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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Adios a la Euroliga: a farewell to 2017 for the non-playoff teams

After the long, inaugural 30-round season, the Euroleague playoffs will begin on April 18th. Each of the eight postseason teams will be battling for a spot in the Euroleague Final Four, which takes place in Istanbul May 19-21st. For many squads, a Euroleague Final Four is expected and anything less would be considered a failure. For a few, a Euroleague final four might be the momentum the club may need to be a Euroleague mainstay for years to come.

However, this post is not about the playoffs, or the chances of a Final Four appearance for those eight teams in the postseason bracket. Rather, this is an ode, a eulogy for the remaining eight teams who did not make the postseason, and may or may not be back in the Euroleague in 2017-2018.

So grab your bottles, and let’s start pouring it out for those who missed the playoff cut in 2016-2017.

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Olimpia Milano (8-22, 16th place)

It hasn’t been your year Milano (or past couple of years, as you bowed out in the regular season last year as well). Many Euroleague and Italian fans thought you would perform better this year. You had the 6th highest payroll in the Euroleague this season. You signed Euroleague vets like Ricky Hickman and Miroslav Raduljica to boost your pick and roll combo. Alessandro Gentile was ready to have a breakout year before he eventually went to the Houston Rockets. Head Coach Jasmin Repesa was ready to make his mark after a disappointing Euroleague campaign in 2015-2016.

Oh how we were wrong. Gentile just imploded and was gone in a minute, playing in PAO green for a brief (unsuccessful) time before now making his way in Jerusalem. The wins came few and far between. It’s hard to say if this year was indeed worse than 2015-2016. A 30-game sample is a lot different from a 10-game one. But there wasn’t much to look on the bright side about. Yes, the win in Kaunas was nice. The coaches’ black on black with a red tie suit ensemble was always on point. (What else could you expect when your main sponsor is Armani?) But the future looks bleak for one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe today.

You still got that A-License though…for now at least. (Update: I imagine you can thank your EXTREMELY loyal fans for this.)

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Unics Kazan (8-22, 15th place)

You should have just changed your name to “Keith Langford” Kazan (KLK) for short. Sure, Quino Colom was fun, when he was healthy of course. Latavious Williams was a big body who could bruise around and throw it down. Artisom Parakhoski always put up good lines on a nightly basis, and Evgeny Voronov was that nice, local talent. And you could always depend on head coach Eugeny Pashutin for a hyped-up, crazy, “I only understood 65 percent of what he said” pre-game speech. And those uniforms were dope…loved the Kazan skyline and the white and green. But…yeah, it was a good run UNICS. You did about as well as we all expected in your return to the Euroleague, and that’s all we as fans could ask.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv (10-20, 14th place)

What is going on Maccabi? That’s two years. Two straight years of disappointment, just like Milano. Last year, you went through three different head coaches, and were bounced out of the regular season and in the early rounds of the Eurocup. This year, you went through four head coaches, and were out of the playoff race by the 3/4 mark of the season. You have six Euroleague championships, the third-most in Euroleague history (behind Real Madrid and CSKA). You have a unique basketball legacy as one of the more well-known clubs outside of Europe. You are really the epicenter of Israeli club basketball, perhaps sports in general. When you think of Israeli professional sports, you think of Maccabi. You think of Nate Huffman, and David Blu. You think of Tyrese Rice, and David Blatt. You think of Big Sofos, and Jeremy Pargo.

10-20. Constant turmoil. Sonny Weems and Andrew Goudelock hogging the ball, unable to mesh with one another or the team in general. You have no post help beyond Colton Iverson. You depended on guys like Gal Mekel, Victor Rudd and Sylven Landesberg way too late. You are building up bad losses in the Winner League that could jeopardize your A-License status. If things keep going like they are, Euroleague basketball fans will have to live with a season, a full-30 game season without one of Europe’s legendary clubs.

This can’t happen Maccabi. Keep Ainars Bagatskis. Make some smart moves. Use your surprisingly limited budget wisely. We need Maccabi back in the playoff and perhaps Final Four picture soon.

