Euroleague Preview, Week 4
Union Olimpija tries to keep the dream alive in Moscow.
by Nick Gibson / @euro_adventures
The schedule smiles on us again as two of the league’s three undefeateds square off when Montepaschi travels to Istanbul to knock off one of this year’s revelations, Fenerbahçe Ülker. Eleven more games plus a young Greek who took an opportunity and sprinted with it in this week’s preview:
Kostas Papanikolaou, F Olympiacos | 20 | 6-8 | 221 pounds
When tracking the development of international prospects on major European clubs, a boxscore only takes you so far. Playing time is sporadic if existent, and even the rare statistical outburst is seldom indicative of the actual talent and potential of the subject. So as I witnessed Kostas Papanikolaou put up 17 points on 6/7 FG (2/3 from outside) along with 6 boards, a steal and an assist, I crossed my fingers rather than clapping my hands. As pumped as I was to see this 20-year-old deliver such a scintillating performance for one of Europe’s most successful clubs under legendary teacher Dusan Ivkovic, I know that these moments can be fleeting if the youngsters rely on seven lonely flicks of their wrist to earn them long careers on either continent.
But Kostas won’t let that happen. On the eve of Olympiacos’ exhibition against the Cavaliers last October, I was instructed by both an NBA and a Euroleague official to take a peek at this kid that had impressed them in limited time vs. the San Antonio Spurs. I showed up at their practice and did as I was told. It didn’t take long for Kostas to make an impression; he dove for loose balls, grabbed boards, and what struck me most was the way he cut fearlessly across the middle, hands up and ready to receive. In a few minutes against LeBron and Co. the following day, same story. If he expands his already diversified offensive game and keeps the attitude on track, we could see him reach Carlos Delfino levels in just a few years.
Two weeks into these and I’ve proved consistency, if nothing else. But yeah, probably nothing else. Last week: 8-4. Overall: 16-8.
Asseco Prokom (0-3) vs. Partizan (1-2)
Not that Prokom cares, but they have played much better than their winless record would imply. In fact, had a Tomas Delininkaitis leaning triple not found bottoms last week in Kaunas, Prokom would’ve beaten Zalgiris for a huge road win and locked up the inside track to advancement. But with two losses by six and one by seven, Prokom needs to dust off the disappointments and find somebody to challenge JR Giddens for the team lead in rebounding. It’s nice to see your wing yanking down 7.3 per game, but when that’s more than your starters combine for down low, there will be issues (Ratko Varda’s 2.7 + Jan Jagla’s 3 = 5.7). On the other side, Partizan head man Vlade Jovanovic has the unenviable task of mixing the old (Petar Bozic) with the young (Vladimir Lucic) with the new (James Gist), all while on the road against a pissed off Prokom. Asseco Prokom.
Caja Laboral (2-1) vs. Zalgiris (2-1)
Caja Laboral lost a tough 4-pointer in Moscow against a very underrated BC Khimki team while their top scorer, David Logan, visited his newborn baby in the states. The baby’s healthy, Logan’s back, and Fernando Buesa Arena will be filled with rowdy Basque-etball fans anxious to see their boys veer back on to the championship route. Zalgiris plays hard, fast and reckless, a style which has led to an EL-best 82 fouls drawn but also an EL-worst 65 turnovers. Sometimes the difference between assertive and forceful is as simple as home vs. away. Caja Laboral.
BC Khimki (2-1) vs. Macabi Electra (2-1)
I’ve said before that Khimki’s style lends itself to close finishes, and then all they did was win a 4-point thriller against Caja Laboral, leaving them with a cumulative season score of 214-208, in their favor. Despite Logan’s absence, their win over Caja proved they can dictate the tempo against even the antsiest of offenses. But after shutting down the EL’s most lovable chuckers, it’s time for Khimki to keep out the league’s most driven paint invaders; only Siena has made as many 2-pointers as Maccabi while only Real Madrid has taken fewer threes. And considering Lior Eliyahu and Jeremy Pargo had combined for only 24 points in Tel Aviv’s first two games, their tag team 30 against the stingy Partizan D had to have David Blatt dancing in his sideline denim. Maccabi Electra.
Olympiacos (2-1) vs. Spirou Charleroi (0-3)
Though I’m admittedly a fan of the Westernized offense—fun, loose, generally more entertaining—Spirou’s pace will never see a Top 16 until it understands how to make subtle adjustments in the face of tactical nightmares like Dusan Ivkovic. And with the buzz surrounding the Olympiacos backcourt and now Papanikolaou’s explosion, let’s hear it for 34-year-old NBA transplant Rasho Nesterovic. An NBA ring bearer with the 2005 Spurs, Nesterovic has undercut his 12-year NBA average of 22 minutes per game (18 with Olympiacos) while simultaneously grabbing a team best 6.3 boards, more than the 5.1 he averaged in the States and Canada. Not the sort of statistical jump you’d expect, but definitely one the Olympiacos faithful will appreciate. Olympiacos.
Unicaja (1-2) vs. Virtus Roma (2-1)
Unicaja’s only win was at home against the anemic Spirou Basket and now superstar point guard Terrell McIntyre will miss three weeks with a bum foot. Time for teenage Brazilian Rafa Freire to strap up and ball out on a team where he’s the only other option. Salivating in Roma’s lay up line will be Darius Washington, whose 16.5 scoring average dropped to 11 after laying an egg in last week’s 18-point loss to Real Madrid. The former Memphis Tiger knows there are few more effective remedies for an ailing game than squaring off with an 18-year-old. Best news for Roma has got to be Ali Traore’s week 3 emergence; his 12 and 8 against the tough Madrid frontcourt whooped his 8 and 3 totals from the first two matches. Both teams rebound horribly—23rd and 22nd respectively—so the difference will come from the perimeter. Uros Tripkovic will play the role of tight end to Rafa Freire’s rookie quarterback; he’ll make himself available for the dump down and get warm from deep. Unicaja.
Real Madrid (2-1) vs. Brose Baskets (2-1)
Real Madrid has played five Final Four caliber halves this season, their 46-31 second against Olympiacos the lone exception. Madrid’s success stems from their concerted effort to get into the painted area, put the ball on the rim and take it right back off when necessary. The 13 attempted threes per game is fewer than all 23 of their counterparts and nobody on the continent—or in Israel—can match their 15 offensive boards per game. The approach is radically different than the one exhibited by Messina’s ‘08-09 CSKA team, which balanced their 8.6 offensive boards per game with 19.9 attempts from deep. I worried coming into the season that Messina’s controlling style would inhibit his personnel from finding roles best suited for their individual strengths. By trusting Sergio Rodriguez through his intercontinental (re-)transition and letting his players carve out their own duties the past two weeks, he has silenced my skepticism. For now. Real Madrid.