Five Things to Take Away from 2017-2018 Euroleague Regular Season

I’ve been away from the Euroleague scene for the most part of the 2017-2018 season. Job and personal commitments can do that, especially when you run any web site as a labor of love, not for profit. However, as I do every year, I get sucked back into the Euroleague at some point in the season, and luckily for me, I have gotten back in, right come playoff time.

So, being the opinionated person that I am, here are five things to take away from this year’s Euroleague Regular Season. This isn’t really a post for detailed analysis. I would suggest Euroleague Adventures, Eurohoops, Courtside Diaries, or various other European basketball sources to get something really detailed. However, for a light look, this may be worth a gander.

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Maccabi Tel Aviv not back…but they’re not a mess

I will tip my hat to Neven Spahija, who got Maccabi Tel Aviv back to respectability this year after the club went through two miserable seasons prior. Though their 13-17 record doesn’t look good on paper, they were 12-10 at the 22-round mark, and were a few points away from being a .500 or better team during their 1-7 stretch. Yes, it was baby steps in Spahija’s first season, but that is what this franchise needed, especially after their four-head coach debacle in 2016-2017 where they went 10-20 and finished 14th in the Euroleague standings.

As always, American import talent was the key to success this year, as guards Pierre Jackson and Norris Cole came from the G-League and NBA, respectively to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv on the offensive end. DeShaun Thomas and Alex Tyus (making his triumphant return to Israel) also added some versatility in the post, as Thomas became an inside-out threat, while Tyus finished well in the pick and roll and provided much needed shot blocking in the post, something they missed dearly a season ago. Lastly, Artisom Parkhouski offered some nice skill and touch in the paint after coming over from UNICS Kazan a year ago.

At the same time though, this roster probably is still in some need of change. This team didn’t score much from beyond the arc, as they only scored 24.6 percent of their total points from beyond the arc, the worst mark in the Euroleague, according to overbasket.com. While it’s important for a team to have an identity (Zalgiris was second-last in this mark and made the playoffs), the Maccabi offense seemed to lack variety, and they struggled to find scoring when they couldn’t get their main horses going. It will be interesting to see how Spahija maneuvers lineups down the stretch in the Winner League season, as how the team (as well as certain players) finish in domestic play could make a difference in terms of who stays and who doesn’t for the 2018-2019 season.

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Sarunas Jasikevicius is building something special in Kaunas

Saras continues to improve as a coach at the professional level. When he took over Zalgiris during the 2015-2016 season, it seemed like he was in a bit over his head, unable to connect with the roster, demanding the same kind of perfection as a coach that he demanded from himself as a player. This led to a disastrous last-place finish in Top 16 play. In year 2, thanks to a full off-season, and getting more players to fit his style, Zalgiris stayed in the playoff hunt for almost all of the season, finishing 14-16, good for 10th overall in the Euroleague standings. Saras’ reputation blew through the roof, as he was linked to many coaching vacancies in the summer as a result.

This year, Saras may be on the cusp of building something really special in his home country of Lithuania. Zalgiris swept traditional Euroleague powers Olympiacos, Barcelona, and Olimpia Milano and finished 18-12, 6th overall in the standings, and qualified for the playoffs (where they will face Olympiacos, a possible upset in the making). And Saras accomplished all this with the same, mostly Lithuanian, roster from the past couple of seasons. Yes, Aaron White proved to be a great wing acquisition from Zenit. And yes, point guard Kevin Pangos has seemed to thrive under the tutelage of Saras in two seasons. But make no mistake: the heart and soul of this team comes from local Lithuanian talent, not imports (which is the inverse of what most Euroleague clubs do, with the exception of Crvena Zvezda).

Saras will once again be courted hard by Euroleague powers or big-money clubs (Russian ones come to mind). However, what Saras is doing in Zalgiris is unique, and I think he will continue to build Zalgiris into a Euroleague power for at least the next few years.

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Give Baskonia’s Pedro Martinez his due

When Pedro Martinez took over Baskonia, the club was 0-4 and just had first-time head coach Pablo Prigioni abruptly resign. Baskonia was hoping to find the same kind of magic with Prigioni that Zalgiris found with Saras and instead, it backfired tremendously. As for Martinez, despite leading Valencia to an ACB title, a Euroleague berth, and a Eurocup runners-up finish in 2016-2017, he was sent packing from Valencia, and was jobless going into the 2017-2018.

It’s amazing how things work out sometimes.

Since Martinez took over, Baskonia has gone 16-10 and qualified for the playoffs, something that seemed unthinkable after Round 4. And they have done this despite losing Euroleague defensive player of the year, Adam Hanga, who left for Barcelona in the off-season. Martinez has really utilized the strengths of this roster, leaning on Toko Shengalia, who may be a dark horse Euroleague MVP candidate, while getting the most out of young talent like Luca Vildoza, Janis Timma, and Vincent Poirier.

It won’t be an easy matchup for Baskonia in the playoffs, as they will take on the defending champs, Fenerbahce, in the first round. However, the Martinez hire has gone from a temporary stopgap solution to perhaps one they can build upon in the near future.

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Things not much better with Barcelona and Olimpia Milano…

Both Barcelona and Olimpia Milano made big-time coaching hires to get their clubs going back in the right direction after sub-par 2016-2017 campaigns. However, both squads struggled to get anything going, and once again finished near the bottom of the regular season standings in the Euroleague.

Barcelona showed a lot of promise this off-season by not only hiring Sito Alonso from Baskonia, but also acquiring top talent in the backcourt in Thomas Huertel (from Efes), Phil Pressey (from the G-League), Edwin Jackson, and Euroleague defensive player of the year Adam Hanga. And yet, that top talent and coaching change wasn’t enough, as the Barcelona club went 7-14 before firing Alonso and replacing him with Svetislav Pesic for the remainder of the year. The Catalan club showed some improvement by finishing 4-4 in his 8-game tenure, but the lackluster 11-19 overall record and sparse crowds at Palau Blaugrana hasn’t given the franchise much to be hopeful about this season.

As for Milano, the big-name hire of Simone Pianigiani was a controversial one, as he was known as a foil to the Milano franchise during his tenure with Montespachi Siena. Unfortunately, things proved to be more of the same for the Milano club, the lone Italian representative in the Euroleague for the second-straight season. They went 10-20 during the regular season, and once again weren’t able to get much out of high-profile signings such as Andrew Goudelock, Jordan Theodore, Curtis Jerrells (who came with him from Hapoel Jerusalem) or Mindaugas Kuzmiskas (who came over after being waived by the New York Knicks). MIlano still holds the top spot in the Italian League standings and looks like a strong candidate to rebound with a domestic league title, which evaded them a year ago, so maybe year two in the Euroleague will be kinder for Simone (if he makes it that long of course).

So why is this a big deal? Well, both are A-License clubs, meaning that they are entrenched in the Euroleague for 10-year periods of time, regardless of finish in the Euroleague or their domestic league. That isn’t the case for most other clubs, who have to earn their right to stay in the Euroleague on an annual basis (by winning their domestic league competition or qualifying as an at-large). And thus, with sparse crowds and lackluster play, these two clubs are definitely making the argument that the Euroleague has to seriously re-visit their policy with handing out A-Licenses. This may not be something that will happen in the near future, but another season or two of mediocre play from these two clubs may (or should) start the discussion sooner rather than later.

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It’s a pretty wide open Euroleague playoff race

There’s no real dominant Euroleague squad this year. CSKA holds the top spot, but they’re not the same without Milos Teodosic, and they have had their share of injury issues, much like other top clubs such as Fenerbahce and Real Madrid. Fenerbahce doesn’t have the dominant feel of last year’s squad (not to mention game changers like Ekpe Udoh or Bogdan Bogdanovic). Real Madrid’s success corresponds with Luka Doncic, which is a lot of pressure for a teenager. Panathinaikos looks like a top end club at times, and certainly has the depth to win a Euroleague title, but on some occasions they looked like a middle-of-the-road team. And Olympiacos? “Kill Bill” Vassilis Spanoulis is starting to show his age, and the depth on this Piraeus squad just isn’t what it once was.

The bottom line? Expect something surprising this postseason. The last few Euroleague postseasons have been pretty chalk, but every club in the playoffs this season has some serious flaws. Yes, that makes it tough for betting, but for those who like excitement and shockers, this Euroleague postseason may have a lot to offer.

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Has Bogdan Bogdanovic become Fenerbahce’s most important player (and is he ready for the NBA)?

So, it’s been a while (two months roughly) since I have posted on here. I know. A lot has happened in the Euroleague. I haven’t been completely in the dark, even if my Euroleague Jam Twitter has suggested otherwise. I have still been watching games, though not with as much frequency as in the start of the season (I blame my coaching responsibilities for that).