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Brose Bamberg (10-20; 13th place)

Man, Bamberg. You were on the cusp. If you look at your pythagorean W-L total (points scored vs. points allowed), you really had the profile of a 13-to-15 win team. Instead, you only won 10, and you were out of the playoff race sooner than you should have. There were so many good things to witness from you, Bamberg, the lone German representative in this year’s revised Euroleague. Nicolo Melli put up a renaissance year in the post. Andrea Trinchieri continues to prove that he is one of the brightest and most entertaining coaches in Europe today. Darius Miller did “Darius Miller” things (some good, some bad). Fabien Caseur had a career boost after an injury-riddled year last season with Baskonia. Daniel Theis may be the next Tibor Pleiss: big German center with a “ice”-sounding name.

But the losses…so heartbreaking, and in such frequent fashion. Whether it was on the road, or in front of the loyal and rabid home fans in Bamberg, they just came and came…and came. For a while, I thought you could be a playoff team. I though we could see an Itoudis-Trinchieri playoff matchup. I thought we could see the Melli-renaissance continue in the postseason.

But so many close losses. So unlucky. Just wait until next October, Bamberg. You have lost enough chips at the Euroleague poker table already.

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Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul (11-19, 12th place)

Out of all the Turkish teams, I may like you, Gala the best. Your ultras are loyal, even though you had the lowest budget of the four Turkish Euroleague teams this year. There’s an authenticity to your squad. An authenticity to the playmaking seance of Sinan Guler. An authenticity to Blake Schlib’s physicality at the 3, or Austin Daye’s stretch-4 shooting prowess. An authenticity to fans either immense hate or immense love for head coach Ergin Ataman. An authenticity to the team’s general “lax” attitude to defense and keeping opponents off the offensive glass. You could make the argument that Gala made a lot of poor roster decisions early in the year (cough…Russ Smith…cough). You could say that they probably underachieved, though in reality, they were a fringe-playoff team at best. You could say that this team isn’t taking the next step with Ataman as coach, especially considering how polarizing this team was at the end of the year.

But don’t say you lacked “authenticity.” I enjoyed watching your  “one-year show” in the Euroleague. You scored buckets. You ran the floor. You beat good teams when we least expected it, and lost to bad teams when we expected wins. You looked like a playoff contender down the stretch on the road, and perhaps a bottom-end Eurocup team at home in the same time span. And yet, there was a genuine-feeling to yo guys, your club, inside and out. Something that Dacka or even Efes didn’t have. That authenticity that makes a Euroleague club really special, makes it different from the typical professional basketball club in the NBA, Europe or anywhere else in the world.

You weren’t great by any means, but you will be missed next year. I hope, much like the case for Valencia, we’ll see more televised Eurocup games on Euroleague TV next season so we can see more of you and your ultras.

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FC Barcelona Lassa (12-18; 11th place)

We probably should have seen this down season coming, Barca. You seemed to live in a world where you had one foot in the “rebuild” door and the other in the “stay the course” one. You were like a casanova trying to pick two lovers, but eventually disappointing both of them. The hiring of Georgios Bartzokas, signified a rebuild or a change in direction as a club, as he had no Spanish coaching or playing experience. But then again, you kept a lot of the same talent from the Pascual era. Back was Justin Doellman. Back was Joey Dorsey (who didn’t last long). Back was Brad Oleson. Back was Ante Tomic and the corpse of Juan Carlos Navarro. It looked like a Xavi Pascual squad, only it was a Greek, not a Catalan, who was coaching the red and blue.

And when you try to live in both worlds, generally speaking, those worlds collide in bad ways.  And that was the case time and time again in 2016-2017. Barca, you just never really seemed cohesive on the offensive end, and just struggled to put the ball in the bucket. Peterri Koponen from Finland showed glimpses, as did youthful star Aleksander Vezenkov, but for the most part, your style was akin to those Detroit Pistons teams of the late 2000’s, after they won their title in 2004: old, stiff, and boring to watch, and worst of all, not a threat in the postseason race.

It’s sad to see you like this. You were so close to making a Final Four a year ago, and now it seems like the club has been put years behind in terms of rebuilding. Bartzokas is good as gone, as may anybody else with ties to the Pascual-era. You should’ve just cut off the head and started from scratch a year ago with a clean roster when you hired Bartzokas. Instead, we had to witness you guys endure a long, slow death with a dead-man walking in Bartzokas leading the futile Euroleague charge.

Thanks for making Barcelona fans, and us general European basketball fans, nearly masochists in the process.

