A Quick Preview to the FIBA OQT Bracket Rounds

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

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

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

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

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

Serbia Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Latvia vs. Puerto Rico

Semifinal 2: Serbia vs. Czech Republic

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

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

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

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

Pick: Serbia

Italy Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Greece vs. Croatia

Semifinal 2: Italy vs. Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Greece.

Philippines Bracket Group

Semifinal 1: Canada vs. New Zealand

Semifinal 2: France vs. Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marquis Teague (OKC Blue last season)

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

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

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

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

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

Shotchart_1467769589478

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

Phil Pressey (Idaho Stampede last year)

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

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

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

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

Russ Smith (Delaware 87ers last year)

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmer Fredette (Westchester Knicks last year)

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

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

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

Shotchart_1467772395860

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who were the players drafted from Mega Leks?

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

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

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

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

How did Mega Leks Do Last Year?

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

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

What Makes Mega Leks Worth Knowing About

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

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

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

What does the future look like for Mega Leks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2001 NBA Draft

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

Notable ones drafted: Raul Lopez.

Grade: B

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

2002 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: C+

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

2003 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: B+

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

2004 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: C-

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

2005 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: C-

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

2006 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: D+

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

2007 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: B-

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

2008 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: A

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

2009 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: C

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

2010 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Kevin Seraphin

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

Grade: F

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

2011 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: A

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

2012 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Evan Fournier

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

Grade: F

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

2013 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: A-

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

2014 NBA Draft

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

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

Grade: B-

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

2015 NBA Draft

Successful draft picks: Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja

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

Grade: C+

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dzanan Musa, Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grantas Vasiliauskas, Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faded Star: Erez Edelstein and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv Looking to Bounce Back in 2016-2017

Gal Mekel (99) and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv are looking to rebound after a horrid 2015-2016 season

“I want to coach in the Euroleague. I think that is something that is missing in my career. Every coach wants to guide Maccabi. Every coach wants to coach in the Euroleague and so do I. I told the owners that I only want a contract for one year because I’m certain we’ll accomplish our goals.”

Erez Edelstein will be Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s 3rd head coach in less than a year. Even in European basketball, where coaching and player change is quite common, not to mention quick, this kind of turnover for the legendary club rings all kinds of alarms.

Just two years ago, in 2014, Maccabi was celebrating their 51st Winner League championship and their 6th Euroleague championship, despite entering the Final Four as heavy underdogs to CSKA Moscow (their semi-final opponent) and Real Madrid (their championship opponent). David Blatt was the hottest coach in the game, and Maccabi was the best story in European basketball, a classic case of how teamwork and determination could overcome tremendous money and talent. It was like the movie Hoosiers, only this time the story was taking place in Milan, Italy, not Indianapolis, Indiana.

Unfortunately, the luster of that 2014 Euroleague title for Maccabi has worn off quickly. Blatt left Maccabi to go to the United States to explore NBA opportunities (which eventually became the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching position), and longtime assistant and former Maccabi player Guy Goodes took over the helm. There were some positives during Goodes first season: in the Winner League, Maccabi finished 27-6, won another Israeli Cup, and finished 16-11 in the Euroleague and qualified for the playoffs. Unfortunately, Goodes’ debut season was marred by some tremendous letdowns: Maccabi lost in the playoff semifinals to a 17-16 Hapoel Eliat team 3 games to 2, and they were convincingly swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Fenerbahce.

A disappointing end for Goodes and Maccabi in 2014-2015 only compounded to more frustration to start 2015-2016. Maccabi, playing in a difficult group with CSKA Moscow, Spanish club Unicaja Malaga, and German upstart Brose Baskets Bamberg, got off to a 1-3 start in Euroleague group play, the worst four-game start in Euroleague group play for the illustrious franchise in 17 years. And things only got worse domestically as well, as they started they year 3-2, which included an 88-83 loss to Maccabi Ashdod, a team that eventually went 9-13 in Winner League play.

The horrid start combined with the deflating finish the previous season was more than enough in Maccabi’s management’s eyes to part ways with Goodes.

