International Scene: Late Season Bloomers

International Scene: Late Season Bloomers
Jun 01, 2006, 12:24 am
As the 2005/06 season winds down, we turn our heads to two players that have significantly improved their stock lately. Sergio Rodríguez and Ante Tomic are two of the most heralded NBA draft prospects in Europe. Both have raised their level of play significantly in the past few weeks, realizing some of the vast potential they enjoy. For Rodríguez, it was just in time to face the NBA draft process. For Tomic, it’s an appetizer for better things to come in the future, starting next season. We also take a quick look at Cheick Samb, an automatically eligible and rather marginal 1984 International draft prospect whose combination of size and athleticism might draw some attention.

Sergio Rodríguez: Three Acts to One Season

Last Tuesday, Sergio Rodríguez put an end to his second season in the Spanish ACB, the best domestic league in Europe. It was a tough campaign, both for him and his team Adecco Estudiantes.


Sophomore seasons are rarely easy for youngsters, particularly after a successful rookie debut. The first year kids are virtually unknown, as there’s no heavily-followed competition in Europe such as the NCAA to expose them, so everything they show is welcomed and celebrated. There’s little pressure, mistakes are forgiven and success over-hyped. But for the following year, expectations start to play their part: these players are not only expected to repeat achievements, but to improve like most young players usually do. Besides, these kids are better known by their rivals, which leads to added attention from the defensive scouting report, and even the motivation might not be at the same level from what an excited rookie displays playing their first year of high-competition basketball.

The first act of Sergio’s 2005/06 campaign, “the Sophomore Hangover”, lasted throughout the first half of the regular season, with a transition period going into the first games of the second half. It was an extension of what had been an awful summer for him, collapsing with Spain in the U-20 European Championships and not being given any chance to play at the Eurobasket with the Senior National Team.

That version of Sergio Rodríguez displayed a hesitant playmaker that no longer looked comfortable on the court, a player with a certain lack of confidence and not enough focus on the game. His shots weren’t falling, he wasn’t succeeding in setting the pace of the game, he was struggling even to create easy baskets for his teammates. Besides, Sergio was overwhelmed by the awful early results of the tea--five consecutive losses to open the season as a direct consequence of missing Carlos Jiménez, one of the centerpieces in the squad--being punished with less playing time by coach Juan Antonio Orenga for the following games.

The first sign of change came near the equator of the regular season. Coach Orenga was replaced by Pedro Martínez, who quickly gave Sergio more minutes on the court. He went from averaging 21 minutes per game in the first half of the season to 26 in the second. The move quickly paid off, as the young playmaker again found the confidence in his game and started looking much more in control of the situation. His shooting touch was still missing in action, but his effectiveness distributing the ball improved dramatically, with his typical inconsistency evolving into an increasing steadiness. Good decisions tended to outnumber bad ones, and even if Sergio kept on taking risks (it’s the nature of his game), he became more aware of when it was appropriate to pull the trigger and when it was time to play safe. This way, he progressively entered into his second act: “Assist Redemption”.

In the second half of the regular season, Sergio exactly doubled his assist figures from the first half (6.6 to 3.3), even enjoying an excellent 8.3 average during a nine-game stretch near the end of the campaign. Struggling with his shot, he devoted himself to the pass, being helped by some very productive pick-and-roll chemistry with big man Will McDonald. Defense was another area where he showed improvements, particularly better ability to contain his matchup in one-on-one situations.

Something changed in this dynamic near the end of the regular season. To be more precise, it happened in the second to last game of the season, against Forum Valladolid, where Estudiantes desperately needed a victory in order to advance to the playoffs. Missing Carlos Jiménez (as aforementioned, an offensive centerpiece in the team), Sergio stepped up with a 25-point performance (going 9/16 from the field), and a 4/5 effort from the three-point line in the following (and last) game. Confidence is a basic ingredient for Rodríguez’s shooting stroke, and he just found it back. Suddenly, Sergio was nailing off-the-dribble jumpers effortlessly, entering in the third and last act of our saga, “The Scoring Epiphany”, just in time to face the ACB playoffs.


