One feature I would like to post on this blog are pieces that contain highlights and some brief write-ups on former Euroleague stars that are not or barely familiar with American basketball fans. As displayed by this latest draft and free agency period, it is obvious that the influence European basketball has on the NBA (and vice versa) is greater than ever. A lot of the negative biases NBA fans, front office and media members had in the past about European players and teams has started to fade more and more each year, especially with European veteran stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker and newer stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo succeeding in the league, (and that’s just naming a few). And because of this “European Influence” the game of basketball here in America is more diverse and entertaining than ever.
However, what about the stars who never made it to the United States or the ones who only played here briefly? What about the teams who dominated the Euroleague that never got the recognition they deserved in the United States? What about the coaches who not only were successful in Europe, but also influenced the game so much that their contributions have influenced the NBA and American game?
That is what Euroleague Retro is about, and to begin the series, I am going to take a look at a dynamic point guard who just played his last season: Raul Lopez of Spain.
A brief outline of Lopez’s career
Lopez is probably one of the most dynamic point guards to ever come out of Spain. Considering that’s a category that also includes NBA players like Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio and Euroleague stars like Sergio Rodriguez, Sergio Llull, and Juan Carlos Navarro, that is quite the statement. However, Lopez’s legacy in Spain is one that should be remembered for years to come, as he helped break ground and set the mold for Spanish point guards who came, after him, especially Rodriguez, Llull and Rubio.
Lopez played nearly 19 seasons between Europe and the United States. He started out his career DKV Joventut from 1997-2000. After a breakout season with Joventut where he averaged 10.1 ppg, 2.8 apg and 23.7 mpg while shooting 51.5 percent from the field in 34 games in the ACB, he transferred to top Spanish club Real Madrid, where he played from 2000-2002. He had one of his best seasons in the Euroleague in 2000-2001 (his first Euroleague appearance) where he averaged 8.3 ppg and 3.3 apg in 13 Euroleague games with Real Madrid. After a solid first season with Los Blancos, there were a lot of high expectations for the 2001-2002 season for Lopez, but a knee injury derailed him and limited him to 4 games in the Euroleague, and only 14 games in ACB play.
Despite coming off injury, Lopez made the transition to the United States, playing for the Utah Jazz, who drafted him 24th overall in the 2001 draft. However, due to his meniscus tear in 2002 with Real Madrid, he had to sit out the entire 2002-2003 season with Utah to recover. When he did appear in the United States with the Jazz, Lopez didn’t necessarily have the same bounce and explosiveness that he displayed earlier in his career in Spain, and thus, he found it difficult to find a regular spot. His best NBA season was his debut year in 2003-2004, where he played all 82 games as a primary backup to starter Carlos Arroyo, and averaged 7 ppg and 3.7 apg while averaging 19.7 mpg.
Unfortunately, Lopez was unable to maintain that momentum and after an uneven season with Utah in 2004-2005, and being traded to Memphis and cut in the off-season, Lopez decided to end his NBA career after only playing two seasons.
After leaving the NBA, Lopez bounced around as a bit of a journeyman of sorts. He had a great comeback season in 2005-2006 with the now defunct CB Sant Josep Girona 10.2 ppg and 2.8 apg while shooting 55.5 percent from the field and averaging 24.2 mpg in 37 ACB games, which solidified that he could be an impact player again in his home continent. From there, he played three more seasons for Real Madrid from 2006-2009 before going to Russia to play for Khimki Moscow for two seasons from 2009-2011, where he served primarily as a role player (he didn’t average more than 18.4 minutes per game in his two seasons there).
Once his tenure in Moscow finished, the call to come back to Spain came in the form of him suiting up for Bilbao Basket in Basque country. Near the end of his career, Lopez finished his career on a high note, playing four seasons with Bilbao while competing in both the ACB as well as the Euroleague (2011-2012) and Eurocup (2012-2016). Though he certainly wasn’t the kind of star player with Bilbao like he was with Joventut and Real Madrid (the first time), he offered excellent shooting, some spectacular playmaking ability, and a strong veteran presence for the younger players on the club.