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Zalgiris Kaunas (14-16; 10th place)

Last season, Zalgiris, you had a Euroleague season to forget. You fired your coach in the middle of the Top 16 round and hired Lithuanian point “god” legend Sarunas Jasikevicius to finish the year. Well…while you did win a LKL title, you didn’t do much better in the Euroleague, as you finished last in Top 16 play. And to make matters worse, at the start of the summer, it seemed almost certain that Saras was going to coach his former club, Barcelona in 2016-2017. It looked like it was going to be a rough stretch for you, Lithuania’s lone Euroleague representative.

But then, ACB rules prohibited Saras from coaching Barcelona and they hired Bartzokas instead. I said how this was going to be a good thing, and how Saras would develop as a coach while mentoring your younger players and roster. You signed Kevin Pangos, a former Zag whom I love. And you kept your core intact, made up mostly of Lithuanians with prestige youth playing experience.

It wasn’t exactly easy street. You struggle to find a go-to guy in crunch time. Your loss at home against Efes which effectively eliminated you from the playoffs was heart-wrenching, as many general Euroleague fans were pulling for you to make the field of eight. Maybe Saras just was a little “too tense” in big moments, and big games. But you guys did it your way: with a young roster, with fellow countrymen, utilizing the home crowd fans to your advantage time and time again. Kaunas wasn’t quite Belgrade, but it certainly was a solid candidate for number 2 for the best crowds in the Euroleague this season.

You should be commended Saras for what you did, for winning 14 games with a roster that was probably pegged to finish in the bottom half in the preseason. It was a joy to see Paulius Jankunas develop as an inside-outside threat, Lukas Lekavicius go balls out off the bench, and Leo Westermann demonstrate basketball IQ and a shooting stroke on a nightly basis. I never felt Zalgiris was a serious playoff contender at any point in the year, even in their crucial game against Efes in Kaunas. They just didn’t have that athleticism or that “star”. But Zalgiris was like that wonderful, scrappy, Mid-Major basketball team with the charismatic coach who got the most out of his players.

Man, I feel sorry for whoever is going to take over for Saras in Kaunas next year. This was a very special Zalgiris team not just for Lithuanian fans, but European basketball fans in general.

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Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (16-14, 9th place)

What can I say that hasn’t been said already about Red Star? You had the lowest payroll in the Euroleague. And yet, you were one game away from making the playoffs despite a paltry budget of five million euros (that’s right…five…freaking…million…euros). You lost Quincy Miller and Maik Zirbes to Maccabi, two key guys who led you to the playoffs a season ago. And who did you replace them with? Charles Jenkins, a combo guard who’s not really quick enough to be a true point, or tall enough to be a shooter; and Ognjen Kuzmic, who was coming off a lackluster year with PAO in 2015-2016. It was just those two, South Dakotan legend Nate Wolters, and a whole bunch of young players who came from your developmental system. Much like Zalgiris, this was expected to be a developmental year.

But I should have known better than to doubt the Red Star ultras. I should have known better than to downplay the coaching Dejan Redonjic. I should have known better and realized that Serbia produces some of the best young basketball talent in the world. I should have known better…Red Star is no slouch. Red Star plays with pride, they play with toughness, and the play to win…each and every night in the Euroleague.

Kuzmic surprised us, displaying the post skills that made him once a NBA draft pick. Marko Simonovic was the leader of the bench mob thanks to his streaky outside shooting. Stefan Jovic was becoming a point guard savant up there with the best of the Euroleague until he got injured. Nemanja Dangubic started to display the two-way, multiple position skills that makes him one of the more debated prospects in Europe. And Mjelko Bjelica? He proved to be the ultimate “dad-ball” player (i.e. an older guy who plays pickup and looks like he should suck, but is actually pretty good).

We all wish it was you, and not Dacka in the playoffs Red Star. We will miss your fans. We will miss your young roster. We will miss the Marko Guduric heat check step backs. We will miss Branko Lazic’s intensity on the defensive end.

We will just miss Serbian basketball in the postseason…it just goes underappreciated way too fucking much.

Three “Transfers” That Should Have Happened in the Euroleague

This piece appeared in the latest “Courtside Diaries” post and was part of a longer joint piece. Please read the full post on that web site, as it features some funny perspectives from other writers in the Euroleague blogosphere. 

There are five rounds left in the Euroleague season, and it’s starting to become clearer who will be seriously contending for a Final Four spot in Istanbul (Basically, Real Madrid, CSKA, Fenerbahce and Olympiacos). However, even though the season is almost over, it is fun to think about what teams could have possibly done to have improved their chances earlier in the season. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but what if Barcelona or Maccabi Tel Aviv or Brose Bamberg made a high-profile “transfer”, in the mold of NBA Trade Deadline deals, mid-season to boost their roster? Would it have made a difference, and pushed them in the playoffs? Or would the change in player composition have little to no impact?