But anyways, I have been getting the Euroleague writing itch again, and I have some free time on my hands as well. I figured writing sporadically about Euroleague basketball is better than not writing at all. So, I decided to write this post about Bogdan Bogdanovic and his impact on Fenerbahce as well as the potential of him going to the Sacramento Kings this off-season. (As I am a Kings fan and I know many Kings fans who are interested to see what his potential will be, especially since the Kings are rebuilding after trading DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins.)

So let’s take a look at Fenerbahce and Bogdanovic after his most recent performance from round 25.


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Fenerbahce lost 79-74 to Baskonia in Istanbul, in a surprising upset that solidified Baskonia’s playoff status a bit as we head into this final five game stretch. The game was a bit of a letdown for a Fenerbahce team that has been playing well lately, as evidenced by them winning six out of their previous seven before the Round 25 loss. Granted, Fenerbahce was playing short-handed, as Ekpe Udoh was ruled out for the game due to precautionary reasons, and it was obvious that his presence in the post was greatly missed. (Anthony Bennett, who started in place of Udoh and played in the most extensive stint of his Euroleague career, didn’t perform badly, but didn’t exactly duplicate Udoh’s production.)

If there is one silver lining from the game, it may be the continued development of combo guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who may have solidified his title as Fenerbahce’s “star” player going forward. Bogdanovic played a game-high 34 minutes and scored 26 points on 7 of 10 shooting from 2-pt land and 2 of 5 from beyond the arc. He also added 8 assists and finished with a PIR of 26, which was a game high for both teams. While his impressive output came in a loss, that shouldn’t take away from what Bogdanovic not only did against Baskonia, but has done since he returned from injury in week 16. After missing extensive time, and taking it easy in 11 minutes against Olimpia Milano (in which he scored 0 points and took only two shots), Bogdanovic not only has returned to the productive form that was expected of him going into this year, but has perhaps surpassed that as well.

If you look at his game log, Bogdanovic has stepped up as Fenerbahce’s go-to perimeter player (and perhaps player in general) since round 21, where he struggled immensely in a 12 point, 2 of 11 shooting performance against CSKA Moscow (though his team won 77-71). He bounced back with a 15-point, 18 PIR performance in a tough loss to Turkish rival Darussafaka, but really came on the stage in huge wins over Euroleague Final Four contender Olympiacos and playoff-bubble team Zalgiris in consecutive weeks. In a 67-64 comeback win over a tough, defensive-minded Olympiacos squad, the 24-year-old Serbian scored 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field (3-of-5 from beyond the arc) to go along with 3 rebounds, 4 assists and a PIR of 29. If you watch the highlights below, it is quite a sight to see Bogdanovic battle for points against the tough Olympiacos defense, which may be the best in the Euroleague. The Piraeus-based club certainly put their pounding on him, but time and time again, especially in the fourth, Bogdanovic came up with crucial buckets, and willed them to a huge season-defining win.

His performance against Zalgiris was a bit more subtle, as he only played 21 minutes and scored 14 points on 4 of 7 shooting (2 of 3 from beyond the arc), but he did accumulate 7 steals as well as a PIR of 26 (only 1 point behind Udoh, who was the leader in PIR) in Fenerbahce’s 76-67 win. Put that together with his latest performance in round 25, and it is safe to say that this Fenerbahce team will be relying heavily on Bogdanovic down the stretch, not to mention depending on him to carry them to the Final Four. That is not an easy thing to say, especially considering this team has two All-Euroleague players (Udoh and Jan Vesely), and a former NBA player and Euroleague playoff stud (Luigi Datome) still on their roster. But after what he has done the past five games, there has been no one more productive for Fenerbahce, not to mention nobody else who matches up better head to head against the top playmakers from Final Four favorites CSKA (Milos Teodosic and Nando de Colo), Real Madrid (Sergio Llull and Luka Doncic) and Olympiacos (Vasilis Spanoulis).


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Without a doubt, at this moment, Bogdanovic is thinking about how he can help Fenerbahce win a Euroleague title, which has just escaped their grasp the past couple of seasons (they have made the Final Four the past two seasons but finished fourth and second, respectively). Nonetheless, the big question for many basketball fans in general is if Bogdanovic will go the NBA, specifically the Sacramento Kings, who own his rights. The fit in Sacramento is fascinating mainly because it’ll be interesting to see if Bogdanovic can play the point guard position at the NBA level. While Bobby Dixon technically is the point on the team, Fenerbahce coach Zeljko Obradovic has opted to designate Bogdanovic as the main ballhandler in the past five or so weeks, and instead have Dixon play more off the ball. It was a bit of a risk to move a guy who primarily played the wing last season to the point position, but it has has paid off on both ends. Dixon has been able to utilize his strengths as a catch-and-shoot player from beyond the arc, and Bogdanovic has been able to create offense more off the drive not just for himself, but for his teammates as well (as evidenced by his 8 assists against Baskonia).

If Bogdanovic can make it to the NBA as a point guard (or at least a hybrid guard capable of playing it in limited doses), it will make his arrival in Sacramento much more exciting. As a shooting guard prospect, Bogdanovic is simply okay. A lot of NBA and Kings fans will be eager to want to compare him to Peja Stojakavic, since they are both Eastern European shooters who blew up Europe thanks to their scoring and shooting. However, Bogdanovic doesn’t have the height or shooting prowess of Stojakovic, so to make that comparison is unfair and unrealistic. That being said, Bogdanovic can create his own shot a lot better than Peja, and him getting more experience as a point guard on this Fenerbahce team makes the outlook of him perhaps playing a hybrid point in the NBA much more realistic.

He is going through his growing pains of course. He did have five turnovers last week, and I do not think he will have the passing prowess of a Sergio Rodriguez or Ricky Rubio by any means. However, he is a polished offensive player on many ends. He looks in control when he takes it to the rim. He can beat sagging defenders with his three point shot. And his vision is getting better, especially in the half court. His defense will be an issue, especially considering the athleticism of today’s point guards in the NBA (it’s tough to see him guard a Kyrie Irving or John Wall or Rusell Westbrook). It’s questionable if he’ll have the speed to keep up at that position on a full-time basis (which is why I think he is more of a hybrid). That being said, offensively he definitely has the potential to be an interesting point guard prospect who can really stretch opposing defenses thanks to his shooting and overall offensive polish, as one can see in this video below:

For the Kings, Darren Collison will be a free agent after this year, and Ty Lawson may be on his way out now after his latest brush with the law. That leaves huge gaps at the point guard position for the Kings, and they most likely won’t get a high enough pick in the draft to nab Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, nor would they have enough money to lure a quality free agent point guard. Thus, with the Kings in full rebuild mode after trading their star player, Cousins, it seems logical that the Kings should take a flyer with Bogdanovic. Yes, him being a NBA point guard isn’t a slam dunk by any means. Can he adjust to other NBA point guards from the competition in Europe? That is hard to project accurately. But Bogdanovic isn’t just a spot-up shooter. He has a more diverse offensive game than that, and he has showed it in the Euroleague, becoming Fenerbahce’s most dependable player down the stretch.

It will be interesting to see if the Kings and head coach Dave Joerger will give him the kind of chance in Sacramento in 2018 that Fenerbahce and Obradovic has given him in Istanbul in 2017.

 

Barcelona and Baskonia Place Postseason Hopes on Latin American Transfers

Mid-season transfers, much like any professional sport be it here in America or Worldwide, tend to be common fare. For some Euroleague clubs, the risk of perhaps disrupting team chemistry on and off the court is well worth it, especially if it can help a team solidify or boost their playoff and Final Four chances. At this time of the year, with some teams’ playoff chances fading faster and faster with each coming week, the need to make a drastic change in the roster now can feel urgent, not just to salvage the season, but also one’s status for next season.

Already, we have seen mid-season additions such as Alessandro Gentile with Panathinaikos, Dominic Waters with Olympiacos, Ante Zizic with Darussafaka, and Deon Thompson with Crvena Zvezda provide much needed depth and production to their new clubs (and that isn’t including Anthony Bennett, who could be a tremendous boom or bust for Fenerbahce). FC Barcelona and Baskonia are hoping post Vitor Faverani, and guard Nicolas Laprovittola, respectively, will continue that trend of mid-season transfers being positive additions in 2016-2017, especially considering both teams’ playoff states are far from being certain going into week 18.

Let’s take a look at what each player will provide their respective club, and if this will affect their playoff chances in a positive or negative fashion in the second half of the season.

Barcelona Banking on Brazilian Boost (On Offense…)

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(And yes, I was purposefully trying to get a four letter alliteration…sorry grammar and AP style nerds!)

