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Euroleague's Most Improved Players Of The 2012-13 Season

- All records and stats through Game 10 of Top-16.

1. Aron Baynes - Union Olimpija Ljubljana

2012-13 (Euroleague): 13.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 26 minutes

2011-12 (Greek League): 13.6 points, 8.7 rebounds in 28 minutes

In his Euroleague debut season three years ago, Aron Baynes averaged more fouls per game than rebounds and blocked shots combined. Baynes' first coach in Europe, Rimas Kurtinaitis said "if a Russian can teach a bear how to ride a bike, then we'll make something out Aron as well".

After spending two seasons in Germany, Greece and gaining experience playing in the Eurocup, Baynes got back to the strongest European competition as a mature and a decisive player. The Australian leads the league in rebounds (9.8 per game), averaged nearly a double-double this season and was influential on both ends of the floor. It didn't take long for Baynes to get noticed by the San Antonio Spurs, who bought out the 26-year-old center's contract with Union Olimpija.

2. Shawn James - Maccabi Tel Aviv

2012-13 (Euroleague): 11.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 23 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 2.6 points, 2.4 rebounds in 8 minutes

After the departure of Richard Hendrix and Sofoklis Schortsanitis, the 29-year-old Shawn James sought an opportunity to step up and become an impact player for Maccabi. James perfectly used this chance and had a breakout season as he became one of the most efficient players in the Euroleague.

James ranks 2nd in the league in blocks per 28 minutes (2.2), 2nd in field goals percentage (67.1) and 3rd in average performance index rating per 28 minutes (PIR, 22.1). The NCAA All-Time leader in blocks per game (6.5 in 2005-06), James continues to play strong in the Top 16 stage and has enough potential to carry Maccabi to the Top 8 by himself.

3. Nemanja Bjelica - Caja Laboral Vitoria

2012-13 (Euroleague): 10.8 points, 5.1 rebounds in 24 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 4.8 points, 2.1 rebounds in 14 minutes

Nemanja Bjelica's transition from his previous team, Crvena Zvezda to Caja Laboral was not as smooth as expected. It took a while until Bjelica earned more playing time and finally proved himself to be one of the most talented European players.

The 25-year-old Bjelica doubled his main statistical numbers compared to last season and made at least one three-pointer in his last 12 Euroelague games. Also, the forward played his career-best game in the Euroleague against Cedevita this season, scoring 22 points (9-for-10 FG), grabbing three rebounds and dishing out three assists in 22 minutes of action. Bjelica, who often gets called the future star of the Serbian national team, has finally started to live up to expectations.

4. Curtis Jerrells - Besiktas Istanbul

2012-13 (Euroleague): 14.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 31 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 8.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 21 minutes

Curtis Jerrells established himself as a Euroleague star in his third season overseas and proved he can lead a team in the strongest European competition. Playing under Erman Kunter, the former Baylor guard raised his value by becoming one of the best lefty point guards in Europe.

However, after succeeding in Europe, Jerells returned to the States, where he joined NBA D-League's Maine Red Claws and will try to draw attention from NBA teams. If things don't work out at home, many Euroleague team will surely want to sign Jerells.

5. Vladimir Lucic - Partizan Belgrade

2012-13 (Euroleague): 13.7 points, 4.8 rebounds in 33 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 5.8 points, 2.4 rebounds in 22 minutes

No surprise, every year there must be at least one talents-making-machine Partizan player included in Euroleague most improved players list. No exception was made this season as 23-year-old Vladimir Lucic was ranked fifth.

Lucic is another product of Partizan basketball school, who is finally paying its dividend. After spending a year on Partizan bench, last season Lucic received a chance to become a member of the starting five. The Serbian talent was learning in a process rather than producing results, but this season Partizan got full return for all their trust in Lucic. The forward received most playing time among all Partizan players (33 MPG) and became the leader of the team.

6. Pietro Aradori - Mapooro Cantu

2012-13 (Euroleague): 15 points (57% 3FG), 4 rebounds in 30 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 4.8 points, 2 rebounds in 10 minutes

Pietro Aradori made his name known in 2009-10, leading Biella in both Eurocup and Italian championship. However, since now, Aradori didn't have a chance to play a big role in Euroleague, as he previously was stuck on the bench twice with Armani Jeans and Montepaschi.

