In terms of the premiere second-tier European basketball competition, the Eurocup continues to hold the title, though FIBA’s Basketball Champions League has given the ULEB-sponsored competition fierce competition this summer (mostly due to FIBA muscling clubs with possible National Team and Domestic League sanctions; Italy and France were two countries who deferred to FIBA this off-season by not sending any teams to the Eurocup). However, only the Eurocup has the automatic Euroleague qualifier for whoever wins the competition, and with a new format, and less Euroleague/Eurocup crossover (no teams will be sent down to the Eurocup mid-season as in years past), the ULEB second-tier competition promises to be the most competitive in its 14-year history (the competition began in 2002-2003).
So, with an automatic berth and possible Wild Card spot on the line (the Euroleague offers one Wild Card slot out of its 16 teams), which of the 24 Eurocup participants will have the greatest chance of punching their ticket to the Euroleague in 2017-2018? Who will be worth watching, especially when the playoffs begin in the Spring?
In this post, I will take a look at four Eurocup participants who’ll be worth paying close attention to this upcoming season, and should make a run at that coveted Eurocup title and Euroleague berth.
1. Unicaja Malaga
Unicaja will be participating in the Eurocup for the first time in club history. For some squads, that is an honor, but for Unicaja, it’s quite a buzzkill. Unicaja has been a Euroleague mainstay, who qualified for the Top 16 for the 11th consecutive season last year, and made the Final Four in 2007. But, despite a hot 7-3 start in the Regular Season of the Euroleague, injuries and roster turmoil resulted in a 4-10 record in Top 16 play (11-13 overall) and a first-round sweep in the ACB playoffs to Valencia. And thus, after a mediocre campaign and without an A license lock, Unicaja proved to be the odd-team out when it came to picking the Euroleague field of 16 in 2016-2017, losing out on the lone Wild Card spot to Turkish upstart Darussafaka Dogus.
With the demotion to the Eurocup, the summer didn’t start off well for Unicaja, as star Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who was one of the best players in the Regular Season round, and had masterful performances in road wins over Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow, ended up leaving Malaga (first going to Darussafaka before the New York Knicks bought out his rights from the Turkish club). In addition, center Fran Vazquez, one of the leading shot blockers in Euroleague history, also left the club, signing with ACB rival Iberostar Tenerife. Much like Lokomotiv Kuban experienced a mass exodus of talent after their Eurocup demotion, it appeared Unicaja was going to suffer the same fate this summer.
However, Unicaja has rebounded quickly, and has suddenly put together one of the most competitive squads in the Eurocup this summer. To make up for Kuzminskas’ departure, they added shooting guard Adam Waczynski, a Polish national who averaged 14.6 ppg with Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro of the ACB last season. His arrival should mesh well with Jamar Smith and Nemanja Nedovic, two returning wing scorers from last year’s squad. Additionally, Unicaja got stronger in the playmaking department, as they added solid point guard options in Oliver Lafayette (from Olimpia Milano) and Kyle Fogg (from Eisbaeren Bremerhaven) who should help solidify the backcourt with Alberto Diaz, a young, rising star who should get more playing time opportunities than a season ago. And lastly, in the front court, Unicaja added depth and athleticism by signing Trevor Mbakwe (from Maccabi Tel Aviv), Jeff Brooks (from Nizhny Novgorod) and Dejan Musli (from Manresa). This trio should help Unicaja be more effective in the post not just in terms of rebounding and offense, but defensively, as they should improve a block rate (2.8 percent) that was below average in the Euroleague a year ago.
With added depth at his disposal, head coach Joan Plaza should have an easier time coaching this squad than a season ago. Plaza stayed at Unicaja despite other job openings in his home country being available, such as Laboral Kutxa Baskonia and FC Barcelona. Then again though, Plaza’s stock took a bit of a hit after such a poor finish in Malaga last season, so it is possible that he wasn’t in serious consideration for those positions despite his coaching pedigree. That being said, with a deeper, more athletic roster and a bit easier Eurocup schedule (which should ease the burden of also playing in the ACB), Plaza should make Unicaja competitive again, with a Eurocup championship not only a possibility, but an expectation in 2017.
2. Hapoel Jerusalem
Though they traditionally are overlooked in comparison to rival Maccabi Tel Aviv (who has an A license in the Euroleague), Hapoel Jerusalem was arguably the best team in Israel a season ago. Not only did they have the best record in regular season Winner League play, but they also made it to championship game, something rival Maccabi did not do. Unfotunately, their loss to 4th-seeded Maccabi Rishon (who is playing in the Champions League) in the title game left the Jerusalem-based club with little to show for what was an extremely successful campaign overall in 2015-2016.