In 95 games of Euroleague play, Lopez averaged 7 ppg, 2.8 apg, and 1.1 apg while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. In 61 Eurocup games, he averaged 6.8 ppg, 3 apg, while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and a ridiculous 47.2 percent from three.
Why Lopez is worth remembering
Lopez was just a dynamic point guard overall. Yes, his ppg and assist numbers may make people think twice about his legacy, and he was kind of a weird hybrid between a point and a combo guard, who didn’t really focus on one thing at his position (he didn’t focus solely on scoring or passing, but tried to balance both). However, what Lopez did on the court went beyond his stats. He played with incredible creativity and panache. He displayed strong handles for a point guard his size as well as an excellent shooting stroke, especially from beyond the arc. And he paved the way for a lot of Spanish and European point guards during the mid-2000’s. He may not be a first-tier Euroleague legend in the mold of a Sarunas Jasikevicius or Drazen Petrovic, but if there are second-tier Euroleague legends who probably go unnoticed in the greater basketball community, Lopez would be on that list.
It is a shame Lopez retired, but after 19 years of basketball, it probably was his time. Spanish basketball fans, especially in Basque country, have been lucky the last four years to see a true basketball artist create on a nightly basis against ACB as well as Eurocup and Euroleague competition, and they will miss him dearly, even if he didn’t provide any big moments or championships with Bilbao. Lopez was a basketball savant, and he deserves proper recognition, regardless of how his numbers or paper profile looks.
Video Highlights of Lopez
Raul Lopez Tribute (from user Jordi Pla)
Raul Lopez: Puro Talento (from official ACB YouTube profile)
Nightly notable: Once again, Raul Lopez (from Euroleague YouTube profile)
With the 2016 NBA Draft coming up tomorrow, there has already been a lot of discussion about some of the European and International talent that can be taken in the draft. With Kristaps Porzingis having a sterling year with the New York Knicks last season, and the precedent set by European-born NBA superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, and Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, demand for foreign basketball talent is higher than ever. And for good reason, as basketball development in Europe has garnered high praises for focusing on “developing” skills in their youth academies rather than trying to win games (as is the issue with the current AAU landscape), and competition both at the youth and senior levels has significantly raised internationally, especially in Europe, over the past decade or so as well. Players coming from Europe are more prepared than ever in making the adjustment across the pond and in the NBA.
Most of the talk this draft is centering on Croatian Dragan Bender, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past season, and potentially could be a Top-5 pick. However, other international players of note who could be drafted include Jakob Poeltl (who played in college at Utah but is from Austria), Domantas Sabonis (who played at Gonzaga, but is from Lithuania and played in juniors with Unicaja Malaga), Timothe Luwawu (Mega Leks), Ivica Zubac (Mega Leks), Juan Hernangomez (Estudiantes) and Zhou Qi (Xinjiang in China), just to name a few. To put it quite frankly, it should be expected that at 3-5 international players could go in the first round, and perhaps 10 or more could be drafted overall in this upcoming NBA Draft.
But, I’ll take a look at who was drafted and what the outlook will be for them in the NBA on Friday, after the Draft. Today, I wanted to take a look at former international picks in the NBA Draft over the past 15 years, and whether or not they panned out. So, I’m going to break down each draft year-by-year, rating the NBA success of international players from this draft on an A-F scale. Here are a couple of key notes to keep in mind before you start reading the analysis:
Usually, my ratings are based on how many “successful” international players came from this draft. Success varies, but what I am looking for is that they played a decent amount of time in the NBA and that they had some kind of regular playing role as well. A guy who plays one year on the bench does NOT have a successful year, but if you played 3-4 years and had a regular role, then I would consider that somewhat successful. It gets a little trickier with recent draft picks, as you can’t have more than 1 year if last year was your rookie year. In that case, I project based on that year if they will qualify under those parameters.