After firing Guy Goodes, Maccabi hired Croatian Zan Tabak to right the ship…unfortunately, his performance wasn’t good enough.

After failing to lure Edelstein (more on this later) and Lithuanian legend Sarunas Jasikevicius (who eventually took over home club Zalgiris Kaunas after a mid-season coaching change), Maccabi settled with Croatian Zan Tabak, a former NBA and European player who had 20 years of playing experience professionally. However, while Tabak certainly had his merits as a player, his coaching experience was questionable, as his previous jobs included Sant Josep Girona and Trefl Sopot in Poland, Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) in Spain, and Fuenlabrada of Spain, a mid-tier ACB squad. With the exception of his tenure in Baskonia, Tabak really didn’t have the kind of preparation or experience to handle the magnitude of a job like Maccabi, especially in mid-season.

There were some bright spots of course in Tabak’s campaign. They finished 3-3 in Euroleague play, and had some strong performances, especially in his first game as coach where they lost a heart-breaker to CSKA Moscow 88-82 (Maccabi led during most of the game). Maccabi also won another Israeli Cup, and finished the year 19-3 overall in Winner League play (they went 16-1 under Tabak).

Unfortunately, much like Goodes’ first year, Maccabi struggled at the end, as they were upset in the semifinals by Maccabi Rishon, a team that finished 11-11 in Winner League play. That finish was further compounded with a disappointing 2-4 performance in Eurocup play and not qualifying for the next round of the Eurocup, even though the competition was a far step down from what they had faced earlier in Euroleague play.

Hence, with these two major negatives glaring on his resume, Tabak had the chips stacked against him in terms of coming back the following year, and that was proven to be true after Maccabi decided to part ways with him in June.

With all this turmoil and overreaction, it seems crazy that anyone in their right mind would want to coach Maccabi. One mistake, and you’re looking for another coaching job the next day.

But, Edelstein seems to be more than up for the challenge.

Edelstein’s National Team coaching experience in the Eurobasket 2015 should bode well for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2016-2017

Edelstein is a bit of an antithesis of the previous two coaches. Goodes was a Blue and Gold lifer, who had not only spent considerable time as an assistant coach, but also played for Maccabi for eight seasons in the 90’s. As for Tabak, he was a legendary European player of sorts, who had a NBA playing pedigree, which included stints with teams such as the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets. He also had performances like the video below, which shows the potential he could have had as a player in the NBA if a few more breaks went his way:

As for Edelstein, he doesn’t have extensive Maccabi ties, as he has never been in the organization as a player or even assistant coach. And unlike Tabak, he wasn’t a legendary player with an extensive resume that spans over multiple teams and continents.

But, Edelstein possesses something that neither of those previous Maccabi coaches had: success as an Israeli National Team coach.

In the Eurobasket 2015, Edelstein led the Israeli team to a 3-2 mark in group play, which was good for second in the group and qualified them for the round of 16. Though Israel was beat soundly by Italy in the elimination round 82-52, Edelstein and his squad finished 10th in the tournament overall, their best finish in European competition since 2005, when they finished 9th.

Furthermore, Israel also experienced some good wins in last summer’s Eurobasket, including a 75-73 nail-biter over Poland, a team with NBA player Marcin Gortat and college star Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga. You can see in the video not only  how Israel was able to score and create offense despite Poland’s massive size advantage in the paint, but how big the Israeli win was in terms of helping their country get more recognition on the mass European stage.

Edelstein is definitely a coach who gets the most out of his talent, not to mention manage it quite well. Despite some considerable size disadvantages in comparison to some of their opponents, Israel was able to neutralize it by running a free-flowing offense that included a lot of outside shooting not to mention some good ball movement, as well as dribble drive action. What was impressive during the tournament was how Edelstein utilized talent on his squad like Gal Mekel and Omri Casspi. Edelstein ran a lot of plays to set up his two talented perimeter players, and it paid off on frequent occasion. Casspi scored 16.8 points per game and shot 47.1 percent from beyond the arc. As for Mekel, he averaged 15.8 points per game and a team-leading 4.6 assists per game, while also shooting 54.5 percent from the field. That should be comforting to know for Maccabi fans that Edelstein knows how to utilize his talent on his roster, and it is even more promising since Mekel will be back with Maccabi next year.

