European Roundup: Emir Preldzic Blossoming in the Euroleague

European Roundup: Emir Preldzic Blossoming in the Euroleague
Dec 30, 2008, 02:14 am
Emir Preldzic earns player of the week honors based on his play for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbache-Ulker. The 1987-born Slovenian prospect has stepped into a role that few players his age get the opportunity to fill, and has boosted his stock significantly in the process. We also take a look at Kevin Seraphin, a young French post player with great promise, and former Rockets draft selection Lior Eliyahu, who has come up big in recent weeks for perennial contender Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Past European Roundups:
-Claver Showing his Stuff
-Brandon Jennings Managing Expectations
-Milenko Tepic the Man for Partizan
-Sergio Llull Sparks Real Madrid

Somewhat overdue for a mention is the terrific play of 1987-born Slovenian forward Emir Preldzic this season, acting as somewhat of a go-to guy for an important Euroleague team like Fenerbahce-Ulker Istanbul, the reigning Turkish league champions.

Will Solomon’s departure to the NBA, coupled with season-long injuries to Gordan Giricek and Omer Asik, along with very underwhelming performances by American players Marques Green and Devin Smith created a situation where someone needed to step up. Not a bashful guy by any means, Preldzic has taken on quite a large share of his team’s offense, sometimes acting as the #1 option, alongside power forward/rebounding machine Mirsad Turkcan.

Quite amazingly for a player of his age, at his height (6-9), and particularly at this level, Preldzic is utilized almost exclusively in a point-forward type role. He regularly brings the ball up the floor, calls out the set plays, and gets the team into their offense, which often ends with the ball in his hands. Almost half of his possessions (according to Synergy Sports Technology’s quantified player report) come from pick and roll situations, with another 20% coming from one on one/isolation type situations. Clearly he is Fenerbahce’s most creative force, which tells you quite a bit about the skill-level this 21-year old possesses, but also might help explain why the team is just a combined 12-7 in the Euroleague and Turkish league, which is very down this season.

Preldzic plays a very European, Theodoros Papaloukas type-role for Fenerbahce, showing excellent ball-handling skills with either hand attacking his matchup, and showing excellent timing on his drives. His first step is somewhat underwhelming, but he makes up for that with the aggressiveness, high skill-level, and excellent feel for the game he brings to the table. His ability to change speeds is excellent, and like Papaloukas, he plays the game at a pace that is entirely unique to him. He likes to lull his man to sleep with a slow and deliberate dribble, and then blow-by him at the exact moment that he catches him off-balance.

Once in the lane, Preldzic is a bit limited in his ability to finish at the rim, as he lacks a degree of explosiveness and is not very strong either. He is a very crafty guy though, often coming up with some very tough finishes off the glass, but is not particularly efficient, as his 42.5% shooting from the field in the Euroleague and Turkish league combined would attest. Considering how much bigger, longer and more athletic big men are in the NBA, there are some legitimate question marks about how this part of his game will translate to the next level. The fact that he already manages to draw just under three free throws per game is not a great sign already.

Clearly his best attribute at the moment revolves around his passing ability. His four plus assists per game (quite a high number in Europe considering how stingy statisticians are) make him one of the better passers you’ll find at his position on this side of the ocean, and accurately reflect his excellent basketball IQ and fundamentals. He does a great job finding open teammates off the dribble, particularly on the pick and roll, showing a great sense for passing the ball exactly to the spot underneath the basket that his big man will end up at after setting the screen, often with great flair. The game seems to come very easily for Preldzic, which is what makes the way he might develop over the next few years so intriguing. His high-risk/high-reward style of play almost makes him fairly turnover prone though -he coughs the ball up on nearly 20% of his possessions.

One thing he absolutely must improve on if he’s to reach his full potential is his perimeter shooting. His stroke is extremely streaky at the moment, particularly with his feet set, where he’s extremely unreliable. His release point is very inconsistent, as he has a tendency to shoot the ball on the way down or while leaning forward. He is actually a much better shooter off the dribble, being capable of making some really tough shots--almost just throwing the ball in the hoop--another indication of his excellent talent, but not very friendly to his 3-point shooting percentages (17/51 combined, or 33%) or his ability to help his team win games.

Defensively, Preldzic is mostly a mixed bag at this point. On one hand, his excellent size, intensity and feel for the game allow him to make a nice impact when he’s focused, particularly in terms of contesting shots out on the perimeter. He gets in the passing lanes at a great rate and is also a fairly productive rebounder. His average lateral quickness makes him somewhat of a liability against quicker wing players, though, and he has a tendency to get lost off the ball and gamble excessively for steals, which makes his team's entire half-court defensive concept collapse. Teams love to post him up or force him through screens because of his lack of strength, and his average frame and 6-9 wingspan (measured at the Nike Hoop Summit) don’t help him in this regard.

