Euroleague Final Four: Player Watch
|by: Luis FernŠndez - Director of International Scouting
|May 14, 2007
|The Euroleague Final Four featured a nice collection of International players to be evaluated in Athens. The clear-cut strongest teams on the continent made it here and also played the final. Weíre talking about Panathinaikos and CSKA, two near NBA-caliber squads full of talented players. Tau also provided a nice bunch of interesting guys, while Unicaja was a Cinderella team really short in terms of interesting names.
If there was a headline in this Euroleague Final Four, it was the superb Papaloukas vs. Diamantidis matchup, featuring arguably the best two players in Europe who happen to be countrymen and play the same position on the court. For DraftExpress, it was obviously very important to follow the performance of Tiago Splitter, the only short-term first-round prospect on the floor.
CSKA, 1977, 6-7, PG
|Photo: S.Dronaev (CSKABasket.com)|
Looking for an unusual player? What about a 6-7 point guard? What about a Euroleague MVP that comes off the bench? What about a guy who almost always displays his best level in important and meaningful games? Thatís Theodoros Papaloukas, arguably the reigning best player in Europe, the direct heir of guys such as Dejan Bodiroga and Sarunas Jasikevicius, a fierce and insatiable competitor, a winner, a perennial hero for his team. Papaloukas was coming back to Athens, his hometown, to try and win back-to-back Euroleague titles for CSKA Moscow. It just happened that he couldnít get it done this time despite putting one of the best shows of his life in the final against Panathinaikos.
Right after the semifinal win over Tau Vitoria, CSKA coach Ettore Messina showed his concern about Papaloukas taking too much responsibility for this event in his homeland (he joked about Theo organizing travel, tickets, practice, the hotelÖ), but it was what actually happened in the final, as a huge amount of his teamís offensive load went through his hands, either with points directly scored by him, creating spaces for his teammates with his aggressive playing style or passing the ball to an open man.
Papaloukas is a difficult player to contest. Heís tall and quite strong for a guard, enjoying very good ball-handling skills to protect the ball despite his size, and displays decent quickness. Theo can drive and dribble in traffic, even with contact, which helps him overpower his match-ups. He perfectly uses his size to post up his defender, even beating guys as tall as him (like Siskauskas in the final). And then, itís a matter of his great ability to finish near the basket (partially thanks to his size), magnificent court vision and an impressive mind to take decisions. The guy always knows when to push the ball and run (either because of a certain play situation or what the game demands), when to stop and play a more drawn out sequence, and when to resolve with a pick and roll play or an individual effort.
Actually weíre talking about a master of the pick and roll, a playmaker that perfectly feeds the teammate setting the pick and rolling towards the basket, often with high passes where he takes advantage of his size. If the defense doesnít stay honest, he will either go all the way to the basket to score himself or shoot the ball off the dribble. Here we find his main weakness in terms of offensive game though: heís not much of a shooter, although he will punish you if heís left wide open. His passing game is not only about two-on-two situations, but he finds his teammates on the weak side extremely easily, heís very dangerous distributing the ball from the low post (especially because he usually attracts defensive helps), and generally speaking, if thereís any defensive mistake, chances are he will make pay by sending the ball instantaneously to the appropriate place. Itís also interesting to note how he often passes while in the air, a high risk proposition, but he rarely turns the ball over, as his mind offers him quick solutions.
Theo helps in the rebounding department, usually igniting the fastbreak (also if he receives a quick outlet pass) to look for easy baskets. Heís an unspectacular, but solid defender; letís say he fills the bill. Obviously heís not the quickest guy around when it comes to moving laterally, which would hurt him in the NBA matching-up against point guards. Neither is he very athletic for a wing. But there arenít many guys around with his combination of character and skills. In a world increasingly starving for true playmakers, heís the answer. Will the NBA feel the same way? Weíll find out this summer.
