Darko Not Ready to be Labeled a Bust Yet
One of the more intriguing early signs coming out of this Eurobasket tournament so far is the apparent rejuvenation of the #2 pick in the 2003 draft, Darko Milicic. After two listless seasons seeing little to no playing time in Detroit's stacked rotation, Darko is beginning to show signs of coming around this summer with his national team by displaying a high level of performance and energy, while, most importantly, being a difference maker for his team in his time out on the floor.
While he's had to scrap and earn every minute he's gotten so far, and even though his teammates still don't appear to trust him enough to actually pass him the ball unless he is really wide open, Darko has found a way to make his presence felt repeatedly for Serbia and Montenegro and show some of the awesome athletic ability and upside that made him the #2 pick to begin with.
Darko has been coming off the bench so far backing up, and often outplaying, New Jersey Nets Center Nenad Krstic. His biggest contributions for his team have been felt mostly on the defensive end and on the glass, where he's been using his mobility and explosiveness to block and alter countless shots around the rim and come up with many momentum changing rebounds on both ends that have been extremely influential for the Serbians in key parts of the games.
Against Israel in the 2nd game, Milicic came off the bench in the 4th quarter with the result of the game still up in the air and sparked a 20-0 run that put the game out of hand for the Israelis. Darko's energy on both ends of the floor were clearly the difference for his team, finishing the game with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in only 14 minutes of action. He finished well around the hoop, knocked down a jumper and got to the line repeatedly.
The best sign for Detroit, beyond his newfound aggressiveness and urgency, has to be Darko's willingness to mix things up inside and do the little things to endear himself to his team. Whether its by setting solid picks, demanding the ball around the basket rather than on the perimeter, moving off the ball and using his height and passing ability to find the open man, Darko has been extremely active and energetic in everything hes trying to do.
He's struggling a bit in the set offense when it comes to placing himself, but this time its not because of a lack of effort. His positioning is not the best, and he doesn't seem too confident at times about knowing what to do and how to move, particularly against zone defenses.
Youngsters Not Seeing Much Action
If somebody expected a standout performance by one of the younger players in this tournament, theyll be waiting for a while it looks like. We cant say that any youngster is having a stellar role, and no kid has particularly boosted his draft stock in these first three days of competition.
1983 born-year player, the mostly 22 year old players that were automatically eligible last June, will serve as the barrier here. From this class we still find some young contributors seeing minutes; like the solid Mickaël Gelabale, the energetic Stefano Mancinelli (absolutely key for Italy with his defense over Dirk Nowitzki), the reliable Nikos Zissis, the athletic Sergei Monya, the incisive Armands Skele or even the disappointing Nenad Krstic, who was bound to play a major role in Serbia, but isnt receiving too much confidence from his coach so far.
Beyond that, what predominates are the towel waivers.
Russians Anton Ponkrashov, Vitaly Fridzov and Andrey Ivanov, Lithuanian Darius Silinskis, Croatians Roko-Leni Ukic and Marko Tomas, Turk Cenk Akyol, Bulgarian twins Ivanov, Bosnian Edin Bavcic, Spanish Sergio Rodríguez and Israeli Yotam Halperin. All players born in 1984 or later, their presence on court has been sporadic at best.
This is nothing new considering the level of play and competitiveness of the Eurobasket tournament. When there is no such thing as a meaningless game or sometimes even minute, this competition is basically a do or die effort, where the inconsistency that a youngster brings is usually not welcome.
So why take these kids to these tournaments if they wont leave the bench? Coaches often like to introduce the players who will later be important pieces in their squads early, so they become familiar with the National Team.
Also, many times these youngsters bring some potential that their coach might consider useful at some point. However, theyre not always bold enough to actually put them on the court. The most flagrant case has been Spanish coach Mario Pesquera. In the game against Israel, with Spain trailing, playing worse minute by minute, and showing no ideas in the offensive end, it was glaring that the only possible solution had a name: Sergio Rodríguez. Pesquera didnt think that way and preferred to secure a loss with a smaller margin that regardless allowed Spain to advance directly to the quarterfinals after finishing first in group D.
Still, there have been some exceptions to the rule.
Bosnian Mirza Teletovic (7.3 ppg) and Ukranian Oleksiy Pecherov (6 ppg, 4 rpg) are regularly contributing to their teams. However, both play for weak countries that couldnt earn even a single victory in this preliminary round. Had they played for a stronger squad, they would likely be joining the list above.
Teletovic is hitting his shots regularly, but as we told you in the preview, hes everyday looking like more of a power forward, limiting his NBA potential substantially. Pecherov, a more intriguing prospect given his combination of size and athleticism, is showing nice versatility.