After leading the Italian national team, together with Danilo Gallinari, in qualification for EuroBasket 2013, Aradori had a very successful season in the Euroleague as well. The 24-year-old Aradori averaged 15 points per game and finished the season ranked 5th in terms of three-point shooting percentage (57%). A statement was made - Aradori might be a savior Italian basketball needs.

7. Jaka Blazic - Union Olimpija Ljubljana

2012-13 (Euroleague): 12.4 points, 4 rebounds in 20 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 3.6 points, 2.4 rebounds in 14 minutes

A massive improvement of Jaka Blazic's game might be a huge surprise for European basketball fans, but those who followed Slovenian hoops closer have noticed changes a bit earlier. Blazic has been playing impressively since the second half of last season and smoothly carried his game to this Euroleague season.

Blazic, 22, is heading to his contract year with Union Olimpija and next season will have a chance to prove that this season wasn't a fluke and he's capable of putting big numbers consistently.

8. Ante Tomic - FC Regal Barcelona

2012-13 (Euroleague): 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 24 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 6.7 points, 3.7 rebounds in 15 minutes

The reason why Ante Tomic is on this list is not the numbers he produces, which are similar to 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, or the results achieved by FC Regal Barcelona. No doubt, FC Regal Barcelona is currently the best team in Europe and Tomic is one of team's main strengths.

The consistency of Tomic in Euroleague Top 16 stage is the difference as the Croatian center constantly plays as an MVP on every game. Tomic became a game changer as he leads the Euroleague in plus-minus (+/-) rating with 13.1 points per 50 possessions. Tomic finished in double scoring figures in all ten Top 16 stage games so far and if the 25-year-old center maintains this pace, he has all the potential to be considered as a candidate to win MVP award in near future.

9. Mindaugas Kuzminskas - Zalgiris Kaunas

2012-13 (Euroleague): 6.3 points, 2.8 rebounds in 12 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 2.8 points, 1.3 rebounds in 8 minutes

Mindaugas Kuzminskas had been having a hard time getting playing time in the Euroleague, but when the opportunities arose, the 23-year-old forward was ready to strike and use them. In the second half of this season, Kuzminskas finally received a chance to show his skills on the big scene and those performances weren't left unnoticed.

Kuzminskas scored 15 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and finished the game with career-high 21 PIR against Unicaja. Last week Kuzminskas made more noise against Real as he registered career-high 16 points (7-for-7 FG) and attracted attention from Spanish teams, who will consider bringing Kuzminskas for the next season. In addition, with the departure of Tremmell Darden, Kuzminskas should receive more playing time in last four Top 16 games.

10. Kostas Papanikolaou - Olympiakos Piraeus

2012-13 (Euroleague): 8.5 points (50% 3FG), 4 rebounds in 22 minutes

2011-12 (Euroleague): 6.1 points (33% 3FG), 3.4 rebounds in 20 minutes

After spectacular performance in last year's Euroleague final, where Kostas Papanikolau scored 18 points (3-for-3 3FG) and helped Olympiakos win the Euroleague, the expectations for the 22-year-old forward were sky-high.

Papanikolau demonstrated impressive shooting range this year as he ranked 2nd in three-point shooting percentage in regular season (59%) and averaged 10.5 points per game in that period. The Greek talent has slowed down a bit in Top 16, but it's clear that Papanikolau's game steadily grows and the question how good Papanikolau can be remains unanswered.

24 Questions For The Start Of Euroleague

As the 12-13 Euroleague season begins, RealGM presents 24 questions for the Euroleague fans.

1. Was Alba worthy of the Euroleague wildcard?

Thanks to their amazing game attendance numbers, Alba Berlin received a wildcard from the Euroleague this offseason, letting compete in the top European competition once again. Having Elan Chalon and Asseco Prokom Gdynia in their group, Alba has a good chance of making it out of the group and prove they were worthy of the wildcard.