Only two weeks separate the Sergio who faced Unicaja Málaga in the regular season to the one that has appeared in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs against the very same team. It was just two weeks, and the same rival; it was the same guy, but quite a different player.

The relative soberness that he had showed in the first encounter was replaced by a voracious offensive display. For some stretches, it was like watching that same junior kid that used to dominate the ball and create offense at will, all over again. Sergio was virtually unstoppable whenever he decided to step into the lane, delivering spectacular finishes around the rim, time after time. He consistently knocked down his shots, not hesitating one bit if he had an open look to pull the trigger. The assists kept coming, mostly in the form of pick and roll plays, and passes to teammates on the perimeter-- although in a lower number than previous games due to his increased scoring role. In the three games that Estudiantes lasted in the playoffs, Rodríguez averaged an outstanding 18.7 points and 5.3 assists, with only 1.6 turnovers. Since that aforementioned game against Forum, his averages went up to 19 points (54% from the field, 52% from the three-point line) and 6.2 assists in the 5-game span that closed the season.

The result? Just as impressive for the viewers as inconsistent for his team. Sergio tried to run, to set a high-tempo rhythm to overcome the stability of Unicaja Málaga. It worked for some stretches, but eventually the team collapsed. Sergio abused the ball a bit, forgetting to involve his teammates on offense, and Estudiantes didn’t play well as a team. Besides, he delivered a poor defensive effort, particularly in the first game. It seems like, having his scoring power back, he sometimes forgot to do the little things.

Ironically, what might have hurt his team up to a certain degree (it’s not by coincidence that Unicaja is the top-seeded team in the ACB League), has surely helped his draft stock. Scoring in general, and shooting in particular, had become a serious concern that he’s helped to minimize to some extent.

All in all, he has showed that he is an immature, but utterly intriguing player. Of course he needs to get stronger, play better defense, keep improving his shooting, control his turnovers and distribute the ball better (which in this case obviously doesn’t equal to getting more assists), meaning that he would likely and significantly struggle next season playing in the NBA. But he’s oozing with so much talent that it’s hard not to overlook his flaws, especially in these days when fast paced basketball seems to be in vogue again in the NBA.

Rodríguez arrived in the States on Monday and had his first private NBA workout on Tuesday with the Chicago Bulls, alongside Alexander Johnson, Maurice Ager, Quincy Douby and Hassan Adams, where he reportedly played very well. His agent Herb Rudoy informed us that Rodríguez will be conducting 5 workouts before the NBA pre-draft camp, with Chicago, Phoenix, Memphis Washington and a team that has yet to be determined.

Second Round Bubble

We have recently received footage on a player that might have a marginal shot at the second round in this year’s draft. He is Cheick Samb, the elder bother of Mamadou Samb (who happens to be one of the top 1989 prospects in Europe). Brought from Senegal by Arona, a team in the Canary Islands, both brothers signed for Winterthur FC Barcelona over a year ago. Both also shared the floor about a month ago in the Vilagarcía Basket Cup, a youth tournament that is steadily becoming one of the most interesting in the European scene.

1362Photo: Marqués/

You can read extensively about Mamadou in the L’Hospitalet Tournament recap and in the Euroleague Final Four Junior Tournament report. However, it deserves to be mentioned that, playing next to his brother and/or Xavier Rey in Vilagarcía, he was primarily used as a power forward, even as a small forward at certain moments. Obviously he exposed his lack of polish going up against older players (he was a 16 year-old player in a U-22 competition), but he showed a decent shooting stroke out to three-point range and nice defensive quickness. The potential is there for sure, and he’s still extremely young.

That’s a factor his brother Cheick doesn’t enjoy, therefore seriously affecting his potential. Despite being a couple of inches taller and at least as athletic as Mamadou, the five-year difference while not having any significant advantage in terms of skills and physical development, place Cheick at a whole different level in terms of interest.

