If you read the Euroleague Group A preview, it sounds like Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul and Real Madrid seem to be head and shoulders above the competition in their group. But while they clearly are favorites, I would not under-estimate the potential of the other four in the group, especially Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade and Khimki Moscow, who all have enough interesting pieces on their respective rosters to provide more challenge than expected in the group. I can’t help but see anyone but Fenerbahce or Real Madrid emerging as the top dog from the group, but it will be a night-in, night-out slog for them, especially in the initial 10-game stretch. One team will be eliminated from the playoffs that would have qualified had they been in a different group.
Group B seems to be that “other” group. Olympiacos finished as the runner-up in last year’s Euroleague Final Four, and they return most of the horses that nearly got them a championship. Furthermore, Fenerbahce’s Turkish rival Anadolu Efes Istanbul also remains a contender thanks to another year of Dario Saric, who has Philadelphia 76ers basketball fans hoping and wishing he will make it to the states soon and in one piece. (I mean, you can’t keep tanking forever, right?) But other than that? EA7 Emporio Armani Milan added some interesting talent in former Purdue Boilermaker and Minnesota Timberwolf Robbie Hummel and Croatian big man Stanko Barac, but they still are a bit of an unknown quantity after their up and down campaign a year ago. And the remaining three clubs (Cedevita Zagreb, Limoges CSP and Laboral Kutxa Vitoria Gastiez) really appear to be lukewarm competitively without much high end talent or depth to compete with the top dogs of the group.
But, when you have one of the Euroleague’s best teams (Olympiacos) and most interesting players (Saric), it makes your group worth watching, even if it doesn’t have the competitive depth of some of the other Groups.
When it comes to talking about Olympiacos, the discussion always starts and centers on standout Greek guard Vassilis Spanoulis. Spanoulis has been the catalyst for Olympiacos for quite a while, and he was crucial in helping Olympiacos to another Euroleague title appearance last season (which they lost 78-59 to Real Madrid; though to be fair, Madrid had the home court advantage). In 2014-2015, he averaged 14.4 ppg, 5.5 apg and a PIR of 14.4, all team-leading categories. When it came to usage in Olympiacos’ more methodical attack, no one was more important last year for Olympiacos than Spanoulis. Though he is a year older, the pressure and responsibility to carry this squad in the Euroleague will remain on him. How he plays will most likely reflect how well Olympiacos does this year and whether or not they will get another crack in the Euroleague Final Four.
Spanoulis is not just the face of Olympiacos basketball, but the face of Greek basketball as well. His time and contribution to the Greek National Team has been long noted, and it was a bit bittersweet for him and fans of his as this latest Eurobasket will be his last appearance for the Greek National Team (as profiled in this post by Euroleague Adventures). Furthermore, as noted in the EA post by Sam Meyerkopf, time is reaching an end for Spanoulis’ career, and his legacy is a bit mixed, as he has struggled to share the limelight with others (most famously in Panathinaikos; Olympiacos’ Greek club rival) as well as take care of the ball (he is known for being a turnover machine, as evidenced by his team-leading 3.1 TOPG last season, which kills his assist rate). But Spanoulis still can be a wildly productive and entertaining player, and that was on full display in the Euroleague final in 2013 where he absolutely torched Real Madrid for 22 in the Euroleague Final (all in the 2nd half). Check out the video and some of the shots he makes, especially at the 2:20 mark where his make from near half-court is the dagger that puts Real Madrid out for good.
Nonetheless, while Spanoulis will be a critical part of the team, they will need help if they want to finish the job and earn another Euroleague championship to their trophy case. Olympiacos has done that adding a lot of young, athletic talent in Patric Young (formerly of the University of Florida) and Daniel Hackett (a former USC Trojan who played for EA7 last year and the Italian national team in the most recent Eurobaket). If the newly acquired talent can provide Olympiacos a spark (along with Spanoulis continuing his strong play), then their chances of a 7th Euroleague Championship could strongly be within their grasp.
In Group B, no player is more fascinating the Croatian Dario Saric. Saric was famously drafted No. 12 by the Magic in the 2014 NBA Draft and traded to Philly, though Philly knew full well that Saric wouldn’t be coming to the States for at least two years. Despite that, he remains a centerpiece for the Sixers future, and how he performs for Efes and in the Euroleague will be a sign whether General Manager Sam Hinkie’s gamble and “rebuilding” plan was worth it for the Sixers organization. It’s fascinating to see so much hope and pressure on a guy who most American basketball fans have never seen before.
But, if last year was any indicator with Efes, then it is easy to see why the Sixers organization has been enamored with Saric. As a 20-year-old in his first full European club campaign, Saric averaged 9.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 apg and a PIR of 12.6 in 27 games for Efes. And Saric did this despite being a clear 2nd-3rd option behind Nenad Kristic and Stephen Lasme, and on a team whose style of play was more methodical (they averaged 75.3 ppg) and expected more physical play out of their taller post players.
However, veterans Kristic and Lasme are both gone, so Saric now inherits the mantle as the premiere post player for Efes. Saric offers a balanced, inside-outside skill set, and displays strong athleticism and footwork for a player 6’10. He was tabbed the 2013 FIBA Europe Young Man’s player of the year, and has built a tremendous reputation for his performance in International competition as well as a strong work ethic and intensity for such a young player. Just check out this “Focus On” profile him below, and not only do his passing and scoring skills jump out at you, but his composure and maturity for a 20-year-old (actually 19 at the time of the interview).
Efes doesn’t have a lot of big time names on their roster beyond Saric, so it’ll be interesting to see who will step up around him for Efes this season. Alex Tyus could be an interesting pickup, as he saw some valuable time for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv the past 3 seasons, and was another member of their 2013-2014 Euroleague championship squad. Whoever becomes the main complementary player(s), the attention and high expectations will still be on Saric to help Efes make a playoff run to the Final Four (they have made it twice in club history, finishing 3rd both times). If he makes a big leap (and all signs are pointed to one) then not only expect Efes to succeed, but Sixers fans to be clamoring heavily for him, especially as they are expected to go through another rough season.
Of the four remaining teams, EA7 has the best chance to make some noise, especially with the additions of perimeter scorers Robbie Hummel and Charles Jenkins, who should boost the consistency of the offense, something that EA7 struggled with at times last year. Also, they return Alessandro Gentile, who performed well for Italy at the FIBA Eurobasket (which the Italians finished 8th) and averaged 14.3 ppg last year for EA7. These three along with Oliver Lafayette, who averaged 6.8 ppg for Olympiacos last year, should provide EA7 with a solid backcourt. How their front court progresses though is a question, and it will be interesting to see who steps up in the post to help free things up for their talented perimeter players. Being one dimensional (i.e. relying on their perimeter players) may get them to the second round, but not much further than that against deeper and more balanced squads.
Cedevita Zagreb doesn’t feature a lot of big names with mainstream basketball fans, but one: Jacob Pullen, the former Kansas State Wildcat. Pullen averaged 14.3 ppg for Basket Brindisi of the Italian League last year, and also has Euroleague experience from a stint with FC Barcelona a couple of years ago. It’ll be interesting to see if Pullen can help lead Cedevita to the second round and garner the fourth and final group spot, especially with Limoges CSP and Laboral Kutxa featuring mostly young, countrymen-heavy rosters, usually a sign of a rebuild for the club.