Edelstein preaches ball movement, as evidenced during the Eurobasket where eight Israeli players averaged two or more assists per game. That is something that will fit in well with this Maccabi team, as they ranked 6th in the Euroleague in assists-to-field goals made ratio. Thus, with that kind of mindset already in place, and a couple of key players already familiar with Edelstein’s system and philosophy from the Eurobasket (Yogev Ohayon also played with the Israeli team in the Eurobasket as well), Edelstein should be able to transition seamlessly with the team during off-season workouts.

Trevor Mbakwe (right) was one of those players who didn’t live up to the hype in his first year with Maccabi.

One of the reasons Edelstein did not want to join this Maccabi team mid-year last season was due to the fact that he didn’t think the talent on the roster could be successful. In many ways, he was right and he made the sound decision to wait until the end of the year to see if the job was available again.

In many ways, one could not fault Tabak for the job he did, as the roster was flawed in its composition from the beginning. Many of Maccabi’s off-season signings proved to be disappointments, including Jordan Farmar, whose second stint was hardly worth remembering. Farmar simply didn’t fit in this team, and he didn’t have the kind of “creation” and “penetration” abilities like previous points guards Jeremy Pargo (last season) and Tyrese Rice (the year before during their championship season). Not only did Farmar merely average 8.9 ppg on 20.3 mpg, but he also was second worst on the team when it came to plus/minus in Euroleague play, only above 17-year-old Dragan Bender, who barely played during the Euroleague competition.

However, Farmar was not the sole culprit of Maccabi’s failures in 2015-2016. Maccabi failed to really get anything substantive from their post acquisitions, including Trevor Mbakwe and Ike Ofoegbu, who proved to both be extremely limited offensively, and Arinze Onuaku, who was not only limited to put backs and layups around the paint, but struggled immensely in pick and roll defense (as evidenced by his negative-3.4 plus/minus mark, fourth worst on the team). And though Brian Randle posted some good offensive numbers, 8.9 ppg on 60 percent eFG%, his lack of strength on the rebounding end was evident night in and night out.

In fact, though Maccabi did a good job crashing the glass, as their 33.7 offensive rebounding rate was second-best in the Euroleague, they struggled to keep opponents off the glass themselves, as their 67.9 defensive rebounding rate was second-worst in the Euroleague. Maccabi actually defensively was not all that bad, as they were a Top-5 team when it came to opponent effective field goal percentage (51.7 percent). However, the fact that they couldn’t keep opponents off the glass and gave up numerous second chance opportunities did them in time in and time again, and that was usually due to their bigs not getting in good rebounding position or having the strength to keep opposing post players at bay.

While Edelstein was the big hire of the off-season, Maccabi has made tremendous strides in terms of upgrading the roster. They made an immediate splash this summer by acquiring center Maik Zirbes, a rebounding force, and forward Quincy Miller, an inside-outside threat, from Crvena Zvzeda. Add that with the acquisition of guards Sonny Weems of the 76ers (and formerly CSKA Moscow) and DJ Seeley of Gran Canaria, and Maccabi definitely made a commitment to become more athletic and stronger with their roster on the floor. Furthermore, with the acquisition of these three new faces, as well as full seasons of Mekel (who didn’t join the team until mid-season after Euroleague group play), combo wing Sylvan Landesberg, and forward Itay Segev (who came in strong as a starter toward the end of last year despite playing as a 20-year old), Maccabi should be primed to not only outperform last year’s results, but perhaps make a dark horse run to the Final Four. Maccabi was not that far off from making the Round of 16 last year, and they showed glimpses of being a good team in Euroleague, Eurocup and Winner League play, but they just seemed to run out of gas at the wrong times. The depth they have next year will not only prevent that, but should help them be the most successful Maccabi squad since 2014.

