Wyandotte County: the “Small, Off-Beat Town” within Kansas City

“Really…you work in Wyandotte?”

It’s a comment I hear all the time, but somebody uttered this statement to me a weekend ago at a community event I worked at in Johnson County. I found the comment to be rude and surprising, especially considering the event I worked at mostly involved people who were not born in this part of the country, let alone this country in general. And yet, despite their outsider status, that doesn’t prevent them from holding that negative opinion of Wyandotte County that most people in Johnson County (or other counties in Missouri or Kansas) have of people or places from Wyandotte.

To me, Wyandotte County is synonymous with Kansas City. There is no Kansas City experience without Wyandotte County for me. In my four years of living in Kansas City, only 1 year involved me not working or living in Wyandotte County, specifically Kansas City, Kansas. To me, Wyandotte County has a special place in my heart, in my mind and in my goals down the road. Yes, I am currently a Jackson County resident now, living in the MidTown area of Kansas City. But I have a feeling I will be moving back to KCK soon in the near future, especially now that I’m working again in the county, and realizing how much the area and the citizens of the county fascinate me and make me want to be a part of it again.

But for those who are unfamiliar (whether unwillingly or not), what do I need to know about Wyandotte County?


2012_comm_dist_map

Wyandotte County is the most northeast county of the state of Kansas, as its main city, Kansas City, Kansas, is just a stone’s throw across the river from Kansas City, Missouri (the 70 and 670 highways connect the downtown area of KCMO to KCK). The county is separated into 8 districts, with a commissioner seats for each district, as well as two at-large commissioners for Districts 1 and 2. The mayor/ceo currently is Mark Holland, who has been the mayor since April 2, 2013. In addition to Kansas City, Kansas, the county also includes neighborhood communities such as Bonner Springs and Edwardsville to the southwest of the county, the Piper and Legends/Speedway area to the northwest; Argentine, Armourdale, and Turner in the south; Rosedale in the southeast, right near the border on Southwest Boulevard; the KU Med area to the West; Quindaro to the Northeast; and Welborn in the North.

Demographically, Wyandotte county also remains a diverse county, especially in comparison to neighboring Kansas counties. The projected population of Wyandotte County in 2015 is 163,369, which would be a 3.7 percent increase from their population total recorded in the 2010 census. From the 2015 projections according to the census, the population within the county is 42.1 percent non-Latino white, 24.3 percent African-American, 27.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, 4.1 percent Asian, and 1.3 Native American. All of those populations are an increase from the 2010 census, with the exception of African-Americans, whose population went down from 25.2 percent to 24.3 percent, and non-Latino white, which went from 43.3 to 42.1 percent.

Education-wise there are four districts that serve citizens in Wyandotte County: Tuner USD 202, Piper USD 203, Bonner Springs USD 204 and Kansas City USD 500. In addition, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas has five K-8 elementary schools (Resurrection, Our Lady of Unity, Christ the King, St. Patrick’s and Holy Name) and one high school (Bishop Ward High School), which is one of the oldest high schools in the state of Kansas (it was established in 1908). In terms of post-secondary education, Kansas City Kansas Community College is the main junior college for secondary graduates in Wyandotte County, and the University of Kansas Medical Center (right on the border of Missouri and Kansas) also provides medical studies for students, in addition to medical services for people in the area.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wyandotte County is its economic and educational status, as well as where it stands politically in comparison to the state overall. In terms of economic and educational statistics,  65.9 percent of the population in Wyandotte County 16 and over is in the workforce, with the household median income low at $39, 326. The poverty population in Wyandotte County is at 24.4 percent, 18.9 percent of the population is without health care, and and the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is only 15.8 percent (to put things further into context, those with a high school diploma is 78.4 percent).

Compare this with statistics of those same categories in neighboring Johnson County: 72.9 percent of the population 16 and over is in the civilian workforce; the household median income $75,017; the poverty population is only 6.6 percent, and only 7.6 percent of the population is without health care; and 52.1 percent of the county population has a college degree (and 95.7 percent of the population has a high school diploma). When you look at the whole picture, not only is Johnson County a wealthier county, but they dwarf Wyandotte in so many categories. It’s crazy to think that just a few miles south, a person is three times more likely to have a college degree, and will make almost twice more than someone. And that’s where the bias and prejudice steps in: because of their higher incomes, more education and less people in poverty, Johnson County naturally has this bias over their Wyandotte County neighbors. The stats overall prove it in their mind, and those stats prove why people who get more money or education are more than apt to move south beyond the county lines.

The story of Wyandotte County’s economic and educational woes in comparison to the larger neighboring suburb of Johnson County is one thing, but what makes it even more interesting is how different both counties are politically: while Johnson county tends to be more of a red county, falling in line with what is typical voting wise throughout the state of Kansas (i.e. conservative republican), Wyandotte County tends to fall in the opposite category.

Of the elected state senators representing Wyandotte County, two of the four senators (as of 2015), David Haley (4th District) and Pat Pettey (6th District) are democrats. All seven state representatives representing the county are democrats. And all 16 judges as well as the district attorney, are democrats. And this political affiliation was even stronger represented in the last presidential election, as Wyandotte County was one of two counties in all of Kansas to vote for Barack Obama by a wide margin as he earned 67.3 percent of the vote in Wyandotte County (compare this to Johnson, which saw a 58-40 split in favor of Mitt Romney). Even Douglas County, which includes Lawrence and students from the University of Kansas (college towns tend to be more democrat leaning due to students being more liberal), didn’t have as high a percentage (60.3 percent) for Obama in the latest elections.

So, Wyandotte County is heavily democrat and lags in terms of education as well as economically to some of the neighboring counties. For most people in the Midwest, this may sound like a cruddy place to live.

On the other hand, I would argue otherwise, and I would credit it’s intimate population that are actually HELPING the county over the past five years, and make it even more prime for positive growth.


“The one thing about Wyandotte county is that it’s a small town…and everyone knows your business in one way or the other.”

My principal, who originally was from New York and moved here for school, told me this during my first year in Kansas City, Kansas. I didn’t know if she meant it in a bad or good way, but while there is some obvious negative aspects to this statement (like people can be big time gossip hounds), one could look at this statement in a positive way.

One of the main positives of living in Wyandotte County is that if you get involved in a group or network, that network can grow incredibly fast and be incredibly supportive. I have been in Kansas City for four years, and some of my closest connections stem from people I know who live or work in Wyandotte County. As a business teacher, I have already gotten multitudes of offers from local business people to help speak in classes or help students with connections. I taught in a school in Kansas City, Missouri, and though we had some help here and there, people were not as eager to help or provide the same kind of assistance. That’s not to say people on the Missouri side didn’t give a shit. But there are so many schools in KCMO. One charter school is just another in the whole grand mix of things. And with so many schools closing within 10 year periods in Missouri, people can be suspect of “newer” schools: will it even be around in 20 years and is my time to help worth it if the school won’t even be around?

In Kansas City, Kansas there is a stability here that KCMO doesn’t necessarily enjoy. Yes businesses change, but they take new identities rather than demolished or abandoned. There is a certain pride in the diversity of the population displayed through community celebrations, be it a parish ice cream social or a neighborhood fall parade, that seems organic and genuine and not put together solely for economic purposes. And the schools, though struggling in some ways, are still accredited, still producing an education that means something. Despite KCMO and other districts on the Missouri side’s struggles with keeping accreditation, KCKPS has continued to keep theirs and continued to keep high student populations despite wild changes in racial and economic backgrounds of students attending their schools from decades ago.

And I think that is what makes Wyandotte the “small town” worth admiring in the Kansas City metro area. They know their population isn’t as big as on the Missouri side or even south of them in Johnson County. They don’t have the economic advantages down south either, or the educational advantage. That being said, they make do, they get things done, and they rally behind people in their community that are trying to do good. The city government tries things to help build the economy and promote entrepreneurship. “A Cup on the Hill” is the latest example of such progressive thinking. Yes, it’s a coffee shop, but it’s a coffee shop that is run by the Community Housing Authority of Wyandotte County that looks to help with employment, while also promoting the positive of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County not just by selling coffee, but also by displaying art in their shop local artists. It’s similar to what “Homeboy Industries” is doing in Los Angeles: giving those in need in the community a chance to make steps in the right direction personally, while helping the local economy as well. (After all, how many coffee shops are there in KCK? Not a lot, and “A Cup on the Hill” will help bring in more independent coffee houses who may find it tough to compete in MidTown KC’s over-saturated market.)

And Wyandotte County’s population is growing, which just goes to show you how people are starting to recognize the positives in living in such a community with a genuine “small town” feel. The 3.7 percent jump is a major bright spot for a county that had suffered a decrease in population according to their last census in 2010. And the reasons to come to Wyandotte County are plenty: it’s still close to the city (especially if you live in Strawberry Hill), the downtown economy is growing, and the real estate is a lot cheaper than what most would find not just in Johnson County, but especially in comparison to MidTown and Downtown Kansas City. Young people are realizing that living in KCK, especially Strawberry Hill or Rosedale is a better deal, and you aren’t far off from it all either.

Of course, there has to be a bit of caution with such growth. We have seen how gentrification can have “inverse” effects on cities and communities. Even in Kansas City we have seen it. 15 years ago, living in the Westside and MidTown off of Armour was a bargain. Now, thanks to gentrification, people have been priced out of their respective neighborhoods. Yes, there are more restaurants and bars and shops and nicer houses and apartment complexes. However, the soul of the communities are dwindling, nearly gone. Just look at the Westside, as it struggles to fight for the spirit of their neighborhood against developers who are trying to mold it more for economic purposes rather than community ones. That is a risk KCK could experience, especially as a younger population starts to migrate toward that downtown area.

But I think what will make KCK push up against that “community blunting” from gentrification is their community spirit. The neighborhoods in KCMO are part of a huge whole, and really, one district is going to struggle to have a voice in the midst of so many other voices in the big city. The greater good (in the city’s mind) will trump the desires of the small, as is natural in any big city. In KCK, the population is still intimate, and those neighborhoods can have their voice. And we have seen it. There has been an embrace of the changing diversity of the KCK population. It has grown from a primarily Slavic population to mostly Latino one, but you know what? People are still active, and I think the Latino population in KCK is about as active as any in the KC Metro (though the Westside and Northeast certainly are also active). Even with this latest election coming up, we are seeing advocates against some of the new Kansas registration policies that could be deemed as “racist” and “prejudiced” in nature, in order to sway the election toward a party’s “candidate” (you know who I am referring to). These kind of actions demonstrate not only the change in Wyandotte County, but how the community continues to supports one another despite the difference in race and cultural. The old supporting the new is the prime characteristic of a strong community, no matter what the population size or part of the country.