Two of the better young performers have already been drafted. One is Serbian Darko Milicic (6 ppg, 5 rpg, 1.7 bpg), who has raised some eyebrows with his defensive effort, but who is dealt with in-depth elsewhere in this article.
The other is Slovenian Erazem Lorbek (7.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg), a seasoned player despite his youth, with a couple of Euroleague campaigns under his belt and important responsibilities in the Italian powerhouse Fortitudo Bologna. Lorbek, a highly skilled scoring force in the making, delivered his best performance against Bosnia, a test that Slovenia was supposed to pass easily. But it wasnt until Erazem took over the game attacking the basket and showing some great moves in the paint that Slovenia woke up and started to play up to its potential.
We have two more guys that deserve to be mentioned. The Lithuanian Paulius Jankunas (7.7 ppg, 3 rpg) is an atypical youngster, as he plays like a true veteran. Not being much of an NBA prospect, hes a very consistent power forward that gets the dirty work done, but able at the same time to get his points. Hes looked extremely consistent with his mid-range jumper in the preliminary round, being a very good contributor for the star-depleted, yet unbeaten Lithuania.
Finally, a well-known name that already showed promising performances last year at the Olympics: Spanish Rudy Fernández (4 ppg). Starting in great fashion against Serbia in the spectacular Spanish opening victory, Rudy provided that extra offensive punch and creativeness off the bench that Spain needed; looking confident, quick in his slashing movements and solid with his shot. However, he has struggled ever since, being just on par with his teams performance. Hes a rather important piece for Spain, though, and his recovery seems very important for this teams success.
Parker Comes up Flat
Easily the most disappointing player in this tournament so far has been San Antonio Spurs PG Tony Parker, representing France who narrowly managed to squeak through to the elimination games that could lead them to the quarterfinals if they can find a way to defeat hometown Serbia & Montenegro. Otherwise he'll be on the next flight back to Texas.
Parker is looking shockingly similar to other (mostly American) NBA PG's who came to international tournaments thinking they will be able to replicate their play from the NBA with the same tricks that work time in and time out in the most talented basketball league in the world. What Parker has found out is that getting inside the lane against zone defenses and relentless rotations is a much harder thing to do on a team with little chemistry and absolutely no inside presence whatsoever to take pressure off the perimeter. What Parker has truly discovered is that things are much different when Tim Duncan isn't on the floor.
After a forgettable 2 point, 3 assist, 4 turnover performance on 1-8 shooting against Bosnia, Parker went a dreadful 1-10 in France's defeat to Slovenia, finishing once again with only 2 points and more turnovers than assists in yet another extremely disappointing performance. Parker has been struggling mightily to run his teams offense properly, looking to penetrate at the worst moments possible seemingly, forcing up contested shots, making poor decisions and generally looking like a 6-2 shooting guard in a point guard's body with very little ability to hit the perimeter shot. Opposing teams have been daring him to shoot the ball from deep and Parker just can't find a way to put them down. He was outplayed badly on both ends of the ball by veteran Panathinaikos combo guard Jaka Lakovic (18 points) time after time, showing very little leadership skills and looking tired and extremely apathetic in the process.
The most embarrassing thing for Parker is the fact that his team has consistently played much better basketball when he wasn't on the floor, continuing the trend we saw early on in the preparation games. Once Parker came out in the 3rd quarter against Bosnia, his team went immediately went on an 8-0 run. But whether the French like it or not, they will need Parker at the helm playing at a high level if they are going to have any shot whatsoever at upsetting the home team Serbians.
Talented Croatia Wakes Up Before its Too Late
After a slow start against Bulgaria and Lithuania, the Croats finally found themselves in a game for 2nd place in Group B against Turkey. It looked like it will be another poor performance for Coach Spahijas team, but that impression lasted just until the 18th minute when they started playing terrific defense. Croatia held Turkey scoreless for more then 11 minutes and in the meantime scored 32 points mainly from transition play.
Nikola Vujcic finally got going after two disappointing performances, while Gordan Giricek and Zoran Planinic dominated on both sides of the floor. Giricek has clearly been Croatias best player so far, being more team oriented then ever and playing good defense. On the offensive side he creates his own shot rather easily, but so far hasnt been that great in executing his attempts. With Devin Brown as his main competition in Utah for playing time, Giricek looks to be poised to return to the double digit scoring form of earlier in his career.
Zoran Planinic has been one of best penetrators at the competition so far and has been really hard to stop from getting into the lane with his length and ball-handling ability. He is excelling in the open court, although his play in the half court set and distributing skills will still need a lot of work. Defense is probably biggest question mark of Zorans game, which is apparently the reason he lost his spot in New Jerseys rotation to Jacque Vaughn last season under Lawrence Frank. However, Planinic has shown the talent that made him a first round pick a few years ago and with a little work on his defense and conditioning should be able to prove himself as a useful role player for an NBA team.
