Euroleague Preview: Final Four Sleepers

Euroleague Preview: Final Four Sleepers
Oct 22, 2006, 10:46 pm
Continuing with our in-depth Euroleague Preview, DraftExpress breaks down our favorite sleepers to make the Euroleague Final Four in late April. The Euroleague season kicks off on Tuesday, and as is customary in European basketball, we find huge changes in most rosters. Maccabi Tel Aviv will attempt to make their fourth straight Final Four in a row, but is coming off a number of significant changes including a new coach and an almost completely new roster. Barcelona has to be considered a contender to make it as far as possible in every competition they participate in based off the fact that they have the most expensive roster in all of Europe, but the way they’ve looked early on does not leave too much optimism about that. Unicaja Malaga is another perennially strong Spanish team with an experienced roster and plenty of talent, but they’ve also struggled badly in the beginning of the season. Efes Pilsen and Dynamo Moscow are two more outsiders looking in, solid teams with excellent coaches and expensive players at every position.

Stay tuned in the coming days as we present the NBA draft prospects competing in this year's Euroleague.

Maccabi Tel Aviv Team Clubhouse

Jonathan Givony

Probably the most successful club in European basketball over the past five years, Maccabi Tel Aviv is paying for its extraordinary scouting and has now entered a definitive rebuilding period. Whether or not their fans and management will agree with that statement is anyone’s guess, but on paper it’s impossible not to get the feeling that the team is significantly weaker than the one that reached the Final Four three years straight and won the whole thing twice.

Gone are beloved fan favorites Sarunas Jasikevicius (Indiana Pacers), Anthony Parker (Toronto Raptors) and Maceo Baston (Indiana Pacers), the backbone of a team that will go down as one of the best in European history. Pini Gershon, the coach and architect of the Maccabi’s eye-pleasing high-powered offense, left for Olympiacos in Greece and was replaced by Croatian Neven Spahija, but not before exchanging some pretty words with the team’s management in the local and international media. The war in Lebanon contributed to Maccabi swinging and whiffing on signing nearly every major candidate they attempted to put their hands on throughout the summer, and team ended up settling for some players who are not really considered “Maccabi players” in the truest sense.

1628 Will Bynum

The new American guards brought in to replace the often criticized Will Solomon and superstar Anthony Parker were Will Bynum and Rodney Buford. Both terrific athletes and potential 20 point scorers on any given night, they lack the same feel for the game that their predecessors possessed. The sub 6-foot combo guard Bynum is a highlight reel waiting to happen, a shot-creating machine who will go up and challenge any big paint in the paint, but he lacks true point guard skills, a steady perimeter jumper and particularly high level experience in such a pressure filled environment.
Buford is a former NBA 2nd round pick who preferred his stash of weed over securing a long term NBA contract, and therefore became a journeyman. He can score and create offense with the best of them, but is a streaky perimeter shooter and decision maker that does not contribute enough in other facets of the game when things aren’t going well for him on the court. He’s drawn much of the ire from the fans and media for Maccabi’s horrific showings in the preseason against multiple NBA teams, and will likely be on the hot seat all season long unless he can achieve the impossible task of producing similarly to the player he was brought into to replace, Anthony Parker.

Back on the team is 6-4 local combo guard Yotam Halperin, a talented ball-handler, shooter and distributor who was drafted following the terrific season he had with Olimpija Ljubljana last year. Halperin lacks the athleticism to create his own shot and effectively guard his position, and is often criticized by fans for being too passive on the court.
Completing what appears to be a pretty shallow backcourt is veteran American turned Israeli guard Derrick Sharp, mostly known as a defensive specialist who can hit the 3-pointer at a solid clip.

Swingman Tal Burstein tore his Achilles tendon and will be out of commission for at least another six weeks. When he returns he will be counted on to play an even bigger role than he did in the past, taking advantage of his outstanding perimeter defensive skills, ball-handling, passing and hopefully scoring more than he usually does in the Euroleague. Lithuanian Small Forward Simas Jasitias came along with Coach Spahija from Rytas; and will be counted on as the designated shooting specialist off the bench. Another option is Sharon Shasson, a fairly limited SF/PF who plays solid defense and will hit your occasional 3-pointer if left open.

In the post we once again find veteran Croatian center Nikola Vujcic, one of the top passing big men in the entire world and a talented offensive player in his own right. Complimenting him for his defensive and rebounding shortcomings will be recent signee Noel Felix, brought in to be an scrappy athletic shotblocker in the Maceo Baston mold. American turned Israeli Jamie Arnold brings Maccabi some offense with his back to the basket off the bench, and youngster Lior Eliyahu (drafted by the Houston Rockets) will be counted on for his athleticism and scoring prowess at the 4-spot off the bench.

All in all this is a brand new team who has the potential to gel mid-way through the season and potentially make a run to the Final Four. Their home court, Nokia Arena, is one of the toughest places to play in the world thanks to Maccabi’s passionate fanbase, and the Israelis have deep enough pockets to sign a big time player mid-way through the season if they feel that a change is in order. Early on things don’t look too promising for the Israelis, but there is some legit talent here to take advantage of if Coach Spahija can get them to play as a unit.

