DraftExpress.com turns its head to Europe once again, where some of the best and most exciting basketball in the world is currently being played, digging into the Euroleague's Top-16 round this time. Once again we have to highlight Nikos Zissis and AEK Athens' huge success, even if they're now out of the competition. Unlike what has become the usual pattern with draft prospects, the Greek guard has been the true leader of a team that has constantly overachieved. Erazem Lorbek joins him as someone who has lately become an extremely important player for Climamio Bologna's offense. We couldn't forget Mickaël Gelabale's excellent contributions for Real Madrid, while the last games of the up-and-coming Andrea Bargnani are extremely worthy of being looked at.
We're just in the middle of the most exciting part of the Euroleague's campaign. With a regular season that sometimes can be too easy for many teams to qualify, the Top-16 stage becomes very dramatic as virtually every game matters in the end, whether to advance to the quarterfinals or to get the crucial home court advantage there (as the quarterfinals are just three-games long).
So, with the Top-16 round finished, and half of those teams qualified and the other half having to worry only about their domestic competitions, it's time to take a look back and see whose stock may have changed under the pressure of the round just completed.
We have decide to focus on players who have helped themselves the most, as barely any prospect has seriously damaged his status, perhaps with the exception of Axel Hervelle, who lost his good shooting momentum (one of his very few scoring skills worthy to speak of), and was used less and less by coach Maljkovic as Real Madrid needed more offensive power out of its frontcourt.
So here are the four guys we have thought deserve a careful look. Keep in mind as always that they are not necessarily the most promising ones.
(PG; 6-5; 1983; AEK Athens; 31 mpg, 14.3 ppg, 56.4% FG, 47.6% 3FG, 93.3% FT, 3.1 rpg, 3.5 apg)
After a testing regular season, when Nikos Zissis was trying to first adopt the PG fundamentals to his game and then to show them on the court, it was about time for him to show off his real skills in the crucial games.
Being in a group where any loss could automatically mean elimination, Zissis and his team AEK tried to take all the necessary wins in the beginning, having a positive 3-0 record after the first three games. Zissis was nothing but spectacular in those three wins, and for a moment created the impression that AEK would get the ticket for the quarterfinals. Zissis had 17 points on 7-11 shooting in the opening 83-75 win versus Powerhouse Benneton Treviso, continued with a spectacular 22 points (8-14 FG) and the off-balance buzzer beating trey versus Efes Pilsen (70-69), and then ended the first series of games with a 19 point (7-10 FG), 5 rebound, 4 assist performance in the easy road win (75-59) against the Polish team Prokom Trefl. In the first round, Zissis proved to be the real deal, either when organizing AEK's game, or when he needed to take over the scoring load.
However, in the second round games, AEK was proven to be too inexperienced to handle their two stronger opponents of the group, After a heavy loss to Benneton (85-65) in Treviso and another win (81-70) versus Prokom, AEK only needed to beat Efes Pilsen in Turkey to qualify, but despite his admirable effort, Efes won (69-62) and secured the group's second spot in the Elite Eight.
One of the main reasons that AEK couldn't proceed to Europe's top-8 was Zissis' dramatic fall. The youngster's game decreased significantly, as did his numbers, going from 19.3 ppg to 9.3 ppg and ending the top-16 phase with a 14.3 ppg average. Unfortunately, in the Euroleague the teams that want to proceed need solid and stable games from their leaders and this was the first time in his career that Zissis went from highs to lows and was unable to guide his team to perfection.
Overall however, Nikos Zissis in his first season as a Point Guard, while still only 21 years old, proved to Europe's best that he is a player who will keep improving and that next year, should he decide to stay, he'll be mentioned as one of the Euroleague's top playmakers. As for his NBA Draft stock, rumors in Greece mention that he isn't interested at all, while in the States the exact opposite has been said. Yet, take out his extremely limited athleticism and explosiveness and you will find a mentally strong, competitive and extremely mature PG (who can also switch to the 2) who can knock down the trey and will handle the last minutes of any game, no matter how crucial it is.
(SF; 1983; 6-7; Real Madrid; 29 mpg, 9.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1 apg, 1.2 spg)
Quietly and slowly, Mickaël Gelabale has been steadily doing all he can to earn himself a first round selection in this year's draft with his recent play in the Top-16 round. Always from the role of a complementary player, of a contributor, he has significantly gained importance in Real Madrid's perimeter-based game, becoming the third most used player and scorer just behind the go-to backcourt pair of Louis Bullock and Elmer Bennett.
He has answered this proof of confidence from coach Maljkovic with his usual solid play and ever increasing reliability. Mickaël hasn't really intensified his offensive production, as his stats have grown on par with his minutes. But neither has he lost anything on the way, even maintaining his great accuracy from the field, netting over 60% of his attempts.
His performance against CSKA Moscow in Madrid, a crucial game that needed an overtime to be decided and saw Real Madrid lose a great chance that could've meant advancing to the quarterfinals, deserves to be mentioned especially. It was a great game for the home court team, despite the loss, and Gelabale was one of the best players there. He had 15 points (missing just one three pointer from the field), 6 rebounds and 2 steals in 34 minutes before fouling out against one of the best teams in the world, NBA aside.
