. The strongest aspect of Daye’s game is his shooting, as he is able to easily shoot over players thanks to his 6’10 frame and seven-foot plus wing span. He succeeds not only beyond the arc, but in the mid-range as well, as he is able to hurt teams with a nice little post-up fade away around the block, when he is able to establish position around it (not always a guarantee as stronger posts have pushed him out regularly). Defensively, while not the greatest on-ball defender due to limited agility side-to-side, Daye is an able shot blocker, with good instincts for the ball. Granted, he’s not the kind of defender you want to camp down in the paint, as he gets overpowered easily, but for a stretch four type, he offers the kind of shot blocking that makes him somewhat of an asset defensively, which is not always the case with some stretch four types.

In his first European campaign, Daye averaged 21.2 ppg and 9 rpg in 21 Serie A games with Pesaro, while being named to the Serie A All-Star game. As you can see in his highlights below, Daye showed that he still has some juice left in the tank, and he can be a solid primary scoring option for this Galatasaray team next season, especially from the outside.

However, while Daye may be the primary signing, Galatasaray also added depth with the acquisitions of Jon Diebler and Alex Tyus, who both have big-time Euroleague experience. Diebler was a key player during Karsiyaka’s cinderella run in 2015 in the BSL, and Tyus was a key contributor off the bench during Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 2014 Euroleague championship. For a club that desperately wants to duplicate the Eurocup success last year as much as possible next season in the Euroleague, acquiring these two is a step in that direction.

The last big signing for Galatasaray was Nenad Krstic who missed nearly all of last season with Efes due to injury. Krstic is the classic high-risk veteran signing, as he probably is in the downward spiral of his career, but he has big-time game experience not just in the Euroleague, but in the NBA as well. At the very least, Krstic will be a valuable veteran who could mentor some of Galatasaray’s younger talent.

There will be pressure on Ataman to make these pieces fit together and work, especially considering the fierce competition at the top in the BSL, and the higher-stakes in the Euroleague with only 16 teams making the field every year instead of 24, like in the past. Vladimir Micov and Blake Schilb, two of the returning starters from last year’s Eurocup squad, helps keep things stable on the perimeter for Galatasaray, especially with the addition of Diebler. And if they are able to keep Stephane Lasme, that will even add more depth in the post with Daye and Krstic, as well as Deon Thompson, whom they just added from Bayern Munich.

There is no question that the talent is there to compete in the Euroleague and BSL. Ataman has been given a nice hand, with management being as aggressive as possible to keep Galatasaray a regular participant in the Euroleague scene. The big question will be how Ataman gets all these new pieces to work with the returning roster. Ataman isn’t coming off the best Turkish National Team campaign, where they looked unimpressive in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and didn’t seem to mesh together as a group in time to qualify for an Olympic berth. (And Ataman was blasted by Enes Kanter, a Turkish national who is playing with OKC Thunder for not maximizing the talent on the roster.) Will Ataman be able to handle the diverse influx of talent with Galatasaray, or will his struggles finding the right combinations on the floor transfer from FIBA to Euroleague play?

The Galatasaray ultras are faithful, but with such high stakes at play this season, they will not be patient if Ataman doesn’t get this Galatasaray club off on the right foot, especially in Euroleague play.

Fenerbahce earned BSL and Turkish Cup titles last year; now all they need is a Euroleague one to complete the “Triple Crown”.

Fenerbahce: The “King stay King”

The sting of coming back from 20-plus down to force overtime, but still lose the Euroleague championship still resonates with this Fenerbahce team and fanbase. In arguably the greatest year in club history, everyone pretty much returns for head coach Zeljko Obradovic and the prospect of a returning roster with such big-game pedigree, as well as a coach who is never satisfied with runner-up finishes, is downright scary for opposing competition not only in Turkey, but in Europe overall.

Fenerbahce’s biggest victory this off-season was the return of post combo Jan Vesely and Ekpe Udoh, who both spurned returns to the NBA to make another Final Four run (and possibly Triple Crown run) with the Blue and Gold. It’s amazing to see how Vesely and Udoh have developed into All-Euroleague players in such a short time, as they struggled in roles as no-offense, limited-defensively players in the NBA who failed to live up to their Top-10 Draft Pick statuses. However, whether it’s the change of scenery in Europe or the tutelage of Obradovic in Istanbul, Vesely and Udoh have become arguably the best post players in Europe, and have been compensated as so to keep them in Turkey. Vesely succeeds as a pick and roll player, as his finishes around the rim off the pick and roll with Bobby Dixon were downright unstoppable at times for opposing Euroleague defenses. As for Udoh, he proved to be a monster cleanup presence, as he regularly finished missed baskets with big time throw downs. On the defensive end, Udoh made his presence known and then some, as he finished with the most blocks in Euroleague history by the end of last season. Expect these two, if healthy to be even better next season, as Obradovic will have a full season to figure out how to better utilize them together on the floor, which is crazy to think of since they were both All-Euroleague players a season ago (Vesely was a first-team player despite missing some time to an achilles injury and Udoh made second team).

The second big victory for Fenerbahce was keeping young wing star Bogdan Bogdanovic, a Euroleague rising star who is coming off his best season yet as a professional. It was widely thought Bogdanovic would make the transition to the Phoenix Suns (the NBA team who owned his rights), especially considering the increase in salary cap which most likely would have resulted in a big payday for the young Serbian. However, Bogdanovic bucked the Suns’ offer and decided to come back at least for another year with Fenerbahce (the Suns were so outraged that they traded his rights to the Sacramento Kings). Nicknamed “the White Mamba” by some Bogdanovic is a big-time competitor who can hurt teams beyond the arc and in the mid-range. His game is very classic, like a Serbian Kobe of sorts who can take over game when he wants. At only 23 years old, he has already had two valuable years of experience with Fenerbahce, and his third season should only be better after the challenges he faced in the Euroleague the past two seasons against Europe’s top competition. If you have any doubts about Bogdanovic, or how happy the Istanbul club is to return the Serbian star, just watch the highlight tape below.

Fenerbahce really has done something rare in the scheme of European club basketball: keep their roster intact. Even beyond the three mentioned above, Fenerbahce also returns forward Nikola Kalinic, Gigi Datome and Pero Antic as well as guards Bobby Dixon and Konstantinos Sloukas. To return the eight best players of a Euroleague runner-up squad is downright unfair, and it makes sense why many experts are claiming that Fenerbahce is the overwhelming favorite to return to the Euroleague championship game (along with CSKA Moscow, who also was able to keep a lot of talent, with Nando de Colo being the prime example).

Staying at the top isn’t easy, as Real Madrid, who pretty much returned everyone as well, didn’t exactly parlay their 2015 Euroleague Championship success into a repeat run in 2016 (though injuries were a big reason for it). The expectations are higher than ever for Fenerbahce, especially considering they are coming off a year where they won the BSL, Turkish Cup and narrowly missed on the Euroleague championship. Anything less than a Triple Crown would be deemed a failure to this organization and fanbase, especially considering the amount of money management spent to keep this roster intact.

But, one has to remember that Obradovic is the head coach of this team, and no coach in Euroleague history has been as successful as him. He is an intense competitor who demands only the highest level of play from his players, and it is obvious that the top talent on this roster, from Vesely to Udoh to Bogdanovic to even Dixon and Datome bought in to Obradovic’s high-pressure defensive as well as offensive system. With another year of familiarity with Obradovic’s system, it should be expected that Fenerbahce will be even more efficient and cohesive on both ends of the floor in 2016-2017.

When it comes to basketball hierarchy in Turkey, Fenerbahce is the King. And this off-season, they have done their best to set themselves up to continue to be King for a least another season. That being said, staying at the top isn’t easy, and certainly Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray have done their necessary steps to make themselves a foil to Fenerbahce’s quest to keep the crown they currently have in Turkey and perhaps Europe. Fenerbahce knows with Bogdanovic most likely going to the NBA soon, and futures of other players such as Vesely and Udoh and even Datome and Antic always in doubt due to the big money of the NBA, their time to stay at the top in their current mold is limited, and they were too close to a Triple Crown last year to settle for anything less in 2017.

So Efes, Darussafaka and Galatasaray…if you come at the King…you best not miss.

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Will Georgios Bartzokas be the right coach for Barcelona?

Georgios Bartzokas is officially the new head coach of Barcelona; they are hoping he’ll be celebrating like this (his Euroleague title with Olympiacos in 2013) in the near future.

Finally…all the turmoil, rumors, and reports are over. FC Barcelona finally has a coach, and it isn’t Sarunas Jasikevicius or Sito Alonso (who ended up taking the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia job…more on that in a separate post). After a lengthy process to figure out Xavi Pascual’s replacement, Barcelona management settled on Greek national Georgios Bartzokas, most recently the head coach of Lokomotiv Kuban of Russia.

Bartzokas is an interesting hire by Barcelona management after a multiple week process that felt much longer. He doesn’t have the playing pedigree of Jasikevicius, nor does he have Alonso’s youth or deep ties within the Spanish basketball system. Despite not having those characteristics, Bartzokas has been a successful head coach, as he won a Euroleague title in 2013 when he was head coach of Olympiacos and led Loko to their first ever Final Four as well as a third place finish last season (in the club’s second appearance in the Euroleague ever). There is no question that the 51-year-old Athenian head coach can make teams competitive at the highest level of play in Europe, but is he the right fit for the Catalan club, and can he bring the kind of success (ACB and Euroleague titles) that evaded previous head coach, Xavi Pascual, the past couple of seasons?

After all, as stated before in one of my previous posts, in Barcelona, it’s “championships or bust.” Consolation prizes aren’t a reality with the Catalan faithful, and it will be fascinating to see how Bartzokas will be able to transfer the success he had with Loko last year to Spain, but this time, under much more cutthroat circumstances.

