MACCABI TEL AVIV
by Jonathan Givony
To say that Maccabi Tel Aviv is the most dominant team in the history of Israeli basketball would be an understatement. 44 Israeli league championships, 34 Israeli cup wins, and 4 European championships (1977, 1981, 2001, 2004) in 10 finals appearances since 1954 have established them as one of the most successful and important teams in the history of European basketball, despite the fact that geographically, Israel is technically not a part of Europe.
Last season, Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euroleague final on their home floor in Tel Aviv in emphatic fashion - ( final four articles: part 1 and part 2) picking apart Skipper Bologna completely 118-74 in one of the most impressive performances in Euroleague history.
After a short drought in the late 90s, Maccabi has once again risen to the top of Europe basketball and is one of the favorite teams to go all the way year in, year out. This year is no different.
Maccabi Tel Aviv is partially (33%) owned by Ra'anan Katz, also an important partner in the ownership of the Miami Heat. In terms of ticket sales, they are the best supported team in Europe over the past few years, boasting one of the loudest and most intimidating basketball arenas in the world (Nokia Arena, formerly known as Yad Eliyahu).
Maccabi returns most of its firepower from last year's dominant team and has replaced the players that have left with a few more key (but fiscally responsible) signings.
In terms of style of basketball, Maccabi could be compared with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA, minus the constant juggling and tweaking of the team's roster. They led the Euroleague in scoring (90 points per game), field goal percentage (59%) and assists (18 per game) last season with their exciting, up and down, high-pace, athletic, attacking style of play, led by their three fantastic ball-handlers at the 1, 2 and 3 (Jasikevicus, Parker and Burstein) who can all bring the ball up the floor and set up the offense if needed. If there is any team in Europe that might remind you of an NBA squad (or at least, the kind of NBA team you would like to watch), it's Maccabi Tel Aviv. They have a number of players who can take over a game on any given night and score 20-25 points if needed. The only question is, will there be enough shots to go around for so many incredibly talented offensive players? Will Head Coach Pini Gershon find a way to get a stop defensively when he really needs it? Maccabi knew how to flip the switch last year (especially defensively) when they REALLY needed it, can they do it again? This team was as unpredictable as they get last season, coming back in dramatic fashion multiple times on the road and/or at the buzzer, switching uncontrollably from looking incredibly dominant, sometimes unstoppable (like in the finals), to a team that couldn't get a stop defensively no matter how hard they tried.
A big point of concern is the departure of highly regarded assistant coach David Blatt (hired by the wealthy Russian expansion team Dynamo St. Petersburg to build a team from scratch). In a situation unlike most basketball clubs, Blatt played a huge role for Maccabi and was even the head coach for two seasons (and one final four berth) until Gershon came out of retirement. He has a very special relationship with his players and is considered one of the great tactical minds of Europe (especially defensively) and almost a surefire candidate to coach in the NBA one day if the situation is right. Blatt will be sorely missed on Maccabi's bench, that much is certain.
Yotam Halperin has long been considered the great hope of Israeli basketball but has seen his stock (and Israeli basketball fans' faith) go down over the past year and a half because of a lack of playing time and what appears to be a lack of significant improvement in key areas (especially his confidence). He did play well, though, in last year's Final Four and was also the #1 scorer in the U-20 European Junior Championships in Czech Republic this past summer. He requested permission to leave for a team that would provide him with more playing time shortly afterwards, but eventually ended up staying with the promise of a bigger role with the team. It's hard to say whether that will materialize or not, although he did get off to a terrific start in Maccabi's first game in the Israeli league, scoring 25 points on fantastic percentages. As a 21-year-old 1984 prospect, Halperin will have to show the scouts that he is a mature player who's capable of contributing at the top level of Europe in order to have any shot at being drafted this year (or at least high enough to make it worth coming and staying out).
The 28 year old Lithuanian, Sarunas Jasikevicius, who should be a household name in any proper basketball home by now after his heroic performances in the Olympics and every other competition he has participated in, and who we've told you about many times (link: http://www.draftexpress.com/viewarticle.php?a=5) is the starting PG and is easily considered the #1 playmaker in Europe today. His lethal combination of outstanding handles, fantastic court vision and deadly outside shooting ability make him an almost impossible player to guard on the European level. Any effort to slow down Maccabi's offense will have to start here. Jasikevicius had the opportunity to leave Tel Aviv this offseason for the NBA or another team in Europe but this never materialized for various (and sometimes conflicting) reasons. CSKA Moscow offered to make him the highest paid player in Europe and compensate Maccabi to the tune of 1 million dollars but Jasikevicius decided not to move to Russia. Barcelona is the city he calls home and many reports indicate that he will indeed sign there at the end of the year, now that coach Pesic (who doesn't appreciate his matador defense) is gone. Both teams are in the same group here and the already fascinating matchup between them just became that much more intriguing.
The only reason Jasikevicius can't be called the best guard in Europe is because of his American teammate Anthony Parker, (see article linked above for more detail) who is more of a swingman anyway. Parker has all the tools to take over any game he wants (on both sides of the floor), but will only do so in the context of the offense when his services are most needed. His high-flying reverse dunks, alleyoops, unselfish play and outstanding character have made him one of the most popular athletes in Israel. His ability to continue to hit the open three when it's there along with his distributing skills and especially his defense will be key essential elements if Maccabi is to repeat their accomplishments from last year.
24 year old Tal Burstein, the leading Israeli player on this team, is a valuable utility player that can do a little bit of everything. He has very good ball-handling and playmaking skills to go with a 6-7 (199 centimeters) frame and can also play some very good defense if needed. Athletically, he is definitely above average on the European level. His outside shooting is sometimes a cause for concern, and many Maccabi fans will tell you that they were not satisfied with the way he played for most of last season, although he did improve as the season progressed. Burstein is sometimes too passive and won't take advantage of his physical advantages, but there is room for optimism because of his young age.
The last, but definitely not least of Maccabi's most important cogs is the Croatian PF/C Nikola Vujcic. Vujcic is yet another young talent who has caught the attention of NBA scouts and his presence inside and around the post will be crucial to Maccabi's success this year. Vujcic is blessed with above average athleticism and a nice physical stature, but he is also a fairly smart player that is capable of making good decisions with the ball in his hands, especially in the high post. He is easily one of the best big men in Europe and would probably score 20-25 points a game on any other team with less offensive firepower, although his 17 points per game last year are nothing to be ashamed of. He has a crucial role on the team as the anchor of Maccabi's defense, especially when they are playing zone. His defense has often left a lot to be desired, this is an area that NBA scouts will most likely be looking for improvement if possible.