In the five games he played in the Top-16 round, beyond his already well known strengths such as superb athleticism, a very reliable jumper, solid defense and under-control play, he was more active in the department we felt he still had a lot to prove: his slashing ability. For a player of his physical gifts, who has also good enough handles, it should be a key weapon in his game, and it seems that Mickaël is on the right track to achieve it now. In the process, he has revealed to us a nice, soft touch around the basket to finish those penetrations, even in traffic.
I don't think we can doubt anymore that this kid has a place in the NBA, even if it's as a role player or even if he still needs more development. He has some nice skills, and most importantly, the athleticism and physical profile (although he needs to get stronger) to translate them to the NBA game whenever he's ready to make the jump. The fact that he can be stashed overseas for another year or so to continue to develop his offensive game will only be viewed as a plus.
(PF; 1984; 6-11; Climamio Bologna; 25 mpg, 12.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
While Mickaël Galabale has been a just role player, a first class one, but still a role player, Erazem Lorbek became Climamio's primary offensive reference in the paint in various games, even if he ended up averaging less playing time than the Frenchman. His playing time seems pretty logical considering Climamio's depth and strength, but makes the Slovenian's achievements here even more impressive. Erazem has also been the third most used player and scorer on his team, again behind only the backcourt pair of Milos Vujanic and Gianluca Basile (it's no secret that the European basketball is more perimeter oriented than the NBA, mainly because of the rules, but also because the American League takes away most of the good big men that arise here).
If by the end of the Euroleague's regular season Lorbek was showing signs of stepping up, the Top-16 round has seen him fully blossoming, reminding us of that incredibly skilled and versatile player that amazed Europe in the junior categories three years ago.
We were complaining a bit a few weeks ago about his over-reliance on the jumper. Well, not only has he not abused his jump shot at all in these 6 games, he netted an incredible 62.5% of his treys, while averaging less than 2 attempts per game. Instead, he has been successfully combining his perimeter fire power with his post-up game while also putting the ball on the floor quite often. This is the type of versatility that makes Lorbek especially intriguing to the NBA.
Of course, he has suffered some ups and downs, as do almost all players his age at such a high level of competition. He particularly shined in two victories against Zalgiris Kaunas, a Sabonis-less team which is rather weak at defending the paint, averaging 22 points with 67.9% from the field and 6 rebounds. Perhaps his most meritorious game was the one played in Bologna against Panathinaikos, where he had to replace the offensive production of Matjas Smodis and fight against one of Europe's top defenses (in spite of the Greek's short-sized frontcourt). His 18 points and 6 rebounds helped Climamio to keep their hopes of advancing alive until the final game. However, he was less effective in the two road losses against Tau and Panathinaikos that ultimately left Climamio out of the quarterfinals.
All in all, this stage has improved Lorbek's chances greatly of making the first round. As always, we can't forget his main weakness, the lack of quickness that remains the biggest question mark regarding a hypothetical future in the NBA. But a player of his skills and scoring resources could always get some love from the pros.
(SF/PF; 1985; 6-11; Benetton Treviso; 10 mpg, 6.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
The young Andrea Bargnani hasn't enjoyed an easy season this year. After a promising start that included a 13 point performance matching up with Chris Bosh and the Toronto Raptors, a lack of playing time and especially injury problems slowed him down considerably to the point that he could only play 48 unnoticed minutes throughout the Euroleague's entire regular season.
That trend dramatically changed during the Top-16 round, particularly for the second half of it. In those last three games, he averaged 13.5 minutes, 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. That's not an incredible amount of minutes, but it's hard not to notice how huge his production has been in such limited playing time on a deep and talented team. Furthermore, with Benetton showing two losses in its record at that point, those three games were a matter of life or death for the team, and the victorious result in all three meant a quarterfinal spot for Treviso.
Even if it's just three games, this is quite exciting when you consider the kind of potential Bargnani brings to the table, an upside that only a few international guys like Andriuskevicius or Aleksandrov share. The Italian is an athletic 6-11 combo forward, with real perimeter skills. He's developing a really nice perimeter shot, and indeed has achieved a fantastic 57.1% from beyond the arc in the Top-16 round (although his free-throw shooting looks rather poor right now). But he's also a promising slasher who enjoys astonishing quickness for his size.
Coach Messina has been using him at both forward positions, forcing him to defend the paint and perimeter players. That's the key about his future position, although I personally think that he will end up playing as a power forward. Why? Because Andrea has a frame that will allow him to match-up on defense against power forwards, as he would likely suffer from against the quickness of NBA small forwards when trying to stop them (he already does in Europe) and because playing far from the basket, with his quickness and perimeter stroke, can make the rival power forward's life a nightmare.
Anyway, there's still a lot left for Bargnani to work on his game, and it seems that he's aware and wisely willing to spend at least another season in Europe, even if he declares for the upcoming draft. He's at a great club to accomplish this, with a great coach, and there's no reason to give it up, unless he decides to cave in to the wills of an agent and opt for the lures of a short-term financial gain and an NBA bench.
From this point on, he looks like the player that could help his stock the most for the remainder of the Euroleague competition, starting with the quarterfinals against Tau Vitoria and the Brazilian gem Tiago Splitter.