I don’t live in Wyandotte County currently. I work there and if I continue to stay in Kansas City, I plan to move back soon. Wyandotte County is different. It’s a blue dot in a sea of red. The people are working class who offer a stark diversity to what is typical of most communities in the Kansas City metro. There is pride in the work being done within the county, even if most of the stories and reputation of the county tends to focus on the bad, the crime, the poverty and all the other negative noise. And lastly, there seems to be a sense of hope on the horizon. The population and the economic growth in parts of the county where “naysayers” thought it couldn’t be done showcases that rise.

The looks and questions still abound when I tell people I work and used to live in Wyandotte County. I don’t think I will ever shake them.

But they don’t know. They don’t know about the “small town” community of Wyandotte County. They don’t know about the support, the charm, or hidden opportunities this area of Kansas City provides.

I’m glad they’re missing out. Wyandotte County doesn’t need them anyways.

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So how do you find yourself in the Midwest?

I have a strange fascination with the Midwest… -Jason Reitman

 

Unlike many people who reminisce or get nostalgic about the Midwest, I am not from this part of the country. I was born and raised in California, and spent most of my life in a part of the country where snow was rare-to-non-existent, and a trip to the beach was a three-hour drive, not a three-hour flight.

But here I am…now a Midwest transplant for at least a little bit longer.  (Kansas City transplant to be specific; Missouri side for now, though I have lived in Kansas and may move back since I work in Kansas again.)

So, how did a West Coast guy get here?

To those who don’t know me (which probably is about 80-90 percent of people who come across this blog), for about a year and a half I was studying to be a Jesuit priest. I had just graduated from a small Catholic college in Washington state, and the August after my grduated I joined the California Province for the Society of Jesus and entered their novitiate (like a seminary, but less focus on “studying” and more focus on “living the life”) in Culver City, California, which is in the heart of Los Angeles. Typically how the process works, after a two year tenure in the novitiate, the next step in  the Jesuit formation to become a priest is to attend a university (of their choosing, though you have options) for philosophy studies and earn a master’s degree in philosophy in a 3-4 year timetable (again, I will probably talk more about the whole process of being a priest, and what separates a “Jesuit” priest from a “regular” priest in some subsequent posts). At about the one-year-point in my Jesuit novice tenure, I sat down with the person responsible for “study” assignments, which basically meant I told him what my educational and personal interests and goals were going to be during this important time in religious formation. (Did I just want to study philosophy or was I thinking about getting additional studies in another area? And how would this help me contribute to the Society and Catholic community and well…world? So yeah, no pressure, right? )

We basically had three choices: Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, Loyola University in Chicago, and Fordham University in the Bronx.

Fordham was my overwhelming favorite followed by Loyola Chicago. I didn’t even consider St. Louis, because to be perfectly honest, I didn’t see myself in a small city in the Midwest in my future. (And I know there are those saying right now “But Chicago is in the Midwest!” I get it. But let’s face it, Chicago is technically the mecca of the Midwest, and closer in spirit to an East Coast city; it just happens to geographically be in the Midwest and get a lot of Midwest transplants.)

Almost 30 years old, I have been in the Midwest for six years. I spent two years in South Dakota, living and working on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota near the South Dakota-Nebraska border (Pine Ridge for those that needed clarification), and have resided for about four years in Kansas City (two years on the Kansas side and coming on two years on the Missouri side).

In all honesty, that is six more years in the Midwest than I ever would have thought when I was fresh out of college or even still in novitiate. But now as I enter the third decade of my life, I am finding it harder and harder to think I will ever leave.

It’s amazing how a certain place, a geographical area, can change one’s perspective over time.

I had the chance to move back to California last year, in the Spring for the upcoming Fall. I had a teaching job offer in California, San Jose, to be specific. The idea of moving back to the South Bay was intriguing to me (I worked in San Jose for about a semester in the Spring after leaving the Jesuits). I would be paid handsomely salary-wise (though in retrospect, while the figure was high, I wonder if it would have been much more than my current circumstances here in the Midwest).I would have been closer to my parents, who are getting older in years, and moved into a cozy house in the Midtown area of Sacramento. I would have been around the sports teams I cheered for in my youth (the San Francisco Giants, 49ers, Golden State Warriors, San Jose Sharks, and California Golden Bears). I would have been out of snow, and around good public rail transportation. Years ago, San Jose was a bit of a dream destination, not the absolute dream like San Francisco (I have always had a profound fondness for that city), but a good, comfortable second I would have been satisfied with.

Though I initially made a commitment months before I had to report to my job, I ended up not going. I had to arrive  in August, and from the time I accepted the job in early April, my excitement in the job started to slowly fade. Over a month’s time, I realized that though job was a tremendous offer and opportunity, I couldn’t take it.

To be cut and dry about it, well…I was not ready to leave Kansas City and the Midwest.

It’s amazing to think to someone who hasn’t lived here or visited here much my reasons for wanting to stay in Middle America over the West Coast (or East Coast for that matter). I had college and high school friends ask me if I “was making the right decision?” I had family that questioned my desire to not be closer to home (though more extended family, not parents). Even Midwest natives wondered why I wouldn’t want to be back in California after spending so much time away, as the decision to leave the Midwest for sunny Northern California was a no-brainer to them. (This is not necessarily Native Americans, but people who grew up in the Midwest…though ironically, this personal circle also included some Native Americans).

And I get it. It bothers me at times as well, the idea that a place with a reputation for flat, endless farmland; hot, muggy, and story, summers; and cold and icy winters, would be a more enticing place to live.

And yet, there is something about the Midwest that keep me here. Something that prevents me from leaving, even when I think I would be better served personally and professionally back in an an area of the United States where I grew up, and possessed more familiar roots and connections.

If there is a reason to explain my stay in the Midwest despite opportunities elsewhere, I guess I would have to say the “lifestyle” of the Midwest is what attracts me the most here. And not just my personal lifestyle on it’s own, but how my own lifestyle meshes into the predominant lifestyle of the diversity of people here in Kansas City as well as in the Midwest. Because though people don’t like to think about it, there is a diversity here in the Midwest. Yes, some ethnic groups are under-represented in comparison to other areas of the country. And yes, this area of the country tends to be more Christian, Conservative and Republican, something I am not quite used to being from the West Coast.

However, to say that represents ALL the Midwest would be silly and misinforming. In my six years, I have discovered so much about the Kansas City and the Midwest:

  • The Latino and Chicano culture and communities in the Midwest who are growing and developing rapidly over the past couple of decades, and differ a bit in values and feel from the Latino cultures of major communities on the coasts.
  • The Middle-Eastern influence that is growing in many of the Midwestern cities thanks to foreign exchange students growing accustomed to the Midwest life as well as opportunistic businessmen who are trying to make a better living for their families here and abroad, as I have learned from my frequent visits to hookah lounges, something I never did until I came to the Midwest. (Yes, I lived in California and Washington and it wasn’t until I moved to Kansas City that I started using Hookah.)
  • The African-American communities, which despite years of injustice and discrimination in this part of the country, who continue to push forward for change in their communities and schools, while still maintaining their proud heritage and contributions in the Midwest, including their influence on the media (The weekly newspaper “The Call” is one of the oldest African-American-run newspapers in the United States), Jazz as a musical art form, as well as baseball, including the Negro Leagues (the Midwest was where it really shone; Kansas City being the mecca for it) and the many former NL players who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the late 40’s.
  • The BBQ culture known nationally that spans from the “mom and pop” shacks in rural areas of Kansas and Missouri to the urban center of Kansas City where African-American owned BBQ restaurants helped Kansas City become the BBQ capital of the USA in comparison to their brethren in the Carolina’s and Memphis.
  • The Catholic community who credit their roots in the Midwest from strong and proud immigrants from Croatia, Slovenia, Ireland, Italy, and Poland (just to name a few), and has a closer, more familial feel in comparison to their Coastal counterparts, as evidenced by their emphasis on putting on frequent church socials, high priority in sending their children to Catholic schools, and financial and spiritual contributions to their local parishes.

I could go on and on, and I know I will go into more depth onto these topics and more in the future. There is so much to write about on the Midwest, and not just Kansas City, either (though I know I will go on plenty about Kansas City considering that is my home and where a majority of my life in the Midwest has taken place). The people. The issues. The history. The traditions. The culture. The future.

Perhaps that’s why I stayed in Kansas City and the Midwest. This part of the area inspires me, almost serves as my muse, and I still feel like I have only scratched the surface, have yet to go deep into what really makes the Midwest Life what it is, not to mention different from life on the East or West Coast. I have invested a lot in my six years in the Midwest. I have invested in my job and my students, sure. But, I also have invested in my communities, whether it has been on the reservation, in Wyandotte County, or in Jackson County. And despite that investment, I still know I can do more, and more importantly, I want to do more.

And that’s why I have created this blog. To chronicle my experience as I continue to dig deeper and deeper into my experiences with “This Midwest Life.” Furthermore, I also intend to tell stories of and about the people here in Kansas City and the Midwest. (Though to be honest, my stories will probably be more predominant; sorry, I am not a professional journalist, just an amateur one at this point). Some stories will be short memoirs. Some stories might be fictional. Some stories might be simple reviews or reflections. And some stories might blur all those genres together in some weird, chaotic fashion that I can’t even begin to describe.

Just like I have learned from my own experiences, the Midwest is a surprising fusion of all kinds: transplants and homebodies; old and new; traditional and modern; conservative and liberal; backward and forward thinking; slow and… less-slow (well, I guess that is one thing I can say about the Midwest: life is a little bit slower here than on the Coasts; though I hear it is faster than in the Deep South).

I hope that’s what “This Midwest Life” will try to portray: a glance into the life and culture and diversity and mystery that is in the middle of the country, i.e. the glorious Midwest.

What six years in this part of the country can do to a person.

Four Teams to Watch in the Eurocup Next Season

Expect Jamar Smith to play a key role in helping Unicaja make a run to the Eurocup championship.

In terms of the premiere second-tier European basketball competition, the Eurocup continues to hold the title, though FIBA’s Basketball Champions League has given the ULEB-sponsored competition fierce competition this summer (mostly due to FIBA muscling clubs with possible National Team and Domestic League sanctions; Italy and France were two countries who deferred to FIBA this off-season by not sending any teams to the Eurocup). However, only the Eurocup has the automatic Euroleague qualifier for whoever wins the competition, and with a new format, and less Euroleague/Eurocup crossover (no teams will be sent down to the Eurocup mid-season as in years past), the ULEB second-tier competition promises to be the most competitive in its 14-year history (the competition began in 2002-2003).

So, with an automatic berth and possible Wild Card spot on the line (the Euroleague offers one Wild Card slot out of its 16 teams), which of the 24 Eurocup participants will have the greatest chance of punching their ticket to the Euroleague in 2017-2018? Who will be worth watching, especially when the playoffs begin in the Spring?