Captain Nikola Vujcic certainly isnt in the same shape that made him an All-Euroleague 1st team member, but his last game against Turkey was an encouraging sign for rest of the competition. Vujcic is a very important piece for Croatia, being the only big man on the team who can both shoot from the perimeter and score with his back to the basket.
One of nicest surprises of the tournament has been Orlandos 3rd string Center Mario Kasun, who does all the dirty work for Croatia and collects a good amount of rebounds, while also showing some decent post moves. If Kasun continues to play like this he should see some increased playing time next year in Orlandos depleted frontcourt rotation.
While Croatia certainly isnt among the most impressive teams in the tournament so far, they could be more and more dangerous as the Eurobasket goes on. In the elimination game they will meet an aging Italian squad who hasnt been playing anything like they have in prior tournaments. The expectations are high for Spahijas team, but can they deal with the pressure? In the last 10 years they definitely couldnt, but maybe now its the time.
Israels Best Kept Secret: Tal Burstein
Frequently overlooked given the quality and flashiness of his teammates in Maccabi Tel Aviv these last couple of years, Burstein has been the perfect fit rounding out a starting five which is already written in golden letters in European basketball because of its incredible playing level and achievements. They are Sarunas Jasikevicius, Anthony Parker, Nikola Vujcic, Maceo Baston and our focal point Tal Burstein.
What in Maccabi seems like a perfect complementary player, flying solo with his National Team has been revealed as one of the most complete wing players in all of Europe. Burstein does everything, and everything well. Hes a 6-7 athletic and well built player. He is skilled and fluid athlete who can dribble, slash, shoot, pass, rebound and defend at a great level, being an extremely fundamentally sound player.
Contrary to his usual role in Maccabi, with Israel hes assuming the lead as the go-to guy. Hes virtually playing point guard in many situations, being the primary distributor of his team (3.7 assist per game, fifth in the Eurobasket), the offensive catalyst, assuming responsibilities and never hiding. As you can guess, hes a very smart and ductile player who easily adapts his game to the situation hes placed in, and that would likely include the NBA, for which he has good enough tools.
Burstein is looking better day by day, gaining confidence as the tournament advances, but he will now face an extremely demanding test: Greece and its awesome perimeter defense. This is perhaps an excellent chance to make his definitive leap into European stardom.
Dirk Nowitzki, a True European Superstar
Amongst the NBA players here, only one has truly separated himself so far as being head and shoulders above and beyond any other player in action here. That would be Dallas Mavericks Power Forward Dirk Nowitzki.
Comfortably leading the tournament in both points and rebounds (averaging 26 and 13 respectively in 35 minutes per game), Nowitzki has not only put up awesome numbers, he's done it while helping his team play winning basketball almost the entire way through so far. Dirk and Germany came just a missed free throw away from knocking off Olympic Silver medalists Italy before eventually falling in overtime. Nowitzki was the catalyst the entire way through, finishing with 27 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals, but coming up very cold at the end of regulation and overtime in the heartbreaking loss, uncharacteristically missing two crucial free throws in crunch time. In the next game against Slava Medvedenko and Ukraine, the Germans easily rolled to a 26 point victory behind another 27 point outing from their superstar. Yesterday against previously undefeated Russia, who is led by arguably the 2nd biggest star in the tournament in Andrei Kirilenko, Nowitzki was absolutely unstoppable in the 2nd half to help his team to a narrow one point victory. Nowitzki scored his team's last 11 points in the win to finish with 24 points and 19 rebounds in the contest, showing incredible offensive skills in the process to free himself up time after time using his intelligence and wonderful array of moves on the perimeter.
Nowitzki is not only scoring and rebounding like a madman here in Serbia and Montenegro, he is also doing good work in other areas as well. His 2 steals, nearly 2 blocks and 2 assists per game give him a very well rounded stat-line.
Next up for Dirk and Germany is Turkey, a very beatable team that is seemingly in chaos right now.
Rakocevic Succeeds Bodiroga Commanding the Serbian National Team
After a rather discrete performance in last years Olympics, combined with an early exit in the preliminary round for Serbia, Dejan Bodirogas time as leader of his National Team seems to be over. DraftExpress already predicted his successor in the preview of this tournament, calling Igor Rakocevic the man in charge of leading the offensive effort from the perimeter. Coach Obradovic didnt seem to see it that clear, since the opening game started with Igor watching the action from the bench while Spain was building an advantage that Serbia could never overcome, in what has been one of the most embarrassing losses for this historic basketball country. However, it didnt take long for Igor to put everything in place once he hit the court.