Barcelona basically traded posts, essentially, as they signed Vitor Faverani from UCAM Murcia, and released Joey Dorsey to make room for the Brazilian national. Management’s decision to let go of Dorsey was probably not an easy one: they signed him to a two-year contract extension this off-season, and he is the team’s (and perhaps the Euroleague’s) best rebounder, according to rebounding rate. However, Dorsey has not only struggled to stay on the court due to injuries (which has caused all kinds of hoopla on Twitter; Dorsey claims that the Barcelona medical staff neglected treating him for a lot of issues, which in his eyes, sabotaged his season), but also has failed to help a struggling Barcelona team put points on the board. He averaged only 5.5 ppg on 54.8 percent shooting in 17 mpg (and he was dismal at the line, shooting around 54 percent). Considering his athleticism, strength, and the lack of depth in the frontcourt, head coach Georgios Bartzokas and Barcelona expected much more from him in the beginning of the year, and it makes sense they decided to cut their losses now considering they are still in the playoff hunt, and can’t afford many more losses.

With Dorsey gone, in his place comes Faverani, who had a cup of coffee with Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv last season (he played two games) before spending the past year and a half in Murcia with UCAM. Faverani is the opposite of Dorsey: he doesn’t offer the intimidating presence, but he makes up for it with a deft skill set on both the offensive and defensive end. Last season, UCAM was boosted by the high-low combo of Faverani and Argentinian “Wunder-Guard” Facundo Campazzo, who helped UCAM to a 18-16 record, and a 7th place finish in the Liga Endesa (which produced a very entertaining first round series between them and Real Madrid, which Madrid won 2-1 in a best of three round). There was a lot of hope that with another year together, and a spot in a weakened Eurocup competition (due to the defections of many clubs to FIBA’s Champions League), that Faverani, Campazzo, and UCAM would be a dark horse of sorts this year.

Unfortunately, the change in coaching staff from Fotis Kasakaris (who left for Lokomotiv Kuban; and was fired mid-season, ironically) to Oscar Quinatana has not been kind: neither Campazzo (turnover and shooting issues) nor Faverani has been as effective this year, and currently UCAM sits at 5-11 in the Liga Endesa and 1-2 in the Top 16 round of the Eurocup.

However, UCAM’s loss may be Barcelona’s gain. Faverani adds much needed scoring to a frontcourt that has been plagued by injury and ineffectiveness. In addition to Dorsey’s issues, Barcelona has struggled to get anything in the post beyond Ante Tomic, who is their main frontline scorer, as he is averaging 10 ppg, 4.9 rpg and has a team leading 13.7 PIR per game. Justin Doellman, who has gone through injury issues himself like Dorsey, has been primarily regulated to a jump shooting stretch-four when he is on the floor (he has only appeared in 11 games). Additionally, newcomer Victor Claver has been a slightly better, but different version of Doellman, as the Spaniard has had more of an effect on defense and on the glass (4.4 to Doellman’s 2.6 rpg), but scores less than Doellman (5.5 to Doellman’s 6.9 ppg).

Those are not good signs for an offense that ranks in the bottom of the Euroleague not only in terms of points scored (71.4 ppg), but also in point-differential (their -58 point differential is third-worst, ahead of only Galatasaray and Olimpia Milano) and offensive efficiency (their 90.9 rating is worst in the league). However, there is hope that the 28-year-old Brazilian forward will help improve those numbers during this week 18-30 stretch.

First off, Faverani is a skilled big with good touch around the rim. Faverani averaged 11 ppg on 55.6 percent shooting this year in Eurocup play, and 9.7 ppg on 56.8 percent shooting in the Liga Endesa. Those numbers are down of course from the 10.5 ppg and 61.5 percent shooting clip he put up in the Liga Endesa last season, but it still demonstrates that Faverani can be a productive player in the post on the right team. Considering that Barcelona struggles to get consistent scoring from anyone on the roster beyond Tomic and guard Tyrese Rice (who has had his own inconsistency issues this season as well), Faverani certainly will have the opportunities and chances to have an impact.

Now, the one knock on Faverani is that he’s not an explosive athlete. He relies on his crafty skill set to score baskets, and even his made shots can be painful to witness on occasion. Faverani had some good outings in his short stint in the NBA with the Boston Celtics in 2013-2014, but even in the highlights below, he can lacks grace and fluidity on occasion in his offensive game. Nearly three years later, it hasn’t gotten much better, but at least he has been able to use his experience to make up for these shortcomings.

The one positive about Faverani’s arrival is that he shouldn’t affect this team defensively, which has not only been the key reason why they have stayed in the playoff race, but also a calling card of Bartzokas as a coach. Faverani is tough and doesn’t give up easy baskets around the rim, and he is also a much wiser defender than Dorsey. It was common to see Dorsey get in foul trouble, unable to harness his aggressiveness or frustration consistently (a knock he has had ever since his days in college at Memphis). Faverani still is a tough, and aggressive player, but he is much better in terms of playing defense without fouling in comparison to Dorsey. Not only will this help keep Barcelona’s defense humming down the stretch, but it will also provide dividends on the other end of the court: the more Faverani is playing, the better chance their offense will have from escaping the garbage dump they currently sit in now by the end of the season.

Faverani might not single-handily save the season for Barcelona. They still have to get past Brose Bamberg, UNICS, Efes, and Red Star, not to mention hold off Maccabi, which still has a puncher’s chance with the trio of Sonny Weems, Andrew Goudelock, and Quincy Miller. That being said, trading Faverani for Dorsey is a positive upgrade for Bartzokas’ squad, as they improve considerably on offense without sacrificing too much on the defensive and rebounding end (though Faverani is not quite the rebounder Dorsey was; but then again, few in the Euroleague were).

Laprovittola adds depth at the point for Baskonia

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He’s been dubbed the next “Manu Ginobili” by some. Some have even ventured as far as calling him the “Argentinian Steph Curry” thanks to his sweet and streaky shooting stroke. However, after a brief 18-game stint with the San Antonio Spurs, Nicolas Laprovittola returns to Europe, this time with a Baskonia squad that is hoping to return to the Final Four.

The addition of Laprovittola is just the latest move by Baskonia management to add depth to the point guard position behind Shane Larkin. Though Larkin has performed well, he is still in his first year in Europe and in the Euroleague, and he has had some performances that have left more to be desired as of late. Against Panathinaikos and star player Nick Calathes, Larkin really struggled, as he had only 6 points and 6 turnovers in a narrow 69-68 loss. While Rafa Luz has given some nice hustle and defense, his physical limitations and lack of production on offense have been a big reason why Baskonia has been so active during the year in finding another guard to relieve Larkin off the bench.

Baskonia made some big news before the new year to address this issue by signing Baskonia legend (during the Tau Ceramic days) Pablo Prigioni in early December. However, the hero’s homecoming was short-lived, as Prigioni, 39-years-old and struggling with injuries, only played 3 games in a Baskonia uniform before announcing his retirement. After a disappointing loss to Darussafaka on the road, the Basque club wasted little time to replace Prigioni by signing Laprovittola not long after he was released by the San Antonio Spurs.

The 26-year-old Argentinian is an impressive mid-season pull. While he is not as flashy as fellow countryman Campazzo, he is certainly a more consistent and efficient shooter. Laprovittola shot 37 percent from beyond the arc with the Spurs this season despite barely seeing time on the floor (he only averaged 9.7 mpg). However, there were times where Laprovittola showed flashes of potential when he received extended minutes: against the Clippers on November 5th, he played 22 minutes, and scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc to go along with 5 assists. He also put up a similar performance against Minnesota on December 6th, where he played 21 minutes, scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, though for the Argentinian, those moments were few and far between, and it makes sense considering his 3rd-PG status that the Spurs let him go to find greener pastures in Europe.

And luckily for Baskonia, that greener pasture for the free agent guard happened to be in Vitoria.

As you will see from his highlights below, Laprovittola brings a much needed skill set to this Baskonia squad. They have been solid in the post thanks to Johannes Voigtmann, Tornike Shengelia, and Kim Tillie; and on the wings with Adam Hanga and Chase Budinger. Along with Larkin, Laprovittola could prove to be a missing piece to the Baskonia puzzle: he offers up much needed outside shooting (they score a lot less from beyond the arc this season than a year ago) as well as playmaking, which they struggle to get when Larkin is not on the court. I don’t know if Laprovittola will live up to that Manu or Curry hype, but it is easy to see him being productive immediately for Baskonia under coach Sito Alonso, who has already done a hell of a job coaching this diverse bevy of talent thus far.

Unlike Barcelona, who is just fighting for a playoff position, Baskonia is probably safe in terms of finishing in the Top-8 by the end of Round 30. They currently are 11-6 and sit in fourth place now, one game ahead of Panathinaikos and Fenerbahce, who are tied for 5th at 10-7. Barring a major collapse or a huge rash of injuries, Baskonia fans can look forward to Euroleague playoff basketball in the Spring.