Now, how successful will that be? It is hard to determine, since there are a lot of players with futures in doubt. Will Mbakwe and Randle be back, not to mention Devin Smith, who has been a rock for this team for years? Will there be enough touches for new players such as Miller, Weems, and Seeley, who have tended to be high-usage players in their previous stops? Can Zirbes and Segev and whoever else is playing in the post, solve Maccabi’s rebounding woes from a year ago? And lastly, can Mekel, (who most likely will the starting point guard next season), an Israeli who is playing with his home country’s most popular and successful team, reinvigorate this proud franchise, not to mention his own professional career?

Quincy Miller (30) and Maik Zirbes (33) are new signees who will be key to Maccabi success next year.

There are a lot of questions for Edelstein to answer and unfortunately, he will have to do it in a quick amount of time. However, like he said in his opening interview after being hired, he knows the pressure that comes with this position and he expects to accomplish great results in a limited amount of time. It’s why he took the job, and why he only wanted a one-year contract: there is no “rebuilding” with Maccabi Tel Aviv. You either produce results or you get out and they find another person.

But to be fair, this is the strongest a Maccabi team has looked for a long time, even stronger perhaps on paper than the 2014 team that won a championship. If Taylor Rochestie and Smith are back, they will have considerable scoring on the perimeter to go along with their new signings, not to mention longtime reserves such as Ohayov and Guy Pnini. While there are some questions on the block, Zirbes will be one of the strongest post players that they have had since Big Sofos a couple of years ago, as Zirbes, though not the most finesse player, is the kind of banger that can keep other teams from pushing around Maccabi in the paint. Hopefully that kind of attitude will rub off on Segev and whoever else Maccabi brings back or acquires to solidify their post depth (whether it’s Randle, Mbakwe or someone else).

2016-2017 will be a critical year for Maccabi. A new coach and a new format with less teams in the Euroleague means it’s more critical than ever for Maccabi to perform. They have the kind of coach with excellent experience who has been saying the right things to demonstrate that he is “all in” in terms of making Maccabi a winner again. They also have added the right kind of pieces roster-wise, showing that management is willing to spend whatever it costs to make this team better. And they have the motivation, as this franchise is hungry to show that the last two years were a blip on the radar, and that they are ready to return to their rightful illustrious place in the European basketball scene.

Now, it’s just a matter of all those factors melding together. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

David Blatt, Darussafaka and Istanbul: A Respected Coach’s Rocky and Quick Road Back to Europe

“Make no mistake. I have won everywhere I have been…and I plan on doing the same here.”

When he was hired in May of 2014 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt echoed those words to the media public. Blatt, was fresh of a Euroleague championship victory with Maccabi Tel Aviv over longtime European and Spanish power Real Madrid, and the Cavs, who had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, were looking for a refreshing voice to lead their team going forward. And it made sense for the Cavs to hire Blatt. Not only did he prove he could win at Maccabi, both in the Winner League in Israel and in the Euroleague, but he also found success as an international coach, leading Russia to a surprising bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. For Blatt, the lure of coaching a NBA franchise was a lifetime challenge he coveted and desired, much like any coach who looks for the next “step up” in the coaching ladder. Cleveland, with the top draft pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, had some valuable young pieces like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett at the time, and Blatt, who had a history of producing overachieving teams with limited talent, seemed to be like a good fit, and a breath of fresh air that the organization needed after retreads like Byron Scott and Mike Brown (again) failed in four playoff-less seasons Post-Lebron.

Of course, Blatt didn’t expect to be a head coach so quickly in the NBA: when he stepped down originally from Maccabi Tel Aviv, he appeared to be headed as an assistant to Golden State or Minnesota to situate himself with the NBA game, similar to Ettore Messina before him, who became an assistant with the Lakers and then Spurs after a successful tenure with CSKA Moscow. (Apparently, Steve Kerr wanted Blatt badly and it seemed to be a done deal until Cleveland called and interviewed him.) Nonetheless, he was given the opportunity as NBA head coach, and Blatt wasn’t going to turn it down, even if he was not as familiar with the American game like the European one. However, with his Princeton-influence, strong defensive mentality, and fiery personality, Blatt looked like he would have some success, and would make the necessary adjustments over time to become a successful NBA head coach. After all, he was going to coach the Cavs, who had suffered mediocrity since Lebron James left town. Just getting them into playoff contention would be enough; a playoff berth, even as an 8 seed, would be cause for celebration and validation of his hire.