In this post, I will take a look at four Eurocup participants who’ll be worth paying close attention to this upcoming season, and should make a run at that coveted Eurocup title and Euroleague berth.

Joan Plaza should have a much better year in Malaga this season after Unicaja limped to finish line in the Euroleague and ACB a year ago.

1. Unicaja Malaga

Unicaja will be participating in the Eurocup for the first time in club history. For some squads, that is an honor, but for Unicaja, it’s quite a buzzkill. Unicaja has been a Euroleague mainstay, who qualified for the Top 16 for the 11th consecutive season last year, and made the Final Four in 2007. But, despite a hot 7-3 start in the Regular Season of the Euroleague, injuries and roster turmoil resulted in a 4-10 record in Top 16 play (11-13 overall) and a first-round sweep in the ACB playoffs to Valencia. And thus, after a mediocre campaign and without an A license lock, Unicaja proved to be the odd-team out when it came to picking the Euroleague field of 16 in 2016-2017, losing out on the lone Wild Card spot to Turkish upstart Darussafaka Dogus.

With the demotion to the Eurocup, the summer didn’t start off well for Unicaja, as star Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who was one of the best players in the Regular Season round, and had masterful performances in road wins over Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow, ended up leaving Malaga (first going to Darussafaka before the New York Knicks bought out his rights from the Turkish club). In addition, center Fran Vazquez, one of the leading shot blockers in Euroleague history, also left the club, signing with ACB rival Iberostar Tenerife. Much like Lokomotiv Kuban experienced a mass exodus of talent after their Eurocup demotion, it appeared Unicaja was going to suffer the same fate this summer.

However, Unicaja has rebounded quickly, and has suddenly put together one of the most competitive squads in the Eurocup this summer. To make up for Kuzminskas’ departure, they added shooting guard Adam Waczynski, a Polish national who averaged 14.6 ppg with Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro of the ACB last season. His arrival should mesh well with Jamar Smith and Nemanja Nedovic, two returning wing scorers from last year’s squad. Additionally, Unicaja got stronger in the playmaking department, as they added solid point guard options in Oliver Lafayette (from Olimpia Milano) and Kyle Fogg (from Eisbaeren Bremerhaven) who should help solidify the backcourt with Alberto Diaz, a young, rising star who should get more playing time opportunities than a season ago. And lastly, in the front court, Unicaja added depth and athleticism by signing Trevor Mbakwe (from Maccabi Tel Aviv), Jeff Brooks (from Nizhny Novgorod) and Dejan Musli (from Manresa). This trio should help Unicaja be more effective in the post not just in terms of rebounding and offense, but defensively, as they should improve a block rate (2.8 percent) that was below average in the Euroleague a year ago.

With added depth at his disposal, head coach Joan Plaza should have an easier time coaching this squad than a season ago. Plaza stayed at Unicaja despite other job openings  in his home country being available, such as Laboral Kutxa Baskonia and FC Barcelona. Then again though, Plaza’s stock took a bit of a hit after such a poor finish in Malaga last season, so it is possible that he wasn’t in serious consideration for those positions despite his coaching pedigree. That being said, with a deeper, more athletic roster and a bit easier Eurocup schedule (which should ease the burden of also playing in the ACB), Plaza should make Unicaja competitive again, with a Eurocup championship not only a possibility, but an expectation in 2017.

Amare Stoudemire’s signing with Hapoel Jerusalem will make the Israeli club a favorite in the Eurocup.

2. Hapoel Jerusalem

Though they traditionally are overlooked in comparison to rival Maccabi Tel Aviv (who has an A license in the Euroleague), Hapoel Jerusalem was arguably the best team in Israel a season ago. Not only did they have the best record in regular season Winner League play, but they also made it to championship game, something rival Maccabi did not do. Unfotunately, their loss to 4th-seeded Maccabi Rishon (who is playing in the Champions League) in the title game left the Jerusalem-based club with little to show for what was an extremely successful campaign overall in 2015-2016.

Not ready to rest on their laurels, Jerusalem was as active as any Israeli club this summer, Maccabi Tel Aviv included. They hired Simone Pianigiani, an Italian head coach who had Euroleague success with Montepaschi Siena and Fenerbahce Ulker. And in terms of the roster, they added an influx of American talent, which included combo guards Jerome Dyson of Auxilium Turin, Curtis Jerrells of Galatasaray, and Tarence Kinsey of Crvena Zvezda, who should be pulling main point guard duties next season. They also boosted their size in the post with Travis Peterson, most recently of Valencia, and Isaac Rosefelt, who comes locally from Hapoel Holon.

However, though those signings added some much needed depth to their roster, no acquisition generated as much splash as the recent signing of Amare Stoudemire, who recently retired from the NBA, but signed a two-year deal with Jerusalem. A partial owner of the franchise (though he did have to sell his shares as a requirement of joining the team so there was no conflict of interest), Stoudemire, a former NBA All-Star and All-NBA player, is one of the most high profile players to ever come to Israel, and should add a dimension in the post that the Winner League or Eurocup has rarely seen. Though Stoudamire has struggled with injury since leaving the Phoenix Suns during their “Seven Seconds or Less” days, he still was an effective bench player last season with the Miami Heat, and is only 33-years-old, still relatively young considering how long he has been playing professional basketball.

To think Stoudemire will channel his Phoenix or early New York Knick days is foolish, but Amare should have an impact on this team immediately. He is still immensely talented on the offensive end as a scorer, and he and Kinsey should thrive in the pick and roll. Furthermore, Stoudemire is coming motivated to Jerusalem, as this is something he “wanted” to do, not a last-end resort, as is the case with most imports. I could see this situation being similar to Stephon Marbury’s success in China, as Stoudemire could achieve a positive revitalization for both himself and this Jerusalem team in the next couple of years. And if that revitalization could result in a Eurocup title and Euroleague berth in 2017-2018, that would only add to Stoudemire’s legacy individually, and make Jerusalem’s risk well worth it in the end.

After a down year with Panathinaikos, Sasha Djordjevic looks to rebound with Bayern Munich.

3. FC Bayern Munich

Much like Unicaja, Bayern was another victim of the downsizing in the Euroleague, as their failure to get out of the Regular Season, or ability to win the BBL from Brose Baskets Bamberg resulted in them being left out of the Euroleague field. However, much like Unicaja, instead of letting such a demotion get to them, they instead have reloaded with a formidable team that looks to compete for the Eurocup crown.

The biggest addition for the Munich-based club was the hiring of former Panathinaikos head coach Sasha Djordjevic. Djordjevic, the current Serbian Men’s National Team coach and a former European club legend in his playing days, is coming off an uneven campaign in Athens where he was unable to bring the Greek power back in the spotlight, as PAO were swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Baskonia a year ago. Though his one-year tenure in Greece was underwhelming, he is coming back to a smaller club with less pressure in Germany. Prior to Panathinaikos, Djordjevic also coached in Italy, first with Olimpia Milano from 2006-2007 and then with Benetton Treviso from 2011-2012.

Another plus is that Djordjevic is that he will have top player Nihad Djedovic to mold his offensive strategy around. The Bosnian National was one of Bayern’s most productive players a year ago, as he had the highest touches per game on the team in Euroleague play, and averaged 0.97 PPP, not extremely productive, but not bad in comparison to his high usage (the higher the usage, the harder it is to produce higher PPP). Djedovic, who has spent most of his professional career in Germany, was definitely in high demand this summer, but it appears that he enjoys his role in Munich as well as the community, and that was a big plus for the club as they aim to return to the Euroleague in 2017-2018.

In addition to keeping Djedovic, Bayern also was able to keep wing and team captain Bryce Taylor, who underperformed in the Euroleague but scored 13.6 ppg in the BBL, as well as big man John Bryant, who was arguably Bayern’s most effective post player, as evidenced by his team-high 62.6 percent True Shooting percentage and 1.15 PPP in Euroleague play. Bryant is not particularly graceful or athletic, but he has always been an efficient, highly productive player, and he should continue to be so under Djordjevic, who demands a lot from his big men. Another big signing in the post by Bayern was Devin Booker, the reigning French League MVP with Chalon a season ago. Booker should be a nice replacement for Deon Thompson, who signed with Galatasaray this summer.

In many ways, Bayern is pretty much the same team that went 4-6 in the Euroleague a season ago, as the roster remains pretty much intact, perhaps even better with the Booker acquisition as well as other signings such as Vladimir Lucic from Valencia, Ondrej Balvin from Sevilla and Danilo Barthel from Fraport Skyliners, all players who should add depth to their front court. Add that with a motivated head coach in Djordjevic, who is looking to rebound after his failed one-year voyage in Athens, and the outlook appears pretty rosy for the Munich-based club in terms of competing for a title in both the Eurocup and BBL, both roads back to the Euroleague.

David Stockton should help bring a jolt from the PG position for Cedevita Zagreb.

4. Cedevita Zagreb

The Croatian club is coming off a pretty solid year in Euroleague play, as they qualified for the Top 16 for the first time in club history. Considering the club (or country in general) doesn’t have the history of other Balkan rivals (such as Serbian clubs Partizan or Crvena Zvezda) in terms of Euroleague success, their appearance in the Top 16 could be a sign of breakthrough.

Unfortunately, what may be breakthrough in the long run didn’t help their consideration in 2016-2017, as they didn’t have the season nor the kind of money or fanbase to merit a wild card berth in the Euroleague this season. However, Cedevita may be even better than last year, even though they will not be seen or on fans’ radar as much as they were in the Euroleague a season ago.

First off, Cedevita didn’t necessarily make any big time moves, but rather they opted for quality and fit rather than quantity. Gone are imports Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker, former college stars and NBA journeymen. Instead, Cedevita concentrated on keeping their young core together. They re-signed Luka Babic, who had some interest from other clubs, and they also were able to keep other crucial roster pieces such as Miro Bilan and Marko Arapovic. Also, they brought in athletic wing Scotty Hopson, who scored over 22 ppg in China last year, but averaged 15.5 ppg with Anadolu Efes back in 2013-2014. He will add some much needed athleticism and isolation scoring for this Croatian club.

The biggest player returning though may be Dzanan Musa, the Bosnian teenage star who is probably the most sought-after prospect in Europe. The MVP of the U16 European Championship a year ago, Musa is only 17 years old, but saw some playing time with the Cedevita senior squad a year ago. Musa is a special talent, and he will be given a much bigger role, especially now that he is a year older and has experience playing and practicing with the senior club. I don’t think Cedevita will expose him too much, out of fear for hurting his development (and they have Hopson and Babic so there isn’t a tremendous need to rush him), but he definitely will play a key role in the rotation in 2016-2017. To see his development will be exciting to follow, especially considering he is expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA in a couple of years.

