Over the past few years, St. Mary's alum Earl Rowland’s career has been on the impressive rise. Rowland, a 28-year-old guard, made a huge leap from playing in the Latvian league to competing in the Euroleague and Spanish championship.
Rowland, who was averaging 7.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists this season in the Euroleague, sat down with RealGM to talk about his Euroleague debut and European career, his teammate Joel Freeland and opponent Bo McCalebb, the Euroleague quarterfinals and much more.
RealGM: First of all, what happened to Unicaja this season?
Rowland: Honestly, we were playing well early on in the season. But then we started getting injuries, and then we started losing. When you are playing at this level competition, people smell blood. When you start losing, they are going to step on your throat. Then we lost confidence as a team because we were losing so many games in a row. We lost close games and we could not get over the hump. And now we are back in the same position and we are just trying to find a way out of it.
RealGM: How would you evaluate your Euroleague debut season?
Rowland: Well, it did not go the way I expected, but I did expect it to be tough and that is exactly what it was. Especially when you are doing it along with the ACB (Liga Endesa), there is kind of no games off. There is a whole bunch of travel and your legs feel tired. And me personally, I had so many injuries and I was just trying to find my way out of it. I did not have a year I that I would expect I would have, but going through it, I experienced things I could learn from.
RealGM: Your individual season was a roller-coaster with many ups and downs. Do you think injuries were the main reason for it?
Rowland: I am the kind of player where I use my explosiveness a lot. That is one of my things, my trademarks. My athleticism, getting to the paint, pressure defense, and I really did not have it for the most of the season and it just started to come back now. Also, it is a different league, ACB is different than Euroleague too, therefore I have to play defense differently. You cannot use your hands or arms at all, or you can use your chest and in another game you can. I think I was hesitant sometimes, but as I said, this is an experience you have to go through.
RealGM: You mentioned that playing in the ACB and Euroleague at the same time is a pretty difficult thing to do. But is it fair to say that there is nothing better in Europe than playing in the ACB, which is probably the second best domestic league in the world, and Euroleague?
Rowland: For sure, I think it is my fourth or fifth season in Europe and I knew this during my entire time in Europe. My goal was to get on a high level, ACB and Euroleague team, which I have done. I realize that you cannot get any better. If you are competitive and you want to play at the highest level, this is it.
RealGM: Let’s talk about your teammate Joel Freeland, who might soon be leaving Malaga and moving to the NBA. From your perspective, should he leave Europe for the NBA or not?
Rowland: I think Joel has a lot of potential, he is young, still has a lot of upside and he is an NBA athlete. He brings a lot of different things. He can shoot, has some post moves, and he works hard. I think mentally he is not satisfied just getting recognition now in the Euroleague or ACB, or around Europe. He wants more than that. With the combination of things he has, I think he could be a starting four in the NBA. I think he has what it takes.
It is tough because there is a business side of it and I know that he is going to get offers in Europe that are going to be hard to turn down for something that is unnecessarily guaranteed in the NBA. Even if he goes to Portland, there is LaMarcus Aldridge and a lot of bigs, who are there and established. All it would take is a year or two him not getting playing time and he may miss out the opportunities. But at the same time, there is so much potential in the NBA, if he gets playing time, catches and finishes, he's on the highlights sometimes and he gets a long-time contract and recognition he wants. It is a tough decision he will have to make. It depends on what his dream is and what security he wants. It is definitely a decision you cannot make in one night.
RealGM: The other player I want to talk about is Bo McCalebb. Do you think he is currently the best point guard in the Europe?
Rowland: Yes, I think he earned this title. I played against him three or four times in Italy before as well. For one, his teams have been wining. With Partizan, they went to the Final Four in Euroleague with Montepaschi last year, they did the same thing. He led the Republic of Macedonia team to the Final Four in EuroBasket, which nobody expected him to do. I do not see anybody doing what he is doing. I guess people can say Milos Teodosic is better, but it depends on what you like because they are two different kind of players. But I think McCalebb earned that title and you should give it to him.