Other important players:
Nestoras Kommatos was brought to Maccabi from Aris Saloniki in Greece to replace the outside shooting of NBA departed David Bluthenthal (see article above). He was the top scorer in the Greek league last year with just over 21 points per game and is capable of playing both the 3 and the 4 spots. He is a pure scorer (but not a superb shooter) and it will be very interesting to see how he meshes with the rest of the team, which is built on ball movement and unselfishness. Kommatos will be eager to prove this season that he should have been invited to Greek's national team squad after being snubbed for the locally held Olympics this past summer. It's possible that he could compete for a starting spot in Maccabi's lineup at the 3 spot as the season progresses and there is almost no doubt that he will be a key player in Maccabi's rotation. Much like the player he was brought to replace, the Sacramento King David Bluthenthal, Kommatos has NBA aspirations. Just like with Bluthenthal, Maccabi will try to mask his defensive shortcomings with their trademark matchup zone defense.
The high flying, unpredictable Maceo Baston, formerly from the Toronto Raptors, is a perfect example of a player who's skills are much better suited for Europe then for the NBA. He is an ultra athletic Power Forward that can also play the 5 spot if needed. He brings energy, hustle, rebounding, shotblocking and a whole lot of excitement to the table everytime he suits up. Baston isn't a particularly skilled player technically, he can not shoot the ball from anywhere outside of the paint and gets most of his points off of putbacks and fast breaks. Nevertheless, he's a very valuable player to have on the European level, especially defensively.
Maccabi has a few other role players who played a big part in their success last year. Long time backup PG Derrick Sharp will forever be remembered in Israel and Lithuania for his miracle hand of god buzzer beating shot that sent the crucial game to overtime against Sabonis' Zalgiris team and eventually propelled Maccabi to the Final Four back home in Israel. Yotam Halperin will be competing with Sharp for his minutes off the bench at the 1 and 2 spots (more on him later). Young Israeli national team big man Yaniv Green is fresh off an excellent performance and training camp invite with the Detroit Pistons and he will compete for a starting spot as well. He brings defense, athleticism, hustle and a lot of energy and could play a key role if he can earn his minutes. The aging captain Gur Shelef will probably see his role decreased even more this season, although he is often used for throwing the ball in from out of bounds (he made that unbelievable pass to Derrick Sharp at the buzzer at Zalgiris to send the game to overtime) because of his terrific court vision.
Anything less than reaching the final four with such a talented team will be considered a huge disappointment for the fans, owners, media and most likely the players. Maccabi has all the tools to make it to Moscow, although the road will most likely be just as bumpy as it was last year. Maccabi's budget is smaller than many of the top European teams, but in terms of quality, it would be hard to find a team with such talent and depth at every single position except for possibly the New York Yankees of Europe, CSKA Moscow.
Maccabi will make the Final Four this year once again if everyone can stay relatively healthy and Gershon can control the team in the locker room and keep everyone happy in terms of playing time.
by Luis Fernández
F.C.Barcelona has become an institution in European basketball over the past two decades. No other team in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Maccabi Tel-Aviv, has maintained such an elite status so consistently during this span of time. They played in the final of the European Cup (the name of the Euroleague competition back then) in 1984, and since the Final Four system was put in place in 1988, they've reached this stage eight times (89, 90, 91, 94, 96, 97, 00, 03), advancing five times to the final (90, 91, 96, 97, 03), and finally getting the elusive European championship crown in 2003 while hosting the event. Of course, that European dominance has been translated to the domestic level in Spain, winning the last eleven of eighteen ACB Leagues (including the last two), after decades of Real Madrid's dictatorship in Spanish basketball. For sure basketball has gained everybody's respect in this soccer club (the F stands for football).
Once again, F.C.Barcelona features a very talented team full of great European players. The prototype player they use is tall, versatile and perimeter-oriented, able to function in more than one position. Dejan Bodiroga (SF, 6-9, 31), Gregor Fucka (PF, 7-1, 33), Christian Drejer (SG, 6-9, 22), Rodrigo de la Fuente (SG/SF, 6-6, 27), Jordi Trías (SF/PF, 6-9, 24) or Roger Grimau (PG/SG, 6-5, 26) all fill this description. The size on this team has been a pattern for a long time, including the days when Pau Gasol was experimenting at the small forward spot. The difference this year rests in a thinner paint game, with solid center Patrick Femerling and athletic power forward Anderson Varejao out of the picture, F.C.Barcelona has replaced them with a raw Marc Gasol (C, 7-0, 19) and the combo forward (more of a three than a four) Jordi Trías. A big risk, especially in the middle, where besides Gasol's rawness, we find the often-injured Roberto Dueñas (C, 7-3, 29).
Anyway, this team has assets to compete against anyone. With many players capable of breaking his match-up down in one-on-one situations, like Dejan Bodiroga, Juan Carlos Navarro (SG, 6-3, 24) Gregor Fucka, Vlado Ilievski (PG, 6-2, 24) or Christian Drejer, we will often see a succession of guys cutting towards the three point line to receive the ball and threat with penetrating, just to execute it, feed someone inside, perhaps shoot the ball, or simply give the ball to the next guy cutting out.
The post-up game is another used option. Besides the more obvious post players like Roberto Dueñas, Marc Gasol or Gregor Fucka (who anyway prefer to face the basket), some perimeter players like to take advantage of the mismatches created by the tall line-ups Barcelona usually plays. We're talking specifically about Dejan Bodiroga and Rodrigo de la Fuente. We will often see a super-sized perimeter threat featuring, for example, those two players plus Christian Drejer to allow those mismatches to drown the rival's rebounding or to build a defensive wall. De la Fuente's ability to defend any perimeter player (he's one of the best in this department in Europe) makes this possible for this team. And while this strategy can knock out the rival, it also implies a danger for F.C.Barcelona, as sometimes this loose perimeter fluidness suffers from missing a pure point player. But despite having some stars in love with their individual efforts, like Dejan Bodiroga or Juan Carlos Navarro, almost everybody has the talent, skills, vision court and basketball IQ to build a good team offense.
Beyond anything, though, this team has a special killer instinct. They play their best in the fourth quarter, and it's very difficult to beat them if the game is undecided close to the end. Dejan Bodiroga is one of the most clutch players in Europe, and other guys like Navarro, Ilievsky or de la Fuente usually hit their shots down the stretch.
This crop won't likely suffer on defense either. The little flaws of players like Bodiroga or Navarro are compensated with a super stopper like Rodrigo de la Fuente and a good overall team defense. Besides, this team enjoys the size to make its rival's life a nightmare, especially near the basket when Gregor Fucka and Roberto Dueñas are on the floor. One weak point may be found in Roberto Dueñas, though. While he's huge and very intimidating, his lack of quickness hurts the team sometimes, especially in pick and roll situations.
A matter of concern is coach Svetislav Pesic's departure early in the season. He was the coach who in just two years commanding the team, carried F.C.Barcelona to the most successful era in its history, winning the Spanish ACB League twice, one Spanish King's Cup and most importantly, the competition this club had been tracking down for so many years: the Euroleague. The first games under the new head coach direction, Joan Montes, have left a sweet taste so far, though. This team is playing at a great level early in the season already, with a more exciting and higher tempo basketball than it used to show under Pesic's guidance before. But it might be another story when the decisive games come. Pesic style might have not been especially bright, but he has gotten the job done throughout his career.