Cedevita also made one of the more underrated signings in David Stockton, the son of NBA Hall of Famer, John. Stockton, though small in stature and lacking in natural athleticism like his father, is the kind of true playmaker that will help this Cedevita squad on the offensive end. D-Stock lives to make assists, as he has that passing gene that made his dad the NBA career leader in assists. Stockton was the starting point guard and leading assist man not only at prestigious college program Gonzaga his senior year (home of Lithuanian power forward and OKC Thunder draft pick Domantas Sabonis) but also of the most productive offense in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns (the most fun team to watch in the D-League thanks to head coach David Arsenault’s offense). Those kind of merits show that Stockton can produce on the professional level, and that he is ready to transition that playmaking skill set to the Eurocup and ABA.

Cedevita will benefit from the chemistry they developed last year during their Top 16 run, as well as new acquisitions, like Hopson and Stockton, who should mesh seamlessly with the culture of this club. There were a lot more teams that may have made “bigger name” signings, but I like the core Cedevita brings back and the potential for breakout from some of their young stars (like Musa), which should make them a dark horse in the Eurocup this season.

Some honorable mentions to watch in the Eurocup

  • Nizhny Novgorod: They barely missed out on the semis after a double-ot loss to Strasbourg a year ago, and they signed an excellent combo guard in DeAndre Kane, formerly of Iowa State. They lost a lot of talent though from last year, and they will have a new 31-year-old coach in Arturs Stalbergs, who has no head coaching experience, so that dampens the enthusiasm for this year a bit.
  • Alba Berlin: They made some good signings to solidify their backcourt with young talent in Malcolm Miller and Peyton Siva, and Engin Atsur should add some veteran leadership to their squad. They also have added a lot to their junior team, as they are looking more into the future rather than winning in the present. However, they are thin in the post, and it will be interesting to see if new head coach Ahmet Caki will see that solidified in the months leading up to the season.
  • AEK Athens: They loaded up with a lot of local Greek talent, including 22-year-old Giannoulis Larentzakis, who signed a four-year deal after averaging 11.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 2.9 apg with VAP Kolossos Rodou a year ago. However, while they have quantity in terms of acquisitions, it’s hard to see if there is much real quality with this AEK roster, which makes it hard to see them as a genuine contender (though I wouldn’t be surprised to see them buck expectations).
  • Lokomotiv Kuban: I think it’s going to be a rebuilding year, even though they have been making a late run in talent acquisition this summer (they signed Mardy Collins from Strasbourg and somehow got Kenny Gabriel from Pinar Karsiyaka even though he seemed to have offers from bigger clubs like Olympiacos). The most fascinating thing to watch will be new head coach Fotis Katsikaris, the former Greek National Team head coach, who had a solid campaign last year with UCAM Murcia of the ACB. Katsikaris has known to overachieve with teams (with the exception of the Greek national team, which blew it in the Eurobasket in 2015 and OQT this summer), as Murcia was one of the more fun teams to watch in the ACB a year ago thanks to do-everything Argentinian point guard Facundo Campazzo. Will Katsikaris be able to pull that “Murcia Magic” with Kuban, a team coming off a Euroleague Final Four appearance a year ago?

 

After Final Four season, Laboral Kutxa Baskonia starts from scratch

Adam Hanga is one of the few players left from the Laboral Kutxa Baskonia squad that made the Euroleague Final Four a year ago.

The 2015-2016 season was safe to say a surprise “dream season” for Basque club Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, especially in Euroleague. As stated before on this blog, Baskonia was led by Ioannis Bourousis, a Greek center signed late in the off-season who ended up earning first-team All-Euroleague and All-ACB honors, in addition being named ACB Liga Endesa MVP. (He also was in close consideration for the Euroleague MVP with eventual winner Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). Bourousis, a bench warmer with Real Madrid in 2014-2015 whom many thought was in the twilight of his career, proved to be the life force of this Baskonia team during their impressive Euroleague run. He was one of the best rebounders in the league, a versatile scorer who could hurt teams in the block or on the perimeter, and defensively, though not incredibly athletic, he used his big frame and instincts to take away easy baskets from opposing players. And in addition to his individual skills, it became obvious week after week how Bourousis’ veteran presence and leadership was appreciated and respected from his teammates, as Baskonia saw career years from point guards Darius Adams and Mike James, as well as strong campaigns from wing players such as Fabien Causeur, Davis Bertans and Adam Hanga. Bourousis may not have been named the Euroleague MVP, but no one player was more crucial to Baskonia’s Final Four run than the Greek center.

However, as the Euroleague season gets closer to starting, the “dream season” of Baskonia is merely a memory. Not only is Bourousis gone, back in his home country playing for Panathinaikos, but most of the roster had departed as well. James is in Athens with Bourousis (James actually signed first with Panathinaikos and was key in recruiting the Greek star, who also was in negotiations with some NBA teams this summer), Adams signed with a team in China, Causeur went to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany, and Bertans earned a contract with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. And if that was not enough, head coach Velimir Perasovic left early in the off-season, accepting a deal to be the new head coach of Anadolu Efes, a club looking to compete after big off-seasons by BSL rivals Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Darussafaka. Unlike other Final Four teams such as CSKA and Fenerbahce, who were able to keep most of their crucial players, Baskonia is starting from scratch, still piecing together their roster even as of this moment. That kind of rebuilding approach of course isn’t the most surefire path to success, especially when a team reached the heights Baskonia rose to last season in the Euroleague.

That being said, if there is any club that can overcome the odds and buck expectations, it’s Baskonia.

Many European basketball fans forget how under the radar Baskonia happened to be in October of the Euroleague season a year ago. Adams and James were relatively “no-name” guards, and Bourousis had warmed the bench behind Gustavo Ayon and Felipe Reyes in Madrid a year earlier, making his signing a head-scratcher (there probably was more enthusiasm for Sofoklis Schortsanitis’ arrival in Crvena Zvezda, where he barely lasted) . The Latvian Bertans was coming off a knee injury he suffered in the tail end of the 2015 season, and the Hungarian Hanga had played most of the 2015 season on loan with the Italian club Sidigas Avellino of Lega A. There was a lot of roster question marks with this Baskonia team at the start of the 2015-2016 season, and the fact that they opened the 10-game Regular Season with a group that included Olympiacos, Olimpia Milano, and Anadolu Efes didn’t help fans’ uneasiness either (considering going in they were probably thought of as the 4th best team in that group by many experts).

And yet, we know how the story went in 2015-2016. Baskonia management showed the fanbase and Euroleague followers that they knew what they were doing, and they had a Final Four and an Executive of the Year award for Jose Antonio Quejarata to prove it. So, yes, Baskonia probably lost more of their roster than management or the fans wanted. Yes, they lost a solid head coach to a Euroleague competitor. But they’ve gone through this song and dance before. So another Final Four campaign is in the works, right?

Well…that may be a tougher task this time around, but Baskonia has some potential, and it starts with their new head coach.

Baskonia hopes that Spanish head coach Sito Alonso, formerly of Dominion Bilbao, will bring a youthful energy that will help develop their younger players as well as keep them competitive in ACB and Euroleague play.

The new man in charge of this Baskonia club is Sito Alonso, the former Dominion Bilbao coach who was rumored as a candidate for the vacant Barcelona job this summer. Alonso did not go to the Catalan club, but he did earn the Basque club position which may have been a better fit for him anyways. Alonso is known to be a developer of young talent, as he coached the Spanish Under-20 team to a bronze medal in the 2013 European U-20 Championships, and was also a Spanish National Team assistant on the 2014 FIBA World Cup team. In terms of club experience, he doesn’t exactly have extensive Euroleague experience, as he has only coached 1 team in the Euroleague, DKV Joventut in 2008-2009, where they went 4-6 and failed to make it to the Top 16. However, he has proven to be successful in Eurocup competition, as he helped Joventut win a Eurocup championship in 2008 (which helped them qualify for the Euroleague), and he went 11-5 with Bilbao a season ago in the Eurocup (which made up for their disappointing ACB campaign where they missed out on the playoffs to Fuenlabrada on a last second shot on the last day).

Alonso, who is only 40 years old, provides a fresh perspective to this Baskonia squad that was used to the veteran presence of previous coach Perasovic a season ago. One of the interesting aspects about Alonso’s hire is the fact that he is only the second Spanish coach hired by Baskonia in the past 11 years since Pedro Martinez and Natxo Lezkano split duties in 2005 (the other Spanish coach was in Ibon Navarro in 2014-2015), so his Spanish roots, both personally and in the coaching profession (he hasn’t coached a club outside of Spain) will help the local fan base endear to him immediately. Furthermore, what will make or break Alonso’ tenure is how he will utilize the young talent on this Baskonia team, as player development has been his calling card in his coaching career thus far. As of this moment, Baskonia has four players under 25 years old on this roster that will be featured in the rotation: Ilimane Diop and Tornike Shengelia, who both return from last year; and newcomers Johannes Voigtmann from Germany and Rafael Luz from Brazil. Diop and Voigtmann will add depth in the center position behind newcomer and former NBA No.1 pick Andrea Bargnani, who is most likely the projected starting center. Diop did well as a starter mid-season, benefiting from the extra minutes due to Bourousis’ preference for coming off the bench. Diop is athletic and has strong shot-blocking skills, but he still needs to improve his offensive skills (his back to the basket game was limited) and get stronger to help him battle defensively and on the boards against opposing Euroleague and ACB centers. Voigtmann comes from FIBA Europe Cup Champion Fraport Skyliners, where he succeeded in the BBL as a BBL Rising Star and Most Improved player winner in 2015, and All-Star in 2015 and 2016. Voigtmann, who averaged 11.4 and 5.5 rpg in the BBL a year ago, will be the kind of young big who should benefit from Alonso’s tutelage, though he may go through some growing pains considering the improvement in competition from the BBL and Europe Cup to the ACB and Euroleague, respectively.

Alonso’s most interesting work though may be with Shengelia and Luz, who play power forward and point guard respectively. Shengelia only played 9 Euroleague games a season ago with Baskonia, and though he put up decent averages, (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) in limited minutes (17.8 mpg), his contributions were small in comparison to other players on the Baskonia roster. Furthermore, Shengelia also carries some personal baggage that Alonso was exposed to as coach of Bilbao. In 2015, Shengelia and Bilbao player Dejan Todorovic were involved in a massive fight on court that resulted in a five-game suspension. There was a lot of finger pointing in terms of who was at fault that resulted in a lot of bad blood between the clubs. Whether or not former Bilbao coach Alonso and Shengelia can bury this hatchet will be crucial, especially considering Shengelia will play such a key role for Baskonia this upcoming season.