If I were a GM, would I trade Milos Teodosic for McCalebb? Me personally, I like McCalebb because I think he is so good defensively; he can do a lot of different things. But Teodosic, how he makes reads, how he moves on the court, he knows what he is doing. You really cannot teach that either. I like both of those players but I have seen McCalebb a little bit more and I know he is tough.
RealGM: What would you rank first in the Euroleague MVP Race, McCalebb or Andrei Kirilenko?
Rowland: I think CSKA is doing better this year and they are more dominant. One thing about Kirilenko is that I think when we played against him, he got around a 31 Euroleague index rating and he took only three shots. That says it all in how he dominates the game in so many different areas that no matter what the team needs, he can provide that. Especially in Europe, there are not any players like that out there. I would give it to Kirilenko just because how dominating he is. As for Bo, he just gets it done no matter what people say.
RealGM: Let’s move on to the Euroleague quarterfinals. Who are your favorites to make it to the Final Four?
Rowland: Talking about CSKA-Gescrap BB, that is a good thing about basketball, anything can happen. All it takes is some guy to get hot like [Alex] Mumbru, or some other of their shooters. CSKA could be struggling and they could win. But I think CSKA has too much inside, they are balanced everywhere, I do not think it is going to be tough for them to manage this situation. I don’t think Bilbao is going to get a win, but is going to be tougher than people think.
Montepaschi-Olympiacos, I would take Siena. Even when Bo doesn’t dominate, how they are coached, how they are organized, they are still going to kill you no matter what you take away. If you take away a penetration from Bo, you have [Ksystof[ Lavrinovic, you have all these guys, who can not only shoot and score, but they also make the right plays. It is going to be tough to beat them because they play so well together.
FC Barcelona Regal-Unics, I have got Barcelona. Unics has been surprising, but I think Barcelona still has another gear they haven’t kicked it into. [Juan Carlos] Navarro is just that wildcard.
Panathinaikos-Maccabi... I have not seen Maccabi play that much this season. It is hard to go against Panathinaikos because of its history. They are defending champions; they have [Dimitris] Diamantidis, who knows how to get it done. It is a tough one but I would say Panathinaikos.
RealGM: You probably heard about the Jeremy Pargo case, when he left Maccabi for a chance to play in the NBA for the Memphis Grizzlies. If you were in his shoes, would you have done the same thing?
Rowland: It depends. If that was guaranteed and if I would have a chance… Maybe they can only guarantee my contract but they could not guarantee minutes, but I would have a chance to earn some. If I would have a chance to be a backup point guard, then that would be fine. Because we grew up with this dream (of playing in the NBA) and I think I would have to take that opportunity. But then you have to balance out like contracts, especially when you get older and responsibilities come. In his situation, I would definitely do the same. He became established here, they went to the Final Four last year, he knows that if he doesn’t do well this year, everybody in Europe still knows what he is capable to do at European level. If the rest of the season does not go well, Maccabi or some other team like Panathinaikos will say let’s get Jeremy Pargo. You want to chase your dream and what is why you worked so hard and if you get the opportunity, it is definitely hard to turn it down.
RealGM: Taking you back to EuroBasket 2011, do you still catch yourself thinking about your performance with the Bulgarian national team?
Rowland: Sometimes, especially when I had my struggles this year, I was like, I expected myself to play so much better and I know I can do it. Everything was going so well, I had strong Italian seasons and for the last few seasons, I was doing better and better. Then I had EuroBasket and I expected to hit the ground running in Malaga and keep moving forward. Sometimes I just look at myself in the mirror and ask what happened but that is part of me. I know I have it in me. I know the player is still here.
They showed me love in Bulgaria. The organization still keeps in touch with me. A lot of people from the country, they show support. Fans are writing me messages; they seem to follow what I am doing. They write that they still want me to play. I have got nothing but warm reception from Bulgaria and I appreciate it.