Not ready to rest on their laurels, Jerusalem was as active as any Israeli club this summer, Maccabi Tel Aviv included. They hired Simone Pianigiani, an Italian head coach who had Euroleague success with Montepaschi Siena and Fenerbahce Ulker. And in terms of the roster, they added an influx of American talent, which included combo guards Jerome Dyson of Auxilium Turin, Curtis Jerrells of Galatasaray, and Tarence Kinsey of Crvena Zvezda, who should be pulling main point guard duties next season. They also boosted their size in the post with Travis Peterson, most recently of Valencia, and Isaac Rosefelt, who comes locally from Hapoel Holon.
However, though those signings added some much needed depth to their roster, no acquisition generated as much splash as the recent signing of Amare Stoudemire, who recently retired from the NBA, but signed a two-year deal with Jerusalem. A partial owner of the franchise (though he did have to sell his shares as a requirement of joining the team so there was no conflict of interest), Stoudemire, a former NBA All-Star and All-NBA player, is one of the most high profile players to ever come to Israel, and should add a dimension in the post that the Winner League or Eurocup has rarely seen. Though Stoudamire has struggled with injury since leaving the Phoenix Suns during their “Seven Seconds or Less” days, he still was an effective bench player last season with the Miami Heat, and is only 33-years-old, still relatively young considering how long he has been playing professional basketball.
To think Stoudemire will channel his Phoenix or early New York Knick days is foolish, but Amare should have an impact on this team immediately. He is still immensely talented on the offensive end as a scorer, and he and Kinsey should thrive in the pick and roll. Furthermore, Stoudemire is coming motivated to Jerusalem, as this is something he “wanted” to do, not a last-end resort, as is the case with most imports. I could see this situation being similar to Stephon Marbury’s success in China, as Stoudemire could achieve a positive revitalization for both himself and this Jerusalem team in the next couple of years. And if that revitalization could result in a Eurocup title and Euroleague berth in 2017-2018, that would only add to Stoudemire’s legacy individually, and make Jerusalem’s risk well worth it in the end.
3. FC Bayern Munich
Much like Unicaja, Bayern was another victim of the downsizing in the Euroleague, as their failure to get out of the Regular Season, or ability to win the BBL from Brose Baskets Bamberg resulted in them being left out of the Euroleague field. However, much like Unicaja, instead of letting such a demotion get to them, they instead have reloaded with a formidable team that looks to compete for the Eurocup crown.
The biggest addition for the Munich-based club was the hiring of former Panathinaikos head coach Sasha Djordjevic. Djordjevic, the current Serbian Men’s National Team coach and a former European club legend in his playing days, is coming off an uneven campaign in Athens where he was unable to bring the Greek power back in the spotlight, as PAO were swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Baskonia a year ago. Though his one-year tenure in Greece was underwhelming, he is coming back to a smaller club with less pressure in Germany. Prior to Panathinaikos, Djordjevic also coached in Italy, first with Olimpia Milano from 2006-2007 and then with Benetton Treviso from 2011-2012.
Another plus is that Djordjevic is that he will have top player Nihad Djedovic to mold his offensive strategy around. The Bosnian National was one of Bayern’s most productive players a year ago, as he had the highest touches per game on the team in Euroleague play, and averaged 0.97 PPP, not extremely productive, but not bad in comparison to his high usage (the higher the usage, the harder it is to produce higher PPP). Djedovic, who has spent most of his professional career in Germany, was definitely in high demand this summer, but it appears that he enjoys his role in Munich as well as the community, and that was a big plus for the club as they aim to return to the Euroleague in 2017-2018.
In addition to keeping Djedovic, Bayern also was able to keep wing and team captain Bryce Taylor, who underperformed in the Euroleague but scored 13.6 ppg in the BBL, as well as big man John Bryant, who was arguably Bayern’s most effective post player, as evidenced by his team-high 62.6 percent True Shooting percentage and 1.15 PPP in Euroleague play. Bryant is not particularly graceful or athletic, but he has always been an efficient, highly productive player, and he should continue to be so under Djordjevic, who demands a lot from his big men. Another big signing in the post by Bayern was Devin Booker, the reigning French League MVP with Chalon a season ago. Booker should be a nice replacement for Deon Thompson, who signed with Galatasaray this summer.
In many ways, Bayern is pretty much the same team that went 4-6 in the Euroleague a season ago, as the roster remains pretty much intact, perhaps even better with the Booker acquisition as well as other signings such as Vladimir Lucic from Valencia, Ondrej Balvin from Sevilla and Danilo Barthel from Fraport Skyliners, all players who should add depth to their front court. Add that with a motivated head coach in Djordjevic, who is looking to rebound after his failed one-year voyage in Athens, and the outlook appears pretty rosy for the Munich-based club in terms of competing for a title in both the Eurocup and BBL, both roads back to the Euroleague.
4. Cedevita Zagreb
The Croatian club is coming off a pretty solid year in Euroleague play, as they qualified for the Top 16 for the first time in club history. Considering the club (or country in general) doesn’t have the history of other Balkan rivals (such as Serbian clubs Partizan or Crvena Zvezda) in terms of Euroleague success, their appearance in the Top 16 could be a sign of breakthrough.