As for Luz, the 24-year-old Brazilian point guard comes over from Brazilian powerhouse Flamengo, which won the domestic league championship a year ago. Luz is familiar with the Spanish club scene, as he signed originally with Unicaja in 2007. However, he mostly played on loan to other clubs during his tenure with Unicaja, and this will be the first time he will gain major playing time at the major European level in his career. Luz has flair and potential as a point guard averaging 7 ppg and 4.1 apg a year ago in Brazil. Furthermore, he will benefit from Alonso’s mentorship, as he has strong experience developing point guards, as evidenced by nurturing current NBA player Ricky Rubio during his early years in Joventut.

Andrea Bargnani is coming off a poor season with the Brooklyn Nets; Baskonia is hoping he can rekindle himself as a player in Europe and in the Euroleague.

Alonso will likely have the most impact as a coach on the young players on this roster. However, as with any Euroleague team, the goal is still to win and make the Final Four, even if the odds may be against them. For Alonso to do that, he will have to rely on former NBA players Bargnani, the projected starting center, and Rodrigue Beaubois, the projected point guard who played last year with Strasbourg and formerly played with the Dallas Mavericks.

The Bargnani acquisition has been one that has garnered equal praise and criticism. Many find the deal akin in situation to the Bourousis signing a year ago: a late unexpected signing of a player coming off a down year. Some though think the comparison is a stretch, and that Bargnani is on the wrong end of his career, and isn’t the kind of center who can have the impact that Bourousis had a year ago. Rob Scott, who writes for Euroleague Adventures, had this to say about the Bargnani signing in a tweet:

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Scott has a good point about Bargnani, as the Italian center has struggled to stay healthy and effective when on the court in the past five seasons. Since his career year in 2010-2011 in Toronto where he played 66 games, and averaged 21.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg, it has been mostly downhill for the former No. 1 pick, the first European player to ever be drafted in that slot. He has only played more than 40 games twice since 2011 (42 games with the Knicks in 2013-2014 and 46 games with Nets last season), and he has only had a Win Shares total over one twice as well (2.2 in 2011-2012 with Toronto and 1.5 with the Knicks in 2013-2014). Last season in Brooklyn, a team that played to their low expectations in the pre-season, Bargnani failed to have much impact at all for the Nets, as he only averaged 6.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, and a career low 13.8 mpg. The writing seemed to be on the wall for Bargnani’s NBA career, as he was passed up in the rotation late in the year by youngsters Chris McCullough and Thomas Robinson, a bad sign for a veteran in a contract year trying to earn his keep in the NBA.

Bargnani surprisingly is only 31 years old despite playing 10 seasons in the NBA. However, he struggled to find a position in the States, not quite quick or agile enough to be a 3 or 4, but not physical or strong enough to play the 5. He has regularly put up paltry rebounding numbers for a big (his career average is 4.6 rpg) and defensively, he has proven to be a liability time and time again. He isn’t the kind of physical shotblocker that can guard the rim well, and he frequently gets lost and taken advantage of in pick and roll defense. Now there may be some room for optimism in 2016-2017 with Baskonia. Bargnani will face less quality bigs in the Euroleague than he did in the NBA, he can still shoot it from beyond the arc well for a 7-footer (he’s a career 35.4 percent 3-pt shooter and two seasons ago with the Knicks he shot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc), and perhaps being back home in Europe will be a breath of fresh air after years of ridicule in America for failing to live up to his No. 1 status. At the end of the day though, Bargnani remains a bigger risk than Bourousis a year ago, as he isn’t the same player (Bourousis is a much better rebounder and defender), making the potential of this pickup quite murky for this Baskonia squad.

Baskonia also picked up headlines by signing Beaubois, who averaged 11.6 ppg and 2.3 apg in 24 mpg in Euroleague play a year ago with Strasbourg, who finished runner up in the LNB and Eurocup in 2016. Beaubois is a dynamic player, more of a shoot-first combo guard than a pure point. At 6-feet, 2-inches, Beaubois has a strong frame for a guard, and can use that to his advantage, especially from beyond the arc. He shot 37 percent from 3-point land in Euroleague play a year ago, and he depends on that shot greatly, as evidenced by his 0.43 3PA/FGA rate. That being said, Roddy can be his own worst enemy at the times, as he has a tendency to over-dominate the ball on the offensive end, and sometimes sink a team when his shot is not on. Last year, his touches per game was highest on the team at 13.02, not necessarily great considering his points per possession was 0.89, which is 0.11 lower than average. For Beaubois and Baskonia to be successful, they will need the Beaubois of 2011-2012, where he had his best season as a professional, averaging 8.9 ppg and 2.9 apg while producing a PER of 15.3 and a Win Shares total of 2.2 with the Dallas Mavericks. During that season, Beaubois played within Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle’s system, and looked to produce for the team and not just himself, which benefited the Mavs and his professional outlook.

Unfortunately, since returning to Europe, he has played a bit more selfishly much to the detriment of his team, and himself (he has become less efficient and effective playing this way). There were times his individual play helped lead Strasbourg to big wins, but there were also times where his inefficient play got in the way of what head coach Vincent Collet was trying to do on the court. Channeling the “good” and “efficient” Beaubois may be one of Alonso’ biggest challenges going into this season, especially considering the depth issues of Baskonia as of this moment, which may enable Beaubois to be more “selfish” offensively.

Baskonia is banking on a big year from Roddy Beaubois, who’s coming over recently from Strasbourg.

Alonso doesn’t have the greatest hand dealt to him in comparison to his Euroleague competition, but the cupboard isn’t bare. There’s potential for Alonso to utilize Bargnani in a way that will allow him to play more in his comfort zone (on the perimeter from beyond the arc), and assign his younger bigs (Diop, Voigtmann, Shengelia) to take care of the “dirty work” (rebounding, post defense, etc.). If Beaubois focuses more on “team” offense rather than “individual” scoring, he and Hanga and Jaka Blazic could be an effective starting trio on the perimeter. Kim Tillie is a proven power forward that could provide valuable production and mentorship to the younger post players, and Luz could breakout under Alonso, who has been successful developing Spanish point guards with previous clubs.

There certainly is potential for success. At the same time though, there is a lot of potential for things to go south. After all, expectations are high for the club not only due to their Final Four run a year ago, but also due to the fact to the more competitive structure of the new 16-team Euroleague format which will be incorporated starting this year. Already, we have seen another Euroleague mainstay (Unicaja) become a victim of the new format after a sub-par year a season ago. While Baskonia is in better financial and competitive shape than the Malaga-based club, it serves as a reminder of what lack of Euroleague success can do to a club, even if it is only for a small stretch of time.

The pressure will be on Alonso and Baskonia in 2016-2017, especially in the Euroleague. Can Alonso put these awkward and eccentric pieces together to produce a successful squad? Or are the pieces too flawed and broken to work out in the end? Is this rebuilding project perhaps just too much, and the magic of that “rebuilding” job in 2015-2016 just a miracle that won’t be seen again?

There is still time in the off-season to add pieces, but you can bet Alonso, his staff and Baskonia management, are doing all they can now to make sure that their plan can work by October.

Happy Hour at the Belfry in Downtown/Crossroads

Not feeling the need to drive through late 4/early 5 o’clock traffic on Main Street in downtown Kansas City, I parked my car just outside Union Station and decided to take a ride on the KC Streetcar, which had opened in May. The KC Streetcar has stirred up all kinds of emotions with KC citizens and taxpayers: some think it’s the start of a major change in public transportation in KC that will ultimately make KC more of a major city in the Midwest; some think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money to satisfy the ego of Mayor Sly James, a train enthusiast, who has made it his main agenda since taking office to get create a major transportation system in the KC Metro area. It’s kind of early to tell what is the right stance on this issue. Sure, it would be nice if the Streetcar would be able to go through red lights, or was on a separate line that wouldn’t interfere with traffic (similar to what I saw in San Jose with their light rail system, which is built in the middle of the street so it doesn’t need to adhere to traffic signals), but it’s a good start for the city in terms of getting people on board with public transportation (which isn’t easy to do in cities in the Midwest outside of Chicago); makes traveling around the downtown area of KC a lot easier (it’s nice that you can go from the River Market to the Crossroads without having to drive around or walk long distance); and the train itself has a sleek design that’s better than other transits I have seen from other major cities (SacTown, you need to get your act together).

Anyways, to bring things back, this isn’t a post about the KC Streetcar (though I probably will write one in due time). In addition to taking the Streetcar to avoid traffic headaches off of Main Street Downtown, I also decided to take it because their Kauffman Center stop took me to 16th street. No, I was not going to the Symphony or to see Los Tigres del Norte perform (or anything perform…it was Wednesday at 5 p.m.). Instead, I was going down the other direction down 16th street, in between Main and Grand, for Happy Hour at a small cocktail lounge called the Belfry.

To be honest, I had never really heard of the Belfry, mostly due to the fact that it sits in a weird “No Man’s Land” between Downtown KC and the Crossroads. I don’t feel anything is “truly downtown” south of Truman Road, but the location of Belfry is a bit north for Crossroads as it would be quite a hike for someone to go there on a First Friday’s. (But hey…Streetcar solves that! So maybe it’s not so bad, taxpaying haters!) And it’s location in between Main and Grand, makes it get ignored in the “what neighborhood does it belong to?” shuffle. To make matters worse in its favor, it doesn’t have that “prime” location off of Main Street that benefits other establishments in the “No Man’s Land” like Anton’s or Nara or Bazooka’s (if you have to ask what kind of place Bazooka’s is…well…it may not be for you and you probably can’t afford it). And yet, despite it’s “humble” location (and establishment, which I will go into more later), the Belfry surprises as an affordable whiskey/beer lounge that offers a down-to-earth atmosphere, as well as competitive fare in comparison to any other “Happy Hour Crowd”-catering bar in the Downtown/Crossroads area.

Don’t let the “Are you sure this isn’t an affordable Health Care clinic?” look from the outside fool you.

As you walk down 16th street, the Belfry barely sticks out. The street consists mostly of converted lofts, used for both residential as well as office use, and the Belfry’s exterior blends into those surroundings. If you just took a glance at it, and didn’t know what it was, you probably would confuse it for a Non-Profit office or some “new-age Christian church” that caters to Millennials. But then you take a step inside…

Well, not much else sticks out either (sorry for the dramatic pause). You walk up a small stairwell, and you are greeted with a fork which can take you to two main areas in the complex. Granted, it still has that initial appearance of an office building, but more like one of those “Hmm…this could be a civil engineering or architecture firm” office and less like a “I could probably get my TB test done here” center (which it could also pass for from the outside if you have been to some of those clinics downtown or in midtown). The owner of the Belfry owns the whole building, but the room to the right, spacious and decorated with multiple tables and a bar in the corner, is reserved for special events and parties, and isn’t used regularly, especially during the week and in the afternoon (when I was there).