Panathinaikos, 1980, 6-5, PG
Octopus Man they call him. With that name, he should be the bad guy in this movie, the nemesis of the hero (Papaloukas). After all, heís the current Euroleague Defensive Player of the YearÖ for the third consecutive season; so he would be the character in charge of destroying Theoís creativity. They even match up physically pretty well: both are big playmakers, and if Diamantidis is a couple inches smaller, he makes up for it with his superb wingspan. We would have a story there, but Dimitrios is much more than a stopper, heís actually an excellent point guard in his own right. Besides, it would be hard to convince anyone in Hollywood to produce this movie, since this time it was the bad guy who prevailed in the end.
Thatís right, Diamantidis led Panathinaikos all the way to the Euroleague title and collected the Final Four MVP award that distinguished him as the best player in the event. It was a well-deserved reward. He did a splendid job on the offensive end, but particularly (and as usual) was a monster on defense. Dimitrios doesnít greatly stand out for his quickness or general athleticism, but he manages to get everywhere on court. Heís so smart, tough, sacrificed, that his great wingspan on his 6-5 body becomes a nightmare for his rivals. Heís truly a stopper for his match-ups, but still has time to realize multiple defensive rotations, take charges, contest shots, even block them, scoping out the passing lanesÖ and recover his match-up on time to keep him under control. You can bet he still would be an excellent defender at the NBA level.
For people buying into the defensive-specialist stereotype, the things Diamantidis can do on the offensive end might come as a surprise, but weíre dealing with a very smart point guard, effective distributing the ball, who enjoys nice ability to drive and dish and who is developing a very consistent perimeter stroke.
Like Papaloukas, Diamantidis uses his superior size and strength to drive towards the basket and unbalance the rivalís defense, also displaying very solid ball-handling skills and footwork. Indeed he was quite aggressive in the final, successfully trying to make things happen with his slashing moves. Heís a nice passer, seeing the floor over his rivals and finding his teammates even on the weak side. He can shoot off the dribble, with three-point range, and heís increasing the quickness of his release. He shows an excellent basketball IQ, even if heís not so dominant controlling the game (and its tempo) as his countryman. Indeed, Dimitrios is a low-profile type of player, never searching for the spotlight, but who ends up shining due to his incredible work ethic on court and developed ability to play the game.
Diamantidis has often expressed that he has no interest in the NBA. Whether thatís completely true or not, the only certainty in our eyes is that heís a hell of a player that could do a terrific job for many NBA franchises. Particularly, there are countless teams featuring highly effective scoring guards, where he would perfectly fit as a glue guy to dramatically improve the teamís defense while making good decisions with the ball in his hands and knocking down open shots on the offensive end.
Panathianikos, 1978, 6-6, SG/SF
This skilled Lithuanian wing delivered a great Final Four, especially concerning the final game, actually challenging for the MVP award. He shares with Diamantidis his low-profile style: heís a player that often goes unnoticed and doesnít make much noise. Indeed heís an underrated athlete who enjoys a nice vertical leap and is able to beat his match-ups off the dribble. He enjoys nice handles, good footwork and long strides to gain the lane.
Like many of his teammates, he looked very aggressive against CSKA; particularly when Diamantidis was on the bench due to foul trouble. In those moments he took over his teamís offensive lead attacking the basket to finish himself, drawing personal fouls or dishing the ball, ending the game with 20 points and 5 assists. Siskauskas is a solid passer that has greatly helped solidify his teamís offense this season in Panathinaikos. Ramunas is also an excellent shooter; although he was very erratic in the Final Four (a combined 2/9 from behind the arc), he credits 47.1% throughout the entire Euroleague season, well-reflecting his accuracy and honoring the Lithuaniansí shooting reputation. Anyway, heís an unselfish guy, very team-oriented, with a high basketball IQ, the kind of player every coach loves having on his roster.
Siskauskas barely slows down on defense, where heís a reliable guy. Standing somewhere between 6-6 and 6-7 (heís clearly 6-7 on shoes at least), he uses his athleticism well to keep up with his match-up. Perhaps heís not the strongest guy around, but still heís fairly tough. All in all, Siskauskas would probably make a nice complimentary wing player in the NBA; a player who helps ease the offensive flow, nets his open shots and contributes on the defensive end. He has a clear and very manageable $500,000 buyout as far as the NBA is concerned, but itís not clear if any team will be able to compete with his salary in Greece, which is rumored to exceed over 1.5 million Euros per season.