Bartzokas has found Euroleague success as a coach, first with Olympiacos in 2013 and last year with Loko.

Bartzokas came onto Barcelona’s radar late, as it seemed in mid-June, Bartzokas was going to honor his contract with Kuban for at least one more season, according to a report from Sportando. And honestly, it didn’t seem to matter at the time, as Saras seemed to be a shoo-in for the Barcelona job once Pascual officially was let go (which happened a couple of weeks later). But, as we learned before, Jasikevicius wasn’t eligible for the position due to ACB rules, and in early July, after the Alonso reports proved to be erroneous, Barcelona was still without a head coach.

And surprisingly, things also changed dramatically for Bartzokas in Krasnodar.

Despite pledging his allegiance, the outlook for Lokomotiv Kuban looked quite bleak for 2016-2017. While Loko had a banner year in the Euroleague with their surprise Final Four run, their domestic season wasn’t as successful. In the VTB United League, Loko finished an underwhelming fifth, and were promptly swept by Khimki Moscow 3-0 in the playoffs. Because of the disappointing finish, the club didn’t earn the B license out of the VTB to qualify for the Euroleague (that went to Unics, who finished second to CSKA Moscow), and they missed out on the lone wild card spot to Darussafaka Dogus of Turkey. With new condensed format of the Euroleague, Loko was left out of the field of 16, and regulated to Eurocup, a harsh reality to stomach for Bartzokas and the organization after they ousted Barcelona in the playoffs months earlier.

And because of the regulation, it became less of an incentive for ownerships to pay top dollar to keep players, and star players began to look and find contracts elsewhere. Malcolm Delaney headed to the NBA where he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Versatile big man Anthony Randolph ended up signing a two-year deal with Real Madrid. And though they haven’t signed anywhere else yet, Victor Claver and Dontaye Draper have made it known that they are not returning with Loko next season. And thus, it made sense for Bartzokas to look elsewhere despite pledging his commitment nearly a month earlier. Loko looked to be a rebuilding job in 2016-2017, and quite a big one in Europe’s second-tier competition. That’s not what Bartzokas signed up for when he said he would “honor” his contract, and when Barcelona came along with an offer, he took it gladly, knowing that the Loko job would be more risk than it was worth.

Bartzokas is a different kind of hire for Barcelona, and the Barcelona job is a different one as well for Bartzokas. Previous head coach Xavi Pascual was a Barcelona-lifer of sorts, as he got his start coaching the B team in 2004, and then spent a couple of seasons as an assistant to Dusko Ivanovic before taking over in 2008 after Dusko was fired. Bartzokas on the other hand, has no experience coaching or playing in Spain, and his only basketball experience outside of his home country of Greece came last year with Loko, and that was in Russia, where the VTB and Russian Domestic scene is not as strong as the ACB. For Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the ACB, the Bartzokas hire is a bit of an experiment, as the coaches they have hired in the past had experience in Spanish basketball as a player or coach.

But, if there is one thing the Athenian coach can do it is win and win quickly. Bartzokas took over Olympiacos in 2011, and promptly won a title in 2013, beating CSKA Moscow in the semifinal and Real Madrid in the championship game by double digits. After an underwhelming season in 2014-2015, when Loko went undefeated in the Eurocup regular season, but choked in the quarterfinals, Bartzokas led Loko to a dream Euroleague season which not only included a trip to the Final Four, but also a dramatic comeback in the playoffs, where despite being down 2-1 in the series and facing elimination in Game 4 in Barcelona, they won two straight games to punch their ticket to Berlin. Bartzokas’ basketball acumen, as well as cool demeanor, especially in big games, has served him well in his coaching career, as he has installed immediate success in every place he has coached so far.

For Barcelona, hiring a coach who could produce a quick-turn-around is exactly what they needed, especially with their rivals in Madrid dominating not only them, but the ACB the past couple of seasons.

Athletic defenders like Randolph (left) and Chris Singleton (right, 1) were key to Bartzokas finding defensive success in Loko.

What has made Bartzokas such as successful coach is his emphasis on defense. Last season, Loko was one of the best teams defensively in the Euroleague, as their 100.2 defensive rating was the second best mark over the full season (and only .1 behind Fenerbahce Ulker). However, Loko really found their groove defensively when Top 16 play began, when they fully had their roster intact (Randolph only played 60 minutes total in Regular Season play). In Top 16 play,  Loko’s defensive rating was 98.4, 3.1 points better than the second best mark (Fenerbahce), and their net rating of 11.4 was also the best in the league in the Top 16, even better than eventual champion CSKA Moscow (who had a 10.0 mark). Once Bartzokas had all his horses (mostly Randolph), Loko was one of the toughest teams to beat on a night in-night out basis, and Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy was a big key to that tremendous success in the Top 16.

Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy really is nothing spectacular. He emphasized strong, man-to-man defense, with little switching, and an emphasis on stopping the drive as much as possible. On the backside, Loko usually sagged their defenders to create help more than typical from most squads, which is characteristic of many Pack Line defenses. Take a look at how Loko is positioned on this possession against Barcelona in the playoffs.

Screenshot 2016-07-12 at 8.47.59 AM

See Claver on the weakside sagging heavily toward the paint, which was a heavy part of Bartzokas’ philosophy last season: force teams to beat them from the outside. However, one reason Bartzokas was able to do this because Loko did two things well: 1.) utilize their length and athleticism and 2.) play extremely hard in half court defense. Loko was a cohesive unit on the floor defensively, and Bartzokas deserves a lot of credit for maximizing the talent on his roster on this end.

Bartzokas didn’t utilize a lot of full court presses or traps in the half court, mainly because he didn’t need to. He had length and athleticism advantages defensively at nearly every position. Delaney was a big point guard who could body up most opposing point guards with ease, and he was strong enough to play through screens and blow up opposing pick and roll plays. And Delaney’s backup, Draper, was a small bundle of muscle who didn’t have Delaney’s height, but had the same kind of strength-speed combo to either frustrate opposing guards or play through screens easily. Claver was a versatile defensive player who had the size to play opposing fours, but also the speed and length to hound and frustrate wings as well (he could sag this low on this possession because if Barcelona did skip it, he had quick enough reactions and athleticism to recover and break down and properly contest the three pointer or prevent the drive). Ryan Broekhoff didn’t have the athletic gifts of some of the other players in the starting lineup (mostly Claver or Randolph), but he played EXTREMELY hard on the defensive end. One could say Broekhoff was the glue that kept this squad together. A defender who didn’t give as much effort may have put Loko in situations where his teammates would be compromised more defensively. However, because of Broekhoff’s effort, and his ability to play through screens and guard multiple positions (he could guard guys on the perimeter or post depending on the situation), his teammates were able to play in their comfort zone and not worry about frequently having to help on breakdowns, which consequently made them more effective defenders, and thus, a more effective defensive team.

And the jewel of Bartzokas’ defensive strategy was Randolph who did everything defensively. He could block shots with ease around the rim, but he was also quick enough to hedge and recover off the ball screen, or switch in a pinch (which didn’t happen very often). And Chris Singleton off the bench provided the same kind of defensive ability, though Singleton was a bit more on the physical side (though not as quick as Randolph). As one can see, all these pieces put together put up a strong defensive force that proved to be difficult for opponents to score on. The only times Loko gave up points was usually due to mental lapses on their own end. As talented and effective as Randolph was, there were times he broke down defensively in transition, as he sometimes tended to jog back down after a turnover or missed shot, which led to easy buckets in transition for opponents. But for the most part, Bartzokas had this Loko team a well-oiled machine on the defensive end, and installed a strategy that proved to be effective all-season long in the Euroleague.

Of course, it is to be expected that Bartzokas’ defensive philosophy will adjust with Barcelona in some ways. While he will be able to play a similar way on the perimeter with long wings such as Alex Abrines, Stratos Perperoglou, and Pau Ribas, Ante Tomic in the post is a much stiffer-moving defender who can’t recover or switch or block shots like Randolph. However, there is one weapon on the roster that Bartzokas most likely will utilize more, especially on the defensive end, and that is Shane Lawal. Lawal doesn’t have the offensive gifts of Randolph, but defensively, he mirrors Randolph’s profile nicely. Lawal is a long, athletic defender who can roam and fight through screens, and he looked like he was on the verge of breaking out for Barcelona before a midseason injury sidelined him for a while. Expect Bartzokas to utilize Lawal more, especially since he will fit into Bartzokas’ conservative man-to-man strategy that emphasizes strength and length to prevent baskets. The only issue for Bartzokas to address is defense from the point, as Juan Carlos Navarro isn’t the kind of defender that will fit into what Bartzokas liked to do with Delaney and Draper last season, and Tomas Satoransky isn’t going to be with Barcelona next year, but instead in the NBA (he would have fit better due to his large frame). It’ll be interesting to see if Barcelona management will add a point guard through transfer this offseason in the kind of athletic mold of Delaney and Draper to fit into Bartzokas’ defensive system in year one in Barcelona.

Bartzokas relies heavily on his star players offensively, as evidenced by Anthony Randolph’s 32.1 usage rate last year with Loko.

Offensively, it is a bit of a different story for Bartzokas, as this is where he will most dramatically differ from his predecessor. Pascual was known for being a great basketball mind, who relied on a heavy playbook and liked to call multiple actions and sets in the half court. Bartzokas is the opposite, as he prefers a hands-off approach and allows for a more free-flowing offense that relies more on isolation and getting the ball to 1 or 2 scorers and depending on them to make the offense work.

