Turkish League Preview

Turkish League Preview
Oct 27, 2008, 10:57 pm
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The Turkish Basketball League (TBL) has gradually been getting stronger and stronger over the past few years, to the point that it may soon enough be able to lay claim to the distinction of being the third best domestic league in Europe, after Spain and Russia.

Turkey’s three biggest soccer clubs, Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas have been pouring money into their team’s respective basketball divisions, while the traditionally strong Turk Telekom and especially Efes Pilsen have budgets that rival nearly any team in Europe (outside of Russia). Those five teams together make up the core of the upper echelon of the Turkish league, and have been a constant presence on the European summer market, often-times competing for the most coveted players available.

That hasn’t necessarily translated itself to attendance levels—on the decline over the past ten years and almost pathetic last year at just 1300 people per game on average—or a TV deal—quite poor even by paltry European standards, which means that owners are taking big hits to their checkbook for the pleasure of bankrolling their teams. The exposure level the league enjoys—even for the top teams-- unfortunately isn’t coming close to matching its quality, which is a shame. It doesn’t help that four of the five best teams (and seven total) are located in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul.

The result of the lack of revenue is a huge disparity found between the “haves” (the five teams listed above) and the “have-nots” (everyone else practically), which means that huge blowouts, poor facilities, and inflated stats (especially amongst big men) are a common theme here, particularly when you consider that there are 16 teams in the TBL. In turn, there has been a fair share of financial instability found amongst clubs, particularly amongst the mid and low-level teams, but also amongst some of the richer teams at times as well.

The Turkish league allows teams to register up to five import (non-Turkish players), one of which must be European. Similar to Russia and Israel, though, teams must have at least one Turkish player (in Russia and Israel the rule is two) on the court at all times, which puts a premium on local players, and makes it a little more difficult for lower-level clubs to compete with the extremely affluent. That does help the domestic talent develop more, even if it might water down the quality of overall play.

With a population of over 70 million, and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Turkey has been developing a fair share of quality domestic players to go along with some of the impressive imports that landed here as of late, with many more to come apparently. They are aided by the fact that the country’s non-EU status makes them less valuable in places like Italy and Greece, making it more attractive for them to stay at home rather than test the open market like their counterparts in France, Slovenia and elsewhere.

Although they’ve been notorious underachievers in International (national team) play over the last few years, Turkey is one of few countries who can lay claim to having two super-high quality NBA players like Mehmet Okur and Hedo Turkoglu on their roster. With players like Ersan Ilyasova, Omer Asik, Deniz Kilicli and Enes Kanter waiting in the wings, amongst others, the future looks bright for Turkish basketball.

Last Year’s Champions: Fenerbahce Ulker

Led by Bosnian coach Bogdan Tanjevic, and featuring a fairly young roster by high-level European standards, Fenerbahce was able to repeat as Turkish champions this past season, in no small part due to the heroics of point guard Will Solomon, who has since signed with the Toronto Raptors. His replacement at the point—Marques Green--can’t be viewed as anything but a huge downgrade in terms of size and talent, but the team hopes that he can at least bring more stability both on and off the court.

Also gone are American wing players Tarence Kinsey and James White, both great athletes capable of making huge impacts on both ends on the floor on any given night, but highly inexperienced in high-level Europe and wildly inconsistent in terms of their perimeter shooting and ball-handling skills. Devin Smith and Gordon Giricek are their (very sensible) replacements. Smith is a bit limited as a shot-creator, but is an awesome shooter/scorer and all-around role-player, coming off a fantastic season in Italy with Avellino. Giricek is more offensive minded and is versatile enough to be an extremely creative force on the perimeter, in addition to being a lights out shooter. His signing was a huge coup for the club, a sign that the team is willing to compete with the Russians and Spanish for the biggest names on the free agent market.

Turkish rebounding machine Mirsad Turkcan is still around, and is still a very productive player when his head is screwed on (not always the case). Shot-blocker Omer Asik was slated to have a breakout year, but will miss most of the season with a serious knee injury. The Chicago Bulls invested quite a bit of resources to trade for him on draft night back in June, and will be keeping a close eye on how he recovers from afar. Fenerbahce will expect much more out of young Turkish big men Semih Erden, Oguz Savas and possibly Enes Kanter for that reason, as well as from Slovenians Gasper Vidmar and Emir Preldzic.

