Blogging Through Europe (Part 3: Italy)

Blogging Through Europe (Part 3: Italy)
Nov 30, 2007, 06:17 pm
The trek around Europe continues, with a stop for a few days in my favorite country, Italy. Here things really start to get interesting as far as scouting the NBA draft is concerned…Maccabi Tel Aviv at Armani Jeans Milano was my first destination, resulting in a tight game and a very nice performance from top prospect Danilo Gallinari.

Miserable Milano

Staying on top is not an easy thing in the Italian league. Especially not this year. Just ask Benetton Treviso (16th place in Italy), Fortitudo/Upim Bologna (11th place), Eldo Napoli (15th place), or the subject of this article—Armani Jeans Milano (13th place). After making the semi-finals of the Italian league playoffs last season—not a good enough accomplishment apparently since they fired their coach Sasha Djordjevic shortly after—Milano has been struggling through a tumultuous season so far, highlighted by their new coach already being fired early on in the year, the GM replaced with him, one ‘point guard’ being sent home already in Cheyne Gadson, one shooting guard being “traded” to Benetton Treviso (Reece Gaines), one new point guard being signed (Melvin Booker) only to disappoint, and now a new point guard (Will Conroy) being brought in on a tryout. Not much in the ways of stability so far.

The team reneged on an agreement they had with rookie Brandon Heath earlier in the summer, and karma has been a pretty nasty thing for them ever since. They are 1-5 in the Euroleague at the moment, and after losing to Maccabi Tel Aviv at home, the chances of qualifying for the next round look like very bleak. The sponsor of the team, Giorgio Armani, is reportedly very unhappy with the direction his team is headed in, and could be looking to get out if there is any truth at all to the rumors here. He sat just two rows beneath us last night, and the grim look on his face for the majority of the night seemed to paint a pretty telling picture.

It’s all really a shame considering the fact that they have one of the top Italian prospects ever playing for their team at the moment, and even though he seems to be playing quite well, you have to wonder if they are truly getting as much as they can out of him with the way he’s being utilized by the new coach.

Going from the Spiroudome in Charleroi to the Assago or Forumnet in Milano was quite a radical change. We’re talking about a pretty old and ugly arena here, way bigger (11,200 seats) then anything the team really needs. There weren’t more than 3,000 spectators on hand at most last night, and well over half of them seemed to be wearing the colors of the opposing team—Maccabi Tel Aviv. Down the stretch, their vocal chants drained out any attempt by the few Armani fans in attendance to give their team a homecourt advantage. As more than one person told us last night, there is very little connection between the team and the fans here in Milan, something that is accentuated even more by the fact that the arena is a good 20 plus minutes outside of the city.

Just a sad situation for a team that seems to have so much potential as the only club in one of the most important cities in Europe, certainly as far as business is concerned.

Maccabi Wins at the Buzzer

Let’s not forget that there was also a game played last night…and with all the negative ink just spilled here on Milano, we wouldn’t want you to think that everything is perfect in Maccabi Tel Aviv either. Their star player, Nikola Vujcic, is out for a few more months with a knee injury. His body has been breaking down for a few seasons now, so that really comes as no surprise. Their top Israeli player Tal Burstein is also likely out for the rest of the season, depriving them of two huge cogs behind their illustrious three year run at the top of European basketball, between 2004-2006. What is surprising is how poorly Maccabi Tel Aviv’s other import players seem to be faring so far, especially when you consider how good of a job this club (actually, mainly David Blatt) did in the past with their scouting (Anthony Parker, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Maceo Baston and many others, just to name a few).

Starting point guard Will Bynum is in the midst of a mini-Cold War with head coach Oded Kattash, a young, inexperienced former star player who looked quite lost on the sidelines last night. Anyone that has ever seen Bynum play starting in high school in Chicago, through college at Arizona and Georgia Tech, in the D-League, or even with Maccabi last year knows exactly what kind of player he is (a super freak athlete combo guard who can create his own shot at will but more often than not looks incredibly out of control in the process)—and you would think that the team would come to terms with that considering that they elected to extend his contract for another two seasons this past summer.

Apparently not, since the coaching staff is reportedly not happy with his style of play at all, and is trying to make him into more of a pass-first point guard. Bynum indeed started off the game quite tentatively last night, pulling the ball out on a fast break that he clearly could have finished himself, moving the ball around the perimeter uninspiringly, and generally looking like someone more concerned with not making a mistake rather than playing the type of basketball that got him here to begin with.

Later on in the game, he seemed to come out of his shell and made a number of head-scratching plays that showed us what frustrates his head coach so much to begin with—turning the ball over with an awful no-look pass, driving into brick walls with a full head of steam, dribbling the ball off his shin carelessly, and even being benched for most of the last minutes of the game. He looks like a player who has no clue at the moment what is expected of him or what is his role. Oddly enough, he was brought back for the last possession of the game, and was asked to do what he does best—create offense for himself off the dribble. He did exactly that, driving left, exploding into the air, drawing contact that could easily have warranted a foul call, and having his shot rim out. Luckily for Maccabi, the entire defense rotated over to stop Bynum and left Terrence Morris (the MVP of the game) open to crash the offensive glass and put back the rebound for the game-winning two points.