I do not count “international guys” who played in college in the United States. The reason I disqualify them is that “international” guys who play in college can have a bit “murky” backgrounds: are they really International? Have they lived in America most of their life or just for college? There is a lot of background work that needs to be done, so in the case of this analysis, I kept it to just players who came from international club teams (though there are some exceptions, which I will explain when I get to them).
I only count players who had successful careers in the NBA, not in Europe or the Euroleague. Just to put this out there: I do not think the NBA is the only way of determining whether or not you had a successful professional basketball career. I think that success in the Euroleague is worthwhile on its own, and some players, especially European-born ones, are simply better fits in the European game than the NBA. That being said, this analysis focuses on NBA success, not professional success in general. So, I do not list players who were drafted that had good European club success, but not NBA success. If that was the case, I would have to find American talent who did the same, and that is a post for another day.
Grades go as follows in number of players successful from each class, though pluses/minuses are given out in discretion depending on how successful the talent was: F (0-1), D (2-3), C (3-4), B (4-6), A (5-7).
Okay, with those parameters being set, let’s take a look at each draft.
Successful players drafted: Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic, Tony Parker, Mehmet Okur.
Notable ones drafted: Raul Lopez.
Reasoning: It technically falls in C category in number, but the quality of these four guys push it up to a B. Gasol and Parker have Hall of Fame cases, and Mehmet Okur was an All-Star with the Jazz and won a title with Detroit Pistons. Vladimir Radmanovic also had a long career that involved stints with the Seattle Supersonics, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Even Raul Lopez, who didn’t make the cut in the “successful” criteria, played a couple of years in Utah and ended up having a good career in Europe in the ACB. Solid class, but the low number prevents it from being better than a 85 percent class.
Successful players drafted: Yao Ming, Nene, Nenad Krstic, Luis Scola.
Notable players drafted: Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Bostjan Nachbar, Jiri Welsch, Juan Carlos Navarro.
Reasoning: Same amount of players as 2001, but the busts color this class unfortunately. Tskitishvili is the poster child for any ignorant NBA fan when it comes to not drafting European players. (“Rabble…Rabble…they could be that Tskitish-vil-guy again! Europeans players can’t play in the NBA! AMURICA!! VOTE TRUMP! DURRR!) Nachbar and Welsch were first round picks who didn’t pan out, and Navarro left after only one season in Memphis. It’s sad that this class is known for the busts because Yao was on pace to be a hall of fame player until injuries derailed his career, Krstic had some good moments with the Thunder and Nets, and Scola and Nene are still playing key roles with the Raptors and Wizards, respectively. But like I said, you can’t mention international players in the draft without someone mentioning Nikoloz and that’s what keeps this class in the C-range.
Reasoning: Unlike the previous two drafts, there are no superstars here like Pau or Yao. However, six players ended up having pretty good careers as role players, with three (Diaw, Barbosa and Pachulia) having major roles with their NBA squads. There is something to that, and that should not go unnoticed. Much like 2002 though, this international class is forever tainted by Darko, who failed to live up to expectations in a draft class that also included Lebron, Carmelo, Bosh and Wade. So, you can’t rate a class an A with Darko in it, but I think this class gets less love than it deserves because of the amount of good role players it produced. Another notable pick was Big Sofos in the second round, though he never did arrive to the States.
Successful players drafted: Andris Biedrins, Sasha Vujacic, Beno Udrih, Anderson Varejao.
Notable players drafted: Pavel Podkolzin, Victor Khryapa, Sergei Monia, PJ Ramos, Ha Seung-Jin, Vassilis Spanoulis, Sergei Karaulov
Reasoning: Not a great class, with Varejao probably the best of the bunch. A lot of weird draft picks who didn’t turn out. There were four Russian players picked in this draft and with the exception of a cup of coffee from Khryapa in Portland, they didn’t have much impact in the NBA at all. Also, Ramos from Puerto Rico and Seung-Jin from Korea, represented countries in the draft for the first time in the modern era in 2004, though they hardly had any impact in the NBA. And lastly, Spanoulis is represented here, but like Big Sofos, he never made it to the States.
