Thursday, April 30, 2009

Euroleague Final Four: Seven Men to Watch

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Team-by-Team Analysis

One of our favorite events on the hoops calendar is coming up this weekend, as the Euroleague Final Four - the best annual basketball competition outside the NBA - takes place in Berlin this Friday and Sunday.

In the U.S., the games can be seen live on or on tape delay on NBA TV. Here's the schedule:
    FC Barcelona vs. CSKA Moscow, Noon ET (NBA TV: 8 p.m. ET)
    Olympiacos vs. Panathinaikos, 3 p.m. ET (NBA TV: 6 p.m. ET)

    Final, 2 p.m. ET (NBA TV: 8 p.m. ET)
This year's Euro Final Four has the potential to be the most entertaining and interesting for NBA fans in years. These are four powerhouse European clubs in general - CSKA Moscow is in the Final Four for the seventh straight year, for example. This year, these are some of the most loaded clubs in terms of talent that we've ever seen in Europe - each of these teams brings NBA-quality players off the bench.

The all-Athens Olympiacos-Panathinaikos semifinal matchup speaks for itself, as it's one of the most intense rivalries in world basketball, and there should be a raucous atmosphere in Berlin for this one. Old friend Josh Childress of Olympiacos says:
    "I already know the arena is going to be CRAZY. We have the best fans I have ever seen.... Our fans have been non-stop for the past eight months about the importance of beating Panathinaikos. We have no shortage of fan support. It seems to me that something like two-thirds Greece's entire population are Olympiacos fans.... I can't wait!!!"
On top of all that, there are several people participating in the Final Four who may be playing important roles in the NBA in the near future. Our TrueHoop Network colleagues at Ball in Europe did a fine job with a thorough breakdown of all players with connections to American basketball, and we encourage you to check that out. Jonathan Givony of Draft Express has also posted a scouting report of key players on CSKA Moscow and FC Barcelona which is a must read if you're interested in the Final Four.

For the purposes of this post, we're going to focus in on seven men to watch who could be playing key roles somewhere in the NBA in the relatively near future. Here we go.

1. Nikola Pekovic, Panathinaikos
The draft class of 2008 has already proven to be extraordinarily deep, yet there is still more talent to come, as Nikola Pekovic of Montenegro could prove to be one of the steals of the draft.

Pekovic, a rugged 6-11 F/C, was considered to be a mid-first round talent, but fell to Minnesota at #31 (the first pick of the second round) due to contract issues - he is not expected to make his way to the NBA until 2010-11. Considering the relative strengths of the 2008 and 2009 drafts, it's not a stretch to say that Pekovic could be a top 5 pick in this year's draft, though his upside is reduced now that he is 23 years old.

We've caught Pekovic a couple times on the Euroleague Game of the Week on NBA TV and have been impressed. It's a little jarring at first because he sort of resembles a guy like Peja Drobnjak physically, but he is really quite mobile and skilled, with good hands, touch and length, even if he is not the most athletic guy, per se.

You can go to Draft Express or Canis Hoopus for further scouting reports and opinions on his strengths and weaknesses.

Pekovic has averaged 13 points and 3.9 rebounds on .636 FG% in just 18.2 minutes per game in Euroleague play, impressive per-36 minute numbers of about 26 and 8. John Hollinger has a method for translating per-minute stats from the Euroleague to the NBA, using the following formula:
    - Scoring rate decreases 25 percent
    - Rebound rate increases by 18 percent (there are more missed shots in NBA play)
    - Assist rate increases by 31 percent (Euro scorers are tightwads with assists)
    - Shooting percentage drops by 12 percent
Using that translation, Pekovic's per-40 minute numbers for the NBA look like this: 21.5 pts, 10.1 reb, .560 FG%

His 2007-08 stats translated to this: 18.3 pts, 12.0 reb, .514 FG%. Not bad.