CSKA, 1979, 6-9, PF
|Photo: S.Dronaev (CSKABasket.com)|
Smodis has succeeded David Andersen this season (actually when the Aussie fell injured in the past season) as the main frontcourt reference for CSKA. His offensive versatility, intelligence and defensive work are priceless for his team. Perhaps Matjaz didnít deliver his best games of the season, also losing his temper a bit too easily in some stretches during the final, but he was a steady performer for the Russian team.
The 6-9 Slovenian is a typical modern power forward that rolls out to the three-point line whenever the point guard commands both bigs to offer him picks (while Savrasenko, Van Den Spiegel and even Andersen, when both share the floor, roll inside in this setting). He enjoys a very reliable three-point stroke, particularly in spot-up fashion from the top of the key, which greatly helps his team to open the floor and allows the playmaker and the other big man to easily perform a classic pick-and-roll to finish under the basket.
Still, despite enjoying this nice jumper, Smodis never passes up on an opportunity to score in the low post. Heís a very tough guy who loves to bang and use his body to gain space and release his jump-hooks. He can also put the ball on the floor, but heís not the most prolific guy around trying to attack his opponent from the perimeter. On defense, Smodis delivers that same toughness, good positioning and quick moves for a big guy.
NBA-wise, heís not the most intriguing guy, as heís undersized and not particularly athletic. But his versatile skill set, basketball IQ and toughness playing the game would surely help him make a living in the American league if he so desired.
Mike Batiste is one of the very few American post-players shining at the top European level, having developed into an extremely solid guy who provides low-post and mid-range scoring, off the ball activity, rebounding, defense, and a nice knowledge of the game. He delivered in this Final Four for Panathianikos, combining for 27 points and 17 rebounds in the two games. At 6-9, featuring nice athleticism and good strength, he could eventually come back to the NBA as a power forward (he played mostly small forward in his previous NBA tenure).
Sani Becirovic was a key player for Panathinaikos in the semifinal with his 15 points, many of them early into the game allowing the Greens to build a consistent lead in the score. Only foul trouble stopped him from repeating his performance in the final, having to settle for 6 points in 12 minutes of playing time. The 6-5 Slovenian shooting guard showcased his depurated scoring skills, particularly concerning his jump-shot and ability to fire off the dribble (he was automatic with the pump fake, a dribble and the subsequent jumper).
Milos Vujanic provided invaluable help off the bench whenever Dimitrios Diamantidis had a rest (or got into foul trouble). The lack of point guard depth was one of the main concerns for Panathinaikos early into the season, but the injury prone Vujanic has managed to stay healthy all season long and offered offensive punch in the form of perimeter shooting and aggressiveness attacking his opponents off the dribble.
David Andersen had a so-so showing in Athens, with a good semifinal where he netted multiple mid-range shots (spot-up and turnaround ones) and crashed the boards for rebounds (also taking advantage of Unicajaís weak frontcourt), but shrank in the decisive game, never being able to overcome Panathinaikosí defense while getting overwhelmed on defense by his opponentsí aggressiveness. The Aussie looked a bit soft in this event.
Trajan Langdon proved again to be one of the premier shooters on the Old Continent. He nearly became the hero of the final by converting consecutive and contested long-range jumpers with the game on the line to keep CSKA alive until the very last minute. His stroke is a beauty, although heís perhaps a bit one dimensional. He only slashes occasionally and heís a solid defender. Still, a terrific player by Euroleague standards.
Luis Scola couldnít provide his usual offensive punch against Panathinaikos to lead his team past the semifinal. He was manhandled by a great individual and team defense, while he greatly suffered from his teamís global offensive collapse. Heís still arguably the best offensive post player in Europe, and likely a very productive player in the NBA whenever he manages to go there.