Last season, Bartzokas relied heavily on Randolph and Delaney, as they generated most of the offense for Loko, especially in the half court. Randolph led the team in usage rate at 32.1 perecent, a mark that was also highest in the Euroleague last season as well. A lot of the time, Bartzokas offense was simply get the ball to Randolph and let him do his thing, and considering how versatile and athletic a scorer Randolph was, it worked most of the time. When Plan A (get it to Randolph) didn’t work, it usually delved into Plan B which was get the ball to Delaney, who had the second highest usage rate on the team at 22.9 percent. And off the bench, Singleton proved to be a Randolph-lite, as his usage rate was 21.9 percent.

When it worked, it was a sight to behold. No better example was Game 4 of the playoffs, when Anthony Randolph went straight “LeBron James”-mode and won the game himself and kept Loko alive despite facing elimination on the road. Check out his highlights below and how heavily Loko relied on him in their sets (as well as Delaney, who set up a lot of Randolph’s buckets).

There really wasn’t anything groundbreaking with what Randolph, Delaney and even Singleton did on the court strategically. They got the ball, they either drove and finished (mostly in the case of Randolph and Singleton) or drove and created for others (mostly in the case of Delaney). It was simple, but it was effective and it was tough for teams to guard at times, especially when one player was hot, it usually opened up shots for others as well. And this isn’t something exclusive to Loko, as Bartzokas preferred this philosophy with Olympiacos as well, as Vassilis Spanoulis had a usage rate of 29.3 during their Championship run in 2013.

Unfortunately, when things stalled offensively for Loko, or if they couldn’t get the ball to Randolph or if Delaney wasn’t hitting his shots or finding room to drive or if Singleton was on one of his cold streaks, the Loko offense could get downright ugly. Poor turnovers from horrendous possessions led to easy baskets for the opposition on a more-than-desirable basis. Loko actually had the seventh highest turnover rate in Top 16 play, and their lack of ability to take care of the ball consistently would transfer to a lot of blown leads for the Krasnodar-based club. Yes, they would come back a lot of the times, as one of those three or another like Claver, would get on a hot streak to rescue them. However, Bartzokas’ simple offense sometimes proved to be Loko’s own worst enemy, as they didn’t play well in the pick and roll, nor did they have a lot of effective secondary plays to hang their hat on in the half court when the isolation wasn’t clicking.

Establishing an offense will be much a bigger challenge for Bartzokas in Barcelona than defense, and ultimately that will make or break his tenure with his new club. With Satoransky gone, and no new signing to take over his position (yet), it will be interesting to see who will step up and be that “primary” isolation playmaker that will succeed under Bartzokas. With Olympiacos, it was Spanoulis as well as Dimitris Diamantidis. With Loko, it was Delaney and Randolph. Three-four years ago Navarro could have handled that role, but he isn’t the shooter or shot creator he once was, as evidenced by his sub-par campaign last season. Tomic is an effective scorer around the block, but he is effective in the pick and roll (not one of Bartzokas’ go-to’s) and really can’t create much off the dribble. And wings such as Perperoglou, Abrines and Ribas have been more “secondary” offensive threats in the past, not necessarily primary offensive options (though that could change with Bartzokas giving them more responsibility and leash). Bartzokas most likely will adjust his offensive philosophy to play more to his roster’s strengths, as he most likely will try to find a middle ground between Pascual’s old system and his own for the short term until they get more talent tailored to his liking. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see who will step up and be that “main” guy, as Bartzokas has leaned on that “primary” player in his coaching stops thus far.

Bartzokas seemed to get the most out of his players in Loko; will that carry over in Barcelona?

The pressure to win in Barcelona is more than ever, and Bartzokas knows he is not stepping into an easy job. Pascual was a misnomer for a European coach, as he actually stayed a long time in Barcelona, something that is not typically seen from coaches in the “impatient” basketball management world of European club basketball. However, he had success. He took Barcelona to Euroleague Final Fours and won ACB titles, and he didn’t the last two years, which is why he is gone. Bartzokas has done the same: he has won a Euroleague title and been to two Final Fours, but doing so in Greece and Russia is a lot different from doing it in Spain, probably the most high-profile country in Europe when it comes to Euroleague and domestic league success.

If there is one thing positive about Bartzokas’ outlook it is that Barcelona is trying to change how they “build” their team, so Bartzokas will have some leash if he doesn’t make the Euroleague Final Four or win an ACB title in year one. However, a bottom-out season (i.e. a fourth or lower finish in ACB play or not qualifying for the playoffs in the Euroleague) won’t save him, nor would two years without a championship. This isn’t a one-year audition, but the pressure to perform at the highest level certainly is going to be expected from the Catalan faithful

Bartzokas won’t be able to play the same exact kind of ball he did in Loko next season and how he adjusts his style, which differs from Pascual in so many areas, will be something to behold next year. Will it work? Will Bartzokas find the right compromise in styles offensively and defensively? Will he get some talent toward the end of the summer or start of the year that will allow him to do what he is accustomed to doing? (There were reports that Barcelona was trying to make a late push for Randolph before he ended up signing with Madrid.)

Bartzokas can’t waste much time though to figure out these issues. Real Madrid has dominated their El Clasico rivals the past two seasons, and that is a wound that gets deeper and deeper with every Real championship and win in the ACB and Euroleague.

If that competitive status with their rival doesn’t change quickly, it is not difficult to imagine who the fans’ scapegoat will be.

Four thoughts about the FIBA Champions League field

FIBA is saying all the right things, but will the Champions League replace the Eurocup in time or just be another failed venture in the club scene for the basketball federation?

I have already done a post about the Eurocup field, and after some time, and the announcement of the teams participating, I am going to do a similar analysis for the FIBA Champions League, FIBA’s newest venture in the club basketball scene. This is going to deviate a little from the Eurocup post, as it will not just be about the teams, but will also bring up some points about the FIBA Champions League in general, as this “civil war” between FIBA and the Euroleague company continues to impact basketball in Europe in a negative way, affecting not only the club basketball scene in Europe, but international basketball as well.

So, let’s take a look at some thoughts about the Champions League field and its outlook for 2016-2017.

 

The field is certainly a step up from the EuroChallenge days.

Strasbourg is the kind of team FIBA wouldn’t have been able to lure to their former competition, the EuroChallenge, in the past.

From 2003-2015, as the Euroleague company and ULEB dominated the top two tiers of European basketball with the Euroleague and Eurocup, FIBA sponsored the EuroChallenge, which effectively became the third-tier competition for European basketball. The competition was a nice mixture, mostly made of smaller clubs from bigger countries as well clubs from countries who didn’t have the basketball pedigree of countries like Spain and Greece, for example. The EuroChallenge certainly didn’t generate the attention or interest of European basketball fans like the Euroleague or Eurocup, but it did have a history of hosting some clubs before they made it to the big time. (The league was actually a preference of clubs from Italy and Russia for example over the Eurocup in its early days; clubs like Unics, Lokomotiv Kuban and Virtus Bologna, who have all played in the Euroleague, had success in the EuroChallenge.)

However, fed up with being a “bronze” candidate in the European club basketball scene, FIBA decided to compete directly with the Eurocup starting last year with the FIBA Europe Cup. However, the league failed to gain traction, and the Champions League decided to re-tool their image and tried to come up with a more hard-line strategy to promote their new competition (mostly involving sanctioning countries and clubs who preferred the Eurocup over the Champions League).

Surprisingly, while the competition may still not be as strong as the Eurocup (mostly due to the Euroleague’s new format, which involves 8 less teams, thus pushing those clubs to the Eurocup), the Champions League should have a solid debut competition-wise. As noted in my earlier post about the Eurocup, French and Turkish clubs who would have been competing in second-tier competition have decided to participate in the Champions League, and this has boosted the competitiveness of the field in comparison to FIBA’s previous club competitions. French clubs like ASVEL and Strasbourg, and Turkish clubs like Besiktas and Pinar Karsiyaka would have been strong competitors in the Eurocup this upcoming season (Strasbourg made the Eurocup finals last season), and the fact that FIBA was able to get them to participate in their inaugural season should boost the profile of their competition in ways the Europe Cup or EuroChallenge couldn’t in the past.

Yet even beyond France and Turkey, two major basketball countries, there is a good mix of competitive clubs from all over Europe. Aris and PAOK from Greece, Iberostar Tenerife from Spain, reigning Europe Cup champion Fraport Skyliners from Germany, Mega Leks from Serbia, Cibona from Croatia, Neptunas from Lithuania, Maccabi Rishon from Israel and Khimik from Ukraine are all quality clubs who have experience in second-tier competition, with some (such as Neptunas) having Euroleague history. Perhaps the Eurocup has a bit of an advantage over the Champions League in terms of quality of competition, but for a debut year, and only two years removed from being primarily a third-tier competition, FIBA did a pretty good job in acquiring clubs that will make the Champions League interesting to follow.

The competition will be more about quantity than quality initially.

Kataja of Finland is one of the 48 clubs that will be competing in the CL, 24 more than the Eurocup, and 32 more than the Euroleague.

With a total of 48 teams participating, the Champions League will follow a format similar to the old Eurocup model: a handful of smaller, lesser-profile clubs will play in a couple of qualifying rounds before a 14 round regular season made up of 32 teams. After the regular season, the best 16 teams will make the playoffs, which will progress until they reach the Final Four, where the winner will be determined over a weekend, similar in fashion to the Euroleague and Eurocup Final Four structure (single elimination).

The nice thing about the Champions League’s model is that it will expose fans to A LOT of teams, and from countries many people don’t think of when it comes to basketball in Europe. Yes, people are familiar with Spain, Greece, Germany, and Italy’s basketball history, but in the qualifying round, there will be clubs from Portugal, Romania, Estonia, Finland, and Belarus, just to name a few. This kind of country exposure is good for the game of basketball, especially for clubs from countries that don’t necessarily get a lot of media or television attention when it comes to basketball. Now, that’s not saying they’re going to have much impact. I can’t imagine Portugal for example, whose basketball teams don’t have the funding of say an Aris in Greece, will be able to compete talent-wise with clubs from major basketball countries beyond the qualifying round, should they make it past that. But to be able to see these clubs compete, even for a little while, should satisfy the basketball junkie who is looking for different clubs and styles beyond what is seen in the Euroleague and Eurocup.