Besides Bynum, Maccabi seems to be struggling with the attitude and selfish play of another one of their important Americans—Marcus Fizer. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise considering that this is precisely the reason why he’s out of the NBA to begin with, in addition to his inability to stay in shape. Fizer scored only 3 points (oddly enough, on a 3-pointer) in 13 minutes, missing all 4 of his attempts from inside the arc. Alex Garcia also plays for Maccabi and looked nothing like a Euroleague caliber player in the important minutes he was on the floor. He spent the last few seasons in the very weak Brazilian league, and might be on his way back there if tonight was any indication.

The lone rays of light in this win (besides the aforementioned Morris) came from the direction of Yotam Halperin (Seattle’s 2006 2nd round pick) and Esteban Batista (who spent the last two years with the Atlanta Hawks). Halperin hit 8 of his 10 shots for 20 points total coming off the bench and looked much more aggressive looking for his own offense than we’ve seen in quite some time. Of course, he tends to do this from time to time (read: play fantastic), the test will be if he can keep it up and not revert back to the same passivity that has frustrated his fans for so many years now. He looked terrific on this particular occasion, though. Batista also came off the bench and really made an impact with his ability to score points with his back to the basket (even if he sometimes holds the ball too long pounding away inside) as well as with his toughness crashing the glass. The massive Batista has a lot of heart and a lot of ability on the offensive end, so it’s quite surprising to see how little he’s being utilized by Coach Kattash (averaging only 13 minutes per game, although scoring 8.6 points on 64% shooting in that time) in the absence of Nikola Vujcic. There are a lot of teams that could use a player like him, many of them being better than Maccabi at the moment.

Casspi on the Shelf

Besides Danilo Gallinari, there was another intriguing prospect on hand here in Milan, going by the name of Omri Casspi (click his name to read much more). The 6-8 athletic small forward is considered one of the best prospects Israel has produced in quite some time, but he’s been struggling to get consistent playing time on this team after having a breakout season last year on loan with Galil Elyon (where he was coached by Maccabi’s current coach Oded Kattash).

Casspi looked quite frustrated in his very short time (4 minutes) on the floor, and did not look particularly thrilled sitting on the bench either. His first possession in the game, he basically tripped over his own feet trying to guard Gallinari, but came back on the other end of the floor and had a nice dish to an open teammate after putting the ball on the floor with his left hand. He passed up an open 3-pointer on occasion (not his biggest strength), and had a very difficult time on the defensive end once again being matched up with Milano's beastish power forward Travis Watson, who got very physical with him. That was about all we saw from Casspi on the night.

It's not shocking that he isn't playing really, as he's extremely young and still a bit stuck between the 3 and 4 spots (certainly defensively) as this high a level. Maccabi knew this, though, but still demanded he return to the club this past summer and basically guaranteed he’d have a fixed spot in the rotation (probably to make sure he doesn't hurt them playing for some other team--the way he did last year with Galil). That doesn’t seem to be the case right now, and it’s a shame considering that he’s only 19 years old and clearly needs to get as much playing time as possible. His father even went so far as to complain publicly in the media and threaten to have him leave the club if he doesn’t start getting more minutes. We have Casspi projected as a late first round pick at the moment, but the circumstances seem to indicate that he will probably have to wait another season.

What about Gallinari?

You might have clicked on this blog hoping for an in-depth report on the progress of projected lottery pick Danilo Gallinari. That would be a pretty reasonable expectation considering that he scored 20 points (6/11 FG, 5/8 FT, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals) in 31 minutes. NBA scouts like Jason Filippi (Portland), Pete Philo (Minnesota Timberwolves), Simon Cote (Denver Nuggets), Gianluca Pascucci (Houston Rockets) and probably others that I missed were in attendance tonight, and they most likely came away impressed. We’ll be watching Gallinari once again on Sunday when his team travels to Biella, though, so we’d prefer to save our many thoughts for a more detailed report after that game.

Some interesting news that we have to share revolves around a brief meeting with the aforementioned Pete Philo, who is also the organizer of the indispensable Reebok EuroCamp in Treviso (the top showcase for international prospects held just weeks before the draft). He mentioned that Reebok has tentatively scheduled the Eurocamp to be held on the 7th-10th of June this year, with the only potential change possibly being cutting off the last day at the end. Danilo Gallinari, who happens to be signed by Reebok, will be the camp’s headliner. He was scheduled to attend last year, but could not due a conflict with the Italian league playoff finals (which he participated in). In this instance, his team’s awful start to the season seems to serve us quite well, although it’s obviously incredibly early in the year.

You can’t say that the kid isn’t trying to help his team out, though…check out the game-winning shot Gallinari hit last week in the Italian league versus Udine:

Next Game: Armani Jeans Milano at Angelico Biella (Italian A1)

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