And then less than two months later, this happened.

Who would have thought that it would be the beginning of Blatt’s long, painful, and frustrating march back to Europe?

The relationship between Blatt and Cavs star Lebron James seemed strained and doomed from the start.

To be fair, Blatt never asked to coach Lebron and Lebron probably would have never asked Blatt to coach him either. Blatt was coming to coach a young team, one that was going to be led, in his mind, by No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and former No. 1 pick Irving and supported by Thompson and Bennett (oh yeah…I forgot Bennett was a former No. 1 pick too…somehow) in the block. In Blatt’s mind, his young guys would grow into his system, be used to his authority and demands, especially considering Wiggins and Irving had been used to demanding coaches in college like Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke (Wiggins and Irving, respectively). And though Blatt had not really achieved anything in the American game as far as coaching, that was going to be fine: neither had any of the young players on the Cavs.

However, with Lebron now on board that all changed. After Summer League, Wiggins was traded to Minnesota along with Anthony Bennett and some other pieces for Kevin Love, a NBA Veteran and All-Star. Now, the hope in Cleveland, with the Big 3 of Lebron, Kyrie and Love wasn’t just to make the playoffs, it was to win the Eastern Conference AND a NBA Championship. Blatt of course didn’t back down from the challenge, but in retrospect, I don’t think he realized the magnitude of media scrutiny as well as intensive player ego management that would haunt him for his one-and-a-half season stint in the city of Cleveland.

On paper, there is not much you can argue with when it comes to Blatt’s tenure. He went 83-40, including 53-29 in his first season with the Cavaliers, leading them to an Eastern Conference Championship, as well as 2 wins in the NBA Finals, the first two wins ever in Finals history for the franchise. He also did this without Kevin Love throughout most of the playoffs, and without Irving from games 2-6 of the Finals, as well as some games during the playoffs. This year, the Cavs started 30-11 and Blatt had them as one of the better teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency this season (they were 3rd and 10th in those categories this year).

Usually, with any other team in the NBA, there would be talk of an extension after a 30-11 start. But this was Cleveland, and “Lebron’s” Cavs, and while one couldn’t argue with the record, the marriage between Blatt and Lebron and the Cavs never really felt stable over the one-and-a-half year time. Let’s just take a look at some of the issues that plagued Blatt as the Cavs’ head coach:

  • People questioned Blatt’s authority on the team, as Lebron had grown a reputation for tuning out or overruling Blatt during timeouts and play calls.
  • There was widespread consensus on the team that Tyronn Lue was more respected and listened to on the coaching staff from the players; what makes this more awkward is that Lue was a finalist for the Cavs job, though Lue on frequent occasion has gone out of his way to say he didn’t agree with Blatt’s firing.
  • There were reports that Blatt seemed to be overwhelmed by big moments, as he froze up and panicked when diagramming plays during timeouts during crucial stretches of the playoffs (the Chicago series having several reported instances of this).
  • Blatt treated other Cavs players differently from Lebron during practice, as he would go out of the way to criticize role players while not saying anything to Lebron, even if James was the main culprit of the mistake.
  • The media and Blatt did not get along, as Blatt chastised the media with sarcastic answers and patronized their questions during press conferences and interviews.

As with anything, some of those were true to an extent and some were most likely overblown. As stated in the last point, Blatt and the media did not get along well, and with Lebron a superstar in the NBA, and being an “Ohio Native,” it was obvious what side the local media (and many cases national media) would side with, and thus Blatt never seemed to get any kind of positive momentum in the public eye during his coaching tenure. And hence Blatt, a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year, not only was let go by the Cavs, but his legacy in America is somewhat tainted, as he is known for being successful as a NBA coach “only because of Lebron.”