Winterthur FC Barcelona Team Clubhouse

Luis Fernandez

It might be surprising to see Winterthur FC Barcelona in this second-tier group, as this team has made a great investment, spending the kind of money (22 million euros according to one executive) that only the likes of CSKA or Panathinaikos, top favourites in the competition, can afford. And still, the final outcome is pretty much up in the air, as this team is one of the most difficult to predict despite the talent they amass. Let’s see why.

1629 Juan Carlos Navarro

The backcourt concentrates some terrific scoring potential. After not being able to buy out his contract to play for the Wizards, 6-3 SG Juan Carlos Navarro, fresh off a World Champion title, will likely remain as the team’s go-to guy, driving defenses crazy with his range, off-the-ball moves and ability to penetrate and finish against opposition. Newcomer Jaka Lakovic (6-1), “stolen” from Panathinaikos, adds more fuel with his excellent scoring skills from the point guard position. Few players in the whole continent share the one-on-one abilities of 6-5 PG Roko-Leni Ukic, while Gianluca Basile (6-2) can get hot at any given moment with his turnaround and fade-away three pointers.

Barcelona lacks size on the wing, with only Rodrigo de la Fuente (6-7) as a real SF. It limits the versatility of the team, especially on defense, although nowadays it’s common in Europe to see perimeters filled with three guards, as skills and quickness are usually more important factors than physical presence to make an offense successful. Basile, a good backcourt defender, will be the one sacrificed to play SF for big stretches. Anyway, the perimeter in general is a bit too weak physically in order to play great defense.

Inside, Barcelona has added size and intimidation with the very expensive duo Fran Vázquez (6-10) and Mario Kasun (7-0). They join center Denis Marconato (6-11) and forward Mihalis Kakiouzis (6-9). While all these guys are well-known names, more or less established in the international scene (Kasun has only proved himself with the Croatian National Team, and Vázquez comes off a disappointing season in Girona), it’s not clear that they can effectively compliment each other. With PF Jordi Trías as the fifth man inside, we have here three guys who are a bit limited skill-wise and need to play near the basket to be effective: Marconato, Kasun and Vázquez. Two of them will have to spend time together on the court, which won’t be easy. There isn’t that much spaces near the basket in European basketball, and none of them are great passers, so there’s the risk of offensive collapse. Kakiouzis and his perimeter stroke emerge here as a key piece opening the court for his frontcourt teammates. However, these guys are pretty much finishers, including the Greek, so this inside game might severely lack some creativity. Considering that the perimeter itself is not particularly passing-oriented, there could be problems to make the ball flow effectively.

Finally, we must consider that the man charge of this squad is no other than Dusko Ivanovic. An extremely demanding and psychologically exhausting coach, it remains to be seen how all these veteran Euro stars will deal with his methods. Back in Tau Vitoria, Ivanovic used to have young and hungry squads under his guidance. Also, he will have to show his ability to adapt his coaching style to this scheme of team. Again, back in Vitoria, his teams always had smart distributing point guards and very skilled big men.

All in all, there are serious question marks about this team at the very least, but we can’t deny that the talent is there.

Unicaja Malaga Team Clubhouse

Luis Fernandez

Coming off the best season in its history after conquering the ACB title, and suffering the loss of its franchise man Jorge Garbajosa (now with the Toronto Raptors), the risk of a hangover campaign for Unicaja is always there, but the front office has made a great effort to remain competitive.

The team has strengthened a perimeter that looks just impressive at first sight. The point guard spot continues to handled by the awesome distributor Pepe Sanchez (6-4), with Carlos Cabezas (6-1), a much less talented guy, as an off-the-bench spark on both ends of the court with his ability to change the pace of the game, delivering great intensity. Actually, this is a very complimentary couple.

1630 Marcus Brown

6-4 SG and well-established Euroleague star Marcus Brown, your typical small American scorer with great ability to create his own shot, but also a hard-working and team-oriented player, will share the wing with Unicaja’s stellar signing of this summer, Jiri Welsch (6-7), a very smart and extremely fundamentally sound player that should work wonders on the team’s offensive game. Off the bench, a couple of intense guys such as Berni Rodríguez, a 6-6 SG with excellent basketball IQ who loves to split defenses with his slashing, and Kostas Vassiliadis (6-7), a very solid shooter who can also help in various departments. Besides, both can increase the defensive level on the court.

Few teams in the whole Europe can put on the court a starting perimeter as talented as this one featuring Sanchez, Brown and Welsch.