However, the goal for Baskonia is not to just get to the playoffs, but make it back to the Final Four. With the point guard issues surrounding this team, as well as Andrea Bargnani’s health a major question mark, this team needs to solidify their rotation a bit if they want to keep themselves in this Final Four discussion. Pana certainly is getting better not just with the arrival of Gentile, but also due to Mike James, who is finally healthy, and coach Xavi Pascual getting more comfortable coaching this team. Fenerbahce could also see a big boost with the arrival of Bennett. Hence, it makes sense to see Baskonia make a move to keep up with those two clubs who are coming up quick on Baskonia’s heels in the standings.

Now, will Laprovittola be an impact player? It’s hard to tell. He played so little this year with the Spurs, he has no Euroleague experience, and the clubs he played for (Lietuvos Rytas of Lithuania and Estudiantes of Spain) weren’t necessarily “spotlight” teams by any measure. Without a doubt, other than his stint in the NBA, this will be the most pressure Laprovittola has faced on a professional level. Will he be able to handle it?

We’ll know for sure  whenever he dresses in that Baskonia uniform and steps on the court (I doubt considering the circumstances he’ll be ready for this round’s Euroleague’s games). That being said, this signing definitely has thrust Baskonia into the list of Euroleague teams worth following closely for the remainder of the regular season.

Anthony Bennett, Fenerbahce, and the Challenge of Ex-NBA’ers in the Euroleague

In some stunning news, European basketball reporter has this to tweet on Thursday night:

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Bennett, the No. 1 draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2013 NBA Draft who was famously drafted over Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, C.J. McCollum, and Rudy Gobert, has not quite had the professional career he probably envisioned when he left after one year at UNLV. He has struggled through injuries and being effective on the court, which has resulted in him playing on four NBA teams (Cavs, Timberwolves, Raptors, and most recently nets) in his short four-year career. After getting released by the Nets and with little interest from NBA teams, the Canadian hybrid-forward opted for a roster spot in Europe (well…Turkey to be specific) instead of signing with a D-League team.

The decision is a peculiar one. Bennett has struggled to find a position on the court in the NBA. At 6’8, he isn’t exactly tall enough to play the power forward or center position full time, but on the flip side, he doesn’t exactly have the three point shooting prowess or athleticism to play the small forward either. In today’s NBA, where shooting and height is not just a premium, but almost a necessity when building a roster, Bennett’s tweener skill set simply didn’t mesh, and it was not surprising that the former top pick was primarily regulated to the bench or on assignment in the D-League at various points with various teams throughout his NBA career.

However, the idea of playing in Europe should be enticing for Bennett. Considering quality big men tend to be rarer in European basketball than the NBA, it is possible to see Bennett become more valuable and hence, have a chance to be more productive. After all, Ekpe Udoh, a former lottery pick of the Golden State Warriors who had a lackluster NBA career, has become not only an All-Euroleague player, but a borderline Euroleague MVP candidate this season as well. Bennett probably sees this, and at 23-years-old, probably hopes for an opportunity for redemption like Udoh.

So, it makes sense on paper that Bennett signed with Fenerbahce. He wants a career bounce-back like Udoh, why not sign with Udoh’s club?

The question, however, is this: will Bennett fit on this Fenerbahce team?


Fenerbahce going into this season was a favorite to make a third-straight appearance in the Euroleague Final Four. They basically returned everyone from last year’s runner-up team, and they also added the athletic James Nunnally, who played with Italian club Avellino last season. Along with CSKA Moscow (who also returned a ton of talent) and Real Madrid (who returned their core of talent beyond Sergio Rodriguez, and also added All-Euroleague center Anthony Randolph), Fenerbahce looked like a Euroleague championship favorite, especially considering the Final Four was going to be on their home turf in Istanbul.

However, this season has not gone as expected. Bogdan Bogdanovic has missed multiple games due to injury. They have not gotten as much consistency from their roster beyond Udoh and breakout star Kostas Sloukas (who has emerged as their go-to perimeter scorer in Bogdanovich’s absence). And their defense, a staple of legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic (who has won Euroleague titles with Partizan and Panathinaikos), has been wildly inconsistent, as they do not seem to have the kind of cohesion and communication that made their defense so stout the past two seasons. And all these issues are amplified when one takes a look at their record: 10-7, 5th in the standings, with a negative-9 point differential.

Hence, Fenerbahce needs a spark for this second-half, especially after their most recent 75-73 loss to Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade (Red Star swept the season series from Fenerbahce, which included a double digit win over the “Yellow Canaries” in Istanbul; I’m sure this infuriated Serbian national and former Partizan coach Obradovic to no end). And Bennett could provide a spark because Fenerbahce’s biggest weaknesses this year has been physicality and depth in the post.

Now, one might think Fenerbahce should be set in the paint. They have two All-Euroleague frontcourt players in Udoh and Jan Vesely (another former NBA lottery pick bust), former Atlanta Hawk Pero Antic, and Serbian Nikola Kalinic, who has been productive this season while averaging over 24 MPG and 7.4 ppg. However, despite their depth on paper, Fenerbahce’s frontcourt hasn’t really delivered beyond Udoh. Vesely hasn’t been the dominant force that he once was in Fenerbahce’s past couple of seasons (this is probably due to Udoh, who has emerged as Fenerbahce’s go-to post player after Vesely went down with injury in the second half of last season). Antic has gradually been phased out of the lineup, as he is averaging only 14 mpg, and earned a DNP in their last contest again Red Star. And while Kalinic is a talented scorer and athletic post, he can get into foul trouble, and he doesn’t necessarily have the bulk to bully himself against more physical posts in the Euroleague.

Fenerbahce is hoping that Bennett will solve those physicality issues in the post. In college, Bennett mostly found success around the rim, on the glass and around the rim. Yes, he was undersized, but he looked more comfortable in the block as a four in college, which he never really got a chance to do due to the length he gave up to opposing frontcourt players in the NBA. Fenerbahce did not sign Bennett because they need shooting. They didn’t sign him because they needed athleticism. They need him because they need somebody to bang on the glass and on defense, and show some scoring touch around the basket beyond Udoh. Fenerbahce has struggled most against teams that play physical: they were swept by Red Star, and have lost to Baskonia, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, who all have good, aggressive post players. They are hoping Bennett will help equalize their chances against those teams, especially since those are the kinds of teams whom they will be fighting against down the stretch for a Final Four spot.

Bennett won’t be given an easy opportunity. He most likely will be competing with Antic for the remaining minutes in the block behind Udoh, Vesely, and Kalinic. Antic most likely will lose out because he really doesn’t offer the skill set they need: he’s not athletic, he’s not very good defensively, he plays more on the perimeter, and his rebounding is paltry at best (2.6 per game this year). Antic made his name in the NBA as a stretch-4 who could shoot well beyond the arc, and he is doing okay in that category by shooting 36.6 percent per game. But with Bogdanovic back in the lineup, and Udoh the primary offensive frontcourt player, shots are few in number, and Antic isn’t really high enough in priority to merit more. They don’t need more scoring from the outside, and unfortunately, that’s all really Antic gives this Fenerbahce team.

And if you look at the numbers, it is obvious that Bennett gives Fenerbahce the skill set that they are sorely missing with Antic on the floor. Bennett was shooting 56.8 percent on two-point field goals with Brooklyn this year. His per 36 numbers are solid: 15.7 pp36m, 10.6 rp36m, and only 1.6 turnovers per 36 minutes. And while playing more physical in the paint in comparison to his early years (where he was forced to play more small-forward with the Cavs), he has been able to be physical without fouling, as evidenced by the 2.5 fouls per 36 minutes. Yes, those are just projections, and per 36 minute statististics need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, he has showed glimpses of breaking out as of late. He may never be a No.1 status player, but he certainly has the opportunity to still be a really good basketball player, especially when you watch some of the highlights from him below:

Fenerbahce is not expecting a NBA All-Star or future Hall-of-Famer, as some Cavs find did when they drafted him No.1 overall (okay…nobody was thinking that even on draft night, but still he was drafted first). Rather, they are hoping that with more minutes and more playing time, Bennett will not only become closer to the player he was at UNLV, which would help rebound his career, but he will also solidify their playoff and thus, Final Four chances.


This should work, right? Bennett has something to prove. He has a skill set that could be more effective against less-elite frontcourt players. He is going to a good team with a widely-respected and successful coach. He should fit, right?

It should…but we have seen American flopping in the Euroleague before.

While you could point to the Udoh success story, you could also look on the flip side with Galatasaray, as Americans like Russ Smith and Austin Daye haven’t had the impact basketball fans thought they would enjoy in the Euroleague this season. It’s actually quite common, and any Euroleague expert who know more than I do (which is a lot) can attest to it: American players come in thinking “oh, it’s Europe; i’ll dominate easily”, only for them to leave the continent with their tail between their legs.