All in all, Pekovic looks like a guy who's a pretty skilled and efficient scorer and rebounder, but not terribly strong on the defensive end. Potentially good news and bad news for Wolves fans, as you can never have enough skilled bigs, but those strengths and weaknesses sound an awful lot like those of Mssrs. Jefferson and Love - Minny could potentially be looking at a lot of 120-115 games in its 2010s.

Still, I'm going to try to dodge the lightning bolt, and take a big gulp, and ask this question: did Kevin McHale actually set up the Wolves pretty well for the future at the tail end of his checkered tenure, with his acquisition of a potent young low-post scorer in Jefferson in '07 and two skilled bigs in Love and Pekovic in the '08 draft?

I'm still reeling from the Peter May piece in February which persuasively argued that ex-Orlando GM John Weisbrod, widely considered a disaster, actually set the team up well for its current success. I don't know if I'm ready to also contemplate that McHale might be doing same in Minnesota - it's too much for me to handle at once.

Oh well, we won't know that answer for a couple years still. See for yourself on Pekovic this weekend - he's easily the player I'm most interested in watching at the Euro Final Four.

2. Ettore Messina, CSKA Moscow
It was two-and-a-half years ago in these pages that we first floated the idea that Italian Ettore Messina might eventually become the first European head coach in the NBA.

Now, Messina coming to the NBA increasingly seems like an inevitability, and it increasingly seems like the time may be now. After all, the new NBA Coach of the Year - and possibly soon to be the new NBA champion coach - Mike Brown, has learned from Messina in recent summers, picking up some of the offensive tricks which helped the Cavs this season, so why not? Also, the Knicks quietly interviewed Messina for their head-coaching opening last summer.

The Raptors have long been considered the logical place for Messina, due to the management combo of Bryan Colangelo (who brought Mike D'Antoni over from Italy) and Italian Maurizio Gherardini (for whom Messina worked at Bennetton Treviso earlier this decade, succeeding D'Antoni), but Peter Vecsey recently reported that:
    The Raptors aren't distinct in considering Italian Ettore Messina as their head coach for next season, I'm informed. Two fail-safe sources reveal the Kings also are contemplating turning over the sidelines to the first ever non-American [ed. note: Raptors interim coach Jay Triano is Canadian, so Messina would actually be the first European, to be more accurate]. Currently coaching CSKA Moscow, Messina was recently contacted by a Sacramento representative regarding interest in an interview. It's in stone Raptors president Bryan Colangelo plans to meet with Messina during the European Final Four.
Messina's credentials are impeccable - he's won 4 Euroleague titles (including one with Manu Ginobili at Kinder Bologna in 2001) and has now taken CSKA Moscow to the Euroleague Final Four in each of his 4 years there.

There has always been some question as to whether NBA players would accept his more autocratic style of coaching, but in that regard, the Raptors roster is a great fit. Players like Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Parker all have experience playing in Europe, and familiarity with and - I'd bet - respect for Messina. Bargnani has already given an endorsement, saying, "Ettore Messina is a great coach who would do well in the NBA." And a couple of autocrats named Popovich and Sloan haven't done so bad in the last decade or two, either. Gotta have the right players, no doubt, but it can work.

Anyway, I don't know that there's a lot to watch, per se, in terms of Messina working the sidelines this weekend - it just seems notable as he seems to be on the cusp of making some basketball history.

3./4. Josh Childress/Jannero Pargo, Olympiacos
One year ago, these two guys were key players contributing off the bench in the NBA Playoffs, and certainly, the Hawks and Hornets are missing these guys this season. It's still somewhat remarkable to see two American players of this caliber - quality rotation players in their 20's - taking an NBA sabbatical for a Euroleague adventure.

We already know what they can do, and we expect them to be back in the league next season, but we're still fascinated to see how these guys will perform - especially Chills, since he made so many headlines with his departure - in the intense crucible of not only the Euroleague Final Four, but also a matchup against their arch-rivals.