And that is one thing that the Champions League has going for it: quantity. They will have a lot of clubs from a lot of countries and that is a unique quality that the league can hangs its hat on initially. FIBA is definitely trying to promote small European countries a bit more through its international competition, and by giving those small countries and their basketball clubs exposure, that will help make basketball bigger in those countries, and consequently, make Europe stronger as a basketball continent. And plus, for basketball addicts, being able to see as many clubs from as many countries as possible is a plus, just for the niche factor alone, and the qualifying rounds should be something pushed by FIBA when those rounds begin in September. I know basketball addicts like myself would love to see clubs from “lesser-known” countries compete with such high stakes on the line, and FIBA needs to utilize this as much as possible to give it an angle that neither the Euroleague or Eurocup will be able to provide next season under their new formats.

Will the talent follow the clubs in the Champions League?

Neptunas of Lithuania (blue) has been able to attract some talent, but will other clubs be able to in order to make the CL legitimate?

This was also an issue for teams that were demoted from the Euroleague to the Eurocup, but it is a question worth beckoning in this situation as well: will Champions League have enough talent to make the league competitive? Unlike the NBA, clubs see their talent come and go on a frequent basis, and it usually correlates with the competitive status of the club. A club going to the Euroleague is going to garner a lot more talent than one that is being demoted to the Eurocup or Champions League. We saw it this off-season: Maccabi Tel Aviv and Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul were able to get major talent in transfers because of their solid Euroleague status, while teams like Lokomotiv Kuban, Unicaja Malaga and Pinar Karsiyaka lost a lot of talent due to them being regulated to the Eurocup or Champions League.

So far, it is difficult to see if the Champions League will have the kind of talent to keep it on par with the Eurocup. Neptunas has been active in the market by keeping Jerai Grant, and Aris and PAOK have made some small, but roster-strengthening moves, but other than that, it doesn’t seem like many of the current clubs in the Champions League have gotten all that better. Eurocup and ProA runner-up Strasbourg lost coach Vincent Collet and may be rebuilding depending on what a lot of their current players decide this off-season (some are contemplating options ranging from the NBA to other European clubs). Pinar Karsiyaka lost their coach as well to Besiktas as well as a lot of talent. And Mega Leks lost three players to the NBA Draft. When it comes to star players shining next year in the Champions League, there will be a lot of opportunities for players to break out on the big stage through FIBA’s competition, since there will not be a lot of initial big names that FIBA can hang its hat on initially while promoting the league.

And that is the challenge FIBA will face: what kind of talent should the Champions League promote? Should it promote young, up and coming talent? Should it promote veterans who are getting their last shots? Should it keep it straight and say it is as every bit full of talent as the Eurocup? These questions will be interesting to follow, as there has not been a lot of “team” publicity yet in association with the Champions League on its Web site. But, if the Champions League wants to compete with the Eurocup legitimately, it will not only need good clubs, but good, marketable and exciting players as well.

Can the Champions League last? Or is it another failed FIBA idea?

FIBA has tried in the past to be a player in first and second-tier competition and failed. Will the CL be different?

It is a shame that FIBA could not be satisfied with being a third-tier competition with the EuroChallenge and trying to develop that as more of a “small country” competition to grow and strengthen basketball in smaller, less-basketball-focused countries. I think FIBA’s Golden Goose has always been international basketball, even in Europe, and I think the EuroChallenge and being in charge of a third-tier competition, though not as lucrative as a first or second-tier, presented opportunities for growth and creativity that would have down the road strengthened their Goose: the Eurobasket and other European competitions.

But, FIBA wants a bigger portion of the club basketball pie in Europe, and after failing with the FIBA SuproLeague in 2001 (an initial competitor with the Euroleague), FIBA decided to go the next best route: compete with the second-tier competition, the Eurocup. Yes, it’s not as big a piece of the pie as the Euroleague, but it’s a safer and easier route for FIBA to go, and it could also set up the foundation for a coup of the Euroleague down the road as well. If FIBA is in sole control of Europe’s top secondary competition, then it will only be a matter of time before they garner enough teams and talent to directly compete with Euroleague and lure those clubs that solidify the Euroleague as well.

However, as history has shown, this hasn’t always worked out for FIBA. The Europe Cup was a bust last season, and though the EuroChallenge had periods where they tried to directly compete with the Eurocup, it always seemed to fall flat in the end, and FIBA ended up resigning to third-tier status. FIBA is pulling out all the stops to make the Champions League work: they are hitting countries hard with potential sanctions if they are choosing the Eurocup over the Champions League. And it has worked to an extent. There are rumors that by July 11th, the four Italian Eurocup participants will withdraw from the competition out of fear of being sanctioned out of Serie A play domestically. If this does indeed come to fruition, it shows the kind of negotiating power FIBA has. And with this kind of negotiating power and ability to strike down powerful consequences (allegedly), then it will deter people in the future even more from agreeing to participate in the Eurocup, thus making it weaker while consequently strengthening the Champions League.

That being said, it will be interesting to see what kind of sanctions FIBA does hand out. After all, Spain probably has the most leverage in this situation, as they have not only the strongest club scene in Europe, but also one of the strongest national teams globally as well. Will FIBA risk shutting them out, when Spain can bring all kinds of competition to Europe in global play? And can the Champions League truly be a Champions League when the best teams from the best basketball country in Europe refuse to participate?

The Spain situation makes things extremely difficult for the Champions League to succeed, and Russia’s lack of cooperation with multiple clubs preferring the Eurocup over the Champions League doesn’t help either. Russia doesn’t have the national team pedigree, but their clubs have the money, and the kind of money to lure top talent. And as stated before, the Champions League needs talent if they want to legitimize their clubs and their competition in comparison to the Eurocup.

It will be interesting. I do not think that the Champions League will be a 1-year thing like the SuproLeague or Europe Cup before it, as it seems like it has a lot of investment behind it. But it is going to be difficult for FIBA to get over the hump, despite the “sanctioning” power it has. Not having countries like Spain and Russia on board hurts their cause for legitimizing itself, and on a marketing basis, the “Champions League” moniker seems gimmicky, as if it is trying to piggyback on the UEFA Soccer Counterpart and cater to those who aren’t familiar with the European basketball scenery. In all honesty, I think FIBA should have stayed with the Europe Cup or EuroChallenge name, as it would seem less desperate and more unique in the European sporting landscape.

European basketball is at a crossroads, and who comes out on top in this Eurocup-Champions League competition will determine a lot about the future of basketball on the continent. It’s difficult to tell who holds the upper hand at this point. The Eurocup has the clubs and the talent to make it the more legitimate competition for fans, but the Champions League has the FIBA backing which is slowly getting more traction after a court upheld the ruling that FIBA could punish countries for choosing the Eurocup over the Champions League.

It’s on-court product vs. organizational power. That is what the Eurocup-Champions League battle is all about. Let’s hope European basketball isn’t too scorched when this conflict is all said and done, whoever comes out on top.

Euroleague Retro: Raul Lopez, Guard, Spain

Point guard Raul Lopez, who just retired after this last season with Bilbao, will have a legacy as one of Spain’s most dynamic guards.

One feature I would like to post on this blog are pieces that contain highlights and some brief write-ups on former Euroleague stars that are not or barely familiar with American basketball fans. As displayed by this latest draft and free agency period, it is obvious that the influence European basketball has on the NBA (and vice versa) is greater than ever. A lot of the negative biases NBA fans, front office and media members had in the past about European players and teams has started to fade more and more each year, especially with European veteran stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker and newer stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo succeeding in the league, (and that’s just naming a few). And because of this “European Influence” the game of basketball here in America is more diverse and entertaining than ever.

However, what about the stars who never made it to the United States or the ones who only played here briefly? What about the teams who dominated the Euroleague that never got the recognition they deserved in the United States? What about the coaches who not only were successful in Europe, but also influenced the game so much that their contributions have influenced the NBA and American game?

That is what Euroleague Retro is about, and to begin the series, I am going to take a look at a dynamic point guard who just played his last season: Raul Lopez of Spain.

A brief outline of Lopez’s career

Lopez played briefly for the Utah Jazz for two seasons before heading back to Europe.

Lopez is probably one of the most dynamic point guards to ever come out of Spain. Considering that’s a category that also includes NBA players like Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio and Euroleague stars like Sergio Rodriguez, Sergio Llull, and Juan Carlos Navarro, that is quite the statement. However, Lopez’s legacy in Spain is one that should be remembered for years to come, as he helped break ground and set the mold for Spanish point guards who came, after him, especially Rodriguez, Llull and Rubio.

Lopez played nearly 19 seasons between Europe and the United States. He started out his career DKV Joventut from 1997-2000. After a breakout season with Joventut where he averaged 10.1 ppg, 2.8 apg and 23.7 mpg while shooting 51.5 percent from the field in 34 games in the ACB, he transferred to top Spanish club Real Madrid, where he played from 2000-2002. He had one of his best seasons in the Euroleague in 2000-2001 (his first Euroleague appearance) where he averaged 8.3 ppg and 3.3 apg in 13 Euroleague games with Real Madrid. After a solid first season with Los Blancos, there were a lot of high expectations for the 2001-2002 season for Lopez, but a knee injury derailed him and limited him to 4 games in the Euroleague, and only 14 games in ACB play.

