Euroleague Preview (Part Two): Final Four Sleepers

Euroleague Preview (Part Two): Final Four Sleepers
Oct 31, 2005, 02:15 am
Continuing our series of previews just in time for the kickoff of the 2005/2006 Euroleague season, we look at five teams who will be coming in just under the radar in their bid to land a spot in this year’s Final Four in Prague.

In a league that features no minimum or maximum amount for money that can be spent to sign players, it’s no coincidence that this group of teams all hail from the two richest domestic leagues in Europe, Italy and Spain.

Coming off winning the ACB League championships, a team with some of the deepest pockets in the continent both in football and soccer, Real Madrid, checks in at the top of this preview with a legion of hired guns from all of the most talented basketball producing countries. Three other mainstays from the cream of the crop of Europe and Italy over the past few years, Benneton Treviso, Climamio Bologna, and Montepaschi Siena are once again gunning for a Final Four berth, joined by Armani Jeans Milano from the same country, fresh off their first appearance in the Italian Lega Finals in 40 years.

Real Madrid

2004-2005 Record: 9-11

Luis Fernandez

When Bozidar Maljkovic took over the coaching job one year ago from this historic team, few people expected him to radically change the previous years’ horrendous results so quickly. With a squad made up primarily of hard working role-players, placing a large emphasis on rebounding, and putting almost the entire offensive focus on the backcourt, he managed to miraculously win the Spanish ACB League in thrilling fashion. This time around he goes deeper with his strategy, searching for even bigger achievements.

Shying away from utilizing an offense featuring one pure playmaking point guard (Real let go of the very useful Justin Hamilton and the talented veteran Elmer Bennett), 6-3 Serbian combo guard Igor Rakocevic joins 6-1 Louis Bullock to form arguably the best scoring backcourt in all of Europe. They are complemented by 6-4 Mous Sonko, another combo guard, but much more defensive minded and not as demanding of the ball. It remains to be seen how effective Real Madrid’s game will be without a real playmaker.

On the wing we find the very athletic and reliable 6-7 Mickaël Gelabale (drafted by the Sonics this summer), a perfect role player who is capable of helping in many departments, but also in constant progression as a player. 6-8 swingman Marko Tomas completes the perimeter core. He’s not expected to have a big impact this season, but he should give a hand in the scoring department while trying to gain playing time through other areas.

The team looks less glamorous in the paint. 6-8 PF Felipe Reyes is the main reference here. Perhaps a bit too limited to be a huge threat at the Euroleague level, he optimizes his size and skills displaying great intensity to look for rebounds and points near the basket. The 6-9 gladiator PF Axel Hervelle (drafted by the Nuggets this summer) will again fight to death for every ball, while looking to open up the court with his improving perimeter stroke. Real Madrid really took advantage of these situations last season to create spaces for penetrations, or for other players to evolve in the low post. But now that Antonis Fotsis is gone, Hervelle remains the only big guy with deep shooting range, which will likely make him a very important piece in the squad.

Centers Eduardo Hernández-Sonseca (7-0), back from his loan to Gran Canaria, and especially Venson Hamilton (6-10), coming off an excellent season with Joventut, will add size, intimidation, rebounding and some low post scoring. Both will have to prove their consistency at this level, particularly Sonseca, a player who sometimes lacks a bit of intensity. Maljkovic has also brought in 7-3 raw center Nenad Sinanovic, whose draft rights belong to the Blazers, as a long-term project for the team.

Enjoying a lot more talent on the perimeter, Real Madrid seems to be an unbalanced squad, with a predictable offense generated by the dynamic backcourt duo (Rakocevic-Bullock). The goal should be to involve every other player in the team game, trying to counter that predictability, but it won't be that easy without a pure point guard. Real will try to dominate the game again this year under the glass, particularly on offensive rebounds with athletic and aggressive players like Hervelle, Reyes and Gelabale, while playing intense defense to make up for its limitations.

Climamio Bologna

2004-2005 Record: 16-4

Dimitris Ritsonis

There might not be another team in Europe right now with the potential of Climamio Bologna. Already a top team from last season and an established powerhouse over the past decade, Climamio will be based on its refreshed roster and will hope for their very promising youngsters to improve into steady and reliable Euroleague contributors during the season. This is a team that is in a rare situation of both trying to maintain their place in Europe's elite while also having the opportunity to develop the team's future, but has clearly taken a step or two back in terms of the proven talent it is putting on the floor. Getting consistent production out of a group of mostly unproven players will be a tough task for coach Jasmin Repesa, whose consistent persistence on the team's young and talented players is now about to be put to the ultimate test.

The point will be led by newcomer guard Sani Becirovic, a gifted player, drafted two summers ago by the Denver Nuggets. Becirovic is an athletic shooter, with an all-around game and promising skills, but who is injury-prone and pretty inconsistent and therefore struggled to develop into the type of elite European talent some thought he would be a few years ago. He will be joined in the young backcourt by the extremely talented 19-year old Marco Belinelli, a very athletic SG with good ball-handling and shooting skills, who is finally being given a chance to prove himself through consistent playing time. Veteran Americans Kiwane Garris and Nate Green will complete and most likely lead this perimeter line, which will be in position to mix youth and experience and eventually give extended opportunities to the rising Bellineli.