2. Was Jordan Farmar a player Anadolu Efes has been missing for years?

Anadolu Efes Istanbul has arguably spent more on their team without receiving a good return than any other team in Euroleauge. Anadolu Efes has always been a team full of stars and it won't be any different this season. However, Jordan Farmar was an MVP candidate last season in his short stint with Maccabi and he's capable of helping the Turkish team make a long run this Euroleague season.

3. Can Asseco Prokom win more games than last season?

Asseco Prokom won just one game last season and it doesn't seem like it's going to be any better this year. The Polish team didn't construct a competitive roster this offseason and making it to the Top 16 would be a huge surprise. On the other hand, it can't get any worse for Asseco Prokom.

4. When Khimki will end road losing streak in Euroleague?

Eurocup winners Khimki Moscow Region has been known as a home team, as its last Euroleague away win came against Caja Laboral in Vitoria back in 09-10 season. Khimki lost six road games in a row and eight out of its last nine. 

5. Did Besiktas have enough time for team-building?

EuroChallenge winners Besiktas brought in ten new players, a head coach and completely changed the face of the team. Of course, Besiktas beat Anadolu Efes to win the Presidential Cup, but as the Turkish championship hasn't started yet, the new-look Besiktas comes to the Euroleague with no games-that-matters experience.

6. Will we see the old Bostjan Nachbar this season?

Just a couple of years ago Brose Basket's Bostjan Nachbar was one of the best small forwards in Europe, but injuries have slowed down the Slovenian's career. As Nachbar demonstrated in preseason, he feels very comfortable in Bamberg, but there's a question is he ready to lead the lead and finally fight for an MVP award.

7. Can Andres Nocioni lead Caja Laboral to the Euroleague Final Four?

It's been more than four since since Caja Laboral last played in the Euroleague final four. After missing Top 16 last season, it didn't seem that Caja Laboral is moving in the right direction, but the acquisition of Andres Nocioni could change everything. Nocioni is back in the Euroleague after eight years break and will play his first game since April 2004.

8. Is Cedevita capable of creating a miracle in group C?

Anadolu Efes, Caja Laboral, Olympiakos, Zalgiris and EA7 Emporio Armani. Cedevita of Croatia will be competing in 'millionaires group C with clubs, which has intentions to go all the way to the Final Four. Cedevita made a great effort this offseason on building a competitive roster, but it might not be enough to kick off two of those five teams to advance to the Top 16.

9. Does Ettore Messina plus CSKA equals Euroleague titles?

Four-time Euroleague champion Ettore Messina is back in Moscow, where he won his last Euroleague title back in 2008. Messina didn't succeed in Spain with Real as he won only 56% Euroleague games they played, but coming back to Russia feels like a homecoming for Messina. And there's no better place to fight for the Euroleague trophy than at home.

10. How much more money does EA7 Emporio Armani need to spend to finally reach Top 8?

Last season, EA7 Emporio Armani, same as every year, spend millions of Euros to build a team capable of fighting for a spot in Euroleague final four. Unfortunately for Olimpia Milano fans, as always, the Italian team failed to meet the expectations and opened its pocket even wider this offseason. If Milan team won't make it to the Top 8 this season, how much more money they have to spend to finally do that?

11. Will we see a French team in Euroleague Top 16 in next five years?

2007 was the year when Pau-Orthez, made it to the Top 16, and all French clubs have failed to do repeat the feat in the following seasons. Elan Chalon doesn't have much of a chance to change the history this season and here comes the question is there going to be a French team, capable of making it out the regular season group.

12. What is easier for FC Regal Barcelona - beating an NBA team in a preseason game or making it to the Euroleague Final Four?

Some call European teams wining against NBA clubs 'historic', but it's become routine for FC Regal Barcelona to beat NBA in the preseason games marathon as they did that for the third time on Tuesday. After beating the 76ers in 2006, Lakers in 2010, the Mavericks were next on their list this season. However, after a sluggish start in Spanish Championship (0-2), there is confusion where FC Regal Barcelona stands now and will they sort out their problems during the Euroleague regular season.