For any basketball coach, being typified in such a way is not only an insult to the work and sacrifices one makes to be a head coach (as is especially true with Blatt who really had to work hard to get every head coaching job he earned, especially in Europe), but also a death stamp of sorts when it comes to future jobs. Just look at Mike Brown, who cannot get another head coaching position in the NBA after failing in Cleveland a second time (granted without Lebron, but it confirmed the “cannot win without a superstar” talk).

It really is unfair. It’s one thing if Blatt had no coaching experience. It’s one thing if he came to the States openly wanting to coach a Lebron James-led team. It’d be one thing if he wasn’t a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year as recently as two years ago.

But here we are…after 123 NBA games, David Blatt is going to Turkey.

Former coach Oktay Mahmuti wasn’t the coach to help Darussafaka surpass other Turkish rivals like Efes and Fenerbahce

Darussafaka is a totally different landscape than Blatt’s previous European stop, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Of course, there is a cultural change that Blatt will not only be making from America, but his last experience in Europe. Blatt is Jewish and Israel is primarily a Jewish state, so Blatt fit in very well not just in the organization and city of Tel Aviv, but the culture of Israel as well. On the contrary Darussafaka is located in Turkey, primarily a Muslim country. And hence, it will be interesting to see how a mostly Muslim fanbase will react to a Jewish coach leading their team, though I think Blatt understands there may be some bias against him due to his cultural background. (And to be fair, Istanbul has really grown as a city and is more progressive than most Muslim-majority countries; simply look at many of the non-Muslim Europeans and Americans on clubs in the Turkish Basketball League).

And yet geographic culture is not the only issue; there is also a difference in basketball culture from Maccabi as well. Last season was Darussafaka’s first season in the Euroleague, and the club only has a modest history of success. The last time the club won the Turkish Basketball League Championship was in 1962 (and the other time was in 1961) and from 2010-2013, the club was regulated and participated in the Turkish League’s second division. And honestly, it makes sense that Darussafaka has struggled to be in the limelight: they share the same city with other bigger clubs like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Efes, three traditional Turkish powerhouses with fervent fan bases and wealthy ownership groups (and who will also be participating in the Euroleague next year; Galatasaray missed last year, but will participate again after winning the Eurocup last season).

However, in 2013, Dogus Holding (a financial conglomerate based out of Turkey) bought the club and has made an effort to help Darussafaka compete with the traditional basketball powers based out of Turkey. It started with hiring of long-time Turkish coach Oktay Mahmuti, who had coached other Turkish clubs like Efes and Galatasaray to various degrees of success (he also coached Italian club Bennetton Treviso).  In 2014, Darussafaka won the Turkish Second Division and were promoted back to the first-division domestic league. And the following year, they finished 3rd in the Turkish Division and qualified for the Euroleague as a wild card.

This season was a bit of an up and down campaign for Oktay in his third year. Despite it being the first year in club history in the Euroleague, Darussafaka qualified for the Round of 16, ousting long-time power Maccabi in the their group to do so for the final spot. However, the Round of 16 was far less kind as Darussafaka missed the playoffs by going 5-9 and finishing 6th in their division, also behind Turkish rival Efes, who went 7-7 (though as consolation, Darussafaka did finish better than Cedevita Zagreb of Croatia and Unicaja Malaga of Spain).

Domestically in the BSL (the Turkish Basketball League), the results were a little more disappointing. Darussafaka finished fourth in the regular season standings at 20-10 and were ousted in the semifinals by Efes convincingly 3-0. Though there had been considerable steps taken by Oktay and his club since his hire, Oktay didn’t exactly generate the most excitement out of Turkish basketball fans as well as the Darussafaka fan base, which is run by new owners to the European basketball scene who are more akin to the “tech” owners that we see in the NBA today like Robert Pera of the Grizzlies and Vivek Ranadive of the Kings.