Unfortunately, what may be breakthrough in the long run didn’t help their consideration in 2016-2017, as they didn’t have the season nor the kind of money or fanbase to merit a wild card berth in the Euroleague this season. However, Cedevita may be even better than last year, even though they will not be seen or on fans’ radar as much as they were in the Euroleague a season ago.
First off, Cedevita didn’t necessarily make any big time moves, but rather they opted for quality and fit rather than quantity. Gone are imports Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker, former college stars and NBA journeymen. Instead, Cedevita concentrated on keeping their young core together. They re-signed Luka Babic, who had some interest from other clubs, and they also were able to keep other crucial roster pieces such as Miro Bilan and Marko Arapovic. Also, they brought in athletic wing Scotty Hopson, who scored over 22 ppg in China last year, but averaged 15.5 ppg with Anadolu Efes back in 2013-2014. He will add some much needed athleticism and isolation scoring for this Croatian club.
The biggest player returning though may be Dzanan Musa, the Bosnian teenage star who is probably the most sought-after prospect in Europe. The MVP of the U16 European Championship a year ago, Musa is only 17 years old, but saw some playing time with the Cedevita senior squad a year ago. Musa is a special talent, and he will be given a much bigger role, especially now that he is a year older and has experience playing and practicing with the senior club. I don’t think Cedevita will expose him too much, out of fear for hurting his development (and they have Hopson and Babic so there isn’t a tremendous need to rush him), but he definitely will play a key role in the rotation in 2016-2017. To see his development will be exciting to follow, especially considering he is expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA in a couple of years.
Cedevita also made one of the more underrated signings in David Stockton, the son of NBA Hall of Famer, John. Stockton, though small in stature and lacking in natural athleticism like his father, is the kind of true playmaker that will help this Cedevita squad on the offensive end. D-Stock lives to make assists, as he has that passing gene that made his dad the NBA career leader in assists. Stockton was the starting point guard and leading assist man not only at prestigious college program Gonzaga his senior year (home of Lithuanian power forward and OKC Thunder draft pick Domantas Sabonis) but also of the most productive offense in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns (the most fun team to watch in the D-League thanks to head coach David Arsenault’s offense). Those kind of merits show that Stockton can produce on the professional level, and that he is ready to transition that playmaking skill set to the Eurocup and ABA.
Cedevita will benefit from the chemistry they developed last year during their Top 16 run, as well as new acquisitions, like Hopson and Stockton, who should mesh seamlessly with the culture of this club. There were a lot more teams that may have made “bigger name” signings, but I like the core Cedevita brings back and the potential for breakout from some of their young stars (like Musa), which should make them a dark horse in the Eurocup this season.
Some honorable mentions to watch in the Eurocup
- Nizhny Novgorod: They barely missed out on the semis after a double-ot loss to Strasbourg a year ago, and they signed an excellent combo guard in DeAndre Kane, formerly of Iowa State. They lost a lot of talent though from last year, and they will have a new 31-year-old coach in Arturs Stalbergs, who has no head coaching experience, so that dampens the enthusiasm for this year a bit.
- Alba Berlin: They made some good signings to solidify their backcourt with young talent in Malcolm Miller and Peyton Siva, and Engin Atsur should add some veteran leadership to their squad. They also have added a lot to their junior team, as they are looking more into the future rather than winning in the present. However, they are thin in the post, and it will be interesting to see if new head coach Ahmet Caki will see that solidified in the months leading up to the season.
- AEK Athens: They loaded up with a lot of local Greek talent, including 22-year-old Giannoulis Larentzakis, who signed a four-year deal after averaging 11.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 2.9 apg with VAP Kolossos Rodou a year ago. However, while they have quantity in terms of acquisitions, it’s hard to see if there is much real quality with this AEK roster, which makes it hard to see them as a genuine contender (though I wouldn’t be surprised to see them buck expectations).
- Lokomotiv Kuban: I think it’s going to be a rebuilding year, even though they have been making a late run in talent acquisition this summer (they signed Mardy Collins from Strasbourg and somehow got Kenny Gabriel from Pinar Karsiyaka even though he seemed to have offers from bigger clubs like Olympiacos). The most fascinating thing to watch will be new head coach Fotis Katsikaris, the former Greek National Team head coach, who had a solid campaign last year with UCAM Murcia of the ACB. Katsikaris has known to overachieve with teams (with the exception of the Greek national team, which blew it in the Eurobasket in 2015 and OQT this summer), as Murcia was one of the more fun teams to watch in the ACB a year ago thanks to do-everything Argentinian point guard Facundo Campazzo. Will Katsikaris be able to pull that “Murcia Magic” with Kuban, a team coming off a Euroleague Final Four appearance a year ago?