Successful players drafted: Ian Mahinmi, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcin Gortat
Notable players drafted: Fran Vazquez, Yaroslev Korolev, Johan Petro, Roko Ukic, Martynas Andriuskevicius, Mickael Gelabale
Reasoning: I like the players in this class a little better than 2004, but only 3 came out with really successful careers. Much to their credit, they are still continuing their careers, but neither of these guys have had real major impact, though Ilyasova and Gortat have flirted with being breakout players. Notable ones include Vazquez and Korolev who teased teams for years in terms of “when” they were coming over, only to stay in Europe on an annual basis. Petro and Gelabale are French nationals who played together briefly with the Sonics, and Petro had the honor of a fantastic Kevin Calabro “Sacre Bleu!” call whenever Petro dunked.
Reasoning: Bragnani has had an okay NBA career, but he was the No. 1 pick and hasn’t lived up to that expectation in the slightest. If he went 3 or 4, he probably would rate a bit higher with me, not to mention general NBA fans. Sergio had some flashes of a good NBA career, but it was hardly complete, and it was a real challenge for me to put him in the “successful” NBA career category. Sefolosha is the only the carries much salt for this class, but he is a defensive-oriented player, not exactly one you want representing you as the “poster child” of this NBA class. Even the notable players drafted fail the enthuse, with Pecherov and Freeland both having mediocre NBA careers before heading back to Europe.
Reasoning: Yi was a bust sure, but it’s not as bad as the 2002 busts, which helps it get the B- rating. Gasol is an All-Star and Franchise player which helps carry this class, and Belinelli and Splitter have been excellent role players in the NBA. Fernandez plays in Spain currently, but I think he had a good NBA career, and probably could still be playing in the NBA if he truly wanted to (better pay and more glory in the ACB). Even Fesenko had some good moments with the Utah Jazz as a backup center to Carlos Boozer. Not an awesome class, but not bad either.
Successful players drafted: Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum, Alexis Ajinca, Nikola Pekovic, Omer Asik, Goran Dragic
Notable players drafted: Nathan Jawai, Ante Tomic, Semih Erden
Reasoning: Great combination of quantity and quality here. Ibaka, Dragic and Batum are high level players who will start on any NBA roster, and could be anywhere from the 2nd to 3rd best player depending on where they go. Gallinari is in the same boat, and has carried the Nuggets at times throughout his career, and Asik is one of the most valued post players in the game due to his physicality and skills around the basket. Ajinca has come back strong in the NBA after a brief stint in France midway through his career, and Pekovic, though probably near the end of his ropes in the NBA, put up some solid seasons with the Timberwolves. Very good depth, very good class, probably the best in the past 15.
Successful players drafted: Ricky Rubio, Omri Casspi, Jonas Jerebko.
Notable players drafted: Victor Claver, Rodrigue Beabouis, Christian Eyenga, Sergio Llull, Nando de Colo, Emir Preldzic, Nick Calathes
Reasoning: Rubio is a NBA starting point guard and continually getting better and Casspi and Jerebko have revitalized themselves in the NBA as streaky off-the-bench gunners. But not a lot of depth here keeps them dead set at a C rating. That being said, amazing how many current Euroleague studs came from this class. Former Euroleague MVPs Llull and de Colo stand out the most from this draft as major Euroleague success stories with Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow, respectively.
Notable players drafted: Tibor Pleiss, Ryan Richards, Pape Sy, Nemanja Bjelica
Reasoning: Kevin Seraphin is your class’ most successful draft pick. Yikes (nothing against Seraphin of course). To be frank though, not a lot of international players were drafted though, as John Calipari’s Kentucky squad (John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson) seemed to flood the draft along with a lot of one and done college talents this year. Tibor Pleiss and Nemanja Bjelica saw some time in Utah and Minnesota respectively, but I do not see them being in the NBA much longer.