The biggest pitfall for Oktay in his tenure in Darussafaka was his defensive-oriented style of play, and his teams lack of ability to generate consistent offense. Granted, that has been Oktay’s calling card in his coaching career, and he did a decent job at it with Darussafaka last year, as their 102.8 defensive rating was actually 5th best in the Euroleague last season. However, the offense was not just boring, but borderline atrocious, as they posted an offensive rating of 99.2, which was seventh-worst out of all Euroleague teams last season. This led to a negative efficiency difference rating of minus-3.6, which put them below average and barely over Bayern Munich (minus-4.0) and Maccabi (minus-4.8), two teams who didn’t even qualify for the Round of 16.

With the combination of an ineffective, lackluster offense and rather mediocre attendance numbers (Darussafaka was 5th lowest in the Euroleague when it came to home attendance), it made sense that a change was deemed essential by ownership. Oktay was a consistent force and was going to keep them competitive as the head coach. However, with only 16 teams now qualifying for the Euroleague starting in 2016-2017, Darussafaka not only needed a big name who would help Darussafaka make the transition from a “B-quality” team to an “A-quality” one. Oktay wasn’t going to give them that, and Oktay wasn’t going to help them attract bigger names on their roster as well.

And that is where Blatt comes in.

Already in his comfort zone in Europe, Blatt talked to European prospects at the Adidas Eurocamp this summer.

Apparently, Darussafaka was in talks with Blatt in April and had made him an offer around that time. However, Blatt wanted to test the NBA coaching waters, as he interviewed for vacant NBA jobs such as the Knicks one (apparently his desired choice), the Kings position (his second choice) and the Rockets job. After all three jobs went to other candidates, and not impressed by other offers (there were rumors that Blatt was asked to come back to Maccabi, but he passed on the offer), Blatt signed with Darussafaka, impressed by their commitment from ownership and management (he has a multi-year contract worth around 3 million euros per year), and motivated by the chance to build something special in Istanbul.

The cupboard certainly won’t be bare next season for Blatt. Darussafaka has a nice collection of American talent such as returning scorer Scottie Wilbekin, former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody, Reggie Redding, Jamon Gordon, and Marcus Slaughter; European talent such as Georgian Manuchar Makroishvili and Serbian Milko Bjelica; and domestic talent such as former Celtic Semih Erden and Emir Preldzic. And with Blatt now on board, it will be interesting to see what kind of other talent Darussafaka will be able to attract this off-season, especially considering Blatt’s European success and NBA experience (despite all the issues, he did still win an Eastern Conference championship, which is more of an accomplishment than a lot of NBA coaches not to mention current European coaches). It is to be expected that Darussafaka will be able to attract another name or two during this signing and transfer period.

Blatt has never shied himself away from a challenge and that certainly is evident in Darussafaka, though of a different sort. With Maccabi and Cleveland, he had to manage big expectations, and he was able to be successful with such lofty goals placed upon him from upper management. Darussafaka is a different challenge. The history isn’t there like Maccabi, nor is the superstar there like in Cleveland. Darussafaka’s most successful season was arguably last year, and yet, they fired their coach. If anything, this situation feels more like a Memphis Grizzlies or Sacramento Kings scenario rather than the Cleveland one he faced in the NBA (unrealistic expectations combined with a “no-so-elite” team).

And yet, this current job in Istanbul, might be more in Blatt’s wheelhouse. He relishes being the underdog and surprising people. He has done it in his coaching career countless times. He won an Italian League title with Benetton Treviso, even though they were one of the more under-the-radar teams in Italy. He upset two powers in the Final Four in CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid during his 2014 Euroleague title with Maccabi. And he led Russia, who had fallen off the global stage after the break up of the Soviet Union, to not only a 2007 Eurobasket title, but a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, despite coming into each of those tournaments as heavy underdogs.

This is exactly the kind of coach Darussafaka needs. They need someone to help charge fan interest in Istanbul in their club. They need someone to utilize their talent to their maximum ability. They need someone that can help them go toe-to-toe with Turkey’s best clubs, not an easy task after Fenerbahce was one quarter away from nearly winning the Euroleague championship.

Yes, Darussafaka has not played a game yet, but they are a team that should be watched during the 2016-2017 domestic and Euroleague season.

Blatt and Darussafaka seem like a perfect match.

I just wonder how long this tenure in Turkey will be before the NBA starts calling again.