All in all this is a high quality roster that will compete heavily for the Turkish league championship and yet another berth in the Euroleague Top-8 round, but there are some question marks about their inside play and the stability of their backcourt with the 5-8 Marques Green at the helm, without much additional ball-handling help alongside him.

Predicted Champions: Efes Pilsen

Efes Pilsen was rehauled from top to bottom (again) after another embarrassing sweep in the Turkish league playoffs, this time at the hands of Fenerbahce. A deep, experienced, and very expensive roster has been put in place, with the intent of advancing to the Euroleague Final Four for the first time since 2000, and ending the domestic league championship drought that begun in 2005.

Turkish head coach Ergin Ataman (brought over from Besiktas) was clearly only interested in signing players with an extensive amount of Euroleague experience this summer. Charles Smith, Bootsy Thornton, Milos Vujanic, Mario Kasun, Michail Kakiouzis, Kaya Peker and Preston Shumpert are all newcomers on this roster, and all have logged heavy minutes at the highest levels of European basketball leading up to this season. Their resumes, talent-level and hefty price-tags were never in doubt.

The frontcourt is particularly impressive, starting with steady and defensive oriented role-playing small forwards Bootsy Thornton and Charles Smith, complimented with the athleticism, size and strength of Turkish bigs Kaya Peker and Kerem Gonlum, as well as Croatian Mario Kasun and Greek Michail Kakiouzis.

There is a good deal of scoring options in the backcourt too, with combo guard Milos Vujanic manning the point and sharp-shooting Preston Shumpert joining him on the wing. Talented Turkish guards Ender Arslan, Cenk Akyol, Sinan Guler and Engin Atsur all provide quality depth at the guard positions as well.

The bottom line is, this team is loaded—clearly the most talented roster to be found in the Turkish league, and one of the most impressive squads in the Euroleague as well. The big question mark is—can Ataman get them to play the type of defense needed to get through the tough, low-scoring encounters they will inevitably face along the way? And is Vujanic enough of a leader and pure playmaker to get all of the many pieces at his team’s disposal to operate correctly as it’s near-lone ball-handler? We will have to wait and see.

Other Contenders:

Unlike other leagues in Europe, where there is little parity with at best one or two serious candidates to win a championship, the Turkish league has five teams with large budgets that should be able to contend with almost any team in Europe on any given night. Besides Efes Pilsen and Fenerbahce, we also find Galatasaray, Besiktas and Turk Telekom.

The only member of the TBL elite not based out of Istanbul, Turk Telekom from Ankara clearly looks like the most ambitious roster put together outside of the aforementioned discussed above. The team reached the playoff finals last season and clinched a berth in the Top-8 of the ULEB Cup, and seems to have returned most of its core.

The team’s frontcourt might be the most impressive in the league, with three physical, skilled and experienced American big men who complement each other extremely well. Kris Lang is a mobile, defensive oriented center with good touch around the basket, Michael Wright is an undersized, highly skilled scoring machine of a power forward, and Erwin Dudley is a strong, physical back to the basket scorer who can play either the 4 or the 5. Together, they’ll be a handful for any team in Europe to deal with.

The team parted ways with super-scoring but highly erratic point guard Khalid El-Amin this summer, as well as with undersized do-it-all 6-6 power forward Chris Williams. In their place, they brought in the smooth and athletic Kennedy Winston, and experienced and super-shooting Turkish swing Serkan Erdogan. Veteran point guard Roderick Blakney, an American with a Bulgarian passport will run the show after coming off the bench for Olympiakos last season, aided by big and versatile Turkish guard Tutku Acik.

Their head coach, Ercument Sunter, has held the position for 10 years now, a sure-fire sign that this club does things a little differently than most sides in Europe. The team’s ascent up the Turkish basketball ranks has been slow and steady, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the team ends up winning its first league championship this season.

Besiktas had an outstanding run last year, being the lone team to go undefeated in the ULEB Cup regular season, while finishing first overall in the TBL as well before being knocked out by Turk Telekom in the playoff semi-finals. They lost their coach (to Efes Pilsen) and had to replace every player on the roster besides Mehmet Yagmur (who averaged three points per game last season), which means that this is a group that will take time to fully mesh together.