Víctor Sada (PG, 6-4, 20) will never be a prospect unless he sorts out his long-range shooting problems. Right now, he's awful. Really. But on the other hand, he's quite athletic, a good defender, and a hell of rebounder considering his position on the court (he got an astonishing third place with more than 9 boards per game in the recent Under 20 European Championships). As a distributor and a passer, he's nothing more than decent right now, but he has made some improvements lately. I think he will have room in this team and play, probably not many minutes, but quite often. He's the second point guard on the team, although his teammates' versatility can leave him on the bench all game long.
The two-time Final Four MVP Dejan Bodiroga is still the brightest star in the Old Continent's sky, and is the man in charge of leading this team to big achievements. He's one of the most skilled and fundamentally sound players you will find anywhere in the world, and he gets the job done as much as it seems he's playing in slow-motion. From shooting from everywhere, to posting up his defender, penetrating, passing, rebounding, taking over the point guard duties... there's so much basketball in Bodiroga that its just scary sometimes. While on the court, he's the axis of his team's game, which often leads to the team settling for a slower offensive pace that better suits Dejan's game. That's perhaps the only negative outcome of this fantastic player. He will be the guy making the big plays down the stretch.
If Gregor Fucka had been born eight years later or so, he would have made a solid career in the NBA making big bucks. Picture this: A 7 footer plus power forward, extremely coordinated, very quick to penetrate, with deep range on his shot, a good post-up game, almost ambidextrous, very skilled and fundamentally sound. A nightmare match-up for any player. He's a luxury for any team in Europe, and although not always consistent, he plays his best in the important games.
Roberto DueÃ±as will be F.C.Barcelona's main reference in the paint. He's just huge, strong as a rock and quite intelligent playing the game. Drafted by the Bulls in the second round of 1998 (his draft rights currently belong to the Hornets) his main problem is his enormous lack of foot speed. His health will be one of the team's main concerns all season long.
Truly a scoring machine, Juan Carlos Navarro is coming off a bad Olympic tournament and needs to once again find his A game. Quick as the devil and very skilled to find ways to score, he's a permanent headache for any rival.
Christian Drejer still needs to gain importance on this team, but he's clearly one of the players with the most potential. At 6-9 he can play both wing positions given his athleticism, shooting and slashing ability, not to mention his excellent passing skills. He needs to get smarter on defense (he's very foul prone right now) and start taking more decisions on the offensive end.
With the tranquility of having already won the Euroleague just two years ago, F.C.Barcelona faces this upcoming season with the hope of reaching the final four. The team is very talented, although it could be better balanced.
Although it's never easy, and it depends on the groups formed in the top-16 round, F.C.Barcelona should make it to the quarterfinals and fight for a spot in the Final Four.
by Marius Nevedomskas and Almantas Kiveris
Zalgiris Kaunas has been the flag-man of the Lithuanian basketball tradition for 60 years. The club was established in 1944 in the second-largest city of the country, Kaunas, which is unofficially considered "the basketball capital of Lithuania.
Zalgiris entered the European scene in the early 1980s with the arrival of a new talented generation of Lithuanian players, including Sergejus Jovaisa, Valdemaras Chomicius, Rimas Kurtinaitis and, above all, the phenomenal center Arvydas Sabonis. This bunch managed to win USSR golden medals three times in a row, and their finals series with CSKA Moscow is considered the classic of the Soviet club basketball. At that time, Zalgiris could be considered one of the strongest teams of Europe. They didn't manage to win major European titles however, getting to the final of the European Champions' Cup once (in 1986) and losing there to Cibona Zagreb and Drazen Petrovic. However, Zalgiris has paid back Cibona by beating them and winning the prestigious Intercontinental W. Jones Cup in 1986, which was an annual tournament for the best South American and European basketball teams.
The late 1980s were darkened by injuries of Sabas, who tore both his left and right achilles tendons. The club was on a downward slope. After the raising of the Iron Curtain, the best players of Zalgiris went abroad to richer clubs, and the team was really weak in the early 1990s. The team dominated the Lithuanian national championship, but couldn't show anything of worth on the European scene.
The superb Lithuanian basketball tradition, however, with its network of youth schools and coaches, was always there. It took Zalgiris several years to reorganize and grow into a superb team, drawing on the talent of a new generation of Lithuanian players as well as foreign recruits, led by the head coach Jonas Kazlauskas. In 1999, the team achieved its greatest success ever, winning the Euroleague while displaying a superb, fast-paced style of basketball.
After that win followed a period of mediocrity due to financial and management problems inside the club. The team was a rather average contender on the European scene. Moreover, in that period, Zalgiris lost the Lithuanian gold to their Vilnius contenders, Rytas team, in 2000 and 2002 (in the 1990s, the Kaunas team had won all the Lithuanian championships).
Things changed in 2003, when the legendary center Arvydas Sabonis decided to quit his NBA career, leave the Portland Trail Blazers and keep his promise to come back and play for Zalgiris. Sabonis also bought the controlling stake of his native club and became its owner, trying to put an end to internal management conflicts.
The 2003-2004 season was almost, but not quite for Zalgiris. In the national championship, the Kaunas club won the gold easily, defeating Rytas Vilnius 4-0 in the finals series. In the Euroleague, the team was experiencing serious problems at first, having big difficulties in adjusting their game to Sabas' presence. Zalgiris qualified for the Top-16 phase only by a whisker, being the sixth best team of the group and qualifying by the differential of points scored. As the season wore on, the team gelled better and displayed more understanding of each other on the court. The Top-16 group had three contenders for the Final Four (Zalgiris, Pamesa Valencia and Maccabi Tel Aviv) and one outsider (Ulker Istanbul). Zalgiris defeated the Turks handily both away and at home, but suffered two hopeless losses against Pamesa, undone by their duo of mobile forward-centers Dejan Tomasevic and Fabricio Oberto, as well as the superb game of the veteran Antoine Rigaudeau in Kaunas. The Lithuanians had lost to Maccabi both times in the first group stage, but in the Top-16 tournament, the Israelis were blown off the court in Kaunas. The deciding match for the Final Four berth took place in Tel Aviv between those two teams. The match turned out to be probably the most painful loss of Zalgiris Kaunas, maybe in all of Lithuanian basketball. Led by Sabonis, the Lithuanians took control in the last quarter of the game and had a 6-point advantage in the last minute. When Maccabi cut it to 3 points and Zalgiris guard Giedrius Gustas went to the free-throw line with two seconds remaining on the clock, the victory looked secure. However, Gustas didn't keep his calm and missed both free throws. Moreover, Zalgiris PF-C Tanoka Beard stepped into the paint too early during the second free throw, giving Maccabi the opportunity to inbound the ball from under their basket. A long pinpoint pass by Gur Shelef to Derrick Sharp, who used Zalgiris' leniency in defense to catch the ball, a quick dribble and a superb three pointer, and the teams were headed to overtime. There, the Lithuanians without the fouled-out Sabas, were easy prey for the confident Maccabi.