All in all, Preldzic is clearly a superb talent for high-level European basketball moving forward, and is someone NBA teams will seriously consider investing a draft pick on in the second round because of his somewhat rare combination of size, skills and versatility. He looks nowhere near a finished product at this point, and thus there is always the possibility that he continues to develop (particularly as a shooter) and becomes a nice asset down the road. As far as his long-term NBA potential, though, there appear to be some physical limitations and concerns regarding his style of play that may hold him back until he manages to improve.

Another Prospect Emerging in France

Kevin Seraphin is becoming one of the must-see players this season in the French LNB, when he plays that is. A member of the U-20 French National Team that played this past summer in Riga at the European Championship, he didn’t see much action, but displayed enough potential to merit another look, especially since he was one of youngest players there (born in December in 1989, he was almost a junior).

A nicely athletic and coordinated player carrying around 255 lb. of muscle in his 6-9 body (he’s probably 6-10 in shoes), his physical assets could be considered surprising when you consider that he’s been playing organized basketball for just slightly over three years, spending the past two with Cholet’s Espoirs (the youth team, where he still regularly plays). Thrown into the jungle that is professional basketball, he appears very raw, but there’s plenty of intrigue about his game. This intrigue isn't solely based on his potential, he's played well when given the opportunity: despite only seeing significant minutes in two French Leagues game, he came up with 12 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes against Strasbourg, and 17 points and 7 rebounds in 20 minutes against Nancy.

We’ve had the chance to witness most of Seraphin’s minutes in the French League and some action with the Espoirs (in addition to his marginal performance at U-20 European Championship), getting a grasp on his current game.

Two areas clearly stand out in Seraphin’s game: his low-post game and his shooting stroke. He’s usually working near the basket, easily establishing position down low against young and veteran players alike, showcasing his strength in the process. Still not very good at moving without the ball, when he receives it, Seraphin appears unexpectedly comfortable playing with his back to the basket. He rarely delivers fancy moves, but shows promising footwork, nice quickness and uses his body pretty well. He usually tries to blow by his opponent looking for an easy basket with his right hand, but can also connect on turnaround shots and short jump-hooks, showing a nice soft touch near the rim (we even saw him attempt a lefty jump-hook that almost went in).

Still very inconsistent shooting jumpers from the field, which he does try to do very often, his very intriguing stroke looks reliable from the free-throw line, showing excellent mechanics. On the year he's shooting a superb 85% accuracy from the charity stripe in the French League, and 75% with the Espoirs. He probably only needs to develop rhythm and gain experience in game situations to add this extremely useful weapon to his offensive repertoire.

Apparently a pure off-the-ball player, Seraphin doesn’t show any ability putting the ball on the floor. Often setting picks for teammates, he rarely demands the ball, and just doesn't seem comfortable on the perimeter. He should really work in this area, since he has the physical set to be effective attacking the rim or pulling up for mid-range jumpers in pick-and-pop plays. On the other hand, he manages to get fed around the basket, taking advantage of slow defensive rotations (although he doesn't finish with dunks as often as you would expect).

Strong, athletic and very mobile, Seraphin has the tools to be a good defender, but struggles on that end of the floor. He needs to better use his body to keep opponents from backing him down, be a little bit tougher, anticipate moves, not bite on fakes and, generally speaking, play a more fundamentally sound brand of defense. He should also could stand to work harder when boxing-out, although his excellent wingspan and good hands compensate for his lack of rebounding fundamentals.

Seraphin's basketball IQ is still a question mark. It’s not that easy to distinguish between his lack of experience and a poor understanding of the game. He doesn’t stand out as a passer, and he struggles passing the ball out of double-teams.

It’s interesting to note that Seraphin is playing mostly as a center, but his mobility and shooting stroke should enable him to function as a power forward in a hypothetical NBA future. Having enjoyed serious playing time only as a replacement for injured teammates, his first objective should be to work as hard as possible in order to get into Cholet's rotation. He does seem to have some real draft potential, though.

Beyond the Draft

Few, if any, Euroleague players have performed as well in the month of December as Maccabi Tel Aviv's promising young forward Lior Eliyahu. After a fast start in both domestic and international play, the former Houston second-round pick hit a slump in November, spending more time on the bench in foul trouble than on the court helping his team battle through the toughest part of their Group A schedule. The turmoil the team suffered on the bench—replacing head coach Effi Birnbaum and his erratic rotations with legendary Pini Gershon—also played a large part in his struggles. Fortunately for Maccabi, Eliyahu has managed to regain the confidence of the new coaching staff, and the result has been three straight Euroleague wins, highlighted by three straight double-doubles from Eliyahu, to go along with back-to-back twenty point outings in the Israeli Premier League.