The small forward position will be covered by the 22-year old Stefano Mancinelli. Despite going undrafted, Mancinelli showed off his terrific explosiveness and defensive ability both during the top-16 round of last year's Euroleague and leading up to this summer’s Eurobasket tournament, when, although being a rookie, he was one of Italy's best players. He is in position to provide energy his team will need all game long and has all the necessary tools to become a key cog in Bologna's offense option with his developing inside-outside game. He will be substituted by Greek Nestoras Kommatos, a charismatic shooter and scorer, whose excellent first half helped Maccabi Tel Aviv win last year's title game.

Erazem Lorbek, one of Europe's most promising big men, will start in the frontcourt and will share time with newcomer veteran banger Travis Watson. Lorbek exploded last season and will keep progressing on his road to becoming one of Europe's elite big men, thanks to his wide array of offensive skills and outstanding feel for the game. Watson, a great rebounder, despite being only 6-8, played mostly at center last season. He will be a great solution off the bench, covering both for Lorbek and Croatian big man Dalibor Bagaric, who has slowly returned to shape and can show again why he was once considered a superb inside presence for any contending team. Tomas Ress, another newcomer on the team, will be providing solid minutes at PF and some nice scoring opportunities over this balanced frontline.

Montepaschi Siena

2004-2005 Record: 9-11

Kristian Hohnjec

After a somewhat disappointing season last year, losing in the quarterfinals of the Italian league playoffs and failing to advance past the Top 16 group of the Euroleague after two straight Final Four appearances, Montepaschi Siena made some significant changes to their roster this past summer and is now featuring an almost completely new core of players. The results so far have been outstanding as the team is still a perfect 5-0 and in first place in the Italian league.

Siena parted ways with their leading perimeter combo of David Vanterpool and Marvin “Bootsy” Thornton, while also losing Macedonian pick and roll master Vrbica Stefanov and tall Greek shooter Michalis Kakiouzis.

The team doesn’t have any superstars on its roster any longer, but rather a nice group of experienced and reliable players who know their roles and are willing to do the dirty work to come away with wins. American PG Justin Hamilton, who helped Real Madrid last season to the ACB title, will be running the offense for them together with explosive guard Andrea Pecile. The more scoring oriented Duane Woodward and experienced defensive specialist Davide Lamma might also get some time at the point. Siena’s perimeter scoring will depend mostly on aforementioned Woodward and Lithuanian sharpshooter Rimintas Kaukenkas.

The only pure small forward on the team is 17 year old Luigi Datome, who has surprisingly been getting a decent amount of minutes in the Italian league so far. Helping him out here will be Lithuania veteran Mindagas Zukauskas, who appears to be past his prime.

The keys for Montepashci’s frontcourt are 6-7 Shaun Stonerook and 6-9 Vladimer Boisa. Stonerook is very versatile player, being an excellent defender and rebounder, while also possessing a high basketball IQ and superb passing skills. The Georgian Boisa is also multi-dimensional as he can both defend and score with good success, being well-known for his aggressive approach and hustle. Argentinean veteran Marcelo Nicola was brought in from Ukraine mostly for his outside stroke. He played well for Benneton before couple of years and is very good option to have on the bench.

At center Siena has plenty of size. 6-10 Nigerian Benjamin Eze (“the Helicopter”) is constantly improving and this season should finally earn a major role. Eze established some post skills to go along with his awesome combination of strength, massive wingspan and highlight reel caliber athleticism. The 24 year old Eze will be one of the more closely watched players in the league by NBA scouts. Veteran Roberto Chiacig is also very big and strong, but has slow feet and might not have much more left in the tank.

One of biggest Siena’s assets is coach Carlo Recalcati, who made a reputation for himself in Europe by coaching and succeeding with the overachieving Italian National team over the past 5 years. Siena might be in a similar position this year as they are obviously not the strongest squad in Europe from a pure individual talent standpoint. This year they might not be among the most popular favorites, but judging by their performances in the first month of the season they are certainly capable of making noise in the Euroleague.

Benetton Treviso

2004-2005 Record: 12-10

Kristian Hohnjec

As one of most successful clubs in Europe over the last decade, Benetton is consistently among the top contenders for both the Italian and Euroleague championships. Last year was no different as they won the Italian Cup and made it to quarterfinals of the Euroleague. The theme of this highly respected organization over the past few seasons has been to build a quality team of veterans fortified by young and athletic European talents who can be developed and mixed into the system gradually.