Well, I decided to come up with three “transfers” that “should have” happened during this Euroleague season that would have made the Euroleague playoff race much more interesting. Granted, I don’t know if these moves would have worked or if the teams (or players) would have agreed to it, but these moves would have definitely entertained the Euroleague Twittersphere and fanbase alike.

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Move 1: Anthony Randolph and Dontaye Draper to Barcelona

Anthony Randolph and Dontaye Draper have been key members to this first-place Real Madrid squad. Considering the amount of money Real Madrid has to burn, adding these two basketball vets was a smart move in the off-season to build the depth of “Los Blancos” for the long, grueling Euroleague and ACB campaigns.

However, Randolph and Draper, two key members of Lokomotiv Kuban’s Final Four squad a year ago, have sort of taken a backseat in Madrid. While Randolph has been solid and regularly part of the starting lineup, he doesn’t have the fanfare of Felipe Reyes or Gustavo Ayon, and he also gets mixed in the shuffle with Trey Thompkins and Othello Hunter. Draper falls in the same category, as he falls in line behind not only Euroleague superstar Sergio Llull, but rising star Luka Doncic as well, who may be the next “tall point guard God” of the NBA in a few years. Thus, both Randolph and Draper, though important to “Los Blancos’” success, can be seen as a bit expendable simply because there is so much depth at their positions currently in Madrid.

On the other hand, Barcelona has been a mess in Georgios Bartzokas’ first season. Ante Tomic has proven to age poorly, and has struggled offensively and defensively against athletic and active post players. Joey Dorsey was a rebounding-only player who provided little, if anything, on the offensive end before he was eventually released. And at point guard, Barcelona has struggled to find any playmaking beyond Tyrese Rice. Not only would both Randolph and Draper have added more scoring, production and athleticism to this Barcelona team, but Bartzokas would have been able to properly utilize them on the offensive and defensive end, thanks to his experience coaching them in Kuban a year ago. Madrid would never ship two key players like Randolph and Draper to their “El Clasico” rivals, but it would have definitely invigorated the Euroleague and ACB fanbase to see Randolph, Draper and Bartzokas reunited this season in Catalan country.

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Move 2: Keith Langford to Zalgiris Kaunas

Zalgris Kaunas is still lingering in the playoff picture after a big win over Panathinaikos in Round 25. At 11-14 and in 10th position in the Euroleague standings, second year head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius (“Saras”) should be commended for maximizing the talent on this roster and having them compete against the best in Europe each and every week. There are some interesting and scrappy pieces on this team in post players Brock Motum, Augusto Lima, Edgaras Ulanovas and Paulius Jankunas as well as guards Leo Westermann, Kevin Pangos, and Arturas Milaknis. That being said, what has killed Zalgiris this year is the presence of a true scorer who can create his own offense on a consistent basis.

Keith Langford has been that player this year for Unics Kazan. He is averaging 22.2 ppg and leads the Euroleague in Index Rating as well at 22.74 per game (barely edging out reigning Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo of CSKA Moscow). And he is doing this for a second-to-last Unics team that has been ravaged by injury and currently sits at 7-18. Yes, Langford has fit in well for the Kazan-based club (which also participates in the VTB). But, his skills have gone to waste for a team that has fallen out of the race dramatically over the past 6-8 weeks.

The Lithuanian Zalgiris fanbase is one of most loyal and passionate groups in Europe, and Langford would fit in seamlessly into their basketball culture. The green faithful would appreciate his talents with sold-out crowds (not the case in Kazan, ) and multiple applauding cheers in his favor. In return, Langford would give Saras and the Zalgiris fans an experienced, competitive and multi-dimensional scorer who would be the missing piece to this tough Zalgiris team. With Langford, this team not only would have been a playoff team, but perhaps would have had some Final Four dark horse potential as well.

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Move 3: Alessandro Gentile to Brose Bamberg

This has been a rough year for the once promising Italian star. After a breakout 2014-2015 season with Olimpia Milano where he averaged 14.4 ppg in Lega Basket Serie A play, and 14.3 ppg during Milano’s 20-game Euroleague campaign, he has gone through a slow, sad fall in Europe. While he averaged 20 ppg in the Euroleague a season ago, Milano did not make it out of the first round of play. To make matters worse, Gentile underwhelmed in Serie A play, as he only scored 11.8 ppg, and shot 49.4 percent on 2-pt field goals and under 25 percent from beyond the arc.