With three players seven feet or taller, three wings at 6-9 and the starting point guard measuring 6-7, Serbia can suffer from gigantism and slowness in its game depending on the lineups. Rakocevic is the perfect antidote, a player who has consistently provided great quickness on both ends of the court for his team. Offensively, he has been incisive, taking advantage of picks and screens. Besides, hes hardly stoppable in one-on-one situations, and even if he does abuse this ability at times, he has repeatedly drawn fouls to get to the free-throw line, which is money in the bank for him. Effective also with his long range jumper, it hasnt been only a question of scoring points; Rakocevic has successfully involved his teammates in the offensive game as well, particularly against Latvia and Israel. There, we could see a much more team-oriented Serbia, playing closer to what this really talented squad, still the clear favorite to conquer the title, is supposedly capable of doing.
On defense, Rako has been one of the most aggressive and effective pieces along with Milicic. The audience in Novi Sad recognized his performance and effort already in the painful opener against Spain, booing coach Obradovic when he sent the player to the bench at one point in the second half. His averages, 18 points, hitting a 48% of his shots from the field to go along with 4 assists in 29 minutes per game, are good credentials of his game.
Considering his great skills and athleticism, its really surprising that no NBA team has knocked on his door this summer with a good enough offer. After an excellent campaign in Valencia and just beginning to enjoy his prime at 27 years old, he could have been a very nice addition for many franchises, indeed making our Top Overseas Free Agents list two months ago. He reportedly signed a pre-agreement with Real Madrid early in the summer, which was open to cancellation if something interesting enough arrived from the NBA. It didnt happen, and Rakocevic is now officially a Real Madrid player for the next four seasons.
Ukic and Tomas Disappoint
Just a few months ago being projected in the starting lineup of Croatias National team, Croatian fans had big hopes for Marko Tomas and Roko Leni Ukic as they were one of biggest reasons why many were optimistic about Croatias chances at this Eurobasket and the future despite falling in the last 4 attempts. Now after the group stage of the European Championships, it become clear that Marko Tomas and Roko Leni Ukics playing time and performances this summer have become the subject of disappointment for Croatian fans.
Coach Neven Spahija obviously has little trust in his two youngsters, with both seeing less and less playing time as more games go by. Tomas and Ukic barely got 20 minutes together combined in the first 3 games and both went without a field goal in those outings, scoring only 5 points together from free throw line.
Ukic first loss his starting job to Zoran Planinic, who completely overshadowed Tau Ceramicas new acquisition during preparation games. After the first game of the Eurobasket, Efes Pilsens Marko Popovic took the backup role from Ukic as well.
Ukic doesnt fit in Spahijas offensive sets and thats the biggest reason for his underachieving so far. He needs to have the ball in his hands constantly to be effective, but Croatias PGs play off a lot of off ball movement and that doesnt work for Roko at this point in his career. Ukic has never played on a level like this before and his inexperience has played a big part. Ukic shows superb ball-control and good penetration skills, but has big problems with finishing around the rim, mainly because of his weak body. His shot hasnt been falling for him either.
On the good side, Ukic has shown significant improvement in his defense. His lateral quickness is very good and Roko shows good aggressiveness. When and if he finally adds some muscles to his frame, he could be one of better PGs in Europe defensively because of his size and athletic ability.
Ukics play at the Eurobasket probably hasnt impressed his new employers in Spain so far, but the season ahead of him still looks promising. It appears to be clear that staying in Europe was a good decision, because Roko is anything but ready for the NBA challenge and seasoning in European powerhouse Tau Ceramica should make him ready to contribute instantly when he joins the Toronto Raptors (or another NBA club) in a 2 or 3 years.
While both have been major disappointments, Ukic has still shown more then Marko Tomas. Real Madrids player is forced to play slightly out of position at small forward since Croatia is loaded at shooting guard. The only other SF on the roster is Alba Berlins veteran Matej Mamic, who is a very solid defensive player, but very limited offensively. Tomas was the big favorite to win the starting job, but he didnt and is now in a similar position to Ukic, playing only 5 minutes or so per game.
The biggest concern that has arisen here is Tomass attitude. In most games he didnt show the type of aggressiveness you would like to see from such a young player. His unimpressive speed was noticeable during the small stretches of playing time he has gotten, rarely being able to beat his defender off the dribble, and even when he did, struggling to finish. In general he has been very passive on the offensive end. Defensively he was very decent, not being a liability and showing good rebounding skills for a perimeter player. The opponents have tried to expose his skinny body at the SF position by posting him up, with mixed results.
Ahead of Tomas is a very important year in his career. He will be fighting for minutes in the mighty Real Madrid team. With Louis Bullock and Igor Rakocevic at the guard positions, Tomas will most likely be seeking his playing time at the SF position where Mickael Gelabale played (and will probably continue to play) very well last season.