The United Colors were active on the market this summer, with their key acquisitions being young and talented guards Nikos Zissis and Drew Nicholas, swingman Ramunas Siskauskas and Petar Popovic and Ernest Kalve – two players who haven’t played major roles so far. The biggest change made over the offseason might have been the hiring of former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Dynamo St Petersburg head coach David Blatt. The American/Israeli Blatt is one of the most highly regarded young coaches in Europe and will play a key role in molding Benetton’s talented young roster into a consistent winner.

The 6-5 Zissis will be the starting PG. Despite his young age (23) he already has plenty of Euroleague experience and played a major factor in this league in an AEK jersey last season. Nikos impresses with his intelligence and passing ability and might be what this team lacked last season being run by Massimo Bulleri, who signed for Milano. His backup will be the reliable Marco Mordente, a very good on-ball defender who has enough experience to run a Euroleague team.

6-3 American SG Drew Nicholas will have to carry much of the scoring burden for Benetton this season. After a one year stint with Tau Ceramica last year Nicholas is returning to Italy, where he initially made name for himself. The Third member of this very strong backcourt is likely the biggest star of the team, Lithuanian Ramunas Siskauskas – a well rounded player who can create for himself and others while also playing very good defense. The captain of the team is Matteo Soragna, a defensive specialist whose offensive production is limited to hitting open shots. The tradition for Benetton has to bring in at least one talented youngster to the team every year, and this time his name is Ernests Kalve. This 18 year old Latvian small forward could become a great scorer at the European level in time, but is not expected to contribute much this season.

Benetton’s frontcourt is not as strong as its backcourt, but is still fairly solid. Marcus Goree is the main man here as he does a great job on the boards and with his interior defense. Goree’s athleticism and leaping abilities are very important to this squad. Alongside him has been starting lately Toronto Raptors draftee Uros Slokar, who is returning from Snaidero Udine where he did well on loan last season. Slokar is a skilled player with a nice jumpshot, but might be too soft on defense and rebounding at times to be a major factor in the Euroleague. The 6th man role for now belongs to 7-foot forward Andrea Bargnani, the best Italian prospect in years and a likely future lottery pick in the NBA draft, who is already a very important piece on this senior squad. If Bargnani can at times play up to his tremendous potential as he did last week against Rome with 25 points in 28 minutes, then Benetton could suddenly become a very dangerous and powerful squad. Bargnani has shown the rare ability of being able to change the game despite his youth, and his emergence might just be the spark that could carry this team back to the Final Four. The last man in the frontcourt rotation is a newcomer from Adriatic League champions Hemorfarm, Petar Popovic. The Serbian center is a very capable scorer in both the high or low post, but is struggling rebounding and defending as he lacks some athleticism.

Considering that their group appears to be the weakest in the competition, Benetton should qualify for the Top 16 without too much trouble.

Armani Milano

2004-2005 Record: Did not play in Euroleague

Kristian Hohnjec

Milano is returning to the elite European league, the Euroleague after a long 7 seasons of absence. They played well in the Italian Lega last year by reaching the finals of the playoffs and therefore securing a spot in this competition. As you may have guessed from the teams name, they are owned by world-famous European designer Giorgio Armani who brings a significant financial boost to the team and enabled Milano to sign some of the most coveted free agents on the Italian market.

Although it will be Milano’s first Euroleague appearance in years they are certainly not an inexperienced team as the average age of this squad is over 28 years old. The leader of the team should be newcomer Massimo Bulleri who played a significant role in the recent success of the Italian National team and won the Italian league MVP award last season. Bulleri should be Armani’s go-to-guy on the offensive end as he can both cut through defenses and shoot the ball from long-range.

Next to Bulleri, Milano has a pair of effective swingmen in scorer Preston Shumpert and versatile Dante Calabria. Shumpert has never played on a Euroleague team before, but is a good scorer who proved himself playing for smaller teams in Lega. Calabria is a 32-year old veteran who had a great year last season and carried that into the Italian National team at the Eurobasket in September. Both players can stroke it well from outside, while Calabria can also take the burden off Bulleri when it comes to handling the ball and creating off the dribble. The first man off the bench should be Dusan Vukcevic, another player with plenty of seasoning behind him who should help with his remarkable outside shooting.

The key to the frontcourt is 2002-2003 Euroleague MVP Joseph Blair, a 6-10 Center who might be past his prime, but is still among the best rebounders you will find in Europe. His main strengths are his toughness and defense, while he also possesses some very useful post moves. Newcomer Giacomo Galanda is the complete opposite of Blair as he prefers to hang out on the perimeter. This 30-year old PF/C is the owner of a smooth and very accurate jumpshot with range beyond the three-point line. Helping inside will be Spaniard Diego Fajardo who should help on the boards, while Sven Schultze will provide some low-post scoring.

Although being placed in the toughest group in the competition, Milano should qualify for the Top 16 if all goes well, as they have many players who are experienced winning big games in their career. With Giorigio Armani at the club there is always the possibility of landing a big free agent who would make Milano a legitimate contender as well. Even if this doesn’t happen, Armani is definitely not a team to underestimate.

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