13. Is the wait for Fenerbahce Ulker fans over?

Bo McCalebb is a game changer and their primary MVP candidate heading into Euroleague. He's teaming up in Istanbul again with familiar faces - Romain Sato, David Andersen and Simone Panigiani. Does that mean Fenerbahce Ulker finally found its saviors who will carry the Turkish club to the top?

14. Could the game against CSKA be the last for Aleksandar Dzikic?

Lietuvos Rytas was sluggish in preseason and had a rough start in VTB United League where they lost the last game against Spartak by 27 points. Over the next week, Lietuvos Rytas will be facing CSKA and FC Regal Barcelona and knowing how impatient the owners of Vilnius club can be, a terrible performance in Moscow might lead to the departure of head coach Aleksandar Dzikic.

15. Does Maccabi have enough talent to maintain the high standard?

Maccabi Tel Aviv doesn't seem to be as dominant on paper as they have in recent seasons. Six Maccabi players have never played in the Euroleague before. David Blatt will have a quite big challenge to maintain Maccabi among the elite with the talent he has right now.

16. Is Cantu going to be the best Italian team in this year's Euroleague?

It's not a big secret that with the departure of McCalebb, Montepaschi lost a big part of its strength and might not be as dominant as we have come to expect. That means Marpooro Cantu, which was in the Euroleague qualification, has a great chance to become the number one Italian team in Euroleague if they repeat their last season's success.

17. What is next for Montepaschi?

The post-McCalebb era has begun for Montepaschi, who have been king of Italian club basketball for years. After the core of team left for Turkey, Montepaschi, which has only six Italians on its squad, decided to rely on foreigners. It's a rebuilding year for Siena, but how painful is it going to be?

18. Would Olympiakos still be an underdog in the London Final Four?

Except for the head coach, the Euroleague champions maintained all main parts of its team to repeat their last season's success and everything seems to be bright for Olympiakos. Despite winning a championship, Olympiakos still seems to be an elite team without being elitist, but that could only benefit them in the long run.

19. What is going to be a post-Obradovic life for Panathinaikos?

Without question, Zeljko Obradovic had been a huge part of making Panathinaikos the most successful European club in the last decade. Four Euroleague titles speak for themself. But does the departure of Obradovic means that the glory days of Panathinaikos are over?

20. Which of the young Partizan stars will have the best season?

Partizan is full of talent this season, with players such as Leo Westermann, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Davis Bertans, Dejan Musli and many others. With coach Dusko Vujosevic back in Belgrade, who of these players will make an immediate impact for Partizan this season?

21. Will better bench depth lead Real to the final?

Real Madrid has everything it takes to accomplish big things in Euroleague this season. Talent, stars, size, experience and probably the best bench in the league. Most of Real's substitutes could be starting five members in nine out of ten others Euroleague clubs and that could be a decisive power in the playoffs.

22. Can Unicaja advance beyond the Top 16?

Clearly, it's difficult to see Unicaja not making it out of the group, especially as they'll compete with lower caliber teams like Asseco Prokom, Alba and Elan Chalon, but their chances to make a long run is less certain. Fran Vazquez is a great replacement for Joel Freeland, but Unicaja still has many problems, which have to be sorted.

23. Can a one million Euro budget team win a Euroleague game?

Union Olimpija don't have many things to be happy about. The Slovenian club's budget is just one million Euro and as there are not enough funds to sign high profile athletes, nine of its players have never played in the Euroleague before. Union Olimpija will compete in a tough group A and there's a huge chance Ljubljana club will finish its Euroleague season without a single win.

24. Will Zalgiris finally reach the Top 8?

It's the same old question, and it's the same story every season. It didn't matter how much talent Zalgiris had, they won just four matches in Top 16 since 2004 and holds an awful 4-32 record. This year, Zalgiris built a very strong team and brought in a new coach, Joan Plaza, but is this enough to break the curse?

Reevaluating Ty Lawson's Time In Europe

When I saw Ty Lawson knocking down three-pointers at the beginning Game 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers, it was difficult to believe it was the same Lawson who spent the first 95 days of his season in Europe playing for eventual Lithuanian champions Zalgiris Kaunas.