Hence, the 2003-2004 season left really mixed emotions in the hearts of Zalgiris fans. Objectively speaking, the team achieved much more than during the previous several years, getting within a whisker of the Final Four and displaying some great basketball. On the other hand, the devastating loss in Tel Aviv put a mark of extreme disappointment on the season.
Zalgiris has kept practically all the team from the 2003-2004 season, except for the main PG, the American Ed Cota. Keeping most of the lineup can be considered a major asset and strength, but losing such an important part as Cota can draw back a team a bit. In the previous season, it took a considerable amount of time for the team to gel. But anyway now, with the core members unchanged, this should be an easier task.
A couple of factors hindered the preparation for the 2004-2005 season. One was the departure of Ed Cota and the inability of the team for a long time to sign a worthy replacement at PG. (Probably also related to the death of the main scouting man of the club, Arunas Pakula, in the summer). Robert Pack was signed in mid-October, while the club was still looking for a possible recruit at SG/SF at that time.
The other thing was a series of injuries to the players. Darjus Lavrinovic missed almost the entire 2003-2004 season because of knee injury, and he'll be out for the start of the 2004-2005 season as well. Dainius Salenga, a member of the Lithuanian Olympic team in Athens, tore ligaments in one of his fingers and could be missing about a month. Ainars Bagatskis was seriously injured in the opening match of the Lithuanian Basketball League and will be out until the New Year approximately.
The major strength of the team probably lies in its front court. Arvydas Sabonis and Tanoka Beard form the main duo, assisted by Paulius Jankunas, Arturas Javtokas and Darjus Lavrinovic. These are players of very different styles of play, giving the coaches various rotation options. The areas under question (at least for the time being) will be the PG spot and shooting.
As said, Ed Cota was replaced by Robert Pack as the main PG, and how he fits in with the team remains to be seen.
Shooting was a problem for Zalgiris in the 2003-2004 season. The best sniper of the team, Latvian veteran Ainars Bagatskis, is out with an injury, but will be back after New Years. Meanwhile, one might expect the young SG/SF Simonas Serapinas to have a breakthrough year in the Euroleague. The guy showed considerable improvement in the previous season, earning an invitation to the NT training camp in the summer. This season, S. Serapinas is showing constantly superb form in the national league, it is to be seen how he will be able to take it to the Euroleague stage.
Arvydas Sabonis, the legendary Lithuanian center, embodies Zalgiris. Having come to the team at the age of 16, Sabas returned from America in 2003 and, despite his age and nagging health problems, became the MVP of the Euroleague regular season and Top-16. He'll be turning 40 years of age this December, but still expect him to be the focal man on the Zalgiris team. Sabas will most likely concentrate on the Euroleague and the most important local Lithuanian matches against Rytas Vilnius, taking a rest during the
encounters with lesser Lithuanian rivals. Lack of mobility is the major drawback of Sabas, but he has other assets on the court: strength and height in the paint, good shot from anywhere, great passing skills and overall reading of the game.
Tanoka Beard, PF/C. The man with great physical abilities, he used to play at the C spot before Sabas' return, but had to shift to PF more often after that. Not a very good shooter from further out, he still prefers to play C and bang hard under the rim.
Mindaugas Timinskas, SG/SF/PF. Captain of the team, this player is mostly renowned for his fiery character, leadership qualities and the hard work done on the court at both ends. He is useful in rebounding and fighting for loose balls, but also has decent penetration skills and shooting touch. He sometimes gets technical fouls way too quickly because of conflicts with referees.
Dainius Salenga, SG/SF. Athletic guy, a very important part of the team's defense and fast-breaks. Notorious for his streaky shooting, having both hot and cold days.
Paulius Jankunas, PF. A young product of the Zalgiris youth system who instantly earned his spot on the senior team's roster in the 2003-2004 season, impressing already in his first Euroleague game against Panathinaikos. He is a lanky, mobile PF with a niche for rebounding, often in the right place at the right time. He has a good shot from mid-range as well.
Darjusas Lavrinovicius, PF/C. Twin brother of Ksystofas Lavrinovicius, who was a member of the Lithuanian NT in the Athens Olympics. Always considered the more talented of the brothers, Darjusas missed almost the entire 2003-2004 season because of injury. It's not clear what shape he'll be in after coming back. He is a mobile PF/C with a superb outside shot and good post-up game.
Arturas Javtokas, PF. A guy with rather low technical skills, having physical strength as his main asset. Used mainly to give rest to other frountcourt members. Sometimes the coaches put Arturas in the starting five with the task of harassing a dangerous tall opponent on defense, giving the other Zalgiris forwards a rest, often using up his 5 foul limit.
Simonas Serapinas, SG/SF. Always known as a superb sharp-shooter, Simonas has shown considerable physical improvement lately and is now also a big offensive threat while penetrating. Still has to put his mark on the European stage.
Robert Pack, PG. A new signing to replace the departed Ed Cota, the guy has yet to play a single game with Zalgiris. His debut will be awaited with great anxiety by all the fans.
Vidas Ginevicius, PG. Could be okay at the back-up PG spot, but not good enough for the starting position.
Ainars Bagatskis, SG. Veteran Latvian player, the golden hand, maybe the best pure shooter on the roster (competing with Serapinas). Shows serious limitations in defense because of his age; lack of mobility, problems stopping the opponents' penetrations.
Paulius Jankunas (20) and Simonas Serapinas (21) might be considered prospects.
Jankunas is an amazingly talented post player and even if he's quite small (203 cm), with his quick body and great moves, he can dominate in European basketball. Also, he has great flair for rebounds, both on offense and defense. He can hit from mid-range, but he seems too small to be a normal PF in the NBA. But that hasn't stopped him from becoming a top-Euroleague player in a few years.
Serapinas, who, two years ago, was put to the garbage section by some who saw him playing, now is the best fantasy sleeper in the newly formed Euroleague Fantasy Challenge. The young guard has made enormous improvements during the last two years. His shooting touch is always with him and now he has added some penetration skills also. Being 198 cm tall, he has enough height even for the NBA, but not like Jankunas, who had played in Euroleague and was always with youth NTs in international tournaments, Serapinas almost never tasted international basketball. But he'll have a chance to at the start of the season as injuries to Salenga and Bagatskis have put him as the only real SG on the team.
As injuries cut into the lineup, Zalgiris has added 3 youngsters from the Zalgiris Junior team to their main squad. The name of Martynas Andriuskevicius is of course known by all of you (if not, you found the right site to learn something), it's just hard to spell it. The other two guys, SF Vilmantas Dilys and PG Gediminas Navickas, might be new to most of you.