2016-2017 proved to be a nightmare for the young Italian forward. Gentile struggled to mesh with fellow Milano teammates and staff on and off the court, as he only averaged 10.8 ppg in 9 Euroleague games, and 9.5 in 6 Serie A games before head coach Jasmin Repesa and Milano management cut ties due to the star’s difficulties on and off the court (he apparently did not get along well with Repesa). New Panathinaikos head coach Xavi Pascual took a flyer on him, hoping that Gentile would give the Athenian club some offensive firepower as well as improve the team’s depth in the frontcourt, lacking due to an injury to James Gist in the pre-season. Unfortunately, Gentile never seemed to gel with his Pana teammates or fit in Pascual’s offensive and defensive system. After averaging only 3.2 ppg in 9 games, Pana released Gentile, leaving his future next season in Europe and beyond in doubt.

Brose Bamberg has surprised in many ways this season, staying competitive in the Euroleague even though they don’t have the financial resources of other clubs in Europe. Much like Zalgiris or Crvena Zvezda, while they lack star power, they stay competitive due to excellent coaching and superb team chemistry. A lot of that can be credited to Italian head coach Andrea Trinchieri, who has helped Brose overachieve in the Euroleague in his tenure as head coach, and created a culture of winning in Bamberg (both in the Euroleague and BBL). If there is one coach who could connect to Gentile and help turn around his career, it would be Trinchieri (who is also a fellow Italian), who while a bit eccentric, always seems to get the most out of his players, and finds the right roles for them in his offensive and defensive system. Gentile, a free-wheeling scorer, would have brought much needed relief to this Bamberg team offensively, especially to Nicolo Melli, who has constantly been the focus of opposing defenses since mid-season. Of course, would there be a chance Gentile would implode in Germany like he did in Greece? Perhaps, but I think Trinchieri’s more “free-flowing” offense and personality would have meshed with the volatile Gentile better than the more rigid Pascual.

Saras is Staying with Zalgiris, which Might Be the Best Move for Both

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Sarunas Jasikevicius will be facing off against Real Madrid’s Pablo Lasso next year, but only in the Euroleague with Zalgiris, not the ACB with Barcelona.

This summer’s drama centering on FC Barcelona’s head coaching position for next year had the storyline of a  tumultuous soap opera, with the kind of twists and unexpected changes one would expect from a M. Night Shyamalan film, not a basketball  managerial change. Let’s take a second to recap everything that happened which led to Sarunas Jasikevicius going from “likely” Barcelona head coach, to being back with his hometown Zalgiris club in a couple of weeks.

  • On June 23rd, news leaks that Saras has reportedly agreed to terms with Barcelona about taking over the head coach position next season. The news is awkward because head coach at the time Xavi Pascual has not been given any notification about his standing for next year, and it has literally been one day since Barcelona lost the ACB Liga Endesa Finals to rival Real Madrid.
  • Later that day, general manager Joan Creus announces that he will be stepping down from his position at Barcelona.  The news is a bit expected, considering Barcelona’s two-year slide in both the Euroleague as well as ACB (as I wrote about earlier). But, there is still no word on Pascual, and no immediate GM is named as a replacement.
  • On June 28th, Barcelona and Pascual officially part ways, with Pascual delivering a press conference making his announcement later that day. In the press conference, Barcelona ownership state their desire for a “new model” when it comes to building their team, which explains the ouster of Creus and Pascual.
  • Around June 28th-29th, rumors start to surface that Saras might not be eligible to be the head coach of Barcelona due to a rule in the ACB that prohibits coaches with less than two years of club coaching experience from coaching teams in the Liga Endesa. While there is no official word yet, the likelihood of Saras coaching in Spain grows more dim.
  • In a surprise development, on June 30th Barcelona names 40-year-old Sito Alonso, formerly of Bilbao Basket, as the new head coach of Barcelona. Considering Bilbao did not make the Liga Endesa playoffs last season, and with other experienced candidates like Andrea Trinchieri of Brose Baskets Bamberg and Giorgos Bartzokas of Lokomotiv Kuban available, the club’s decision to go with the young Madrid-born coach was a surprise.  Additionally, Aito Reneses, who coached Barcelona from 1985 to 2001, was named the team’s new Technical Director. As it turns out, the ACB coaching rule was indeed the reason for Saras not taking over the head coaching position.

