European Roundup: Double-Double Jerebko

European Roundup: Double-Double Jerebko
Jan 28, 2009, 01:25 am
Swedish small forward Jonas Jerebko is developing into a complete player for Italian league team Angelico Biella, and is helping his draft stock considerably along the way. Also, is Igor Rakocevic the top player in European basketball?

Past European Roundups:
-Vladimir Dasic providing intrigue
-VIctor Claver showing his stuff
-Brandon Jennings Managing Expectations
-Milenko Tepic the Man for Partizan
-Sergio Llull Sparks Real Madrid

Player of the Week:

Jonas Jerebko, 6-9, Small Forward, Angelico Biella, 1987

Jonathan Givony

Coming off back to back double-doubles (two identical 16 point, 10 rebound outings) in the extremely competitive Italian first division, this seems like as good a time as any to chart the progress of promising Swedish small forward prospect Jonas Jerebko. Last year was an up and down affair for Jerebko, playing his first season outside of the Swedish league, but we’ve seen considerable improvement in 08-09 with Angelico Biella.

Jerebko’s body is looking better and better, as it’s clear that the work he’s put in with Biella’s physical trainers is reaping huge benefits. He’s gained almost 30 pounds since arriving in Italy, up from a scrawny 191 pounds to a much healthier 220—which is a big deal in such a physical league like the Italian A1. He continues to play the small forward position almost exclusively despite standing 6-9, and looks far more confident, focused and intense than he did when we first saw him just over a year ago. Few teams in European basketball would have the patience or foresight to allow Jerebko the opportunity to play through his mistakes the way the coaching staff at Biella has (in a starting role no less) from the moment he arrived, and it’s starting to reap huge dividends for them—not all that unlike what this same team went through developing Thabo Sefolosha a few years back.

Jerebko is a pure role-player in the Italian league, a niche that he thrives in considering his versatility. He does a little bit of everything for Biella, be it running the floor in their extremely up-tempo offense, crashing the offensive glass, rotating defensively, or doing a terrific job in the passing lanes. Jerebko’s combination of size, length, athleticism and activity level really stands out in this setting, and with the increased toughness he’s showing, he’s been able to make a big difference on both ends of the floor.

Defensively is where Jerebko is probably at his best at the moment. Looking very comfortable guarding perimeter players, and having a huge size advantage over anyone he matches up with, Jerebko has the length and lateral quickness to contest almost every shot. He is extremely competitive on top of that, doing a terrific job switching on screens and being extremely difficult to shoot over, as he’s very fundamentally sound. He comes up with a fair share of steals and blocks, and is a very good rebounder for his position. This type of hybrid-forward—capable of playing the 3 on a half-court team, or the 4 in a more up-tempo system, is very much en-vogue these days, especially when they can defend both positions. As his frame continues to fill out, he will only become a better defender.

Offensively, Jerebko is somewhat limited, but clearly seems to be making strides. He’s an extremely efficient player—shooting 64% on 2-pointers, and 42% on 3’s, even if he only averages 9 points per game (in 25 minutes). Jerebko’s jump-shot looks very good with his feet set, and recently he’s even showing an ability to come off screens and make shots as well—which is very intriguing at his size. He’s a limited ball-handler, being somewhat predictable with his drives, and therefore has only gotten to the free throw line 7 times all season long in 16 games. His very nice athleticism makes him an explosive finisher around the basket, though—he’s come up with a number of highlight reel caliber dunks already this season.

Jerebko has a good feel for the game and is nowhere near a finished product at this point, still capable of adding plenty of polish as well as continuing to get stronger. Having left Sweden a little bit later than he probably should have, he’s still learning the nuances of high-level basketball, but has proven to be an extremely quick study. Considering his physical tools and the fact that he’s a late-bloomer, Jerebko’s upside is significantly higher than the typical 1987-born European player. NBA teams could very well take a liking to him due to his athleticism and defensive potential, which are not all that typical on this side of the ocean.

His American background and comfortable buyout situation (he has just one more year on his contract with Biella after this season) are also big pluses, making it very easy to see him getting drafted somewhere in the second round, possibly very early on. He’ll need to become a reliable outside shooter from the NBA 3-point line and show that he can continue defend his position in order to develop into a legit NBA rotation player, but that’s beginning to look more and more like a legit possibility.

Looking Beyond the Draft

Igor Rakocevic—the Top Player in European Basketball?

Matt Williams

No player in Europe, bar none, has been as dominant this season as the ACB’s and the Euroleague’s leading scorer Igor Rakocevic.

The Serbian guard is the best player on arguably the best team in Europe, and is statistically dominating both competitions in ways haven’t been seen in quite some time. He’s the clear go-to-guy on a Tau squad that features former draft picks Tiago Splitter, Pete Mickeal, and Stanko Barac in addition to Argentine National Team star Pablo Prigioni and ACB veteran Will McDonald. Through 29 games this season, Rakocevic has helped Tau compile an 18-1 record in the ACB and an 8-2 record in Euroleague play –good for first place in Spain and the top seed in their Euroleague group.

Despite the talent around him, Rakocevic’s individual dominance has been the key to Tau’s success. Statistically, he’s having the best season of his career and easily ranks amongst the top players in a slew of categories in both domestic and international play. Though he’s certainly had some impressive campaigns in the past, this season offered him an ideal chance to take his game to the next level.