Because in reality, the Euroleague is NOT the D-League. European clubs do not care about American players’ development nor their desire to get to the NBA. They are not there to make players into better “prospects”. European coaches have the same mindset as NBA or even college coaches: they coach to “win games”. If a player is not helping them win games, they will part ways with them quickly. The stakes are too high in the Euroleague. There aren’t the number of games in Euroleague as there are in the NBA. And with a club’s spot in the Euroleague annually on the line (much like European soccer), organization’s patience is thin with players if they aren’t producing. That’s why you don’t see the Sixers exist in a European form in the Euroleague. Because a team that “tanks” would see themselves in the Eurocup or Champions League or FIBA Europe Cup rather than the Euroleague, and that difference is huge in terms of revenue. Every game is important in the Euroleague, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable to watch on a game-to-game basis in comparison to its NBA counterpart (though I still love the NBA regular season it just doesn’t have that Euroleague competitive spirit until the playoffs).

And that is the reality Bennett, and future American imports in general, face when they come to Euroleague squads. Some have recognized it, like Udoh. Some have not, like Smith. It will be interesting to see if Bennett can make that adjustment. Yes, Fenerbahce fans will have hope for him, as a former No. 1 pick and NBA player. But ultimately, what they, and Obradovic, will care about ultimately is what Bennett will do for this Fenerbahce team NOW. If he produces, he will be as beloved as Udoh this year, who has put his NBA failures behind him and has carved out a nice career with one of Europe’s best clubs. If he doesn’t, he will be just as discarded in Europe as he was in North America. His pedigree will be even more useless, because ultimately, what doesn’t matter to fans is what a player did in America. It’s what they do in the continent, in the Euroleague, in front of their own eyes. All-American or All-Conference or Ken Pomeroy POY awards don’t mean jack shit to them (Smith can attest to this).

For many ex-NBA players who come to the Euroleague, this is hard for them to understand. It’s hard for them to play for fans who don’t care or even know what they did in college or in their limited time in the NBA or D-League. Some players get away with it in the NBA because they have that fan base that pulls for them from their days back at Kansas, or North Carolina or Gonzaga. In Europe? Forget about it. The best American Euroleague players tend to be the ones who worked the hardest in college, who went under the radar and under-appreciated. It’s why guys like Daniel Hackett and Alex Tyus carve out a long-lasting careers. They had to earn their spot in their college careers against more highly-recruited and lauded players on an annual basis. And that mindset transitioned and served them well in Europe, where the stakes are even more cutthroat considering the money and expectations put upon American players by organizations, coaches and fans.

Will Bennett be able to do that? Udoh did. And Fenerbahce is hoping they will strike gold twice: invest in a deemed “NBA Bust” who revitalizes their career and makes the club better as a result. It will be interesting to follow, especially Bennett’s relationship with Obradovic, who is not exactly the most “nurturing” kind of coach. Obradovic is intense and competitive, and if Bennett doesn’t adjust, it is plausible that Bennett could be quickly out the door. With only 13 weeks left in the regular season, Zeljko has no time to be patient with anyone, let alone a former “NBA Bust.”

For Bennett, this is a last shot of sorts. Maybe he is doing this to gain good graces again amongst NBA front office members. Maybe he is doing this because he wants a fresh start where nobody will hang the “Greg Oden” label over his head. Maybe he is doing this because he wants to play and win and Fenerbahce gives him the best shot to be a part of a championship squad.

Only Bennett knows for sure why he’s packed his bags for Europe. The rest of us will just have to wait and see.

Welcome to Istanbul and the Euroleague, Anthony. The clock is ticking…

Brose Bamberg and Crvena Zvezda surprising…but will it last?

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As the Euroleague season heads into Round 17, the performances of German club Brose Bamberg and Serbian club Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Belgrade have certainly turned the heads of many Euroleague fans and experts. While both had good campaigns a year ago (Brose made the Round of 16; Red Star made a surprise playoff appearance where they were swept by CSKA Moscow), it was expected that these two would be battling to avoid the cellar in “revamped” 16-team Euroleague format. Both teams had lost key players in the off-season (Brose lost star scorer Brad Wanamaker to Darussafaka; Red Star lost explosive wing Quincy Miller and post mainstay Maik Zirbes to Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv), and didn’t necessarily replace them with any “big-name” signings. Thus, it was easy to dismiss that both teams would give some fight, but were far from serious contenders for a playoff spot.

And yet, here we are, with Red Star currently in the 7th position at 8-8 and Brose on their tail in the 9th position at 7-9. Both teams have won their last three games, each with quality wins over playoff-contenders on the resume in the recent stretch (Brose has beaten Olympiacos and Barcelona by double digits; Red Star did the same to Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow). Considering how wide-open the playoff situation is beyond Real Madrid, CSKA and Olympiacos, both under-the-radar clubs have to be taken seriously not only as playoff contenders, but perhaps Final Four dark horses to boot.

That being said, we are only one week into the second-half of the regular season. Are Brose and Red Star for real? Or are they simply riding hot stretches of play, about to be exposed in the coming weeks or toward the end of the season? Let’s take a look at both clubs, and their outlook over the remaining 14 regular season games in the Euroleague in 2017.

Melli and the Brose offensive machine.

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Niccolo Melli was named the Euroleague MVP for December and for good reason. After a buzzer-beating 90-88 loss to CSKA Moscow, Brose was 2-8 and in the Euroleague basement on December 1st. Since then, the Bamberg-based club has been 5-1, their lone blemish a loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. And the spectacular play by Brose’ Italian star has been a major reason for the turnaround. Melli is averaging 13.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.2 apg on 55.6 shooting from the field, which includes a 57.5 true shooting rate. All this has helped Melli accumulate a PIR average of 20.3, not only the highest on the team (the closest is newcomer Fabien Caseur with 12.1), but also the second-best mark in the Euroleague (behind only UNICS’ Keith Langford).

Yes, Melli success’ has been largely responsible for catapulting Brose back into the playoff hunt. That being said, what this roster has been able to do despite the lack of “big-name” star power has also been a marvel to witness since week 10. Brose has become a three-point gunning team, similar to NBA clubs like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Though they are only 5th in the Euroleague in total 3-point attempts, they have made the 3-pointer an effective weapon. 37.5 percent of their points come from three-pointers, according to Overbasket.com, which is the top mark in the Euroleague. And furthermore, this has worked to the advantage of their overall offense, as evidenced by their points per field goal mark of 1.19, which is best in the Euroleague as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of this 3-point heavy assault is that it is mostly utilized when Melli is on the bench. Melli leads the team in MPG at 30.8 per game, and when he is on the court, 49.5 percent of their points come from 2-point attempts, and 36.3 percent come from beyond the arc, according to Overbasket. However, when he is on the bench, that 2-point percentage drops to 47.1 and 3-point attempt percentage rises to 41.5. Now, a higher share of points doesn’t necessarily mean success, but their 42.1 percent 3-point make rate with Melli off the floor shows how well head coach Andrea Trinchieri utilizes his lineups not only when his best player is on the floor, but resting on the bench as well.

Brose probably can light it up with anybody in the Euroleague on the perimeter. Darius Miller is averaging a team-high 13.3 ppg and is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc, even though he has only started 8 games this year. Caseur, who served a reserve/complementary assignment on Baskonia’s Final Four squad a year ago, has emerged as a valuable shooting/point hybrid for the Euroleague’s lone German squad, as evidenced by his 10.3 ppg and 12.1 PIR. And lastly, Janis Strelnieks and Maodo Lo have also provided crucial spark to this Brose team as well on both ends of the court, both in the starting lineup and off the bench.

So the question is this: can Brose parlay their hot play as of late to a playoff spot? Right now, it’s hard to see them not unless they cool down considerably from the field, which is possible, as it did happen to them in the Round of 16 a year ago. As effective as their offense is, they still offer up some size and physicality to opponents, and against more bruising teams, Brose could find trouble not just scoring points, but pulling off wins. The recent return of Elias Harris helps with some of those issues, and Daniel Theis has stepped up big time this year, but they don’t have the post depth of clubs like Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, or Baskonia.

And yet, maybe it doesn’t matter. Trinchieri has always been regarded as one of the finer coaching minds in Europe, and he has probably done his most masterful job yet. He has made this team one of the most effective offensive clubs in the Euroleague even though they don’t have that one “superstar” go-to guy (though Melli certainly is becoming that, if he’s not at that level already). This Brose team could have packed it in after losing eight of their first ten, but while clubs in similar positions at the time like Olimpia Milano and Galatasaray have seemed to fallen off by the wayside, Brose has become one of the scariest and most dangerous teams in Europe.

Yes, it’s a long season, and on paper, there are some flaws. But the combination of Melli and Trinchieri’s coaching and system makes me confident that they’ll have a good shot to be one of the last eight teams remaining after round 30.

Red Star’s “ugly” but “potent” style of ball

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Unlike Brose, this Red Star team looks horrendous on paper. They are dead last in points per field goal ratio at 0.99, and they are worst in the Euroleague in true shooting rate at 45.8, both according to Overbasket. Their 74.5 points scored per games is the second-lowest mark in the Euroleague (only FC Barcelona is lower at 71.7). And lastly, young Serbian standout, Luka Mitrovic, hasn’t really recovered after missing most of last year due to injury, as he is averaging only 14 minutes per game, 3.1 ppg and a PIR of 1.9 despite starting 13 games.