Zoran Planinic couldnít emerge as that consistent offensive leader Tau needed to break Panathinaikosí defense in the semifinal. Still not that surprising, as Diamantidis was a perfect defender for him and was absolutely unbeatable. Indeed Planinic tried to take advantage whenever the Greek went to the bench or switch on defense, attacking his match-up with mixed results. Planinic, born in 1982, is still a young player who needs to gain consistency and experience (warming the bench in the NBA hasnít helped him that much), improve his shooting stroke and take better decisions, but certainly a keeper for Tau in their long-term plans.
Igor Rakocevic was another piece that failed to emerge for Tau. Even more than Planinic, he was supposed to provide instant scoring to resolve any eventual offensive jam for Tau (after all, heís the top scorer in the Euroleague this season). Instead, he only had 4 points against Panathianikos and his individual approach didnít help his teamís offensive flow.
The Draft Prospects
Tau Vitoria, 1985, 6-11, PF/C
Splitter came into the Final Four with two clear objectives. The first one, obviously, to help his team win the Euroleague title after reaching this final event three consecutive times. The second one, to help his own NBA stock heading for the draft in June. We can say the Brazilian failed with both tasks, even if he did put effort on the court.
Tiago was an integral part of the offensive collapse that Tau suffered in the semifinal against Panathinaikos. His game didnít flow within his teamís offense, just as so happened with all his teammates. Still, he was one of the most aggressive players for Tau, trying to attack the basket from the low post, which ultimately cost him getting into foul trouble after committing some offensive fouls, and therefore being benched. Thereís a clear negative read here, as Splitter keeps making mistakes in big games which hurt his team. He needs to wise up a little and start looking like the veteran he somehow already is. Anyway, he had 7 points that included a tip-in, an open dunk and a nice pick-and-roll finish.
The game for the third place was a completely different story. With a lot less intensity, it was easier for both teams (Tau and Unicaja) to score points. Tiago did a very nice job finishing around the basket with both hands and a variety of layups. Unfortunately, he didnít show any one-on-one game in the low post, as the only time he went for the individual play, he was fouled before he could start his post move.
What he showed plenty of in both games was aggressiveness attacking the offensive board for the rebound. He came away with a combined 9 captures, 14 if we count both glasses. Heís becoming a much better offensive rebounder than defensive, as he has troubles boxing out and keeping his opponents under control, while the more dynamic effort that the offensive rebounds require, probably suits him better (heís not very explosive from a stand-still position). On defense, he looked solid but unspectacular.
Considering that Splitter has still no buyout for this summer, that he will have a one-million escape clause in the 2008 summer and his current draft stock (out of the top-10), chances are he will have to spend another season in Vitoria to finally leave for the NBA after the next campaign. Tau would require a very big buyout this summer to free Splitter (letís remember he has a Spanish passport, so heís very valuable to fill the required Spanish-player quota in the ACB league), which looks hard to gather with the two-year guaranteed first-round contracts. Thatís why his final position in the draft will highly rely on how high the teams that are willing to wait a year for him are picking.
CSKA, 1986, 6-7, PG/SG/SF
|Photo: M.Serbin (CSKABasket.com)|
This was a very forgettable performance by Ponkrashov. Coach Messina barely played him at all in the semifinal against Unicaja (only 15 seconds), but trusted him some minutes during the final. Although his stat-line is completely empty, he committed one huge mistake when he passed up on a wide open shot with very little time left in the shot clock to pass a defended teammate, which ultimately resulted in a turnover. He was benched soon after. Anton is still a very young player with little experience in big settings, and he will certainly gain self-confidence with time.
Tau Vitoria, 1985, 6-9, PF
Teletovic didnít fare much better than Ponkrashov. He also barely played in the semifinal. In the game for third place, coach Maljkovic played him only 13 minutes, which speaks volumes about the little confidence he has in the Bosnian power forward. Teletovic answered with a scoreless performance and just one rebound. The only remarkable play he delivered was a dunk attempt where he showcased his nice athleticism. Otherwise, he went unnoticed, and gave more proof of his great struggles rebounding the ball. Actually, its everyday more unlikely that Teletovic claims a spot in the upcoming draft.
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