Despite coming off injury, Lopez made the transition to the United States, playing for the Utah Jazz, who drafted him 24th overall in the 2001 draft. However, due to his meniscus tear in 2002 with Real Madrid, he had to sit out the entire 2002-2003 season with Utah to recover. When he did appear in the United States with the Jazz, Lopez didn’t necessarily have the same bounce and explosiveness that he displayed earlier in his career in Spain, and thus, he found it difficult to find a regular spot. His best NBA season was his debut year in 2003-2004, where he played all 82 games as a primary backup to starter Carlos Arroyo, and averaged 7 ppg and 3.7 apg while averaging 19.7 mpg.

Unfortunately, Lopez was unable to maintain that momentum and after an uneven season with Utah in 2004-2005, and being traded to Memphis and cut in the off-season, Lopez decided to end his NBA career after only playing two seasons.

After leaving the NBA, Lopez bounced around as a bit of a journeyman of sorts. He had a great comeback season in 2005-2006 with the now defunct CB Sant Josep Girona 10.2 ppg and 2.8 apg while shooting 55.5 percent from the field and averaging 24.2 mpg in 37 ACB games, which solidified that he could be an impact player again in his home continent. From there, he played three more seasons for Real Madrid from 2006-2009 before going to Russia to play for Khimki Moscow for two seasons from 2009-2011, where he served primarily as a role player (he didn’t average more than 18.4 minutes per game in his two seasons there).

Once his tenure in Moscow finished, the call to come back to Spain came in the form of him suiting up for Bilbao Basket in Basque country. Near the end of his career, Lopez finished his career on a high note, playing four seasons with Bilbao while competing in both the ACB as well as the Euroleague (2011-2012) and Eurocup (2012-2016). Though he certainly wasn’t the kind of star player with Bilbao like he was with Joventut and Real Madrid (the first time), he offered excellent shooting, some spectacular playmaking ability, and a strong veteran presence for the younger players on the club.

In 95 games of Euroleague play, Lopez averaged 7 ppg, 2.8 apg, and 1.1 apg while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. In 61 Eurocup games, he averaged 6.8 ppg, 3 apg, while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and a ridiculous 47.2 percent from three.

Why Lopez is worth remembering 

Lopez was a dynamic player who proved to be a fan favorite, especially in his last spot with Bilbao.

Lopez was just a dynamic point guard overall. Yes, his ppg and assist numbers may make people think twice about his legacy, and he was kind of a weird hybrid between a point and a combo guard, who didn’t really focus on one thing at his position (he didn’t focus solely on scoring or passing, but tried to balance both). However, what Lopez did on the court went beyond his stats. He played with incredible creativity and panache. He displayed strong handles for a point guard his size as well as an excellent shooting stroke, especially from beyond the arc. And he paved the way for a lot of Spanish and European point guards during the mid-2000’s. He may not be a first-tier Euroleague legend in the mold of a Sarunas Jasikevicius or Drazen Petrovic, but if there are second-tier Euroleague legends who probably go unnoticed in the greater basketball community, Lopez would be on that list.

It is a shame Lopez retired, but after 19 years of basketball, it probably was his time. Spanish basketball fans, especially in Basque country, have been lucky the last four years to see a true basketball artist create on a nightly basis against ACB as well as Eurocup and Euroleague competition, and they will miss him dearly, even if he didn’t provide any big moments or championships with Bilbao. Lopez was a basketball savant, and he deserves proper recognition, regardless of how his numbers or paper profile looks.

Video Highlights of Lopez

Raul Lopez Tribute (from user Jordi Pla)

Raul Lopez: Puro Talento (from official ACB YouTube profile)

Nightly notable: Once again, Raul Lopez (from Euroleague YouTube profile)

A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

Turkey and Canada are still two teams that have a chance to qualify for a spot in the Olympics in this Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a preliminary round of games, we have reached the bracket rounds of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The reward? Three teams will get berths in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where they can fight for a chance to earn a bronze or silver medal (sorry…nobody’s competing with the USA, even though the lack of big-name stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will make it a little bit more interesting). 12 teams remain in the OQT, and to be frank, there is a strong chance a team worthy of an Olympic berth will not qualify through this tournament. While I do think the FIBA World Cup is a better venue for National Team basketball competition, the Olympics still remains the most high-profile, and the dogfight for the last three spots will be interesting to follow this weekend.

For those who are unaware, the tournament is split into “three groups”: An Italy Group, a Serbia Group and a Philippines Group. The winner of each group goes to the Olympics. Everybody else will be forced to watch the Olympics on the NBC Family of networks from their home country (whether or not it’s the one they participated for in this tournament though is to be determined). Before going into the preview of the “bracket” round, let’s point out some key events and thoughts from the tournament so far.

  • Not a great tournament for FIBA Asia or FIBA Africa, as the teams from the two continents went a combined 0-12 in group play. I know the NBA is trying to make great inroads with both those continents, both economically with fans as well as in basketball development. However, it is obvious that those continents are still years away from seriously competing on the global level with major continents like the Americas and Europe.
  • Speaking of FIBA Asia, it was a bit of a disappointing showing for Gilas Pilipinas (the name of the Filipino National Team). Despite the home court advantage, Gilas went 0-2, with losses to France and New Zealand in Manila. They played admirably in both games, and actually gave France a pretty good fight, as they actually led the global power after the first quarter. However, their lack of size (average height was 6’5 and that was with naturalized citizen Andray Blatche) ended up being their own worst enemy in both games, as it has been in FIBA Tournaments in the past. There still is some promise with Gilas, as Terrence Romeo and Bobby Ray Parks look to be a good combo to take over the mantle at the guard positions when Jayson Castro and Jeff Chan retire from international play. It’ll be interesting though to see how long Gilas lasts with Tab Baldwin, who has obviously made an impact offensively and defensively with the club (they played a much more aggressive scheme in the OQT). The Filipino Basketball organization isn’t known for being patient, but I think Baldwin deserves some more time, at least through the next FIBA Asia Championship to prove his worth.
  • The Americas was a bit of a surprise, as Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Bracket round. Canada, despite missing Minnesota Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins, has remained competitive in their group (though inconsistent…as always) and has really been boosted by the presence of Tristan Thompson, who hasn’t been as active in the international scene the past couple of years. Mexico was missing former NBA player Gustavo Ayon, who just recently signed an extension for the reigning ACB champions, Real Madrid. However, they were able to pull the upset over Iran, who had former NBA player Hamed Haddadi, to qualify for the bracket round in their group. And Puerto Rico, who have faded a bit since their “monumental” Olympic win over the USA in 2004, have played well, and parlayed the experience winning the Centrobasket Tournament weeks earlier into solid play in the OQT.
  • There is going to be at least 1 deserving European squad left out of the Olympics this August. Latvia, Greece, France, Czech Republic, Serbia, and Italy have all proven that they would be competitive if they made the Olympic field, but unfortunately, only three of those listed have a chance to make it. At this point, I would not be surprised to see all three slots go to European squads. The FIBA Europe field in this OQT has been that strong (the lone exception being Turkey, who have not looked very good this tournament).

Okay, with some of those thoughts out-of-the-way, let’s get to the preview of the bracket round of each group.

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

Analysis: Puerto Rico has been a good story, as they pulled off a big win over African power Angola 91-81 in Game 2, and only lost by 6 points to Serbia, a heavy favorite as they are playing these group games in Belgrade. Puerto Rico is led by their point guards, as Carlos Arroyo (who went through an up and down season with FC Barcelona in the ACB last year) and JJ Barea have played well, as expected for Puerto Rico, averaging 12.5 ppg and 14 ppg, respectively. However, the big surprise has been John Holland, who is averaging a team-high 16 ppg and 5 rpg from the wing position. The depth on the perimeter for Puerto Rico has made them a sneaky dark horse threat.

As for Latvia, they have been led by Bilbao Basket star Dairis Bertans, who is averaging a group high 19 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, and the two Janis’: Janis Timma and Janis Blums. Timma has done more of his damage around the basket, as he is averaging 10.5 ppg but only shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Blums has been a marksman from three, averaging 10 ppg on 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. The only issue for both teams will be in the post, as Puerto Rico relies on aging players like Renaldo Balkman to hold down the fort, while Latvia is missing Knicks superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Whoever wins the rebounding edge will be key to who makes it to the championship game in this matchup, especially since they are both strong teams on the perimeter.

As for Serbia, they are the favorite and rightfully so: they are in Belgrade, and are led by a lot of NBA and European talent such as Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica, Nikola Jokic and Nemanja Nedovic. Serbia struggled a bit to put away Puerto Rico in game 1, but they have seemed to find a groove against Angola, as they won by 23 points. Jokic and Raduljica have been key in the post for Serbia, and Bogdanovic has provided impact, as expected, on the offensive end both off the drive and from beyond the arc (he is averaging 12 ppg and shooting 46.2 from beyond the arc. However, the key to the team earning an Olympic berth rests on Teodosic and his ability to create offense for this Serbia team. While Teodosic’s leadership and presence on the floor has been felt (he was a +24 in net rating in their win against Angola), he hasn’t really exploded with a big performance (he had 8 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers in the game 2 win). If he can channel his big-performance capability in this bracket round like he did in the Euroleague, then Serbia will be a shoe-in for 1 of the 3 Olympic berths.

However, they might have a tougher time in the semifinal round than in a possible championship game. Led by first-team All-Euroleague center Jan Vesely and future Washington Wizard and former FC Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky, the Czech Republic bounced back with a convincing 16 point win over Japan in game 2 after a rough 12 points loss to Latvia where they shot 37.7 percent from the field, including 2 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key to a possible dark horse run in this bracket will be the combo of Vesely and Satoransky, as they are a tough combo to stop when they are on. Satoransky has been a bit up and down though, as he only scored 5 points against Latvia. He will need to improve upon that performance against Serbia if the Czechs want a possible rematch with Latvia. Only this time an Olympic berth could possible be on the line.

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

Analysis: This is arguably the strongest of the three groups, as you have three legitimate Olympic teams in Greece, Croatia and Italy. Unfortunately for FIBA and International basketball fans, two of these worthy teams will be left out in Rio.