And yet, how is Red Star, pretty much seen as an afterthought going into the year, competing for a playoff spot, and knocking off teams like Real and CSKA in sound fashion?

Mostly due to defense, a revitalized Ognjen Kuzmic and their bench.

Give a lot of credit to Dejan Radonjic and what he has been able to do with this Red Star club in the newer, more competitive Euroleague. Even though offensively has been a challenge, this team really earns its bread (i.e. wins) on the defensive end. Their 73.6 ppg allowed mark is best in the Euroleague, and they have been extremely potent as of late. They held high-scoring, superstar-laced squads like Real Madrid and CSKA to 70 and 67 points per game, respectively, in wins in Belgrade (which probably has been the toughest place to play in the Euroleague the past two seasons). And last week, despite playing on the road in a tough Kaunas environment, they held Zalgiris to 61 points, which included a 7-point first quarter for the Lithuanian club to start the game. With athletic perimeter defenders like Charles Jenkins, Stefan Jovic, and Branko Lazic making things tough on opposing guards up top, and post players like Kuzmic and Dangubic cleaning things up below, Red Star has emerged as one of the best, and most underrated defensive squads in the Euroleague. It’s not a pretty style of ball, and their offensive numbers can attest to that. If Brose is more like the Rockets and Warriors of today, Red Star is more like the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks of the Mid-90’s (i.e. brutal, tough, defensive-oriented basketball). However, Radonjic has given this team a defensive-mindset and focus, and that has not only helped the Serbian club emerge with an identity in Euroleague play, but also wins.

Speaking of Kuzmic, one could argue that he could be a “comeback player of the year” of sorts, similar to Ioannis Bourousis in Baskonia a year ago. Kuzmic was primarily stuck to the bench last season in Athens with Panathinaikos, especially down the stretch and in the playoffs after Sasha Djordjevic was fired. He averaged only 5.1 ppg on 48.7 percent shooting from the field, and played  a reserve role behind Miroslav Raduljica and James Gist. After losing front court star Zirbes to Maccabi in the off-season though, Red Star took a flyer on the former NBA player and Serbian national, and he has made the most of the chance. He is averaging 9.5 ppg on 57.1 percent shooting, 7.8 rpg, 1.1 spg and a team-high PIR average of 15.1. Once thought as burly and unsuited for the faster modern game, Kuzmic has been not only a force below, but especially in the pick and roll. While he only scored 8 points in over 14 minutes of play, he scored six points out of the gate off of pick and roll plays, which helped Red Star get off to a start they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game.

Kuzmic has seen a rejuvenation in his game, as has Jenkins, who returned to Belgrade after a short tenure with Olimpia Milano a season ago. However, what has also been remarkable is the effectiveness of their bench. Lazic, Milko Bjelica, Marko Guduric, Marko Simonovic, and Nate Wolters have all helped not only keep Red Star competitive games, but perhaps have helped their bench squad be more effective on the floor than the starting lineup. Simonovic is leading the team in scoring at 12.9 ppg. Wolters, a former South Dakota State Jackrabbit (got to shout out to my former home as much as I can) and Milwaukee Buck, has been effective at 37 percent beyond the arc, and is getting better from three-point land as he grows more accustomed to Europe. Bjelica and Guduric have their off nights (Bjelica is shooting a miserable 14 percent from three-point land), but they have showed some flashes of brilliance throughout the season. Much like Trinchieri, Radonjic has made the Red Star bench a genuine asset to this squad, even if it isn’t as pretty offensively as the Bamberg club.

Now, can Red Star make it to the playoffs in back to back seasons? Their defense is solid, yes, but they will need to get more consistent on the offensive end if they want to keep their position in the 7th spot. The addition of Deon Thompson from Galatasaray should help, especially in the post. Their horrendous offense at times though makes me more skeptical of this club as a playoff contender in contrast to Brose. That being said, their defense is already playoff-caliber, and Radonjic has demonstrated his playoff chops as a coach, not just this season, but last season as well. If they can improve just a little when it comes to putting the ball in the basket, that may be enough for this Serbian club to clinch a second-straight playoff berth down the stretch.

Can Quincy Miller Save the Season for Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade (And Save His Career Too)?

Ryan Thompson (5, red) struggled immensely against Real Madrid in the wake of an injury to Luka Mitrovic; He and Red Star hope new addition Quincy Miller can get them back on track.

After a promising 81-59 opening day win at home against Strasbourg, times have gotten tough for Serbia’s Euorleague club, Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Telekom Belgrade. Earlier in the week in domestic play, the team suffered a massive blow when it lost captain Luka Mitrovic to a left knee injury during a rare home loss to Union Olimpija. Mitrovic, in addition to his leadership role, has been a crucial building to Red Star and head coach Dejan Redonjic’s recent success the past couple years after making the jump to the Euroleague last year, and making the second round. Last season, Mitrovic averaged 8.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg in 24 games as a 21-year-old, which earned him a 3-year contract extension this off-season. This year appeared to be a breakout year for him, as he put up a stat line of 13 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in the season opener. Add that on top of a pre-season injury to forward Nemanja Dangubic that will keep him out a few more weeks, and it’s easy to see why things looked grim for Red Star as the entered yesterday’s road game against defending Euroleague Champion Real Madrid.

However, even the most pessimistic of Red Star and Serbian basketball fans didn’t quite foresee their 98-71 blowout loss to the Spanish powerhouse. The first half for Red Star was especially putrid, as they scored only 6 points in the first quarter and 14 in the second to find themselves down 56-20 at halftime. In the second half, they made the game a little bit more respectable, scoring 21 in the third quarter and 30 in the fourth, but it was obvious that Real had put in their replacements, and were simply trying to rest up after halftime to conserve their star players for the following week of games, both Domestic and Euroleague.

The biggest difference in the game was the play in the post, as Red Star couldn’t stop Real in the paint, and vice versa, they couldn’t score in the paint against the talented Spanish front line either. Real shot 57.8 percent on 45 2-pt shots, with Gustavo Ayon scoring 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting on 2-pt shots, and Willy Hernangomez, playing a lot of early minutes due to Felipe Reyes in foul trouble, scoring 11 points on 5 of 6 shooting. As for Red Star, they shot 33.3 percent on 48 2-pt shots, and while German Maik Zerbes tried to pick up the slack with a 15 point performance, almost half of his points (7) came from the free throw line and he shot 4 of 10 on 2-point shots, struggling to get position and shots on the active Real post players (Real blocked 6 Red Star shots). Furthermore, they also got little to nothing from other post players such as Stefan Nastic, who went 1 of 6 from the field  and played a little over 7 minutes, and recent off-season addition Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who went 1 of 5 from the field, had 1 rebound and was blocked 3 times in 13 minutes. Add those disappointing factors along with Israeli point guard Gal Mekel scoring 0 points and getting no assists (compounded even worse by Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull combining for 16 assists), and it makes sense why there was a difference in Total Player Index Rating between Real and Red Star (134-60).

While Mitrovic’s injury effect has already been felt by Red Star, there is help on the way. Earlier this week before their contest against Real, Red Star signed former NBA draft pick Quincy Miller, who has played for the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons, as well as the Reno Bighorns, Grand Rapids Drive and Iowa Energy of the D-League in his early 3-year professional career. Miller is an interesting pickup by Red Star, as he is still incredibly young (22 years old) and has so much raw potential, size (6-9, 210 pounds) and athleticism. However, this will be his first stint in Europe in general, let alone the Euroleague, and it will be interesting to see how Miller will adjust to the European (especially Eastern European) culture as well as the style of game from America.

What Miller Offers Red Star

Quincy Miller was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, but has struggled to find a place in the NBA. Will a year-long stint with Red Star Belgrade change that?

Miller probably left college earlier than he should’ve, as he declared for the draft after his freshman season at Baylor, where he played with future NBA and European professional players like Quincy Acy, Perry Jones and Brady Heslip. In college, Miller averaged 10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg in 24.4 mpg over a 37 game span and shot 44.7 percent from the field, as well as 34.8 percent from 3-point land during the Bears’ Elite-Eight season. Miller impressed teams and scouts during his time at Baylor with his raw athleticism and his inside-outside game, but his inconsistent shooting (48.5 percent eFG%), tame rebounding percentages for a big man (7.5 offensive rebounding rate; 16.1 defensive rebounding rate), and tendency to be a “ball-killer” (his 23.1 usage rate was second highest on the team) and get the Bears out of rhythm offensively at times, was a major reason why he fell to the second round, though he was projected as a mid-to-late first round pick going into the 2012 draft.