The roster appears to be a work in progress still, with rumors of additional frontcourt options still being explored, and center Jovo Stanojevic already released and off to Kyiv. For now they have a big-time scorer in Mario Austin manning the pivot, an outstanding talent but highly undisciplined player who is as gifted offensively as he is unreliable defensively. Mire Chatman is the point guard, also a big name in European basketball, also an extreme talent, but also somewhat inconsistent in his approach to the game. The third American is Marcus Faison, a very athletic wing player with nice tools and a great stroke, but again not the most stable player around.

Other than that there are a bunch of Turkish players, including the aforementioned Yagmur, a talented young point guard born in 1987, and 36-year old Haluk Yildirim.

Considering the lack of depth, and the volatility of its core pieces, Besiktas is obviously going to have a very difficult time repeating their accomplishments from last season.

Historically, Galatasaray is one of the most prestigious teams in the Turkish league, ranking second in championships with a total of four. The team has not fared very well over the past few years, though, finishing fifth overall last season, being swept in the quarterfinals, and failing to win a championship since 1990. Last year’s team looked like a fairly selfish and divided bunch, suffering from bad chemistry stemmed by a poor selection of American players, and very inconsistent play from their Turkish players well.

The core of this roster has been overhauled dramatically, with four new import players being signed, although the team is reportedly still on the market searching for a quality shooting guard. There is some excellent scoring power already coming from the lethal duo of Antonio Graves and Milan Gurovic, and the frontcourt doesn’t look bad either with Turkish/Croatian big man Andrea Zizic pairing with undersized hustler Dejan Milojevic. Point guard duties will be split between Cuneyt Erden and American Marshall Strickland.

Comparing Galatasaray with other contenders in the TBL, it’s pretty obvious that they lack the depth, experience and overall talent of its counterparts. Any team relying on the highly erratic Milan Gurovic too heavily will be suffering some serious ups and downs both on and off the court, and the point guard position looks fairly questionable at this point as well. We’ll see what kind of reinforcements the team will make, but finishing fifth might be in the cards once again.

European Competition Participants:

Euroleague: Fenerbahce Ulker, Efes Pilsen
Eurocup: Besiktas, Turk Telekom Ankara, Galatasaray
EuroChallenge: Antalya, Banvit

NBA Prospects:

Fenerbahce interestingly decided to invest in signing two young Slovenian players last summer, Emir Preldzic and Gasper Vidmar, and subsequently gave them heavy playing time in both the Euroleague and Turkish league in order to help them develop. Both draft-eligible as 1987-born prospects, neither are considered incredibly interesting material for the NBA, but will be scouted by most teams regardless. On the same roster we find 16-year old Enes Kanter (born in 1992), a mountain of a teenager and a real bruising presence down low. He already found his way into some of Fenerbahce’s games, and reportedly did not embarrass himself. Still a long ways away from even being eligible to enter his name in the draft, he’s a guy to at least keep an eye on. Plodding big man Oguz Savas (1987) is also on the roster, but is much less interesting.

Scouts have been waiting for 1988-born Baris Hersek to break out of his shell for quite some time now, but that’s apparently not going to happen. The 6-9 forward has nice athleticism and a variety of skills facing the basket, but appears to be lacking the mentality needed to take advantage of his talent.

In terms of free agents, things look a little bit sparse. There are a number of American rookies plying their trade here right out of the NCAA, including Butler point guard Mike Green, Tennessee shooting guard Chris Lofton, Texas A&M power forward Joseph Jones, Auburn small forward Quan Prowell, Wisconsin combo Kammron Taylor and New Orleans combo Bo McCalebb. Oregon power forward Maarty Leunen is playing for Darussafaka after being drafted by the Houston Rockets this past June, and his rights are still owned by them.

Turk Telekom’s big man duo of Kris Lang and Michael Wright are easily good enough to play in the NBA if they were willing to settle for minimum contracts. Teams looking for quality depth might be well-served giving these two a second look. Gordan Giricek is already a proven player at the NBA level, and will likely sift through a couple of offers to return next summer if he has a productive season.

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