Mexico has been a surprising story, led by NBA journeyman Jorge Gutierrez at the guard position, who is averaging 12.5 ppg, and under-the-radar guard Francisco Cruz, who plays for VEF Riga in Latvia. However, the lack of Ayon in the post is a serious hinderance for this Mexican club, and though Lorenzo Mata is serviceable, they are going to have issues defending Italy’s long and outside-oriented bigs.

Speaking of Italy, no team has looked better than this country over the past month, in both OQT and in international friendlies. Coached by former CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid head coach and current San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina, Italy cruised through group play with their meticulous, outside-oriented style. Italy is not known for playing a physical style of ball, but they have hurt teams with the 3-ball, as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani, Gigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari are all threats to hurt opponents from beyond the arc. The big question though will be how they fare in the post, as Bargnani isn’t exactly the kind of physical player to bang with the potential posts from either Greece or Croatia.

Greece is probably the deepest team in this group, and arguably the whole OQT in general. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ioannis Bourousis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Efstratios Perperoglou, Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes leading the roster, Greece is a squad chock full of NBA and Euroleague pedigree. They don’t have the shooting depth of Italy, but the length they have will give Croatia fits, and Italy in the Championship, should they get past Croatia.

However, don’t count out Croatia, who bounced back from a 7-point loss to Italy with a 20-point win over Tunisia. This isn’t the kind of “strong” Croatia team we have seen in the past with Toni Kukoc or Dino Radja or Drazen Petrovic, but the talent on this team is young and capable of pulling the upset. Bojan Bogdanovic has carried the young squad, as he is the group’s leading scorer, averaging 25.5 ppg in group play. And Darko Planinic and Dario Saric (who will be going to Philly next year) have been holding things down in the post, though they still have room to grow as players. And lastly, don’t count out Mario Hezonja, who’s struggled this tournament, but has the potential to light it up from beyond the arc. I think this Croatia team is probably a couple of years away from being a real contender on the global scene, but they have a puncher’s chance against Greece.

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

Analysis: A bit of a blah group, as Turkey and New Zealand should be easy fodder for France and Canada, respectively. However, don’t count out Canada’s history of inconsistency on the big stage, as evidenced last year where they dropped a semifinal game against Venezuela that cost them the FIBA Americas 2nd automatic berth.

Athletically, Canada could compete with anybody in the OQT field. Their average height is 6’6 and they are a young team with an average age of 25 (and this is without Andrew Wiggins). However, sans Corey Joseph, who is averaging a team-high 17 ppg, this Canada team has struggled. Thompson has added NBA experience and defensive versatility to Canada’s roster, but has gone through efficiency issues on the offensive end, as he is shooting 31 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 ppg. Brady Heslip, who lit up the D-League with the Reno Bighorns a year ago, has hit a cold streak so far in the OQT, averaging only 3 ppg while shooting 18 percent from the field. The talent is there for Canada: Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim, Khem Birch, Tyler Ennis, etc. However, they have not been able to mesh at times, as evidenced in their 58-55 win over a Senegal team they were much better than on paper.

Canada should make it to the Championship game of this tournament (most likely against France), but they should not take New Zealand lightly. The Tall Blacks pulled a big win in front of a passionate pro-Filipino crowd in Game 2, winning 89-80 in a game which they won every quarter but one (they tied the third quarter). They key to the Tall Blacks’ to qualifying for the bracket round has been guard Tal John and Corey Webster and forward Reggie Abercrombie. New Zealand doesn’t possess a ton of athleticism or highly skilled or big-name players in comparison to their competition, but they play well together, and they run a lot of different looks on defense to give teams fits. If Canada shows up to play like they did against Senegal, it would not surprise me to see the Tall Black add another upset to their OQT resume.

The Turkey-France matchup is one that would have been good four years ago, but will most likely be a blowout in favor of the latter. Turkey has a solid mix of NBA and Euroleague stars in Omer Asik, Bobby Dixon, Semih Erden, and Furkan Korkmaz.  However, the absence of real big NBA stars like Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova makes this Turkish squad feel a bit second-rate in comparison to teams from past international competitions. And it has shown on the court, as Turkey not only hasn’t been impressive in group play, but they didn’t impress either in many of their friendlies leading up to the OQT competition.

On the other hand, though they are missing Rudy Gobert, and with Nic Batum sitting out (but on the bench), France is loaded with star power who play well together. They mix of NBA veterans like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw have meshed well with Euroleague stars like Nando de Colo and Thomas Huertel. The absence of Gobert and Batum has left France a bit fragile in the post, as Joseph Lauvergne and Kim Tillie haven’t been able to duplicate Gobert’s presence, as evidenced their 93-84 shootout against the Philippines. But, France can score from all over the court and in a variety of ways, and the presence of two highly skilled and polished playmakers like Parker and de Colo makes France one of the smoothest offensive teams in the OQT, which should carry them to victory in this group, and a spot in the Olympics.

Pick: France.

Four combo guards who would be better off in Europe than the D-League

The D-League isn’t just a developmental league for the NBA, but it could also be an outlet for European clubs to find talent as well.

I am not going to lie, I got the idea for this piece from this article by Uros Bajovic of Eurobasket.com. However, while his piece was a little brief, and geared more toward European audiences, I wanted to go more in-depth into some of his choices, as I do watch some DLeague on YouTube (I plan to watch more next year, as I will give up my NBA League Pass and focus solely on the Euroleague and some D-League on this blog), and I decided to focus on five out of his “Top-Seven” point guards (though to be fair, some of these guys are more “combo” guards, not necessarily pure point guards). I found Bajovic’s piece quite timely, especially with guards such as “El Chacho” Sergio RodriguezLoko guard Malcolm Delaney, and Barcelona guard Tomas Satoransky all signing NBA contracts over the past week. So, with that trio gone, the demand for quality point guards in Europe is higher than ever, and the D-League could be a good resource for Europe’s top clubs to find some under-the-radar talent.

Before I go into further depth on the four guards, let’s take a brief look at the three I eliminated from Bajovic’s initial list:

  • Bryce Cotton: I eliminated Cotton as he really didn’t play all that much in the D-League and actually spent some time on the Grizzlies and China last season (he only played 6 games with the Austin Spurs). I actually see Cotton as a realistic bet to play somewhere overseas, and I don’t see him as a guy really debating between the D-League and a job in Europe. I think if he doesn’t make the Hawks’ roster out of Summer League, he’ll find somewhere lucrative to play, perhaps China again since he has experience there.
  • Xavier Munford: I would absolutely love to see Munford in the Euroleague or Eurocup, but I think he’s still a decent prospect who could latch onto a team either after Summer League or sometime during the season, making him a worthy candidate to start the year in the D-League. He averaged 20.4 ppg and 6.4 apg in 41 games with the Bakersfield Jam last season and he actually had a pretty good 14 game stint with the Grizzlies last year that merited him signing a multi-year deal at the end of the season (though the Grizzlies did not pick up his option for this year). Munford is on the Lakers’ Summer League team, and with a lot of roster-questions with that team at the backup point guard position, I could see him as a valuable reserve behind D’Angelo Russell next season.
  • Quinn Cook: Cook, a guard from Duke, is coming off a pretty solid 19.6 ppg and 5.4 apg campaign in 43 games with the Canton Charge a year ago. I find Cook still a pretty good NBA prospect, as he was rated as the D-League Rookie of the Year last season. I think he will wait it out at least another year before he seriously contemplates going to Europe or overseas, and I think he will be given a 10-day contract or two next season if he doesn’t make a NBA roster out of Summer League.

So with those three out of the way, let’s take a look at four combo guards who would benefit a move to Europe next year.

Marquis Teague (OKC Blue last season)

One of the top point guards from the class of 2011, Teague entered Kentucky as a potential lottery pick. Unfortunately, a lackluster freshman year in his lone season with the Wildcats sunk his stock in the 2012 draft, as he went 29th overall to the Chicago Bulls. Teague, a former McDonald’s All-American out of Indianapolis, was the No. 1 rated point guards in the class of 2011, but he struggled immensely with shooting and efficiency offensively, as he only averaged 10.0 ppg on 41 percent shooting in 40 games for the Wildcats, and had an adjusted offensive rating of 99.4, which is extremely poor for somebody of his talent and importance to the team (he led the Wildcats in minutes percentage at 81.4). Many people felt Teague could have benefited from another year in college, but as is the case with most John Calipari recruits, he was determined to be a “one and done” even if his “one” year didn’t live up to the hype.

Teague has struggled to find a spot in the NBA, as he struggled to find a role under head coach Tom Thibodeau, not necessarily the most gentle “developer” of rookies. Teague appeared in 48 games his rookie year, but he only averaged 8.2 mpg and 2.1 ppg while shooting a ghastly 38.2 percent from the field. The following season was even worse, as he only appeared in 19 games with the Bulls, and 21 games with the Brooklyn Nets after he was packaged in a trade for the rights to Tornike Shengelia. Neither campaign was very good though, as he averaged only 12.7 and 9.6 mpg with the Bulls and Nets, respectively.

In October of the 2014 season, Teague was traded to the Sixers for Casper Ware, and unfortunately was waived promptly three days after he was acquired. Not under contract by any team, he was eligible for the NBA Developmental Draft, which he was drafted ninth overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Teague has performed well with the Blue, the Thunder’s D-League club the past two seasons, averaging 14.8 and 5.6 apg in 2014-2015 in 44 appearance, and 15.7 and 5.9 apg in 50 games in 2015-2016. Unfortunately, his strong performances haven’t really gone noticed by the Thunder, as he has not seen the floor with the Thunder over the past two seasons. (Of course, with the Thunder being one of the best clubs in the NBA the past two years, it was difficult for Teague to find a spot with the Blue’s parent club).