In his rookie year, Miller struggled to find the floor, as he played only 7 games, and spent most of his time in the D-League, as he appeared in 23 games with the Iowa Energy, and averaged 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg on 39.1 percent shooting. In his second season, Miller saw more time with the Nuggets, as new head coach Brian Shaw gave him some more time on the floor to prove if he was worth keeping around and could realize his potential. He appeared in 52 games and averaged 15.2 mpg, and Miller was known for making some impressive plays at times, as evidenced by the highlights below:

However, despite his “upside” and ability to create off-the-dribble for a player of his size, Miller’s youth and lack of experience was obvious, as he only averaged 4.9 ppg and 2.8 rpg and put up a PER of 8.6 (15 is average). Trying to build a more “playoff-ready” roster, the Nuggets let Miller walk in the off-season (as a second round pick, he didn’t have the kind of rookie deal that first round picks receive; second round picks go year-to-year after their initial contract), and in 2014-2015, Miller found himself bouncing around in the D-League and NBA.

Despite the lack of security and a stable team, Miller’s most promising stint in his early professional career happened last year in the D-League during a 15-game stint with Reno, where Miller was featured in first year head coach David Arsenault’s “System”.  For those who aren’t familiar, the “System” originates from Grinnell College and features constant full-court pressure defense, frequent waves of substitutions and a heavy reliance on 3-point shots (at least half of their total field goal attempts need to be from beyond the arc). Miller fit in this system like a glove, as he averaged 25.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg on 50.3 percent shooting. Miller constantly torched team from beyond the arc, but he also was able to beat slower defenders on the dribble drive to the rim, and meshed seamlessly in Reno’s fast break, consistently finishing break opportunities off of turnovers as well as made and missed baskets (Reno is always running the break, regardless of the result on defense). Take a look at a game during last year’s D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz where he scored 35 points against the Westchester Knicks.

His impressive stint in Reno earned him billing as the Top D-League Prospect by the D-League Web site last season, as well as short 10-day contracts with the Kings and Pistons and a spot on the Brooklyn Nets preseason roster. But, Miller didn’t do enough to make the Nets roster, and after being cut by Brooklyn, and the D-League not really a lucrative financial option, Miller opted to sign with Red Star for a much better payday as well as a bigger role on a team that is looking to stay competitive despite their rash of injuries.

The big question will be how Redonjic will utilize Miller with this roster. Miller isn’t a physical forward and he will not help much on the glass (they were outrebounded 51-33 against Real), but Mitrovic didn’t possess any of those qualities either, and he still was a productive player that Redonjic planned to build around this season. Furthermore, Red Star has those types anyways with Zerbes and Schortsanitis. What Redonjic needs from Miller is scoring and instant offense, which was painfully missing against Real, as it seemed like Red Star didn’t have the kind of go-to scorer to help them out of the various scoring slumps they suffered through in the first half of Thursday’s contest. Miller needs to be able to be “the guy” and carry this Red Star team on the offensive end, and considering Red Star likes to push the ball and play more up-tempo, it makes sense why Red Star signed Miller, who played his best basketball in an up-tempo system in Reno.

It will be interesting though how Miller responds to the European game, as well as how he fits chemistry-wise with this roster. As talented as Miller is, one of the biggest knocks on him is his attitude and focus, as this was stated about him in a pre-draft scouting article from Draft Express prior to the 2012 draft:

Additionally, his focus and energy level are inconsistent, as he doesn’t seem to bring the same intensity level from possession to possession, which was clearly an issue for him already in high school. He’ll need to improve his toughness, particularly in terms of fighting his way through screens, something that getting stronger will likely help with.

From DraftExpress.comhttp://www.draftexpress.com/#ixzz3pVFrH45N
http://www.draftexpress.com

This will be interesting considering Red Star’s passionate fan base as well as the annual circumstances Euroleague teams face with the threat of being regulated with a poor season, which puts additional pressure on players, especially imports, to perform and make an impact right away. Miller can come off as passive and uncaring at times on the court, and to the common European (or even American) fan, that can be a huge insult, and prevent them from supporting a player. Red Star fans though have showed in the past that they can really get behind their players though, as evidenced by their little “bus surprise”  put on by the fans for Schortsanitis when they signed him this off-season. If Miller can embrace them and the environment (which is one of the best home crowds in Europe), and be more consistent in terms of displaying his passion on the court, not only can he help Red Star win, but he can garner the kind of fan support he never really received in the States professionally or in college. And at the end of the day, when somebody is a fan favorite, they will get paid in one way or the other.

That being said, at the end of the day, this is most likely temporary. Miller solves an immediate need and has the potential to fill the role that Mitrovic would have had prior to his injury, which is as the team’s primary dynamic scorer. There is no questioning his skills, but how Miller adjusts to Redonjic, the Red Star team and European basketball will be key to whether Red Star rebounds after the early setback to Real, and Miller revitalizes his status as a prospect, or they continue to regress and Miller proves that he is another “athletic” talent who doesn’t have the makeup to put it all together at the professional level.

Let’s face it. Red Star needs Miller to continue their Euroleague success from 2014-2015, and Miller needs Red Star to find his way back to the NBA. Whether or not this “relationship” can or will be successful for both parties though is yet to be determined, and it will be interesting to see if Redonjic can be the “counselor” to make it work this season.

Was Lokomotiv Kuban’s Victory over Panathinaikos a Fluke or Sign of Things to Come?

Ryan Broekhoff (right) and Lokomotiv got the best of Sasha Pavlovic and Euroleague mainstay Panathinaikos in the first Euroleague game of the year for both teams.

There was plenty of upsets in Week 1 of the Euroleague regular season, including a shocker where defending champion Real Madrid seemed to come out flat and was lost 84-70 to  Eurocup champion and new Euroleague participant Khimki Moscow . (Though to be fair, it was on the road, and Khimki’s crowd seemed especially amped with the defending Euroleague champions coming to Moscow.) However, while Khmki’s domination, as well as CSKA Moscow’s 100-69 blowout of 2014 Euroleague champion Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv were all big stories, one of the biggest surprises was Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar’s upset over Panathinaikos 81-70 in Krasnodar, Russia. Considering Panathinaikos is an A license team and regularly contending for a Euroleague Final Four and Championship, the loss to the wild card participant (meaning there on a 1-year license in the Euroleague and can move back down to the Eurocup division if they do not finish in the Top-4 in their group in the regular season) Lokomotiv generated a lot of discussion in Euroleague fan and media circles.

Dominating Early, but Finishing with a Whimper

Lokomotiv and head coach Sergey Bazarevich started the year well, but finished with a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the Eurocup to UNICS

Last year, Lokomotiv, who had been demoted to the Eurocup after failing to get out of the second round in the regular season the previous year, started off 2014-2015 scorching under first year coach Sergey Bazarevich, who assembled primarily an American-laden roster. Relying on players such as point guard Aaron Miles, wings Derrick Brown and Malcolm Delaney, and former lottery pick Anthony Randolph, Lokomotiv crusied through their group, going 10-0 and led all teams in point differential (+142) after the regular season ended. With their combo of elite talent as well as strong depth (they also got solid contributions from bench players such as Richard Hendrix, Krunoslav Simon and Nikita Kurbonav), it seemed like Bazarevich had assembled the kind of roster that would cruise to a Eurocup championship.

Things continued as usual in the Round of 32, as Lokomotiv dispatched Valencia of Spain, Asesoft Ploiesti of Romania and Nancy of France with ease, finishing 6-0 in their group with a point differential of +76. In the knockout stage though, they struggled to find the rhythm that made them the B Division’s best team all season. In round 1 of the Knockout stage against Brose Bamburg, they only won the initial game 80-78, a far cry from the dominance they displayed in the first two rounds of Eurocup play. Then, things just fell apart in round 2 against fellow Russian club UNICS. After winning the first game 87-78, Lokomotiv unraveled in the second game, losing 79-58. The 21-point differential resulted in a 157-145 combined score, and instead of advancing to the championship, they were out in the second round, forced to watch the rest of the knockout round from Krosnador. It was the only loss all season for Lokomotiv, but it was so damaging that it ended their season prematurely and put a damper on what was a superb campaign.

Back in the Euroleague, but Cleaning House

Former Los Angeles Clipper and Washington Wizard Chris Singleton was a key signing for Lokomotiv this off-season.

In recognition of their dominance, Lokomotiv earned license to the Euroleague as a wild-card participant for 2015-2016. Knowing that this is a crucial year, the Krosnador-based club cleaned house , letting nearly everyone but Delaney and Randolph (though his status is in the air as he did not play in Game 1) go as well as head coach Bazarevich after only one season (though he did go 19-1 in Eurocup play). Now installed as head coach is Greek national Giorgios Bartzokas who coached Olympiacos from 2012-2014 and led them to a Euroleague title in 2013 and earned Euroleague coach of the year honors that season as well.