Both players have posted unspectacular stats in the Euroleague:
- Childress: 8.7 pts, 4.7 reb, 23.9 min
- Pargo: 3.8 pts, 1.5 ast, 13.5 min
It's probably amazing to American fans that these numbers are so low, and especially that both these guys averaged more minutes per game in the NBA than in the Euroleague. Of course, the game is shorter (40 min) there, but it also speaks to the depth of the Reds' roster, and also the egalitarian nature of European ball, where the minutes are generally spread around widely.

5. Ersan Ilyasova, FC Barcelona
Ilyasova, a 6-9 forward out of Turkey, did not make much of an impact in his one season in the NBA in 2006-07, as he averaged just 6.1 pts and 2.9 reb in 14.7 min (12.1 PER) for the Milwaukee Bucks.

But keep in mind that he was just 19 years old at the time (although DraftExpress says that he "probably is older than his 1987-listed date of birth"), and then you might not be surprised that Ilyasova has progressed nicely since returning to Europe last summer, and is still a solid NBA prospect.

Ilyasova has averaged 11.2 pts and 7.3 reb in 21.7 min in Euroleague play this season (translates to 15.2 pts and 15.9 reb (!) per 40 mins in the NBA under the Hollinger formula), and had a strong performance of 19 pts, 10 reb, 4 ast in Barca's decisive Game 5 victory over Tau Ceramica in the quarterfinals, which qualified Barcelona for the Final Four.

Draft Express saw Ilyasova in February, and had this to say:
    Ilyasova is playing the power forward position almost exclusively for Barcelona, where he stands out primarily for his ability to space the floor and his terrific rebounding skills. Super long, athletic and very quick off his feet, Ilyasova has emerged as one of the best rebounders in European basketball these days, ranking #1 in both the ACB [Spanish League] and the Euroleague.

    It’s funny that we compared him to a European version of Rashard Lewis at best, or Bostjan Nachbar at worst back when we wrote up his initial profile four years ago. That’s a very accurate way of describing his strengths and weaknesses, although he’s probably a better rebounder than those two.

    Ilyasova might not be in a huge rush to return to the NBA anytime soon, but he would likely fare far better now that his game has developed.
As with all things Bucks, Brew Hoop is all over it. They offered this intel in February:
    Having caught a couple Barcelona games this season, I'd caution against expecting too much from Ilyasova--he's probably a Nocioni-type at best, though he's so scrappy on the boards and defensively that he's probably not a threat to be a complete bust, either. He's a bit of a tweener at 6'9", but having three point range means he can contribute as a floor-spacing PF or bang with the burliest of SFs.

    Those traits should appeal to Scott Skiles, and don't forget that Director of Player Personnel Dave Babcock helped draft Ilyasova in 2005 and has continued to keep close tabs on him since he left for Spain two summers ago. You might also remember that Ilyasova was back in Milwaukee last summer working out at the Cousins Center, and Gery Woelfel also mentioned a while ago that his wife is from Milwaukee. So yeah, there's ample reason to think both sides would be interested in getting Ilyasova back in a Bucks uni.

    The biggest problem with bringing Ilyasova back is that he's already making a nice chunk of change in Spain--reportedly something in the ballpark of €2.5 million--and because most European deals are net of tax, that means the Bucks would have to give him close to MLE dollars just to match his current take-home pay. Obviously that's not going to happen, but the allure of the NBA could very well convince Ilyasova to take a paycut to come back to Milwaukee. If Ilyasova does want to come back stateside, the Bucks continue to hold his early Bird rights (ie he'd be an RFA), which in all likelihood makes them the only game in town. I don't see another team making him a big offer, but the Bucks will likely take a wait-and-see approach.
Here's more on Ilyasova from Brew Hoop:
- 4.12.09: Video: Ilyasova leads Barca to Euroleague Final Four
- 5.11.08: Study Abroad: Ersan Ilyasova

6. Fran Vazquez, FC Barcelona
Vazquez is a 2005 lottery pick who jilted the Magic after being selected no. 11 that year, changing his mind and deciding to sign a long-term contract in Spain. After struggling last season, Vazquez (a 6-10 PF/C) has revitalized his game this season.