Teague has proven to be a strong, physical guard who can use his speed and handles to blow by opposing guards and get to the rim with with ease (at least in the D-League). He also is strong when finishing around the rim, (though inconsistent, which I will go into more detail next paragraph). He has a nice floater, and he is able to position his body well against contact to prevent his shot from getting blocked against much bigger defenders. Furthermore, his vision off the drive is nice, as he is able to find cutting teammates or shooters in the corner off the dribble. Check out a 30-point performance he had against Rio Grande Valley last year, and it is easy to see Teague perhaps replicating that performance in the Euroleague or Eurocup next season.

Unfortunately, Teague’s shot and offensive game is still a work in progress. His eFG percentage was only 46.2 percent last year in OKC, and he shot only 47.5 percent around the rim, 31.1 percent in the paint outside the restricted area and 28.3 percent in the mid-range. So while his 38.9 3-point percentage was a bit of an improvement from his rookie season (he shot only 17.4 percent from beyond the arc in his first season with the Bulls) this shot chart below should be evidence of how flawed he is offensively.

Shotchart_1467769589478

Teague has a lot of the qualities of a Malcolm Delaney, and with the right freedom and club, I could see him blossom and perhaps raise his stock for a possible NBA return after a couple of years in Europe. Not many available players are out there that possess Teague’s combination of athleticism, ball handling and pedigree at the point guard position, and he would a substantial pay increase if he signed with a European club next season rather than stay in the D-League. A team like Lokomotiv Kuban or Laboral Kutxa Baskonia or Barcelona would benefit greatly from his service, and Baskonia and Loko have experience utilizing point guards like Teague properly as evidenced by Delaney and Darius Adams (Baskonia).

Phil Pressey (Idaho Stampede last year)

Pressey has seen some NBA time with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers but he has been unable to stick due to his small stature (5’11). A well-renowned player at Mizzou who earned 1st-team All SEC and honorable mention All-American honors his junior year, Pressey has the potential to come into a European club and be the kind of floor leader that could help a Euroleague or Eurocup club immediately.

Pressey is more of a traditional point guard, as he looks to distribute and pass first rather than score-first like Teague. He averaged 13.7 and 6.9 apg in 31 games with the Idaho Stampede a season ago. Though not big in stature, and a bit susceptible to being posted up by bigger guards, or exposed on switches in the pick and roll, Pressey demonstrates some good hands and speed on the defensive end, as he averaged 2.0 steals per game with the Stampede. Furthermore, he plays hard on the defensive end, as he sported a 104.6 defensive rating a year ago, a pretty good rating for a guard (in comparison Munford had a defensive rating of over 111 last year).

While a natural creator on offense, he is susceptible to some turnover issues as his 1.90 assist-to-turnover ratio still left some to be desired. And furthermore, his ability to generate offense for himself is a bit inconsistent, as he cannot really beat defenders off the dribble, especially bigger and more physical guards. That being said, when Pressey is on, he is fun to watch. He has a knack for making full court outlet passes, and has pretty exceptional vision in the half court as well. And furthermore, his instincts off the ball are pretty good as well, as he uses his speed and instincts to create open looks for himself at the rim. And he can get up to, as his athleticism may remind European fans of a Mike James when it comes to throwing it down in traffic. Check out some highlights of his from last year, and it’s easy to see why Pressey could fit in with a European club in 2016-2017.

He is not the kind of “offensive” threat that Teague is or some of the other names about to be listed. His 3-point shot was pretty awful last year at 33.3 percent and his effective field goal percentage wasn’t much better at 49.9 percent. But, the former Celtic offers a lot of intangibles at the point guard position, and at 25 years old, I don’t see him sticking with a NBA club after this Summer. And thus, I think the move to Europe for Pressey would be the best option for his professional career going forward.

Russ Smith (Delaware 87ers last year)

Smith has had a weird career in professional basketball. He is obviously too good for the D-League, as he made mincemeat of the competition last season with Delaware. In 25 games, he averaged a ridiculous 27.9 ppg and 7.9 apg on 46 percent shooting while averaging a little over 37 minutes per game. However, his diminutive stature, and lack of a 3-point shot (he’s a career 33.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc) has kept him from really having much of an impact in the NBA beyond a few cups of coffee here and there.

Let’s just analyze what Smith would bring a potential European club team:

  • Nobody can create offense for himself and others like Smith in the D-League. He has exceptional handles, and he is able to swerve through opposing defenses as if they were chairs in a drill during practice. He plays incredibly well in the pick and roll, as he has the speed and strength to get to rim and finish, while still maintaining good vision and instincts to hit the screener on the roll or pop if open. Smith doesn’t have the natural gifts to be an elite NBA point guard (doesn’t have the size or the shooting, two big no-no’s in the modern game). However, his skills are extremely polished for someone who has been a bit of a D-League journeyman.
  • Smith is a tough-as-nails competitor. From his college days at Louisville to his tenure in the D-League, Smith brings it energy-wise night in and night out. He plays flat out hard when he is on the floor, which is a reason why he posts some gaudy averages. While some players may have let the time in the D-League deflate them, Smith has used it as motivation, as he plays with a chip on his shoulder with something to prove every night, whether it’s Delaware, Westchester or even a call up in the NBA (which he had in Memphis last year). I believe European coaches would love and play him major minutes because Smith has the competitive fire that European basketball fans adore.

His defensive rating isn’t great (114.2), and at times, especially when he is on a hot scoring streak, Smith can seemed a bit more focused on putting up crazy bucket totals rather than playing a complete game. He is an emotional player, and that sometimes can get him out of his game, especially defensively, as he will have lapses at times when he is caught up too much in the moment of a close or hotly contested game. But Smith was a lot of fun last year, especially in those game where he put up “superhuman” scoring performances. Take a look at this 65 point game he had last year with Delaware against Canton on national TV.

Size-wise will always be a question with Smith going forward, even for European clubs, as he does look out of place when you watch him on film. However, Smith is the kind of fun, spark-plug player that would be a great asset for a European club. At the very least, he would be a great 6th/7th man off the bench that could help provide instant offense and energy.

Jimmer Fredette (Westchester Knicks last year)

Is Jimmer-time over in the USA? Unfortunately, after a failed 10-day contract with the New York Knicks, it looks like Jimmer would best be served from a change of scenery. And what better change than a club across the pond? (And I am not the only one to think this either.)

Fredette thankfully has rekindled some of the flair and confidence in the D-League that made him such a fan favorite while he was at BYU: he hits shots from long range in a variety of ways. He can do it off the dribble. He can do it while coming off of screens. He can do it in the pick and roll. He can do it from feet beyond the arc. When it comes to shooting the basketball, Jimmer isn’t quite Stephen Curry, but he isn’t all that far off when it comes to panache with the three point shot.

However, one of the biggest developments of Jimmer’s game has been his ability to not just solely be a three point threat. Yes, his best shot is still from beyond the arc, and yes, 31.9 percent of his shots are threes. But, he has proven that he can damage defenses with shots all over the floor and not just from three in his year in the D-League. Just take a look at his shot distribution last year with the Knicks’ developmental squad.

Shotchart_1467772395860

That’s pretty-well rounded and explains why he averaged 21.1 ppg for the Knicks in 40 appearances last year. Furthermore, he has also developed into a more polished playmaker as well as he averaged 5 assists per game last year, and looked comfortable handling the ball a lot more in the D-League than he did in NBA stints with the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans. Now, I am not sure if Fredette will be a point guard long term. Defensively, he still struggles moving laterally, and he doesn’t have the kind of instincts to really make up for his athletic shortcomings on the defensive end. I could see clubs take advantage of him in the pick and roll as well as see faster, more explosive guards beat him off the dribble on a consistent basis. But offensively, Jimmer is versatile and can score with and off the ball, and that should give him enough value to entice a major European club to offer him a good 1-2 year contract. Watch his highlights below and you can see that he could be in the playing rotation of any club in Europe.

Jimmer is probably the most shocking name on this list because of his status as a College Player of the Year at BYU as well as being the 10th overall pick in the NBA Draft. But, Jimmer really isn’t going anywhere in the NBA. He has sort of delved into a Tim Tebow-like figure in the NBA, where the distractions of Jimmer-mania don’t necessarily match up with his talent.

That being said, Jimmer still has the potential to have a good professional basketball career. And I could see him doing it in Europe for a major club, not some second-tier club that only plays domestically. He could be a valuable asset for a Euroleague or Eurocup participant, and could turn into the main star of a European club team in a two to three years. He has developed that much since his rookie year. With the right team, role and coach, Jimmer could finally salvage a professional career that for the most part has been mostly a disappointment.

Let’s just hope he’s willing to take the risk of making such a jump to Europe. And let’s hope a major European club has the guts to take a flier on him.

Saras is Staying with Zalgiris, which Might Be the Best Move for Both

sarunas-jasikevicius-zalgiris-kaunas-eb15
Sarunas Jasikevicius will be facing off against Real Madrid’s Pablo Lasso next year, but only in the Euroleague with Zalgiris, not the ACB with Barcelona.

This summer’s drama centering on FC Barcelona’s head coaching position for next year had the storyline of a  tumultuous soap opera, with the kind of twists and unexpected changes one would expect from a M. Night Shyamalan film, not a basketball  managerial change. Let’s take a second to recap everything that happened which led to Sarunas Jasikevicius going from “likely” Barcelona head coach, to being back with his hometown Zalgiris club in a couple of weeks.