Successful players drafted: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Donatas Motiejunas, Nikola Mirotic, Bojan Bogdanovic
Notable players drafted: Jan Vesely, Davis Bertans, Tanguy Ngombo, Ater Majok, Adam Hanga
Reasoning: Some very, very good big international men came from this draft. Every successful player listed above plays a major role for their team, and is one of the better paid post players in the league (with Biyombo due for a bigger paycheck after his sterling performance in the playoffs). I counted Kanter in this category because he never played a game for Kentucky, and I think his time with Fenerbahce helped him more than his time with Calipari. Bogdanovic is a nice stretch big who is coming off his best season in New Jersey after averaging 11.2 ppg, and he could be primed for a big season as he enters the last year of his three-year deal with Brooklyn. Another aspect that puts this class in the A range is the fact that Bertans and Hanga, both of Baskonia, could be making their way to San Antonio this year, and thus enhance this class even more. Even Vesely, considered a NBA bust, has rebounded his professional career with Fenerbahce, as he led them to two straight Final Fours and a second place finish in the Euroleague last year, and also made the All Euroleague First Team as well.
Notable players drafted: Tomas Satoransky, Jeff Taylor, Ognjen Kuzmic, Furkan Aldemir, Tornike Shengelia, Tomislav Zubcic, Ilkan Karaman
Reasoning: I like Fournier, but that was it. He didn’t go until 20 and no other international player went in the first round. Some interesting talent taken in this draft, especially Satoranasky who is carving out a good career with Barcelona in Spain. But yeah, not a lot to really get excited about internationally from this class.
Notable players drafted: Lucas Nogueira, Sergey Karasev, Livio Jean-Charles, Nemanja Nedovic, Alex Abrines, Marko Todorovic, Bojan Dubljevic, Jannis Timma
Reasoning: It is looking more and more that two best players from this draft will be the “Greek Freak” and “Stifle Tower”, who have long-term All-Star potential. Schroder probably is in the Top-10 currently of players from this draft, with potential to be a Top-5 players from this draft if he inherits the starting position from Jeff Teague (whom the Atlanta Hawks seem to be shopping around this off-season) next year. And Raul Neto started more than half the games this year for the Jazz and at the very least looks to be a serviceable back up point guard if his shooting doesn’t come around. What helps boost this class too is the potential of Nogueira who could be better next year with another year of experience and more opportunity (he has mostly played in the D-League). I also like Alex Abrines, a Euroleague Rising Star this season, who is coming off his best season for Barcelona this season. At 22 years old, I would not be shocked to see him explore a NBA opportunity within the next few years.
Reasoning: A whole lot of potential here, but still relatively unproven. Capela and Jokic had good seasons last year, but they have to display that they can do it on an annual basis. Nurkic and Exum had injuries derail their seasons last year after promising rookie campaigns, but they seem young and early enough in in their careers to recover. Saric will be making his much anticipated debut in Philadelphia this year for the Sixers, and Inglis and Taveras might see more time in the NBA next year after mostly languishing in the D-League over the past couple of seasons. Thus, this class could either be pretty good or pretty bad, it’s too early to tell at this point. Nonetheless, I like its potential, and give it a B- rating for that, as well as for solid Euroleague stars like Bogdanovic of Fenerbahce, Gentile of EA7 Milan and Dangubic of Crvena Zvezda.
Successful draft picks: Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja
Notable draft picks: Nikola Milutinov, Willy Hernangomez, Juan Pablo Vaulet, Arturas Gudaitis, Dimitrios Agravanis, Luka Mitrovic.
Reasoning: Porzingis obviously captured the basketball world by storm, and was the second-best rookie of this latest draft class behind Karl Anthony Towns. Hezonja struggled to find minutes in his rookie year, but with Frank Vogel now in charge, he will have a better shot to see time on the court (Scott Skiles notoriously did not like playing rookies or young guys). I think Mitrovic and Hernangomez have potential to make it to the NBA, but they still are 2-3 years away, and need to get stronger if they want to make that adjustment.