Without a doubt, I am sure all of this was disappointing for Saras, whose stock as a coach was riding pretty high after he led Zalgiris to a Lithuanian championship in his first season as head coach. After all, he was a former Barcelona player, and the chance to coach one of Europe’s best squads in not only the best European competition, but also the best domestic league (ACB) I’m sure was an opportunity Saras had been dreaming of after he hung up his jersey and retired as a player. That being said, while the Barcelona opportunity didn’t come to fruition as he may have hoped, another year with Zalgiris may be the best thing going forward not only for the Lithuanian club, but his development as a coach. Let’s go over a few reasons why Sara is best served staying in Kaunas for at least one more year.

Saras still needs some time to develop as a coach in European competition.

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Though Saras did well with Zalgris in the LKL, he still needs to develop as a coach in Euroleague play.

Saras has definitely proven himself domestically as a coach in Kaunas. When he took over the reigns at Zalgiris for Gintaras Krapikas on January 13th, Saras led Zalgiris to a 24-3 mark for the remainder of the Lithuanian season, playoffs included. Zalgiris found a rhythm with Saras as coach which emphasized a faster tempo and a more wide-open, higher-scoring offense, as they scored over 100 points three times in that 27 game span (rather than only once under Krapikas). In 47 Lithuanian games, Zalgiris averaged 85.9 ppg, shot 55.9 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from the field, and limited their opponents to 70.2 ppg (a difference of 15.7 ppg in favor of Zalgiris). No question Zalgiris was head and shoulders above their domestic competition, and Saras should be credited for helping Zalgiris prove that they were Lithuania’s best team on a game-in and game-out basis in the LKL.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Saras in the Euroleague, as Zalgiris struggled to compete against Europe’s top clubs, especially in the Round of 16. When Saras took over, Zalgiris was 0-2 in Top 16 play, which included a 21-point blowout at home to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia in Round 1, and an even worse 33 point blowout to Brose Baskets Bamberg in Germany. Things unfortunately didn’t get much better though for Zalgiris, as they went 2-10 under Saras in Top 16 play, and finished in last place not only in their group, but overall as well.

Zalgiris struggled immensely against European competition, as they had a difficult time competing with longer, more athletic opponents on both the offensive and defensive end, didn’t have the kind of speed on the perimeter to handle quick guards or beat opponents off the dribble (which resulted in them adding Jerome Randle at point, though his addition was too little, too late),  and didn’t exactly shoot well enough to keep defenses honest. This all accumulated into mediocre numbers in Euroleague play: in 14 games, Zalgiris was outscored by 172 points, shot only 47 percent from 2-point land, and an even worse 32.8 percent from the three. They also finished poorly in a lot of advanced categories in Top 16 play including last in net rating (minus-16.2), effective field goal percentage (45.5) and 3PA/FGA (0.26), second-to-last in opponent field goal percentage (56 percent; only Unicaja was worse), and third-to-last in opponent turnover percentage (16.1 percent). Statistically, it made sense why Zalgiris finished in the bottom of Top 16 play, as it is further evidence how overwhelmed the Lithuanian representative was against Europe’s top clubs.

And thus, as good as Saras’ Lithuanian League debut was, he still has a lot to prove in the Euroleague. With a full offseason under his belt, and a little more input in the roster composition (Zalgiris loses Randle, but they will return Renaldas Seibutis and Robertas Javtokas) however, I think Saras can really prepare his team properly for the upcoming Euroleague season. They still need some quicker guards on the perimeter, and they do need to emphasize the outside shot better to open things up against the superior European competition. However, these are issues Saras can work on over a long period of time rather than having to fix them quickly week-to-week. And by helping Zalgiris perform better in the Euroleague, he will prove himself enticing to other European clubs who undoubtedly will be looking for new coaching positions for the 2017-2018 season.

Barcelona is a bit of a mess right now.

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Barcelona still has a lot of questions roster-wise, and that would be difficult for Saras to handle in his first full year as a club head coach.