As expected, Lokomotiv added a lot of athletic-American based talent, with the standout being Chris Singleton, who has played in the NBA and mostly spent time in the D-League last season (he played for the OKC Blue, the Thunder’s developmental program). However, there is also a lot of local, though older, talent on this roster, including Spaniard Victor Claver (who helped lead Khimki to a Eurocup championship last season) and Ukranian Kyrylo Fesenko, who has played in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and played last season with VTB squad Avtodor Saratov. Though not possessing as many big-names or as much high-end talent as a year ago, it is obvious that they are hoping that the mix of athleticism, veteran talent, and an established Euroleague coach will be the recipe for success in 2015-2016.

Starting Slow, but Finishing Strong against Panathinaikos in Game 1

One has to think that Bartzokas had a little extra motivation for this game, as he coached for Panathinaikos’ rival for 3 seasons. However, Lokomotiv struggled out of the gate, as they were down 21-17 and looked a little out of sorts as a team, struggling to find the right rhythm with the newly revamped roster. But in the 2nd quarter, they hit their stride, as they outscored the Greek power 28-20 in the second quarter to take a 45-41 lead into halftime.

After trading punches in the 3rd quarter, and the game 63-61, things looked prime for Panathinaikos to make a run and pull off the road win in the season opener. However, thanks to the athleticism of Singleton, the strong perimeter defense of Draper and Delaney, an efficient shooting night from Claver (he scored 13 on 5 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc), and inspiring post play off the bench from Fesenko, who finished with 8 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 7 rebounds in less than 15 minutes of play, Lokomotiv outscored Panathinaikos 18-9 in the 4th and won 81-70 in a game that was a lot closer than the final score indicated.

What sealed the deal for Lokomotiv in the 4th was the strong perimeter defense, thanks to their athleticism and length on the wings. Panathinaikos, led by newly acquired guard Nick Calathes, relies heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by their 22 attempts (36.7 percent of their total field goal attempts). However, beyond Calathes (who shot 2 of 4 from beyond the arc) and Dimitris Diamantidis (who shot 3 of 5), the rest of the squad shot poorly, as evidenced from their 2 of 13 mark from 3-point land (including Sasha Pavlovic, a long-time NBA player who shot 0 of 4), good for 15 percent (Panathinaikos shot 31.8 percent from 3-point land, not good considering their emphasis on the 3-point shot offensively). That low percentage is a credit to the Lokomotiv perimeter defenders and Bartzokas’ aggressive defensive principles, as Panathinaikos simply didn’t have a lot of open looks, especially in the 4th quarter with game on the line.

Lokomotiv doesn’t have a lot of pure size in the post (Fesenko is their only 7 footer and they don’t start anyone over 6’9; that being said, they have three 6’10 players in Igor Kanygin, Nikita Balashov and Nikita Zverev, but they are young, with Kanygin and Zverev 21 and Balashov 24, and raw, as they didn’t dress on the active roster for the game), but their aggressiveness and ability in the post was evident on the rebounding end. They out-rebounded the Greek club 42-26 total, and 12-8 on the offensive end (which is one of Dean Oliver’s four factors to winning a basketball game). With Lokomotiv getting plenty of second chances, and preventing the smaller, less physical Panathinaikos squad, it makes sense that Lokomotiv generated more 2 point field goal attempts (44-38) and shot a better 2 pt FG percentage (54.5 percent to 47.4 percent), which contributed greatly to their victory (as eFG percentage is the strongest portion of the 4 factors; eFG percentage accounts 2-pt and 3 pt FG percentage and Lokomotiv shot better in 3-point percentage as well).

(In a tangent central to Panathinaikos, Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica had only 5 total rebounds, the same amount as Calathes, and no offensive boards; those numbers need to improve if they want to be more serious contenders this Euroleague season).

Can Lokomotiv Build on the Momentum from this Win?

Singleton’s 16 point, 9 rebound and 2 block performance will need to be regular if Loko wants to make it into and past the 2nd round.

There is no question that this is a solid Lokomotiv squad. Their group isn’t easy, but they have the talent and coaching to compete with favorites in the group such as Panathinaikos, FC Barcelona and Pinar Karsiyaka. Singleton is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders on the perimeter, as he can shoot over and post up smaller wings, but he has the speed to beat bigger and slower wings to the rack. Claver is a proven vet, whose ability to stretch out more traditional power forwards and shoot well from beyond the arc makes up for his lack of rebounding and physicality. And Fesenko is a solid bench option, though his stamina issues will probably prevent him from starting over Ryan Broekhoff (though his 4 point, 4 rebound, 3 turnover game certainly wasn’t encouraging).

When Lokomotiv is in the fast break and using their athleticism, they may be one of the best teams in Europe, especially with Delaney, Singleton and Claver on the floor. But taking care of the ball may be an issue for this squad, as they made a lot of errors, turning the ball over 18 times, 3 more than Panathinaikos in the game. A lot of their turnovers stemmed from Lokomtoiv relying too much on isolation plays as well as lack of communication off the pick and roll as well as limited ball movement (which stemmed from the communication issues). Singleton will most likely be their best player considering his scoring ability (he led the team with 16 points) and multiple ability skill set (he had 9 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards and two blocks). But, there were times when the pick and roll that featured him stagnated, because there was a lack of communication and chemistry when it came to responsibilities on the initial ball screen.

Let’s take a look at a possession which was an early microcosm of their early struggles, poor communication and lackluster choices in the offense.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.15.24 PM

Singleton begins the play from up top. He looks to pass the ball to the wing to set up the side pick and roll play, a staple of professional basketball. But after he passes it, look what happens on the play as he goes to set the ball screen.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.15.48 PM

He sets the screen and the other post (Zubkov) doesn’t initially see it, and they are unsure who is supposed to be setting the screen here. Look at the congestion this causes. The wing (Bykov) doesn’t know where to dribble to because he doesn’t know who has the screen responsibility, and 3 Panathinaikos defenders are in the area taking away any free lanes to the hoop. The pick and roll is a free-flowing offensive staple, but when there is lack of communication when it comes to ball screen responsibility, then it kills time, congests the lane, and makes things easy for the defense (since they don’t have to move much because everyone is so close together).

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.16.30 PM

And then this happens. Because the defense senses the hesitation, they hedge the screen well, and Zubkov can do is give a halfhearted screen that is more of a push than anything. Bykov was lucky he got out of this and was able to find Singleton with the lag pass, because there was a strong possibility he could have gotten trapped here (which Sasha Pavlovic is trying to do on the right).

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.17.22 PM

After the lag pass to Singleton, Singleton dribble handoffs to Draper on the opposite wing and then does another ball screen. This one is much better and shows much better communication and awareness by the Lokomotiv players on the floor. Draper has much more room to dribble penetrate to the rack and he has a matchup advantage with the much bigger defender switching off the screen. As expected, Draper gets to the rack area, where Calathes has to help stop dribble penetration (along with Pavlovic, in the bottom left, who doesn’t need but sags in anyways).

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.17.53 PM

Draper then fires it into the corner for Delaney who is sitting wide open for what should be a high-percentage 3-point attempt. Now, this should be a successful corner 3 but look what inexplicably happens next.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 9.18.08 PM

Delaney instead swings it back to Bykov who takes a contested 3. Though Delaney is covered in the image here, on tape, he had enough time to hit the corner 3, as Pavlovic, in the image above this one, had his back to Delaney and would have had a difficult time to block or contest the shot. Delaney was a 36 percent shooter from beyond the arc in Eurocup and VTB play last season. Passing on that shot really is unacceptable, especially considering Bykov’s defender was a lot closer to him than Pavlovic was to Delaney.

Despite this lackluster and frustrating to watch possession, it was still the first game, and you have to remember that this squad is pretty much entirely new from a year ago. Add that with a coach who is in his first year in the club, and growing pains, as seen in the possession above, are inevitable. That being said, this Lokomotiv team has the potential to not just make it to the second round, but maybe be a dark horse to go further (how much though, I don’t know). Singleton is a real building block for them, and they can match player to player with any club in the Euroleague. Furthermore, if Randolph does come back and play with the team, they will be even deeper and more dangerous, as Randolph, while a volatile personality, is multi-purpose talent who can take advantage on the perimeter and in the post when he is on and focused.

The main question with this team is chemistry, not talent. Can they mesh? Can they adjust to Bartzokas’ system and coaching style? Can they come together and finish strong at the end of the year and not fade like they did in the Eurocup a year ago? There certainly are a lot of questions surrounding this Lokomotiv team, who is facing a “win or go back to the Eurocup” situation and don’t have the kind of market or fanfare of CSKA Moscow or even Khimki (who is also in Moscow). Nonetheless, a win in the Euroleague, especially over an established club like Panathinaikos, is a promising sign for the second-round chances (Barcelona and Stelmet Zielona Gora can’t boast the same feat in their group) and should build some confidence for their remaining 9-game slate in the regular season.