So, being that the right side was as deserted and gravitating as the ballroom in the Stanley Hotel (and that’s from a non-Jack perspective; Jack would disagree and say that the dining room was the shit), I veered to the left, which was empty, but it at least had a bartender at the counter, cleaning glasses as I walked in. Considering it was just before 5, when most people (unlike myself in the months of June-August) were just getting off of work, the sparseness of the bar didn’t put me off or make me want to go somewhere else (not that I had a choice since I was meeting someone there). It had just opened. And when bars just open, they can be dead. Unfortunately, not every bar or establishment can be like Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.

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The look of the Belfry from the inside is one that is both cozy and modern; minimal meets classic. There are about five-to-six hardwood tall tables with an accompanying four tall stools at each table. In the back corner, to the right of the clock on the wall, a plush four-person couch is designed for people to engage in conversation as a group or get a little “cozy” without crossing the line. And at the bar, about 10-12 tall stools sit at the dark brown, hardwood counter, with flexible backs of the stools that make leaning back an occasional plus. The Belfry doesn’t really try to “wow” their patrons with their interior design, though it’s not off-putting by any means. Think of it as a modernized VFW that can allow anyone in, coupled with the kind of hipster flair one would see from a dining or coffee establishment on the Westside.

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In addition to glorifying Chelsea FC (woof…rough year last season), the Belfry also showcases all kinds of whiskey and beer (notice the 20 taps).

What makes the Belfry aesthetically pleasing is behind the bar, as the extensive beer and whiskey selection will make any millennial grow a chest hair in awe. As you can see in the picture above, this is a “whiskey” lounge in every sense of the word. They have probably dozens of selections of bourbons, Scotch whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, you name it. They have local whiskeys like the J. Rieger Kansas City Whiskey, made by the same people who own the Rieger Hotel in the Crossroads, but they also have a lot of nice varieties of the expensive small batch bourbons and Johnny Walker’s as well (I’m talking “Blue Label” shit here). They have a small Gin, Tequila and Vodka selection (as you can see in the bottom right of the photo), but truth be told, the Belfry is about showcasing the whiskey, and in its pure forms. Yes, they can make classic cocktails, but in terms of specialty drinks, they only feature about 8-10. If you do feel the need for something mixed into your whiskey, I would suggest that Grand Fashioned, the Belfry’s take on a classic old-fashioned using J. Rieger bourbon. It’s the kind of drink that will make you feel like Don Draper in “Mad Men” only without the 50’s racism and misogyny.

The Belfry has a quality cocktail selection (the trafficway was also a solid cocktail that utilized Rye), but to be honest, whiskey, especially expensive stuff, is meant to be consumed in its purest forms: single or double, neat. No fancy mixers. No vermouths or shit. Thankfully for whiskey purists, the Belfry adheres to that kind of minimalistic perfection with their expansive whiskey selection. So, to get the full Belfry whiskey experience, find a bourbon or scotch or Irish whiskey on the menu that entices you, order a single (or a double) neat, and just sink it in.

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Whiskey may be one of the feature characteristics of the Belfry, but Kansas City is not Tennessee or Kentucky. Kansas City is a beer town, and a growing craft beer city with the rise of Boulevard being served in drinking establishments now all over the country (I have a friend who drinks Boulevard in DC), and more and more smaller craft breweries opening up in the Metro every year. The Belfry also pays homage to KC’s craft beer scene with 20 beers on tap, showcasing everything from IPAs, to Gose’s, to Saisons to even Imperial Stouts. The beers rotate regularly, as evidenced by a clipboard/office paper menu that look similar to the check in sheet I used to have as a RA when freshmen reported to their dorms for orientation day. It’s not fancy, nor is it the kind of feature Jon Taffer would approve of, but I can appreciate such a “low cost” menu design to make sure everything remains accurate on a daily basis. They also have a massive chalkboard near the entrance that lists all 20 beer selections, for over-anxious types (i.e. me) who don’t trust everything on that piece of paper on the clipboard. For those looking for a suggestion, the Great Divide Yeti, an Imperial Stout from Colorado, is a beer enthusiasts’ pound of pure, with the dark coffee/chocolate appearance and taste one would expect from an Imperial Stout, but not as heavy as the typical IS. And, at 9.4% it also packs a punch, so enjoy 1 or 2 and you’ll be good (though as with any stout, you probably will be good after 1 or 2 anyways, considering they can be filling).

But, any kind of specialty cocktail/craft beer lounge such as the Belfry wouldn’t be good for Happy Hour without a decent food menu. Despite its simple appearance inside, the food is a dantiful surprise, as James Beard Award-winning chef, Celina Tio, who also owns Julian in Brookside, is in charge of the menu at the Belfry. The food is a fusion mix of sorts, ranging from homestyle favorites one would find at a good local cafe, to small-plate dishes (on special during happy hour), to more modern takes on pub food. Yes, you can get a classic burger with fresh cut fries, and the rigatoni entices with fresh ricotta cheese, a chunky tomato sauce, and spicy Italian sausage that tastes like it came from a local butcher shop. (Anton’s or Broadway Butcher perhaps?) However, what really made Tio and the Belfry’s menu stand out was their take on vegetables. Their special pan fried cauliflower has a sweet spicy texture it, with the cauliflower nice and tender, and the spiciness enhancing the flavor of the vegetables, not overpowering it.

And while that was good, it still paled in comparison to their tempura-fried broccoli rabe.

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Words cannot describe the balance of the crunchiness of the tempura batter with the honey Sriracha glaze. Yes, you read that right FUCKING HONEY SRIRACHA GLAZE. (I know what you’re thinking: “GTFO!”) An explosion of Asian-American flavors burst through in this dish, as the hot, sweet, salty, and crispy textures made it worth savoring for seconds before going onto the next bite. Tio is an Asian-American chef who holds multiple Asian heritages (with Chinese and Filipino being two of them), and her multi-Asian ethnicity is showcased proudly in this dish, with multiple references to different Asian flavors present. This dish may go under the radar with most patrons. After all, fried broccoli? “Fuck that. I didn’t come to this whiskey and craft beer bar to eat a dish my fucking mom made me eat before I got spumoni ice cream, homie.”

But trust me. The honey sriracha tempura fried broccoli rabe blows flavor gaskets to the 100th degree.

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The Belfry may not resonate with everyone. If you want a nicer, more traditional cocktail bar environment, Julep in Westport may be your cup of tea. If you want a cocktail bar with more flair, then Manifesto in the basement of the Rieger Hotel would be a better pick. If you want multitudes upon multitudes of beer selections, than the Ruins in the Crossroads and their self-pour station is your best bet.

But the Belfry is a nice balance. It’s simple. Both in menu and in environment. It’s a great to hang out with people after work or on a lazy afternoon or evening. It’s free of distractions. And despite it’s lack of amenities, the Belfry proves to be a special place where one can grab a bite to eat and a glass of whiskey or pint of craft beer during happy hour. It feels like your place, like your club, like your friend’s gallery or print press in the Crossroads  that chills the fuck out on First Friday’s and serves liquor and beer to whoever drops in.

That kind of special environment can not be duplicated with amenities or fancy decorating. It has to be truly genuine for that vibe to be replicated.

Luckily for KC bar and happy hour patrons, the Belfry has that authenticity, and more importantly…charm.

Lucky 7? How Panathinaikos is shaping up to be Euroleague favorites in 2016-2017

After five titles in 13 years, Panathinaikos has struggled to find success after head coach Zeljko Obradovic left for Fenerbahce.

“When I came in June 1999 to Athens to join Panathinaikos, I could not have imagined that this would be my team, my family, my home for 13 years. In these 13 years, we had many beautiful moments, many celebrations, but also difficulties. We were always together as a great and true family.”

-Zeljko Obradovic at his Panathinaikos farewell press conference in June 2012

Panathinaikos has always been associated with legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic, and for good reason, really. The “Greens” from Athens have won the most championships (six) in the modern Euroleague era, and Obradovic during his 13-year tenure in Athens was responsible for five of them. Under the well-respected and fiery Serbian coach, Panathinaikos became one of Europe’s most recognized, and respected clubs, annually competing for Greek Basketball League championships, as well as Euroleague Final Fours and titles. Before Obradovic, the Greens were simply another Greek club in the European basketball climate, on the same level with Olympiacos, Aris and PAOK (who all made Euroleague Final Fours prior to Obradovic coming to Athens). Now, along with Olympiacos, they have become one of Europe’s elite clubs, able to afford and attract all kinds of talent worldwide, with the expectation that they will add to the “stars” (i.e. Euroleague titles) each and every year. Since Zeljko, “championships and nothing less” have been the expectation not just for fans, but the players and organization as well.

Unfortunately, for Greens fans, since Obradovic left to Turkey to take over Fenerbahce, the club has not been able to live up to the lofty expectations since their coaching messiah left in 2012. In the post-Obradovic era, Panathinaikos has not made the Final Four, and in that same time span, they have seen Greek rival Olympiacos make the Euroleague championship game in two of those years (with a championship in 2013 and a runner up finish in 2015). For a club that exerted their dominance so forcefully in the Euroleague for nearly 13 seasons in the 2000’s, this kind of regression has not only been disappointing, but somewhat unacceptable in the eyes of the organization and fanbase. Thus, with such dissatisfaction from their internal and external supporting base, there has come constant change, as the club has gone through multiple player and roster changes in the the last four seasons.

Despite the wild inconsistency of the last four seasons, Greens fans have reason to be optimistic. The upcoming 2016-2017 season, the fifth season in the post-Obradovic era, looks to be the most promising yet, as the club has assembled the kind of roster that can truly compete for a Euroleague Final Four berth, not to mention championship. How did the Greens get to this point? And what will make this season different from the previous four, which ended up in playoff disappointment?

Well, let’s break down the road the Greens took to not only thrive this summer in the transfer market, but also set themselves up for success in 2016-2017.

Sasa Dordevic led Panathinaikos to the playoffs in 2015-2016, but the lack of big wins overshadowed statistical success.

Good on paper, but unable to follow through

After failing to make the Euroleague Final Four for a fourth straight season, and losing to CSKA Moscow in the playoffs, Panathinaikos decided to fire coach Dusko Ivanovic. After going through an interim coach for the remainder of the season (where they lost in the GBL finals 3-0), on June 30, 2015, the Greens tabbed Serbian Sasa Dordevic to be the new head coach for the 2015-2016 season.