  • On June 23rd, news leaks that Saras has reportedly agreed to terms with Barcelona about taking over the head coach position next season. The news is awkward because head coach at the time Xavi Pascual has not been given any notification about his standing for next year, and it has literally been one day since Barcelona lost the ACB Liga Endesa Finals to rival Real Madrid.
  • Later that day, general manager Joan Creus announces that he will be stepping down from his position at Barcelona.  The news is a bit expected, considering Barcelona’s two-year slide in both the Euroleague as well as ACB (as I wrote about earlier). But, there is still no word on Pascual, and no immediate GM is named as a replacement.
  • On June 28th, Barcelona and Pascual officially part ways, with Pascual delivering a press conference making his announcement later that day. In the press conference, Barcelona ownership state their desire for a “new model” when it comes to building their team, which explains the ouster of Creus and Pascual.
  • Around June 28th-29th, rumors start to surface that Saras might not be eligible to be the head coach of Barcelona due to a rule in the ACB that prohibits coaches with less than two years of club coaching experience from coaching teams in the Liga Endesa. While there is no official word yet, the likelihood of Saras coaching in Spain grows more dim.
  • In a surprise development, on June 30th Barcelona names 40-year-old Sito Alonso, formerly of Bilbao Basket, as the new head coach of Barcelona. Considering Bilbao did not make the Liga Endesa playoffs last season, and with other experienced candidates like Andrea Trinchieri of Brose Baskets Bamberg and Giorgos Bartzokas of Lokomotiv Kuban available, the club’s decision to go with the young Madrid-born coach was a surprise.  Additionally, Aito Reneses, who coached Barcelona from 1985 to 2001, was named the team’s new Technical Director. As it turns out, the ACB coaching rule was indeed the reason for Saras not taking over the head coaching position.

Without a doubt, I am sure all of this was disappointing for Saras, whose stock as a coach was riding pretty high after he led Zalgiris to a Lithuanian championship in his first season as head coach. After all, he was a former Barcelona player, and the chance to coach one of Europe’s best squads in not only the best European competition, but also the best domestic league (ACB) I’m sure was an opportunity Saras had been dreaming of after he hung up his jersey and retired as a player. That being said, while the Barcelona opportunity didn’t come to fruition as he may have hoped, another year with Zalgiris may be the best thing going forward not only for the Lithuanian club, but his development as a coach. Let’s go over a few reasons why Sara is best served staying in Kaunas for at least one more year.

Saras still needs some time to develop as a coach in European competition.

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Though Saras did well with Zalgris in the LKL, he still needs to develop as a coach in Euroleague play.

Saras has definitely proven himself domestically as a coach in Kaunas. When he took over the reigns at Zalgiris for Gintaras Krapikas on January 13th, Saras led Zalgiris to a 24-3 mark for the remainder of the Lithuanian season, playoffs included. Zalgiris found a rhythm with Saras as coach which emphasized a faster tempo and a more wide-open, higher-scoring offense, as they scored over 100 points three times in that 27 game span (rather than only once under Krapikas). In 47 Lithuanian games, Zalgiris averaged 85.9 ppg, shot 55.9 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from the field, and limited their opponents to 70.2 ppg (a difference of 15.7 ppg in favor of Zalgiris). No question Zalgiris was head and shoulders above their domestic competition, and Saras should be credited for helping Zalgiris prove that they were Lithuania’s best team on a game-in and game-out basis in the LKL.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Saras in the Euroleague, as Zalgiris struggled to compete against Europe’s top clubs, especially in the Round of 16. When Saras took over, Zalgiris was 0-2 in Top 16 play, which included a 21-point blowout at home to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia in Round 1, and an even worse 33 point blowout to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany. Things unfortunately didn’t get much better though for Zalgiris, as they went 2-10 under Saras in Top 16 play, and finished in last place not only in their group, but overall as well.

Zalgiris struggled immensely against European competition, as they had a difficult time competing with longer, more athletic opponents on both the offensive and defensive end, didn’t have the kind of speed on the perimeter to handle quick guards or beat opponents off the dribble (which resulted in them adding Jerome Randle at point, though his addition was too little, too late),  and didn’t exactly shoot well enough to keep defenses honest. This all accumulated into mediocre numbers in Euroleague play: in 14 games, Zalgiris was outscored by 172 points, shot only 47 percent from 2-point land, and an even worse 32.8 percent from the three. They also finished poorly in a lot of advanced categories in Top 16 play including last in net rating (minus-16.2), effective field goal percentage (45.5) and 3PA/FGA (0.26), second-to-last in opponent field goal percentage (56 percent; only Unicaja was worse), and third-to-last in opponent turnover percentage (16.1 percent). Statistically, it made sense why Zalgiris finished in the bottom of Top 16 play, as it is further evidence how overwhelmed the Lithuanian representative was against Europe’s top clubs.

And thus, as good as Saras’ Lithuanian League debut was, he still has a lot to prove in the Euroleague. With a full offseason under his belt, and a little more input in the roster composition (Zalgiris loses Randle, but they will return Renaldas Seibutis and Robertas Javtokas) however, I think Saras can really prepare his team properly for the upcoming Euroleague season. They still need some quicker guards on the perimeter, and they do need to emphasize the outside shot better to open things up against the superior European competition. However, these are issues Saras can work on over a long period of time rather than having to fix them quickly week-to-week. And by helping Zalgiris perform better in the Euroleague, he will prove himself enticing to other European clubs who undoubtedly will be looking for new coaching positions for the 2017-2018 season.

Barcelona is a bit of a mess right now.

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Barcelona still has a lot of questions roster-wise, and that would be difficult for Saras to handle in his first full year as a club head coach.

A new GM and a new coach are a couple of the issues resolved this off-season for the Catalan club, but the roster still leaves a lot to be desired. Barcelona hasn’t signed anyone of note this offseason, and though ownership prefers a roster built from the “inside” of their organization (hence going with the younger Alonso as coach), Barcelona will still be relying on veterans like Navarro and Tomic it seems to be carrying them somewhat next year. That is fine if this was a few years ago, when Navarro was one of Spain’s and maybe Europe’s best guards. However, he is coming off one of his worst seasons, and at age 36, he isn’t likely to get better anytime soon. And to make matters worse, he is also blocking key players like Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines, younger players with more upside, from getting more minutes.

While I believe Saras is going to be a good coach with whatever club he coaches in the future, whether it’s Zalgiris (I think Zalgiris will improve in 2016-2017 Euroleague play now that Saras is coaching the team from the start) or another bigger club in the future. But I do not think Barcelona next year would have put him in a situation to really succeed. What are they going to do to build around Tomic, a limited defensive player, in the post? How are they going to replace Justin Doellman, an inconsistent player, but capable of stretching teams and being a force from beyond the arc?  Are they going to stay with Carlos Arroyo and Tomas Satoransky as the points? And if so, how are they going to hide Arroyo’s shooting and defensive inefficiencies?

I know the prestige of going to Barcelona was a huge incentive for Saras to leave Kaunas. That being said, I think the Spanish Coaches’ Association’s rules worked to Saras’ favor as I think this would have been a difficult job to undertake next year, especially considering the questionable roster composition and astronomical expectations from fans in both domestic and Euroleague play. Zalgiris is a much better situation roster-wise (he is familiar with the talent, and they have a lot younger players as well) and the expectations won’t be so unreasonable. After all, Pascual was one of the best coaches in Barcelona history, and after two seasons where they didn’t win any trophies, he was given the boot. It is possible that Barcelona may do even worse next year, which would put even more pressure on him in terms of keeping his job beyond a year, and that would be an unfair position for Saras, especially in his first full year as a club head coach.

The younger, majority-Lithuanian roster will give Saras a chance to build something special with Zalgiris.

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Paulius Jankunas is a key Lithuanian talent that could help Saras succeed in Kaunas with a young, mostly-Lithuanian roster.

Unlike Barcelona, Zalgiris is a relatively young roster, filled with Lithuanian talent. Currently, there are only four players over the age of 30 on the Zalgiris roster, and they have some good young talent in the roster in Brock Motum, Edgaras Ulanovas, and Leo Westermann, who is coming over from Limoges. Also, the return of Paulius Jankunas will be a good player for Zalgiris to build around, as he offers a veteran presence, as well as excellent production, as evidenced by his 12.3 ppg and 6.2 rpg on 54 percent shooting in Euroleague play.

There is something to say about building a club around talent from their home country. Crvena Zvezda not only did that last year to success (they made the playoffs), but also looks to be doing that next season, as they let imports such as Quincy Miller and Maik Zerbes walk to allow their young Serbian talent like Luka Mitrovic and Nemanja Dangubic to grow together for their home club. Zalgiris could do that next year, and the fact that they are led by a Lithuanian playing legend like Saras will be a huge intangible that could help Zalgiris outperform expectations.

And that makes Zalgiris a special scenario next year. If Saras gets his team to the playoffs in Barcelona but not the Final Four, that would be a bit of a disappointment, especially considering they want a “championship” each and every year in every league they participate in. On the flip side, if Zalgiris makes the playoffs under Saras next year, then that would be cause for celebration and excitement, especially considering Zalgiris hasn’t made the Final Four since 1999, when they won the Euroleague title. Lithuanian fans will be pushing and cheering for Zalgiris to succeed because of the home country investment in the club, both in terms of coaches as well as players. There wouldn’t be that same kind of fanfare in Barcelona, especially considering their history of dominance. They won’t be supporting their club if they hit a rough spot. Instead, they would be calling for the coach’s head.

So that’s what I’m hoping for next year with Saras: he builds this young club up, they generate some excellent chemistry throughout the season due to their combination of youthful and Lithuanian talent (easier to do with the longer regular season format), and they do what Crvena Zvezda did and make a surprise run to the playoffs, where anything can happen in five games. Maybe the exit out early like Red Star or maybe they make a run to the Final Four like Lokomotiv Kuban. Either scenario would be cause for celebration in Kaunas.

However, if they do the latter, not only will Saras cement his status as one of the most coveted coaches in Europe, but he will also further his legacy in European basketball. Only this time it will come as a coach, not a player.