However, the team is mostly built so 7-1 center Daniel Santiago (who is just back at Unicaja after failing to make a NBA roster) can enjoy spaces inside while his teammates take advantage of the offensive threat he represents near the basket. Therefore, he’s a vital player for this scheme. Clearing the paint, the power forward couple features Carlos Jiménez (6-9), a defensive and rebounding SF in transition to a new position that will have to increase his production behind the arc, and Erazem Lorbek (6-10), a very versatile and intriguing power forward with three-point range. Perhaps there’s no reliable replacement for Santiago, as Florient Pietrus (6-8) is more of a defensive power forward and Iñaki de Miguel (6-9) hardly makes the cut at the top European level.

One of the main strengths of this team is right there on the bench, not in the form of a player, though, but coach Sergio Scariolo, one of the best strategists in Europe on the basketball court. He always looks to take advantage of his rival’s weaknesses on both ends of the floor. He loves alternative defenses, combining individual, zone and mixed defenses.

Scariolo builds his team tactically as the season advances, particularly this season with the departure of Jorge Garbajosa, the cornerstone of the last two years, which has forced Unicaja to significantly adjust. Indeed they are 1-4 so far in the ACB League, and the Euroleague might come a little bit early for them, but they will improve throughout the season, and come the top-16 stage, they might be ready to make a very serious attempt to reach the Final Four. They surely have the talent to fight for it.

Dynamo Moscow

Dynamo Moscow Team Clubhouse

Wojciech Malinowski

One of the most legendary coaches in Europe, Dusan "Duda" Ivkovic, is back in the Euroleague. After winning the ULEB Cup last season, his Dynamo Moscow earned a Euroleague ticket and will try to follow in the footsteps of Lietvus Rytas, which made the Top 16 of last season’s Euroleague after securing the ULEB Cup the year before. Looking at Dynamo roster, making the second round of the Euroleague should be the minimum that can be expected from Russian club. Their situation is comparable to Efes Pilsen—featuring very strong interior players and major question marks regarding their perimeter game.

1631 Lazaros Papadopoulos

The biggest star is center Lazaros Papadopoulos. The star of the Greek National Team is a focal point of coach Ivkovic's offense, getting plenty of touches inside and often being the place from where Dynamo’s offense starts. Papadopoulos is almost unstoppable when he wants to establish position in the paint, and because of the way he uses his huge body, he either draws a lot of fouls, or scores from the field using short jump hooks. When he's double-teamed, he knows to pass to find an open teammate. He will be assisted inside by Antonis Fotsis and Miroslav Raicevic, who can both make open jumpers and play facing the basket.

Over the offseason, Dynamo changed its face dramatically by losing their two key perimeter players from last year. First, Ruben Douglas signed with Spanish Pamesa Valencia, although it should be said that coach Ivkovic did nothing to keep him in Moscow. And in the last few days we learned that point guard Mire Chatman will leave too. This comes as a huge surprise, since he chosen just last summer by Ivkovic to be his playmaker, and he was signed to a 2 year deal with an option on the 3rd. Chatman will be replaced by Eddie Gill, formerly of the Indiana Pacers, who for now signed a one month deal. A huge role is also expected for Serbian guard Bojan Popovic, who would fit very nicely along Chatman, but not necessary with Gill, since both of them prefer to play on the ball and drive to the basket. Long range shooting should be provided by veteran Dmitry Domani and American swingman Travis Hansen, who comes to Moscow after two decent seasons at TAU Vitoria. Hansen, who is also a respected defensive player, will be asked to guard the top perimeter players. He’ll be backed up by Sergey Monya, who comes back after failing in the NBA and will be asked to do all the little things.

Efes Pilsen

Efes Pilsen Team Clubhouse

Wojciech Malinowski

The team of coach Oktay Mahmudi was eliminated in the Euroleague quarterfinals for the last two years, and we’re not so sure that their summer roster moves made Efes a stronger team. Their biggest strength, besides coach's Mahmuti system, is still the frontcourt. Even with Kaya Peker’s departure to TAU Ceramica, the quartet of Ermal Kuqo (coming back from a suspension for doping), Marcus Haislip (acquired from Ulker), Kerem Gonlum and Nikola Prkacin is one of the biggest inside forces in Euroleague. Prkacin and Kuqo should provide a consistent high level back to the basket game, which combined with Haislip’s athleticism and long range shooting, as well as the versatility of Gonlum, makes their interior game free of any legit weaknesses.

If we’re to bring up any doubts of Efes potential, it's because of their backcourt. Antonio Granger is still their starting Small Forward and young Turkish sensation Cenk Akyol should provide solid minutes off the bench. With the departure of Marko Popovic (Zalgiris Kaunas) and Henry Domercant (Olympiacos Pireus), the new backcourt duo consists of two very similar players - Horace Jenkins and Drew Nicholas. Both are very good scoring guards, but neither of them feels comfortable as true playmakers. They will be a huge offensive threat in the last minutes of closing games, thanks to their impressive quickness, slashing ability and ability to knock long range shots. Now, Nicholas and Jenkins will have to prove that they can also run a team, including controlling the tempo and keeping their big guys involved, or even running the offense through them. Are they able to do it? That’s anything but a sure thing.

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