Rakocevic has always been an undersized shooting guard whose passing skills allowed him to play some minutes at the point, a position he struggled to play efficiently during his one season in the NBA with the Timberwolves in 2002. Despite his ability to bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense, running the show has always hurt his effectiveness –eliminating what he brings to the table as a scoring threat operating off the ball. Playing next to Pablo Prigioni for the last two seasons has allowed Rakocevic to slide over to the shooting guard spot, but it appears to have been the addition of Head Coach Dusko Ivanovic that has pushed Rakocevic into the upper echelon of European basketball.

Despite Rakocevic’s alleged initial reservations about Ivanovic’s notoriously tough practices, the outstanding improvements in his shooting efficiency and overall consistency can be attributed in part to the Montenegin coach. He’s made a concerted effort to move Rakocevic off the ball permanently, utilizing him as a pure shooting guard by taking the ball out of his hands and trying to create more shot opportunities for him. Rakocevic has always had a rather polished offensive arsenal –he scored 26.3 points per 40 minutes for Pamesa Valencia in the 2004-2005 season, but it wasn’t until this season that he put everything together. He’s currently scoring an outrageous 31 and 30 points per-40 minutes in the ACB and Euroleague respectively, while putting up career highs in nearly every efficiency metric out there.

Offensively, Rakocevic has left little doubt that he is the most complete perimeter scoring threat in the ACB, and likely all of Europe. He’s capable of knocking down spot up jumpers from the perimeter, creating space for his jumper off the dribble, or getting to the rim to finish or draw contact. Rakocevic has a textbook jump shot, highlighted by a very consistent release point and good elevation. He shows very good footwork on the perimeter, and is more than capable of creating some space with his first dribble and stepping into a mid-range jumper. When he can’t get an open look from the outside, Rakocevic has no trouble using his strong frame to get to the rim, where he finishes consistently. His ability to draw contact is a key part of his offensive repertoire, as he marches to the line more than six times per game, where he is shooting over 95% in the Euroleague.

Obviously, Rakocevic is a very versatile threat; however, it has been his consistency this season that has made him a dominant force. According to Synergy Sports Technology’s data, Rakocevic is scoring 1.30 points per possession on catch and shoot opportunities, 1.21 PPP on pull up jumpers, and 1.28 PPP at the rim. In essence, he’s been extremely productive in taking what defenders give him. That variety and effectiveness have placed him amongst the most efficient shooters in the Euroleague and manifested itself in a recent 37 point outburst against fellow ACB powerhouse Unicaja Malaga. Over the course of the game, Rakocevic hit 7-11 2FG, 4-7 3FG, and 11-12 FT, a testament to his ability to score in a variety of ways.

Rakocevic’s role in Ivanovic’s offense highlights his strengths as a player and affords him the opportunity to take advantage of all the ways that he can score. In contrast to last season, where he got more than 40% of his touches as the primary ball handler in pick and roll or transition situations, Rakocevic has gotten most of his touches (a little under 30%) this season coming off of screens. He does a great job setting up his man to give himself space to catch and shoot, and even when he can’t get an open look immediately, he consistently monopolizes on his recovering defender to get a step to go to the rim.

When driving, Rakocevic goes right almost twice as often as he goes left. While many players don’t like pulling up while driving with their shooting hand, he actually prefers to do so. He’s not a fancy ball handler, but he takes very good care of the ball. Rakocevic is incredibly good at creating space for himself, rarely having to lean or otherwise adjust his jumper. He elevates extremely quickly, and while he’s not a fantastic leaper, that doesn’t stop him from getting his jumper off when well defended –he needs little space to create a clean look. Though he doesn’t struggle to get his shot off, he will drive too far into the lane at times, and will get stripped as he goes up for a shot, to the tune of 2.2 turnovers per game. Considering how much ball-handling he does, his coach will certainly live with that.

His lack of great leaping ability doesn’t prevent him from finishing consistently at the rim either. Rakocevic is extremely decisive when he takes the ball to the rim, wasting no time in attacking the block and using the glass to finish. Ivanovic’s system does a good job moving Tau’s big men around the perimeter, allowing Rakocevic to use his physical strength to lower his shoulder and create some space at the rim against his own man rather than help defenders. When he does find himself presented with a defender at the rim, he never hesitates to take the ball right at him in an effort to go to the line.

Outside of his scoring ability, Rakocevic has shown in the past that he’s a functional point guard, but that’s a role that he no longer plays for Tau. He gets most of his assists on post entry passes these days, but no longer is asked to set the table for his teammates when he gets into the paint. On the defensive end, he doesn’t make much of an impact, but plays within the team concept and gives an adequate effort. However, his lack of defensive ability is likely the biggest concern regarding his ability to return to the NBA. He isn’t terribly undersized for a two in Europe, but his size would be an ever bigger concern to NBA decision-makers since his transition to that position has accounted for much of his success.

There is no question that Rakocevic brings some impressive tools to the table as a scorer, but at this point, he seems more likely to spend the duration of his career in Europe. His lack of size and athleticism make it harder to envision him translating his skills quite as effectively to the NBA game. He’ll become a free agent this summer, and while NBA teams should undoubtedly take his name into consideration in their initial scouting process, it appears likely that the 30-year old Rakocevic will stay overseas considering the type of offers he’ll likely draw. There is no question that he could be a solid rotation type player on a competitive playoff team, but it’s doubtful whether in this landscape that type of offer will be enticing enough for him to return to the NBA. Whether he resigns in Vitoria to continue playing for Ivanovic remains to be seen, as he is likely going to be considered one of the top free agents on the European market.

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