The same thoughts have surely been coming to Zalgiris’ and European basketball fans’ heads all season long as Lawson had a terrific year and established himself as an NBA star. Why didn’t Lawson meet expectations and was strictly a role player in Europe before having such a big impact in the NBA?

Back in July of last year, I wrote about the five reasons why Euroleague teams shouldn’t sign NBA stars and all five points could be easily applied to Lawson in retrospect.

Lawson simply wasn’t able to translate his game in Europe. Lawson, who is known for his quickness, driblle penetration and ability in transition, had to fit Ilias Zouros’ slow-paced positional, defensive game, which would be a nightmare for an player like Lawson. As a result, Lawson scored 52 points, dished out 11 assists and made six steals in 149 minutes (seven games) of Euroleague action.

In contrast, in his first 165 minutes (five games) in the NBA this season, Lawson’s numbers were more impressive - 93 points, 28 assists and 14 steals. Definitely, no defensive three-second violation had also prevented Lawson from driving to the basket, but as he is ranked highest (31st) in scoring among all NBA players, who played in the Euroleague during the lockout. It is clear that Zalgiris was not able to use all Lawson’s offensive potential.

Two weeks ago, after losing Game 2, Lawson seemed to be frustrated as he tried “to please everybody" and added that he "probably had 10 different people coming to him saying, 'Do this, do that' instead of just trusting his skills and playing himself". ‘Trust your skills and play yourself’ approach would have definitely helped him in Lithuania as well.

On the other hand, Lawson never was as aggressive in Europe as he is in the NBA and that was the feeling since his first Euroleague game against CSKA Moscow. For example, despite Lawson was only taking one three-point shot only every 19 minutes in Europe (compared to one every 11 minutes in the NBA this season), which is 1.2 attempt per game comparing to 3.1 in the NBA. He also didn’t dish out a single assists in the first two games in Euroleague.

Moreover, people who surrounded Lawson on the team always noticed that he had never been very motivated in Kaunas. RealGM was the first media outlet to conduct a one-on-one interview with Lawson, where the Nuggets’ point guard seemed to be excited about playing in Lithuania, but later on after getting familiar with European basketball, the excitement disappeared. Coaches getting fired after just one Euroleague game, two-a-days, unusual player rotations, lazy practices and playing for a losing team didn’t motivate Lawson to excel in Europe.

However, Lawson remained a professional off the court as well during his time in Zalgiris and usually tried to avoid expressing what he really thought with only a few exceptions. Once, Lawson shared his opinion about practices with Zalgiris on Twitter, where he wrote, “I coulda sat home and played NBA 2k12 and got the same thing accomplished that we did in practice smh.”

After returning to the United States, Lawson also revealed to the media that he didn’t understand European rotation system, where “you play four minutes, then you get subbed for 10, and later you have to get back on the court”.

The example of Lawson’s adventures in Europe just proves how unpredictable and different European basketball is in comparison to the NBA. But the positives outweighed the negatives for Lawson in Europe.

Back in September, Lawson told RealGM “probably the biggest difference I’m having is two-a-days. In Denver, we didn’t do that at all. This is getting me in shape".

Lawson was right - a tough schedule and the experience he gained in Europe helped him to get into shape for the NBA season - the best in his career. Lawson had excellent numbers, averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game in the regular season.

Euroleague MVP Race

We are in the middle of the Top-16 phase of Euroleague competition, which makes it an opportune time to check in on the favorites to win MVP.

European Domestic League Power Rankings For February

We are past the halfway point in all of the European National Domestic Leagues and with January fully in the books, it is an opportune time to check in on team rankings for Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia, France, Turkey, Lithuania, Serbia, Croatia, Germany, Israel & more.

Euroleague Recaps, Finishing The Regular Season

The Euroleague Regular Season came to an end this week as we begin to move into the Top-16 stage.

Euroleague Power Rankings For Mid-December

With its regular season winding down, we evaluated and ranked all 24 Euroleague teams' performance over their first eight games and their perspective in future battles.

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