We won't give you another look at Andriuskevicius's profile (which you can find in our database), rather, we will discuss his probable playing time with the main team. In the three games already played in the Lithuanian basketball league, which Zalgiris won by about 30 points each, Andriuskevicius logged only 15 minutes. In the first game, he got in during the last 3 minutes and had a put back. He missed the second game but was a protagonist in the last one. When he entered the court with 5 minutes to play in the second quarter and Zalgiris down by 5, he scored 7 points in a one minute span (including a three point shot) and his team never looked back. In 12 minutes he finished with 13 points, 4 rebounds (3 offensive), 5/6 FG, 2/2 FT, 1 steal and 1 block. You can expect similar playing time in the next Lithuanian league games, but he might be used very little, if used at all at the Euroleague level. Simply because the team is looking only for victories there and improving player skills is left for domestic matches.
Only 17 years old, the 202 cm SF Dilys surprised almost all with his debut for the team. The NBA seems to be his goal, because you never saw such a self-confident (or selfish?) player in a country where team play is a must. Choosing number 23 doesn't deny such illusion, does it? Dilys, if with the ball in his hand, sometimes didn't even give a look to the players on his team who are twice as old as he. In the last game he was in the starting lineup, but after forcing 3 attacks, he was punished and benched for the whole game. Anyway, being 17 years old, having a great body and being so confident in his opening game makes you wonder what will happen with this guy when he becomes 20 or so. It's hard to expect him to appear in Euroleague, but he showed himself for the fans in Lithuania and surely will be the name to talk about in the coming seasons.
The tiny 179 cm Navickas is the oldest of the three. He's 20 years old and probably shouldn't be mentioned in any NBA prospects talks, but his incredible speed and active defense makes basketball fans admire his game.
Budget-wise, Zalgiris is one of the poorest teams of the Euroleague (2-3 million EUR). Probably, only Opel Skyliners Frankfurt and Prokom Trefl Sopot have lower budgets in the whole Euroleague.
However, the Sabas factor outweighs this for the time being. A. Sabonis, being the owner of the team, plays for free, although he does receive some kind of formal salary from his own pocket.
The Euroleague group of Zalgiris can be considered more or less a balanced one (unlike in the previous season, when the club was drawn into a group of death, which included all of the eventual members of the Final Four!):
- AEK Athens
- ASVEL Villeurbane
- Maccabi Tel Aviv
- Montepaschi Siena
- Olimpija Ljubljana
- Scavolini Pesaro
- Zalgiris Kaunas
The opening match on November 1 will be held in Kaunas, against Maccabi Tel Aviv. At the same time, big festivities will be held in the city to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the club. For that occasion, the Euroleague General Assembly is also planned for Kaunas at the same time. More spice is added to the hype, of course, by that dramatic loss of Zalgiris in Tel Aviv several months ago. Hence, the Zalgiris Euroleague campaign is going to open with a bang.
The group should be considered manageable, and Zalgiris should be expected to earn a Top-16 place more assuredly than the previous season. Maccabi, Barcelona and Montepaschi should probably be considered the main favorites of the group.
One could mention that two of the groups' teams are kind of dark horsesand Zalgiris has an unhappy history against them: Montepaschi Siena and Olimpija Ljubljana. Breaking the curse against those two clubs and registering at least one victory will be a topic of discussion for the Lithuanian fans.
Overall, the fans of Zalgiris will expect the team to do better than the previous season and take at least one step further -- that is, make it into the Final Four. The Euroleague title is not talked about loudly, but the
secret thought is there in many of the supporters' minds. (What a symbolic achievement that might be - Sabas' 40th anniversary, Zalgiris' 60th anniversary, and the final year of Sabas career to crown it all!)
Zalgiris is probably very unpredictable this season. Much will hinge on the health and shape of Arvydas Sabonis, which was a large factor the previous season as well. Top-16 would be a realistic goal for this team, but it isn't the thing fans want to hear as Final-Four is the must for them.
ADECCO ASVEL VILLEURBANNE
by Malek Ait-Kaci
Adecco Asvel is rebuilding again, for the third time in 4 years. But this time the rebuilding plan should go smoother as the Turkish coach Erman Kunter is a great communicator and organizer.
The last title of Adecco Asvel was in 2002, with the team being coached by Bogdan Tanjevic at the time, beating its biggest rival Pau-Orthez in the final. Last year was nightmarish for Asvel, finishing 12th in the French League and losing 12 times in the Euroleague. After it's worst season in the last decade Asvel is still playing in the Euroleague this year due to a controversial prearranged agreement with ULEB two years ago that guaranteed them entrance and therefore a stable budget.
Asvel's best result in the Euroleague was a final four appearance in 1997 when the team was led by Delaney Rudd.
Erman Kunter's teams have always overachieved whether it was in Turkey or in France with Cholet last year. Kunter brought point guard Terrell Lyday from Cholet and will hand him the keys to the team. Kunter also used his Turkish contacts to get Huyesin Besok, Tomislav Ruzic and Stephane Pelle. This interior trio combines good defense in the paint with the ability to kick the ball out to the perimeter scorers Karim Souchou and Harold Mrazek. Makan Dioumassi is the defensive stopper of the team and can use his ball handing to help Terrell Lyday if needed.
The beginning of the French League showed that the scoring load will be split between Karim Souchou, Terrell Lyday and Stephane Pelle with Huyesin Besok getting his usual 12 points or so per game while there is also a nice scoring duo from the bench in Tomislav Ruzic and Harold Mrazek.
Potential starting five and back ups:
PG Terrell Lyday / Yohann Sangare
SG Karim Souchu / Makan Dioumassi
SF Danny Miller / Harold Mrazek
PF Stephane Pelle / Herve Tour
C Huyesin Besok / Tomislav Ruzic
Kunter took a big bet by signing Huyesin Besok after two years with nearly zero games played due to injuries, but if Besok finds his old form from his days in Efes Pilsen (former leading rebounder of the Euroleague) the bet will be nicely rewarded. Huyesin Besok is a double-double machine with nice hands. He started the season slowly, but is beginning to find himself as he showed in his performance against Hyeres-Toulon: 18 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists.
Terrell Lyday will set up the offense and score when his team needs him to. Playing last year in Cholet with Kunter as the coach he is already familiar with the offense.
Karim Souchu, after playing four years for Furman (Southern Conference) starts his second year with Asvel. He has a nice set of offensive skills, but doesn't use it as efficiently as he could. He is still average on the defensive end and has to improve this in order to play for the French national team which is loaded with talented wings (Boris Diaw, Mickael Pietrus, Alain Digbeu, Laurent Foirest).
Stephane Pelle started the season very well, being a beast on the boards and scoring in the paint at will. His cooperation with Huyesin Besok will surprise a lot of Euroleague teams.