After taking a step back last season in terms of playing time and production, the 23 year old forward has made the most of his opportunities this year. Despite not having the physical strength to be a major contributor on the block, or having the jump shot to be an efficient perimeter scorer, Eliyahu has used the tremendous length and athleticism advantage he enjoys over many of his match ups to effectively compensate for his lack of a true position. He’s scoring 15 points per game (6th best) in the Euroleague in just 26 minutes, grabbing over 7 rebounds (ranking 9th) and dishing out an impressive 2.4 assists (2nd amongst power forwards). Perhaps most startling is the fact that he’s shooting a ridiculous 68% from the field, good for third best in the Euroleague.

There's a lot to like about the way Eliyahu has been playing on the offensive end, as he has done a tremendous job not only getting open for easy baskets around the rim, but also creating his own looks from in close off the dribble. He's always been very good at moving without the ball, a characteristic that lets him take advantage of his high-effort level to be productive. In his last five games, he's done a great job running the pick and roll, timing his cuts from the high-post to the basket, and getting up the floor in transition.

When Eliyahu isn't getting easy looks at the rim, he has shown the athleticism and ball-handling ability to get to the rim against most defenders. Eliyahu has notoriously settled for a lot of floaters in the lane, and while he doesn't always take his drives all the way to the rim, he has been much more aggressive once he has his man on his hip. He shows a nice step-back spin-move over his right shoulder and uses a sweeping half-hook over his left that allows him to get his shot off with little trouble. While he takes very few jump shots, his ability to create space for mid-to-short-range shots often allows him to compensate for that weakness. His touch in the post is nothing short of amazing, as he not only has huge hands that help him steer the ball exactly toward his target, but is also extremely fluid and coordinated (and highly unorthodox) with his moves. His feel for putting the ball in the net is clearly in an elite category amongst European big men.

Despite adding a few moves to his repertoire, Eliyahu's ball-handling still leaves something to be desired, particularly with his left hand. His new found aggressiveness had made him a bit more turnover prone than he has been in the past, and he could stand to be more controlled with the ball when he attacks the rim.

The most impressive aspect of Eliyahu's recent performances has been his ability to finish the looks he creates for himself. His length and leaping ability make him a solid finisher at the rim, but he still struggles with contact to some extent. He often looks to avoid contact by taking inside shots moving away from the rim, but manages to make such shots with surprising success. In recent games against Air Avellino and Bnei Hasharon, more than half of Eliyahu's shot attempts came on swooping drives that he finished moving away the basket once he was met with a defender at the rim. For a player that gets as many looks around the basket as Eliyahu does, added physical strength and improved free throw shooting could make him that much more efficient; something that isn't easy for a player shooting almost 70% from the field. Continuing to work on his jump-shot and free throw stroke could pay huge dividends from him down the road considering how good of a scorer he already is.

The biggest improvement to Eliyahu's defensive game has also paid dividends for him on the offensive end. He has been rebounding at a significantly higher rate in December then he was in the early-going, and his meteoric rise in PER can be largely attributed to his improved effort on the glass. He's shown a willingness to rebound outside of his area, and has been using his length and athleticism to much greater extent than he used to. While he is still boxing out well, the aggressiveness he has shown when pursuing a missed shot off the rim has improved dramatically (to the tune of three straight games of 10 of more rebounds in Euroleague play and a 17 rebound effort against Cibona). He has gotten quite a few tip ins recently, and is doing a good job filling the lane behind his teammates when they take shots around the basket.

Eliyahu's length and lateral quickness should theoretically give him the ability to effectively defend the perimeter very effectively, but unfortunately this has been an area he’s struggled in throughout his career. His awareness, focus and intensity are often very lacking on this end, and his lack of physical toughness has often been criticized. Eliyahu doesn't offer much as a shot blocker, usually not getting into position quickly enough to contest shots at the rim. He's also prone to fouling in the post, so his move to playing more on the perimeter defensively has certainly been a major contributor to his increased playing time.

Despite not showing any incredible new wrinkles in the areas that he has historically struggled in, Eliyahu's recent play has been nothing short of remarkable. Last season seemed to temper some of Houston's enthusiasm toward adding him to their roster, but if he continues to play at such a high level, he could very well be in the mix for a spot on the opening-day roster in 2009. Eliyahu doesn't have the tools to be a consistent contributor on the NBA yet, but he's still young, and has become very good at using the tools that he does have, which are, albeit unconventional, actually very unique. His ability to run the floor, move off the ball, pass unselfishly, rebound the ball, and make shots around the rim while defended could, at the least, make him an asset in trade negotiations.

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