We’re talking about a very long, but incredibly skinny player. Cheick is thin as a rail, and at this point is hard to picture him getting too much stronger. The guy has serious hops (he won the tournament’s dunk contest), elevating really high off his feet, but his skill set is as limited as you can get. He looks unpolished in the low post, while showing just a decent mid-range shot at best. He rarely puts the ball on the floor and he’s not really a remarkable passer, although he usually chooses the logical destination for the ball. The most spectacular part of his game comes on defense, where he takes advantage of his athleticism to block shots from very high up off the ground, especially on defensive helps. Anyway, he’s regularly outmuscled on both ends of the court, which significantly limits his effectiveness, even in youth categories.

This is one of these pure-potential equations that NBA teams formulate from time to time in the late second round. It happened with Remon Van de Hare or Nedzad Sinananovic in recent years, but at least both guys were younger and, regardless, it still doesn’t look like either of them will be in the NBA anytime soon. Cheick already declared and pulled out last year to get some exposure. But with a second round that is apparently looking rather stacked for this draft, it’s hard to picture Samb in anybody’s book despite his excellent combination of size and athleticism…although you never know. For the moment, he's expected to take part in the Reebok Eurocamp to be held in Treviso in mid June.

Tomic Keeping Scouts Excited for 2007 Draft

After not really enjoying a great Adriatic League season, Ante Tomic is raising his game to another level in the Croatian League Championship so far. The 7-foot-2 Center is averaging close to 16 points and 9 rebounds in the past 8 games, exhibiting impressive scoring ability from both the low and high post, while also improving on the defensive end.


The fact that Croatian league is less physical than the Adriatic League certainly helped him, but the real change has been in his mentality. For the most of the season he would just wait for his team to create opportunities for him, not showing any initiative and letting older teammates run the show. Now Tomic is a focal point of Zagreb’s offense, demanding the ball in the post and establishing himself as their best scorer lately. He is gaining respect from his teammates, who have more trust in him and give him the ball more frequently.

At 7-2 and 19 years of age, Tomic’s offensive repertoire is remarkable. He can play equally well with either his face or back to the basket. Tomic has good footwork in the post, and is patient and smart when backing his man down, using all kinds of fakes to get good looks under the basket. Ante has a versatile face-up game with a good looking jumper out to 16-18 feet and also the ability to slash to the basket. Perhaps the most impressive thing are his uncanny ball-handling and passing skills, particularly when talking about a 7-footer.

He is also more assertive on defensive end, positioning himself better and being more aggressive. When his opponent receives the ball on the block, he has a very hard time to stop him because of his frail body, so he is instead trying to defend his man by fronting him and denying the ball. This certainly can’t work well all the times. He anticipates the game very well and is getting his fingers on a lot of balls.

In terms of athleticism, Tomic is solid, but not spectacular. He runs the floor extremely well and has quick feet, but his leaping ability is sub-par and despite his gigantic size, he doesn’t play much above the rim. Ante has trouble finishing around the basket against stronger opponents, while also not being much of a shot-blocker at this point.

The biggest knock on Tomic is his body. He is very skinny and looking at him you have to question how much stronger he can get. He struggles to defend stronger big men and is a defensive liability at this point. His NBA success might hinge on how much weight he can put on his frail frame.

Tomic reportedly has seven more years left on his contract with KK Zagreb, with no buyout clause for the NBA. There was a rumor that a Spanish team offered 2 million Euros to Zagreb to acquire his rights, but it was never confirmed. However, an NBA team will be probably dealing with plenty of negotiation to try and bring him over.

It seems like Tomic has already finished his season, as he’s missed the last three games due to the flu. Zagreb is one game away from elimination in the playoff semifinals against a Euroleague team in Cibona Zagreb, and since the 2nd game will be played on Thursday, it isn’t likely that Tomic will be able to participate, making his team an even bigger underdog. Finishing 4th in the regular season, KK Zagreb has secured a spot in the Adriatic league next year, basically fulfilling their only goal for this competition.

If he shows this level of performance in the Adriatic League next season, Tomic should be considered a lottery pick. Players of his size and skills are very hard to find, but Ante must be patient in not rushing to the NBA, because he is still a good 2-3 years away from being able to contribute at that level. Otherwise he could just be another bust like Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Alexander Radojevic and many other European bigs that never became legit NBA players. If he lives up to the hype, he could remind of a player in the mold of Vlade Divac and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

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