Finally Makan Dioumassi plays his second year with Asvel and this defensive specialist is also known in France as the Steve Nash stopper because of an epic performance against the leader of the Canadian team during the Olympics.
Yohann Sangare plays his second season with Asvel, he will get few back up minutes behind Lyday. He is very quick and can shoot from the perimeter, but lacks experience and some penetrating skills to be effective enough on offense.
Olivier Gouez plays his first season with the pros after three years with INSEP (team where Tony Parker, Jerome Moiso, Boris Diaw and Johan Petro played and grew up). Olivier Gouez will not see much action this year as he is raw on offense and isn't a good rebounder. Keep an eye on him, big bodies are always useful in the Euroleague and he will learn a lot practicing against Besok and Pelle.
Asvel and Erman Kunter are expecting a Top 16 qualification in a group B where FC Barcelona and Montepaschi Siena are the favorites.
If the team can stay healthy (mainly Huyesin Besok) Asvel will reach the Top 16 and then may have the tools to fight for a spot in the Quarterfinals.
by Dimitris Ritsonis
AEK-Athens is one of the most important teams in Greek basketball. In 1968, they were European Cup Winners, a title repeated almost 30 years later (2000, Saporta Cup). After a long period of protagonists from the city of Thessaloniki (Aris and PAOK) throughout the 80's and early 90's, tons of money started being invested in the major clubs of Athens, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, which drove to the complete change of the picture. AEK came next, investing in the talent of very young prospects Nikos Hatzis and Mihalis Kakiouzis, who had been key players to the U-19 Greek Junior National Team that captured the World Championship in 1995. AEK then managed to finish second in both the Euroleague (losing to then-Kinder Bologna 58-44) and the Greek Championship (losing to Olympiakos) in 1998, under coach Yannis Ioannidis and famous players like Anthony Bowie, Jake Tsakalidis and Victor Alexander. In 2001, they lost to TAU 3-0 in the semi-finals series of the Euroleague. In 2002, they were Greek champions (for the 8th time) after decades, under Dragan Sakota with star-players like Hatzis, Kakiouzis, Dimos Dikoudis, Andrew Betts, Arian Komazec , Nikos Zissis and J.R. Holden. They have been a question mark since then, being dismissed both times before the top-16 in the Euroleague, while twice being in the top-4 of the Greek League.
This could be AEK's last year in the ULEB Euroleague for some seasons. AEK owns one of the three contracts with ULEB, which expire at the end of the season and was part of a system ULEB used to tempt well-known European clubs to participate in the new Euroleague system. The other two contracts are owned by Panathinaikos and Olympiakos and this means that participation in the Euroleague is not decided by the top-3 teams, but by the most known teams in Greece, which in 2001 were Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK. Lat year, however, Olympiakos finished 8th, but the contract allows the Reds to participate for one last year in the competition too.
AEK is publicized from the press as being strengthened compared to last year, however it is not very complete, especially in the front-line. The game of the team is basically focused on the perimeter and mostly on the combo of shooting stars Nikos Zissis (21, 6-5) and Nikos Hatzis (28, 6-5), the team's only returnees from the Greek Championship of 2002. Zissis will handle the point, but has started playing there only this year, as he was starting at the SG position over the past two seasons. They are both very good shooters, they can drive particularly smoothly, they can take the crucial shots and are very smart players, but they lack athleticism and are far away from the modern basketball game. Newcomer swingmen Tobey Bailey (6-6, 29, Ex-UCLA) and Mihalis Pelekanos (6-6, 23) can offer athleticism, speed and rebounding, however the perimeter is filled with much talent and therefore playing time might soon become a worry for coach Katsikaris. Their style of play is offensively oriented, however it should be difficult, when only one player (Croatian forward-center Sandro Nicevic, 26, 6-11) of the front line can produce constantly more than 12 ppg and grab more than 6 boards. Quadre Lolis (31, 6-6) is good and experienced, yet extremely short for their starting power forward, but a surprise could be the return in full shape of Pero Andic (23, 6-10), who is one excellent, modern forward with a good shooting touch.
Yannis Bouroussis (21, 6-11) is one of the top Greek Prospects, but his playing time is limited, now that Nicevic has been acquired and he should possibly see no more than 5-10 mpg, without many shots. He is lanky and smart, he can shoot, drive, run and pass, while he is also a terrific rebounder and a potentially above-average scorer. Yet, he is not taking advantage of the already limited opportunities that his coach gives him and his mentality is too passive, terrible news for a frontcourt player who wants to succeed in a perimeter-oriented team.
Important players in the team are many, but the question is how the coach will take advantage of them. Zissis and Hatzis are capable of shooting and driving and it is very difficult for any shot not to come from their hands. Bailey can be very dominant, especially when the team needs defensive help with short post-up players, or when their frontcourt teammates lack explosiveness. He can be very helpful in rebounding and could add some blocks, especially when the opponent team is using up-tempo rhythm. Pelekanos is the best defensive player of the team, but is shy offensively, so he may only take limited shots, something good for the other backcourt players. But the most important player of the team is Nicevic, who can be very effective offensively, especially when the ball is given to him 4-5 meters from the basket. He may be slow, but he can protect the ball and his touch is pretty good for a center. He is also above average rebounder and can pass the ball pretty well, even if he is double-teamed. Bad news comes when he has foul problems, as AEK is pretty incapable of focusing offensively on another big man.
They will miss Hristos Tapoutos, a gifted scorer, with nice, fast driving skills, who was however a player never to be given the opportunity to take many shots, especially with the presence of Horance Jenkins, Zissis and Hatzis in the guard spots. Also, Blagoda Sekulic, an interesting power forward, is no longer there either, maybe because coach Katsikaris thought that his playing style was too soft and he looked much like Andic, as of his shooting touch and his passing abilities.
Expectations for all Greek teams except from Panathinaikos in the Euroleague are very close to zero, therefore, despite the newly acquired Arena (9000 seats) in Galatsi, AEK fans are not really expecting anything from their team outside the Greek League (well, they are looking to finish second, something that looks very difficult to happen). Last year they did pretty well in the Euroleague, finishing 5th in a triple tie of their group, thus being unable to reach the top-16 through their last game. In Greece they finished 6th after the regular season, but managed to qualify for the semi-finals in the playoffs, finishing fourth behind Panathinaikos, Maroussi and Iraklis.