Dordevic had the kind of resume that made the Greens faithful hopeful. In many ways, he was likened to a younger version of Zeljko: he was Serbian; had made his name as the Serbian National Team Head Coach (he led Serbia to a runner-up finish in the 2014 FIBA World Cup); and had a standout playing career for multiple clubs in Europe, with a brief spell in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. On the other hand, Dordevic didn’t have much extensive club coaching experience like Zeljko, prior to his arrival in Athens, as Dordevic only had “cups of coffee” stints with Olimpia Milano in 2006-2007 and Benetton Treviso in 2011-2012. Nonetheless, the combination of his National Team coaching experience as well as his highly respected status as a player made the Panathinaikos club feel confident in tabbing Dordevic as their new coach.

The 2015-2016 roster was full of big-name Greek, European and American talent, and it looked like the kind of team Dordevic could be successful with right away in the Euroleague. At the point guard position, they had Nick Calathes, who came to Panathinaikos after a successful stint as a backup point guard with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the legendary Dimitris Diamantidis, who would be playing his last season professionally. On the wings they had former NBA player Sasha Pavlovic, American James Feldeine and Serbian Vladimir Jankovic to give them shooting and scoring. And in the post, they had the athletic and physical James Gist as well as Greek Antonis Fotsis in the power-forward position, and Serbian star and former Minnesota Timberwolf Miroslav Raduljica and former Golden State Warrior Ognjen Kuzmic. Though they were a bit of an older roster, Dordevic had the depth and pedigree to immediately be one of the most competitive clubs in Europe.

However, in week 1, the Greens lost on the road to first-time Euroleague participant, Pinar Karsiyaka, a club that failed to make it out of the 10-game opening round. * In many ways, that opening loss was a microcosm of the 2015-2016 season: so much potential, but nothing but “thuds” in the end.

(*Edit July 28th: As noted by a commenter below, the loss was actually to Lokomotiv Kuban, not Pinar Karsiyaka. Barcelona was the team that actually lost to Karsiyaka in round 1 of the Regular Season, which I confused Panathinaikos with. This is sort of fitting because they had a disappointing season as well and also fired their head coach by the end of the season as well. In comparison, Panathinaikos’ loss to Loko was not as bad considering Loko made the Final Four. But the loss was to a Loko team without Randolph, and it was Loko’s first game in club history in the Euroleague, so it was disappointing to an extent. Just not as bad as Barcelona’s to Karsiyaka.)

Panathinaikos rebounded from the opening week loss, as they went 6-4 and finished third in the division and qualified for the Top 16. While they avoided a massive letdown like other big name clubs such as Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and EA7 Armani Milano, who failed to qualify for the next round, their third place finish in the group was a bit disappointing, considering the group was considered one of the weaker ones in the Regular Season round.

In the Top 16, Panathinaikos started to mold into form, as they went 9-5 and finished tied for second in their group with Lokomotiv Kuban (a team that finished first in their group in the opening round). Panathinaikos, which struggled with scoring and outside shooting, got a mid-season boost when they added Elliot Williams, a former NBA Draft pick, to be a wing combo threat. Taking minutes away from Pavlovic and Jankovic, the move proved to be beneficial, as Williams gave Panathinaikos an athletic threat on the offensive end that could create offense individually late in the shot clock.

During the Top 16 season, the Greens, with the addition of Williams, were statistically speaking one of the better teams in the Euroleague. They had the fourth-highest Net Rating in Top 16 play (higher than FC Barcelona and Baskonia, a Final Four participant), as well as the third-best defensive rating over the 14-game span (behind only Loko and Fenerbahce). And, under Dordevic, they moved the ball the best out of any team in the Euroleague (as evidenced by their 64.9 A/FGM rate tied for second in the Euroleague), not to mention crashed the boards effectively (as evidenced by their 32.4 offensive rebounding rate, third-best in Top 16 play).

So how come Panathinaikos failed to win a single game in their five-game playoff series against Laboral Kutxa Baskonia?

One of the main issues for Dordevic and this squad was their shooting inconsistency. Despite an elite defensive rating in Top 16 play, their offensive rating was around league average at 106.9 (10th in Top 16 play). Despite an elite assist rate, they didn’t shoot especially well from the field, and their players struggled to score or create offense in isolation situations (usually due to good pressure defense by opponents). Panathinaikos ranked 11th in eFG percentage in Top 16 play with a eFG% of 52.7, a pretty mediocre mark. This lack of effectiveness in shooting led to possessions where the Greens would have to force offense, which unfortunately led to a multitude of turnovers, as evidenced by their 19.8 turnover rate, second-highest in Top 16 play, behind only Crvena Zvezda.

One of the big reasons the Greens shot ineffectively from the field relative to their competition was due to their lack of confidence in shooting beyond the arc. Panathinaikos tied for the second-lowest 3PA/FGA rate (0.34) in Top 16 play, and that low number was mostly due to their 34.1 3FG percentage, which was fourth lowest in Top 16 play. Because they didn’t have a knockdown shooter, outside some occasional streaks from Diamintidis, this forced them to constantly pass around for shots or get things into the post to Raduljica or Gist. This worked a lot of the time because guards like Calathes were effective at creating offense, and Raduljica was a talented low post scorer. But when they faced good defenses that took away passing lanes with pressure defense or didn’t give them a lot of second-chance opportunities, the Panathinaikos offense would stagnate and get down-right ugly, leading to a lot of losses and deflating performances that didn’t inspire confidence in the Greens faithful.

Dordevic didn’t do a bad job by any means. While the Greens had some big names, it was obvious that many of them didn’t have the skills that matched their names anymore. Despite their NBA pedigree, Pavlovic and Calathes were two of the clubs most ineffective scorers, as evidenced by their 0.82 and 0.77 PPP (points per possession) rates, respectively. And Raduljica, though a big name and a talented offensive player around the rim, didn’t exactly provide the rebounding they needed in the post to play him big time minutes (his 13.0 rebounding rate wouldn’t have even put him in the Top 30). And thus, Dordevic did all he could to make this team successful, which was a playoff berth and not much more.

But as stated before, playoff berths aren’t good enough. After Baskonia completed their sweep in Athens, Dordevic was let go and former Panathinaikos head coach Argiris Pedoulakis took over for the remainder of the season and re-signed for the 2016-2017 season.

Panathinaikos hit it big this summer by landing First Team All-Euroleague player Ioannis Bourousis from Laboral Kutxa Baskonia.

Building the Greens with “proven” talent

After a season where they relied on “NBA” names and Serbian talent to mesh with their Serbian coach, the Greens have undergone a different approach: going after players who have been recently successful in the Euroleague. This off-season, with the exception of maybe Real Madrid (though time will tell if their three bigs: Randolph, Ayon and Thompkins will mesh together), Panathinaikos probably had the best offseason of any Euroleague participant when it came to roster acquisitions. Let’s take a look at each move they made this summer.

  • Signed point guard Mike James from Baskonia: James gives them an explosive threat off the bench, similar to his role behind Darius Adams in Baskonia. Calathes is a deft passer, but he doesn’t have the ability anymore to really play in isolation and get to the rim to score. James on the other hand does, as he thrives in such situations and can get to the rim and throw it down against lesser defenders.
  • Signed Chris Singleton from Loko: Singleton and Gist will give Panathinaikos one of the most physical stretch-4 combos in the league. Singleton is a physical player with the ball, as he is able to bang posts or smaller wings off of mismatches in the post, or he is able to clear out in ISO situations, get space and hit the mid-range and occasional 3. Defensively, he is not the most pure rebounder, but for a guy of his offensive skill set, he holds his own on the glass, especially offensive end (he had an 11.0 offensive rebounding rate last year). With Gist, Singleton gives Panathinaikos to play small ball (put Singleton at the 5) or give them depth should Gist get into foul trouble.
  • Signed Ioannis Bourousis from Baskonia: Without a doubt the best signing this off-season of any Euroleague club, period. Bourousis is the reigning ACB MVP, and was a first-team All-Euroleague player, who had the second highest PIR in the Euroleague last season (behind only Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo). Bourousis led Baskonia to their first Final Four in nearly 10 years, and helped mentor a young squad to exceed most people’s expectations (many figured Baskonia to be a Top 16 participant at best). Bourousis had the second highest rebounding rate (19.1) of any player in the Euroleague last season (behind only Barcelona’s Joey Dorsey, who played nearly 570 less minutes than Bourousis), and was one of the Euroleague’s most effective scorers with a True Shooting percentage of over 61 percent. To put it bluntly: no player was more valuable this off-season than Bourousis, who had proven his worth last year as a multi-talented big in the mold of Vlade Divac. And despite serious NBA offers, Bourousis returned to his home country to play for Panathinaikos. The addition of Bourousis, who is coming of a season where he experienced a career renaissance, automatically puts the Greens in the Final Four conversation.
  • Signed KC Rivers from Real Madrid: If Bourousis put them in the discussion, Rivers solidifies their status as Final Four favorites. The biggest issue for the Greens a season ago was shooting, and Rivers helps that issues immensely, as he automatically becomes the Greens most effective and reliable 3-point shooters. Rivers also comes from a winning pedigree, as he was a key cog of the 2015 Euroleague champion Real Madrid squad. In terms of his shooting prowess, Rivers thrives behind the arc, as evidenced by his 41.1 percent rate from beyond the arc in 2015 with Real Madrid, and his 44.2 rate in BBL play with Bayern Munich last season. Though he did drop to 37.1 in EL play with Madrid after being acquired from Bayern Munich through transfer during Top 16 play, his dip was most likely due to the fatigue of playing with multiple clubs in 2015-2016. Expect his rate to climb back into the 40 percent range, and if it does, Panathinaikos will have the shooting that will make them a more well-rounded squad offensively than a season ago.
The pressure will be on for Argiris Pedoulakis to bring Panathinaikos their first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era.

How does Panathinaikos put this all together?

As we have seen in the past from many Euroleague teams, sometimes the biggest names don’t equate to “most successful.” The Greens have gotten off to a good start by acquiring players who address specific needs from a year ago: James gives them instant offense off the bench, Singleton gives them toughness to complement Gist, Bourousis gives them playmaking and rebounding from the post, and Rivers gives them shooting. Pedoulakis will have a much easier time with this squad offensively than the one a year ago during his interim stint, which had to work so hard through their sets to create offensive opportunities against good defenses.

Furthermore, one of the more underrated developments of their signings was their ability to find guys who meshed together chemistry-wise. James and Bourousis were close teammates in Baskonia, and they are likely to continue that on and off-the-court camaraderie in their new surroundings in Greece. Rivers is a proven professional who has fit in with any club he has gone due to his role as a specialized shooter, and athletic defender. And Singleton has embraced the European lifestyle and game after coming over from the NBA, as he is the kind of emotional player that will thrive from the energy of the Greens’ rabid fanbase. So, a lot of credit has to be given to the Panathinaikos management: they took the time to not only find the right talent and skill fits to this roster, but also the right personalities that should mesh easily with the current players on this roster.