Draft Express writes:
    One of the revelations of this year’s ACB season has been the sudden revival of Barcelona big man Fran Vazquez.... Vazquez has really embraced his role as defensive stopper this year, showing terrific activity level on this end of the floor. As mentioned, per-minute he ranks as the #1 shot-blocker in both the Euroleague and ACB, and his impact extends beyond the paint, as he’s able to accurately hedge pick and rolls and even stay in front of opposing guards. As a post-defender, Vazquez is not quite as effective, as he lacks the strength to hold his ground against the bigger and burlier big men he’ll go up against at times, and also some awareness not biting on fakes on such, as he’s not the smartest guy you’ll find around. Still, his combination of size, length and athleticism makes him quite a presence on this side of the floor, and would also make him a valuable asset in the NBA. Not particularly known for his mental toughness, and never considered much of a self-starter, he’s done a better job staying focused and motivated this season, even when things aren’t going his way.

    Even though his development was stunted somewhat as he struggled to live up to expectations since being drafted back in 2005, Vazquez seems to be back on the right track and is clearly having the best season of his professional career. Still only 25 years old, Vazquez is very clearly an NBA caliber rotation player, and relative to his price would be an excellent addition for the Orlando Magic if they were somehow able to bring him over.

    Vazquez has just one more year on his contract after this, and considering his salary slot on the NBA’s rookie scale as the #11 draft pick—nearly two million dollars—could still be a realistic target if Orlando (or any team that trades for his draft rights) were able to bring him over. Talking to his NBA agent Marc Cornstein about that, he thinks that from the Magic's perspective "the door has always been open for him if he wants to play in the NBA," although he pointed out that he has not discussed that matter recently with them. "With Fran it's always been more a matter of desire rather than money."
Vazquez certainly seems like he might fit in well with Stan Van Gundy's defensive-minded Magic, especially if Orlando loses underrated center Marcin Gortat, but it's still far from clear that Vazquez will ever choose to jump to the NBA after his contract expires in 2010, or anytime thereafter.

Fran's reticence to leave Spain is in evidence in this answer to a fan question recently on
    Mr. Vazquez, you have played all over in Spain, in four different clubs. Would you like to someday play for some other good European teams, like CSKA, Panathinaikos, Olympiacos or Maccabi? Thanks and best of luck in the Final Four!
    Vasiliy Belanov - Moscow, Russia

    "So far, I am very happy here in Barcelona. I don't think much about my future. I felt comfortable with all four teams that I played for and I have been here for several years already and feel great at this great club. I hope to stay here in Barcelona in the future, or at least in Spain."
7. Giorgos Printezis, Olympiacos
There are many other players in action in Berlin this weekend who are better than Printezis, a 6-9, 24-year-old forward averaging 9.1 pts and 3.5 reb on .632 FG% in 18.9 min in Euroleague play. He was a second-round pick in 2007 whose rights are owned by the Raptors.

We include him here only b/c the Toronto Star ran a story this week entitled "Hard-nosed Athenian may be answer to Raptor need for toughness," which included a quote from GM Bryan Colangelo saying, "There's definitely an edge to him. He could very well fill that (need for toughness)."

We're skeptical, but we just wanted to give Raptor Nation a heads-up to check Printezis out b/c we know those cats in the T.O. are insatiable, and we're just trying to keep 'em fed.


OK, last thing: we're predicting that Josh Childress will end his year abroad in Athens as a Euroleague champion, as we're picking Olympiacos over CSKA Moscow in the final on Sunday. Really looking forward to watching the action from Berlin this weekend. Good night.

Also: Euroleague Final Four: Team-by-Team Analysis


At 7:12 AM, Blogger gio12 said...

you could not have made a worse final four prediction.
although cska can make it to the final if they slow down the semifinal against offense minded barcelona,
olympiakos has even less chances going by panathinaikos which is a well organised team knowing what its doing on the court, contrary to the image olympiakos projects in many games.
prediction: barcelona - panathinaikos final with panathinaikos becoming the champions as it owes one good game against barcelona this year.

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