I don't see AEK making the top-16. It is not their talent, but their lack of equilibrium on offense, which lets the coach be comfortable on the perimeter with four well-touted players splitting positions all the time, but miserable in the frontline, as Nicevic is the only true Center and Andreas Glyniadakis sees limited or even no playing time at all. Pretty weird is that this team, even when the talent in the frontline was boosted with superb players like Dikoudis, Kakiouzis, Betts and Tapoutos, they were still taking limited shots, so I don't really think it is only a talent issue. The only good news is that there is no Horance Jenkins this year to take 20 shots per game, but there are more players, so automatically more choices for Coach Katsikaris.
by Sadik Iliman
Montepaschi Siena, from Italy, is a team everyone has had to watch out for in the last few years. It all started when coach Ergin Ataman came to the team and buult a phenomenal roster full of stars such as Turkcan, Ford (we won't forget you), and Chiacig. Siane was one of the most surprising teams in the Euroleague last year, qualifying for the Final Four for the first time. And while they fought strong, they were simply not good enough to beat Benetton. Sienna also lost the game for 3rd place against CSKA Moscow and finished fourth overall.
Chaos struck the team when coach Ataman and power forward Mirsad Turkcan left the team. However, Siena could expect better days ahead, especially with new coach Carlo Recalcati. Led by him, Siena qualified once again for the Euroleague Final Four, but finished 4th (again). As for the national league, Siena was the last champion in Seria A and has already won the Super Cup this year.
Miracles have a name: Carlo Recalcati. Nobody has achieved more than Recalcati in the last two years. What makes him so valuable?
Siena is a team who can play such a disciplined game of basketball, it is almost impossible to win against them by a large margin. They always find a way to break their opponents will and come back into the game. That is what Recalcati stands for. Their defense is excellent, especially when they play a zone.
Siena has a nice mix of inside and outside players, all of whom know their role on the team. Although, even with such a balanced roster, the team does have a perimeter focus. This is largely because center Roberto Chiacig is their only old school front court player. Other power forwards, such as Galanda, Kakiouzis, and Rentzias, are focused on shooting the ball. Also, Chiacig is a player who easily gets into foul trouble, thus it makes sense for the team to be perimeter oriented. This also means that Siena will have their problems with their opponent's center, if he likes to play in the paint.
Every player on this team is either a star or has great potential, but that doesn't stop them from playing real team basketball.
Point Guard Vrbica Stefanov is the leader of this team. There are only a few Point Guards in Europe who have the ability to lead a team the way Stefanov does. He was ex-coach Ataman's right hand man, and continues in that role for new coach Recalcati. He is a great penetrator and has a knack for finding players on the perimeter.
The Thornton-Vanterpool duo was also an important key last year for the success of Siena. They complete well each other. Thonthon is a dangerous finisher on the offensive end and Vanterpool is the player you look for on the defensive end.
Giacomo Galanda (national team hero) is one of the most dangerous Power Forwards in Europe. He has a deadly outside shot (from more than 20 feet) you have to follow him everywhere. There is no doubt that he will play a key role for Siena.
Siena lost very few players last year, but did make some interesting signings with Carlton Meyers, Efthimios Rentzias, Benjamin Eze, and Davide Lamma. The player they lost, David Anderson, will see his role engulfed by an inside-outside player such as Rentzias.
Kakiouzis is another player who can create mismatches, especially with his outside shot. He is very important for the team and is involved in many plays at crunch time. Further, Carlton Myers âa legendary player in Italy- could be in a critical role as the backup for Marvis Thornthon. It will be interesting to see how coach Recalcati will use him.
Possible starting 5 (including backups):
Luigi Datome is the only prospect this team features. He's a very nice Small Forward, skilled, athletic, whose game is surprisingly mature considering he's not even 17 years old. He also recently played very well at the European Junior Championships this summer. However, this year, he will likely only play garbage minutes (Recalcati likes veteran players and this team will be fighting for everything this season, so there's no room for a kid). Nevertheless, Datome should benefit from practicing day-in and day-out with one of the finest groups of European players you will find around. His time will come in future seasons.
Siena will play in Group B. Looking at this group we can see the last champion, Maccabi Tel Aviv, as the possible favorite. Considering the strength of Zalgiris Kaunas and the new, dangerous, Pesaro roster, Siena is going to face some hard games. However, there is no reason why they cannot clinch first place in this group.
However, expectations have been raised once again. After qualifying for the Final Four two years in a row, the fans now expect the three-peat. And after finishing only 4th in both of the Final Fours, the next goal expected of them will atleast be the Final. Looking at the club, they have the ability to achieve a nice, this goal is realistic.
Siena again is going to make it to the final four. If they won't match up with CSKA in the semis they are going to make the final.
UNION OLIMPIJA LJUBLJANA
by Matiz Tratar
Union Olimpija is the most successful Slovenian club of all time, winning 11 national championships and 11 Slovenian cups since 1991 when Slovenia became an independent country. Since 1994, when Olimpija won Cup of Champions (at that time yjr 2nd strongest European club competition) Olimpija has been a participant in the Euroleague, which makes it now the 10th straight season. They have always reached the playoffs (top 16 group) since 96/97 season (which is also when they reached the Final Four tournament for the last time). Last year Olimpija won their national championship, was a Slovenian-cup finalist, and reached the top-16 group, where they finished 1-5, but with that single win managed to eliminate Efes Pilsen from the Final-Four race.
Olimpija is one of the biggest NBA production centers out the US. Players like Jiri Welsch, Rasho Nesterovic, Bostjan Nachbar, Beno Udrih, Vladimir Stepania, Primoz Brezec, Sani Becirovic, Erazem Lorbek, Marko Milic, Sarunas Jasikevicious all learned their game in Olimpija at one time in their career. While Olimpija always has a lower budget compared to their opponents, they have always found production from previously un-established talents.
Olimpija's biggest strengths are their teamwork and hard-work. Having a bunch of un-established players every season, Olimpija's practices are known as one of the hardest in Europe. Ex-Orlando Magic player Olumide Oyedeji left the club last season because, as he said: there isn't any team in the world that constantly practices for 6 hours per day.
Aggressive defense is Olimpija's trademark and a part of a legacy of Zmago Sagadin, who coached Olimpija for 16 years. Getting rid of some below-average defenders from last year, Olimpija should improve that part of the game this year with the addition of good defenders such as Rodriguez, Mance and Markoishvili. Along with last year's most surprising player Saso Ozbolt and good, but not always the most motivated, Marino Bazdaric, most Euroleague teams will have large problems trying to run their set plays against such aggressive lineup.
Olimpija's biggest weakness this year is the lack of a dominant defensive stopper in the paint. Last year Aloysius Anagonye, although heavily undersized, turned into a useful defensive player (when he got used to European basketball at the end of the season and he started to produce). However, he left the team after the season because of delayed payments throughout the season. To compensate for his loss, Smiljan Pavic is expected to take his game to a higher level this year. And while Dusan Bocevski has hadd some nice games, I'm afraid Olimpija's inside players will get exposed playing against some teams in Euroleague. They'll also have some problems regarding depth at the PF/C, as they have only 4 players able to play under the rim. Olimpija is currently successful scoring off of fast breaks, but without winning the defensive rebounding that won't be possible in euroleague.