A new GM and a new coach are a couple of the issues resolved this off-season for the Catalan club, but the roster still leaves a lot to be desired. Barcelona hasn’t signed anyone of note this offseason, and though ownership prefers a roster built from the “inside” of their organization (hence going with the younger Alonso as coach), Barcelona will still be relying on veterans like Navarro and Tomic it seems to be carrying them somewhat next year. That is fine if this was a few years ago, when Navarro was one of Spain’s and maybe Europe’s best guards. However, he is coming off one of his worst seasons, and at age 36, he isn’t likely to get better anytime soon. And to make matters worse, he is also blocking key players like Pau Ribas and Alex Abrines, younger players with more upside, from getting more minutes.

While I believe Saras is going to be a good coach with whatever club he coaches in the future, whether it’s Zalgiris (I think Zalgiris will improve in 2016-2017 Euroleague play now that Saras is coaching the team from the start) or another bigger club in the future. But I do not think Barcelona next year would have put him in a situation to really succeed. What are they going to do to build around Tomic, a limited defensive player, in the post? How are they going to replace Justin Doellman, an inconsistent player, but capable of stretching teams and being a force from beyond the arc?  Are they going to stay with Carlos Arroyo and Tomas Satoransky as the points? And if so, how are they going to hide Arroyo’s shooting and defensive inefficiencies?

I know the prestige of going to Barcelona was a huge incentive for Saras to leave Kaunas. That being said, I think the Spanish Coaches’ Association’s rules worked to Saras’ favor as I think this would have been a difficult job to undertake next year, especially considering the questionable roster composition and astronomical expectations from fans in both domestic and Euroleague play. Zalgiris is a much better situation roster-wise (he is familiar with the talent, and they have a lot younger players as well) and the expectations won’t be so unreasonable. After all, Pascual was one of the best coaches in Barcelona history, and after two seasons where they didn’t win any trophies, he was given the boot. It is possible that Barcelona may do even worse next year, which would put even more pressure on him in terms of keeping his job beyond a year, and that would be an unfair position for Saras, especially in his first full year as a club head coach.

The younger, majority-Lithuanian roster will give Saras a chance to build something special with Zalgiris.

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Paulius Jankunas is a key Lithuanian talent that could help Saras succeed in Kaunas with a young, mostly-Lithuanian roster.

Unlike Barcelona, Zalgiris is a relatively young roster, filled with Lithuanian talent. Currently, there are only four players over the age of 30 on the Zalgiris roster, and they have some good young talent in the roster in Brock Motum, Edgaras Ulanovas, and Leo Westermann, who is coming over from Limoges. Also, the return of Paulius Jankunas will be a good player for Zalgiris to build around, as he offers a veteran presence, as well as excellent production, as evidenced by his 12.3 ppg and 6.2 rpg on 54 percent shooting in Euroleague play.

There is something to say about building a club around talent from their home country. Crvena Zvezda not only did that last year to success (they made the playoffs), but also looks to be doing that next season, as they let imports such as Quincy Miller and Maik Zerbes walk to allow their young Serbian talent like Luka Mitrovic and Nemanja Dangubic to grow together for their home club. Zalgiris could do that next year, and the fact that they are led by a Lithuanian playing legend like Saras will be a huge intangible that could help Zalgiris outperform expectations.

And that makes Zalgiris a special scenario next year. If Saras gets his team to the playoffs in Barcelona but not the Final Four, that would be a bit of a disappointment, especially considering they want a “championship” each and every year in every league they participate in. On the flip side, if Zalgiris makes the playoffs under Saras next year, then that would be cause for celebration and excitement, especially considering Zalgiris hasn’t made the Final Four since 1999, when they won the Euroleague title. Lithuanian fans will be pushing and cheering for Zalgiris to succeed because of the home country investment in the club, both in terms of coaches as well as players. There wouldn’t be that same kind of fanfare in Barcelona, especially considering their history of dominance. They won’t be supporting their club if they hit a rough spot. Instead, they would be calling for the coach’s head.

So that’s what I’m hoping for next year with Saras: he builds this young club up, they generate some excellent chemistry throughout the season due to their combination of youthful and Lithuanian talent (easier to do with the longer regular season format), and they do what Crvena Zvezda did and make a surprise run to the playoffs, where anything can happen in five games. Maybe the exit out early like Red Star or maybe they make a run to the Final Four like Lokomotiv Kuban. Either scenario would be cause for celebration in Kaunas.

However, if they do the latter, not only will Saras cement his status as one of the most coveted coaches in Europe, but he will also further his legacy in European basketball. Only this time it will come as a coach, not a player.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dzanan Musa, Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grantas Vasiliauskas, Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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