Of course, these four new players can’t do it all. They need Calathes to improve his efficiency as a playmaker and scorer (which should be easier with more options around him). They need their young Greek talent such as Vasilis Charalampopoulos and Nikos Pappas to step up and earn more minutes after being regulated to the bench mostly in 2015-2016. Fostis and Jankovic need to step up after mostly regression seasons a year ago. The new talent will certainly be a boost on their own individual merits. But if the returning players on this Greens squad can also improve and bounce back from a year ago, then the new talent added will be amplified even more on the court, meaning a special year for this Panathinaikos squad.

Pedoulakis has been the coach of the Greens before, so he knows the expectations in Athens: win a Championship or else. However, he has the talent to do it, and in the new Euroleague format, with a longer season, he also had the kind of depth that will help them be a competitor throughout the course of the Euroleague and GBL seasons. Yes, injuries happen. Yes, regression seasons happen. But on paper, this Panathinaikos squad is ready to compete for another Euroleague crown.

Can the Greens get the first Euroleague title in the post-Obradovic era? Well, if the chips fall right (and we won’t know that until the games start), 2017 looks to be a prime opportunity for Panathinaikos to get lucky number seven.

“Basketball Tapas”: FIBA CL announces field, Eurocup adds 4 new clubs, Hickman joins Milano, Maccabi TA finds Miller replacement

In this edition of “Basketball Tapas”, the focus will be on the FIBA Champions League and their announcement of their field for the 2016-2017 as well as the Eurocup adding four new additions to replace the four Italian clubs that defected to the Champions League last minute. Also, we’ll take a look at couple of Euroleague clubs who made some key moves to boost their rosters.

Now, let’s get to serving!

FIBA Champions League announces field

After waiting for the Euroleague and Eurocup to make their announcements, as well as ironing out some last minute additions, the FIBA Champions League finally announced their draw for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. You can take a look at some of the highlights in the tweet below

 

Some key things to note about that draw and groupings:

  • Group D looks to be the most promising and competitive group in the regular season. Eurocup and LNB runner-up Strasbourg heads the group, but clubs such as Iberostar Tenerife of the ACB, KK Cibona and Mega Leks of the ABA, and possibly Besiktas of the BSL, if they get of the qualification group, will also be challenging for group supremacy. If there is a “group of death” of sorts of the four, group D may be it.
  • Speaking of Besiktas and the qualification rounds, I imagine there are some teams who probably aren’t happy about their status of playing in these rounds. Besiktas probably made the biggest splash in terms of transfers of any club in the BSL beyond the four Euroleague participants, and yet they only got a bye from the first round of qualification play. Furthermore, Dinamo Sassari, who participated in the Euroleague the past two seasons, will have to win in both rounds of qualification play to make it to the regular season group stage. They definitely were hit the hardest of the four Italian clubs who left the Eurocup out of fear of being banned in Serie A play.
  • The format is similar to the old Eurocup model, which has it’s positive and negatives (more teams participating, but less guaranteed exposure and games for teams in comparison to the newly-remodeled Euroleague and Eurocup models). As stated in a previous post, the competition is stronger than anticipated, but it’ll be interesting to see if the “favorites” (Strasbourg, Pinar Karsiyaka, Aris, etc.) will persevere to the playoffs and Final Four in this more cutthroat cup competition where there is less forgiveness when it comes to early losses. For FIBA’s CL to be taken seriously, they need big-time clubs to make it to the championship to get attention from basketball fans all over Europe. Unfortunately, this model is less conducive to making that happen in comparison to its competition (Eurocup), and that is a big risk for FIBA in their first year of this new “league”.

 

Eurocup adds four new clubs to make up for Italian defection

Days after the Eurocup officially announced its field, the four Italian clubs participating in the competition withdrew out of fear of sanctions and suspension from Serie A domestic play. This included Reggio Emilia, Cantu, Trento, and Sassari, as they ended up moving to the Champions League instead in order to avoid punishment (though they certainly took their time in doing so; it wasn’t confirmed that their four Italian clubs were out of the Eurocup officially until the recent Champions League field announcement).

The Eurocup didn’t wait long though to find replacements. Shortly after the Champions League announcement, the Eurocup announced the addition of four new clubs to take the place of the Italian defectors: Montakit Fuenlabrada of Spain, MZT Skopje Aerodrom of Macedonia, Lietkabelis Panevezys of Lithuania, and Volgograd of Russia. Fuenlabrada, who competes in the ACB Liga Endesa, and made the playoffs as a No. 8 seed last season, had some fun with their Eurocup announcement on Twitter:

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It is a bit sad to see that we will see three major European countries not represented in the Eurocup (France, Turkey and now Italy), which hurts the Eurocup’s position as the top second-tier competition in Europe. However, the addition of some new clubs to the mix should add some nice variety to the Eurocup field. MZT Skopje represents a country that has been underrepresented in major club competitions (Macedonia), and they could help get the country and its basketball federation a bit more recognition. Furthermore, Fuenlabrada proved to be a fun team in the ACB last season, led by Croatian standout Marko Popovic, and it’ll be intriguing to see if Popovic can have the kind of impact in the Eurocup this season like he did in the ACB a year ago.

The absence of Italian clubs in the Eurocup will be noted in 2016-2017, but the Eurocup rebounded nicely and quickly with these four additions.

Guard Ricky Hickman signs with EA7 Armani Milano

Former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Fenerbahce point guard Ricky Hickman announced that he will be signing with EA7 Armani Milano, a big signing for the Italian club that is coming off a Euroleague campaign where they did not qualify for Top 16 play.

Hickman represents another key move in what has been an active off-season for the defending Serie A champions. In addition to signing Hickman to take over point guard duties, they also kept star player Alessandro Gentile from going to the NBA (the Houston Rockets apparently had strong interest), and also signed Slovenian forward Zoran Dragic from Khimki and Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica from Panathinaikos. Not only are they favorites to retain the Serie A championship, but they could be dark horse contenders for the playoffs and perhaps Final Four with the strong quartet of Hickman, Gentile, Dragic and Raduljica.

After dominating the Euroleague in the early years of the “modern” format, only one Italian club has made the Final Four since 2005 (Montepaschi Siena in 2011). Milano, one of the strongest and most historic clubs in the Italian Serie A, has not made the Final Four since 1992, and one can imagine head coach Jasmin Repesa and the Milano organization and fans are eager to break both of those streaks in 2017. Milano still had to develop some depth and probably need to add a couple of pieces to make their frontcourt stronger around Raduljica, but so far this summer, Milano has done a lot to make their club stronger after such a down Euroleague campaign a year ago.

Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv signs forward Richard Howell

After the devastating injury to Quincy Miller, one of Maccabi’s premier signings this off-season, the Israeli powerhouse seems to have found a solution to their Miller situation. Richard Howell is on his way to the “Yellows” in Tel Aviv, via reports and this announcement on his Twitter. The 6’8, 25-year-old former North Carolina standout has played in the NBA as well as the D-League, and fortunately will be familiar with the club and the country, as he played last season with Ironi Nahariya in the Winner League, where he averaged over 15 ppg and 9.8 rpg. (Howell also played for Talk n Text of PBA in the Philippines last year, as pictured above.) Howell seems to be optimistic about going to Maccabi and Israel, as he had this to say on his Twitter:

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Howell is not as “pure” replacement for Miller of course. While he does help their frontcourt, he doesn’t have Miller’s ball handling skills, and is not the outside threat from beyond the arc that Miller is. He is more of an “around the basket” player, who relies on his athleticism and crafty, physical skills to generate points and garner boards on both the offensive and defensive end. That being said, he is a much better rebounder than Miller, and he will provide a nice physical combo for Tel Aviv when combined with Maik Zirbes, who plays in the same, “hard-nosed” style. Considering Maccabi was one of the worst rebounding teams in the Euroleague last season (they ranked near the bottom in defensive rebounding rate), their signing of Howell is a nice addition that should help make up for the loss of Miller somewhat.

Other “Tapas” of note…

  • Luke Harangody re-signs with Darussafaka Dogus: This was an expected move, as it didn’t seem like Harangody was sought after by many other European clubs or back home in the NBA, but this is good confirmation for head coach David Blatt. Harangody is a tough, crafty player who lacks natural athleticism but makes up for it with good footwork around the rim, and a “high-motor” on both ends of the floor. With Semih Erden gone to the NBA, Harangody will most likely be the “primary” player in the pivot for Darussafaka.
  • Real Madrid re-signs Andrés Nocioni: The “Los Blancos” juggernaut keeps getting bigger. After re-signing Jeff Taylor, they have also signed Dontaye Draper to help with point guard duties, and now have extended the Argentinian mainstay. Nocioni will be a peculiar fit, as the frontcourt is a lot more crowded with the addition of Anthony Randolph, and he could see more competition at the small forward with Taylor and teenage sensation Luka Doncic, who improved mightily last year. Nocioni will find his minutes, but he will be depended on less this upcoming year than in years past.
  • Kenny Gabriel close to signing with Olympiacos: With DJ Strawberry heading to Besiktas, Olympiacos is in need of athleticism on the wing. Olympiacos initially targeted former CSKA Moscow wing Demetris Nichols, but they have been unable to get a commitment from him as he is in discussion with some NBA teams still. In response, they have signed athletic wing Erick Green from the D-League, as well as Khem Birch to give them a boost of strength in the frontcourt. In their latest moves to get more athletic on the wing, Olympiacos has turned to former Pinar Karsiyaka forward Kenny Gabriel, who provides a similar skill-set to what Strawberry provided last season. Panathinaikos may have gotten a lot of the headlines this summer, but don’t count out their rival Olympiacos, who has made some shrewd moves to become more athletic this off-season.
  • Crvena Zvezda active with Ognjen Kuzmic and Jenkins signings: After losing Miller and Zirbes to Maccabi Tel Aviv, and parting ways with Tarence Kinsey, Red Star remained pretty quiet this summer as other Euroleague teams spent money left and right to boost their roster. While the club seems committed to building their club with local, Serbian talent, the past week has been the most active one of the summer for the surging Serbian club that made it to the Euroleague playoffs for the first time in club history. They signed Jenkins to replace Kinsey, a solid signing considering Jenkins is a more dynamic scorer than Kinsey, and he has familiarity with the Red Star club and environment (he played for them from 2013-2015), which should make his transition an easy one (the video of his sister reacting in awe to the Red Star “fans” in Belgrade remains one my favorites). The addition of Kuzmic also solidifies their front court, as the seven footer is the kind of presence that they need in the block on the offensive and rebounding end with Zirbes gone. It came a little later than expected, but Crvena Zvezda definitely seems primed to make another run to the playoffs, especially with this new combo of talent and coach Dejan Radonjic returning to Belgrade, a big victory for the club considering he was offered the position at Laboral Kutxa Baskonia this off-season.