At the offensive end, Olimpija is a big threat from the 3 point line, as the whole starting lineup can nail threes repeatedly. Judging from their games thus far, they will be able to surprise some objectively stronger teams with their shooting. But relying that much on long-range shooting, especially without strong presence in the paint, makes me believe Olimpija's play will be very inconsistent this season.
Olimpija's only serious NBA potential at the moment is Georgian Manuchar Markoishvili, who came to Olimpija for one season from Benneton to get more playing time on the Euroleague level (which he, because of Bennetons high ambitions in the Euroleague, wouldn't receive if he stayed there). Two years back Markoishvili appeared playing for Benneton in Final Four tournament at the age of 16, and was considered as one of the top international prospects in the world. However, now Markoishvili's age is a question mark he is supposed to be 18 years old, but I am clearly not the only person who thinks his body looks older than just 18. And I probably don't have to explain what would happen to his draft stock if he turned out to be older than that. Markoisvili has nice ballhandling skills, a versatile offense with NBA 3point range, and even has great defensive skills (for an 18 years old), but he does not excel at any one area of his game right now, which may hurt his draft stock.
As usual, Olimpija changed a lot from last year. Rahimic, Maravic, Stelmahers, Anagonye, Petrov and Dujmovic left the team, but newcomers Andres Rodriguez (American University), Marijan Mance (Cibona), Dusan Bocevski, Nate Johnson (Florida St.) do show that Olimpija's defense will be much stronger this year.
Andres Rodriguez has already become the fan's favorite. His offense is limited, partly due to his physically weak body, but he has great court vision and is a good defender in Europe- he is expected to become one of the biggest surprises in the Euroleague this season. Vladimir Boisa (came to Slovenia at the age of 16 along with Tskitishvili) is the biggest fighter on the team. And in the last seconds of any game, he is usually the one that takes the game into his hands. Saso Ozbolt was the biggest surprise last year, going from averaging 2 points in the regular season to averaging 12.6 points in the top-16 group (where he got a chance due to injuries to his teammates). He is an athletic PG/SG, and at 6'3 he is slowly developing into a shut-down defensive specialist
Olimpija decreased their budget by additional 25% this season, since they are still repaying debts from the past, so they are entering the Euroleague with arguably the lowest budget of all 24 teams. Olimpija is known throughout Europe for overachieving season after season, so, even if it is not too realistic, fans are expecting that they reach the top-16 once again, while they'll probably be unable to achieve anything more than that.
Olimpija does not have great chances this year, competing with Barcelona, Siena and Macabi, but they will fight hard for the top-16 with Scavolini, Zalgiris and Asvel. I predict they won't break the tradition and that they'll reach top-16 once again.
by Marco Fracasso
Scavolini Pesaro is a team with a very rich history in the Italian league, with its brightest moments coming at the end of the 1980's with two Italian League titles, followed by a few more final appearances in the early 90's. After that the team slipped a bit and lost a step to the two Bolognese teams and Benetton Treviso, even having a few very disappointing seasons missing the playoffs in 1998 and 2003.
Introducing this team, it's impossible not to remember the huge tragedy that shocked the whole European basketball community this past summer. Last August came out the unexpected news that the Euroleague's all time leading scorer, Alphonso Ford, will miss the entire season because of a blood disease. After a few weeks, on a Saturday night in the beginning of September, Ford finally lost the most important match of his life and died of leukemia. While obviously in mourning because of this dreadful episode, the team will surely try to dedicate a great season to Ford.
Phil Melillo is starting his second season as Pesaro's head coach, after having reached the semifinals in the Italian league playoffs last year and having previously achieved unexpected results with Roseto.
The starting point guard will be the legendary Aleksandar Djordjevic. The 37 year-old Serbian is probably starting the last season of his career, aiming at next summer's European Championships held in his native country to retire. Djordjevic will bring his complete game, experience and clutch play to the team, while guaranteeing only a few minutes a game of solid defense. The problem is his durability, given his age and past injuries, is going to be a huge question mark.
The tough role of filling Ford's big shoes at the shooting guard position has been assigned to Charles Smith. The Spider proved to be a great defender during his stint with the San Antonio Spurs, but in Europe he's also showed his ability to score. While his trademark move is a 3 point shot from the right side off the dribble, he has the ability to take the ball to the rim, even if he doesn't do it often enough.
Marko Milic will be the starting small forward, with the possibility to play some minutes at the power forward spot as well. A second round pick by Phoenix years ago, Marko is an awesome athlete, able to challenge the best dunkers in the NBA. He can be a great defender and can be dominate when attacking the rim, but his outside shooting is streaky at best and he doesn't seem to have a great basketball IQ either. He can sometimes come up with an offensive foul or turnover in a crucial moment.
University of Utah graduate Hanno MéttélÃ¤ will play power forward. A very polished offensive player, able to play both inside and out, he lost a lot of weight during the summer, and will be starting the season in great shape. He showed a big improvement in his rebounding skills compared to his past experience with Fortitudo Skipper (now Climamio) Bologna. He was a second round pick by the Hawks in the 2000 NBA draft.
Alessandro Frosini will be the center and the only Italian player in Pesaro's starting five. A very specialized player, will bring interior defense and do all the little things, while hitting a mid-range jumper here and there, but mostly focusing on rebounding on the offensive end.
While Pesaro has a pretty talented starting five, the second unit isn't as reliable. Finnish point guard Teemu Rannikku will give Djordjevic some rest, but he's mostly a spot up shooter and is often very slow at initiating the offense. Silvio Gigena and Matteo Malaventura are solid players, but not talented enough for the top European level. Scarone was a good prospect years ago, before he had a big injury that slowed down his career. Former Texas A&M Tomas Ress and Georgia Tech James Forrest might not be enough as the only two big men coming off the bench. The second had a good season last year with Mabo Livorno, but started really slow with Pesaro so far.
Pesaro has no prospects good enough for the NBA draft, just a few players, Smith and MéttélÃ¤, who might want to try and have another shot at the league in the future.
Djordjevic is going to be the leader of this team; both for his experience and talent and for the position he plays. The scoring burden will be given to Charles Smith, who will have every possibility to follow Ford's footsteps and lead the league in scoring, as he's doing for the first few weeks in the Italian League. These two are the players to watch, if even one of the two underachieves it will be unlikely to see Pesaro succeed in international competition.
Pesaro is not considered a contender for the Italian League title, where reaching the semifinals again will be considered a good results. For the Eurolegaue, the goal is to reach the Top16 and then try to overachieve by going further.
How many minutes will Djordjevic be able to handle? Considering the lack of depth on the bench, this team could easily run out of gas and collapse in the last minutes. Another concern could come from Charles Smith: he's a great scorer, but doesn't create much for teammates when isolated. A bad shooting night from him can completely destroy the team's flow.
If these two guys are having a good night, though, Pesaro can be a dangerous team for anyone, as long as its big men manage to avoid foul trouble and not expose the weakness of the bench.
This team is likely going to reach the TOP16, but the Final Four is going to be a long shot.