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NBA Limbo

The United States wrapped up their anti-climatic run through FIBA World Cup with another resounding victory over an overmatched Serbia squad. While this tournament emphatically demonstrated that teams around the world aren’t ready to compete against Team USA’s collection of stars, a few unheralded individuals on the outskirts of the NBA radar showed they are. That collection of players can pretty much be broken down into three groups: the ones who have been there and done that (Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, etc), younger players with NBA ties (former first round pick, Petteri Koponen, 2013 second rick pick Joffrey Lauvergne and Joe Ingles) and finally those stuck in NBA limbo.

Limbo is the best way to describe the area where players whose skill and production have them vacillating back and forth between starring on the top teams in Europe or filling out the bottom half of NBA rosters. In this Basketball World Cup, Milos Teodosic, Emir Preldzic, Ante Tomic showed us (or reminded us) that they can contribute to NBA teams. For those three, it’s not so much a question of talent as it is a combination of fit, age, money and comfort, similar to the situation faced by some American players.

Three of those players -- Teodosic, Preldzic and Tomic -- are 27-years-old, a weird age when it comes to NBA prospects. No longer can stateside suitors view them through the lens of potential, as that age signals the beginning of a players prime. Teodosic, Preldzic and Tomic all can certainly get better and add things to their game, but for the most part they are fully-realized as basketball players.

At 7’2” with good mobility and a soft touch, Tomic, whose rights around held by the Utah Jazz, is ready to step in and boost an NBA offense. During this tournament with Croatia, Tomic reaffirmed that he can score in the post against other big men and cause problems for opposing defenses as a screener in the pick-and-roll. Were Tomic in the NBA, he would trail only Marc Gasol and Tiago Splitter when it comes to passing while rolling to the basket -- an extremely valuable skill given how good NBA defenses have gotten at preventing roll men from finishing at the basket.

Based off his strengths, it seems like a no-brainer for the Jazz (or another team who trades for his rights) to bring him over. However, Tomic isn’t a complete player. He would likely struggle with the more physically demanding NBA (both in terms of players and the schedule) and he’s not a great rim protector or rebounder despite his size and mobility. Factor in these warts and you get a player who likely tops out as a backup center for a team that will utilize his pick-and-roll strengths for short stretches. While NBA big men capable of making any type of positive impact can get rewarded with lucrative deals, Tomic’s age guarantees that his second contract -- when he could secure better money than he makes for his current club, Barcelona -- will likely come when he’s on the wrong side of 30. And that’s not even factoring that just to come over and test the NBA waters, Tomic would likely have to take a pay cut from the 3.4 million dollars he’s reportedly earning in Spain.

Money is also going to be the biggest obstacle for Teodosic as well, who is currently well-compensated by CSKA Moscow, an annual contender for the Euroleague crown.

At best, Teodosic’s combination of passing, shooting, pick-and-roll play and game management makes him an easy comparison to the Knicks new point guard, Jose Calderon. Calderon has long been an underrated offensive force but the Toronto Raptors spent his entire tenure there looking to replace him as a starter due to obvious defensive shortcomings. A similar fate could await Teodosic. Though perhaps an even better playmaker than Calderon, Teodosic’s allergy to defense may prevent teams from either ponying up the dough or giving him a role similar to the one he currently is enjoying overseas. If there’s not an intense desire to leave Eastern Europe for the challenge of the world’s best league, it’s extremely possible that Teodosic never suits up for an NBA team.

Where Tomic and Teodosic’s fit in the league is beyond a doubt, Preldzic doesn’t have the same clear cut role that awaits him. With the size to play either forward position (though maybe not the four full time), Preldzic is classic point forward, In four of Turkey’s six games, including their battle with the U.S., Preldzic had five assists. A 6’9” player that can handle, run pick-and-roll and pass like Preldzic is an extremely attractive player. But an NBA team won’t be crawling all over themselves to bring Preldzic over and hand him the reins to their offense, which he has for both Turkey and his club team, Fenerbahce.

Preldzic is talented and unique, but he’s not a star. And in the NBA, it’s the stars that will have the ball in their hands while everyone else adjust to life without out it. Wing players not named “James”, “Durant” or “Anthony” are primarily asked to do two things in today’s NBA: knock down 3’s and play defense. Neither of those two things double as a strongsuit for Preldzic. A forward-thinking NBA executive could try to carve out a situation where Preldzic handles the ball as reserve forward in a bench-heavy unit, but most front offices don’t cater to non-elite talents in such fashion.

America will long have a monopoly on basketball but will always look to import the best players from outside the U.S. and let them showcase their talents on basketball’s brightest stage. We like to think that the NBA will always contain the best of the best. But as Tomic, Teodosic and Preldzic used the FIBA World Cup to remind us, sometimes players with the ability to play in the world’s best league, won’t always get their shot.

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

For American fans, one of the most intriguing aspects of international tournaments like the World Cup is the chance to see some of the best young players in the world before they come to the NBA. Dario Saric, who was taken at No. 12 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, is the perfect example. While he has played extensively in Europe, his only real exposure on the North American continent came at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2011 and 2012.

Saric is only 20, but he has been competing in some of the best leagues in Europe for several years. Despite his youth, he is one of the most important players on the Croatian national team, averaging 27 minutes a game in pool play. Croatia has played down to the competition, with a 2-1 record including an OT win over the Philippines and an upset loss to Senegal, but Saric has more than held his own, averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 51% shooting.

At 6’10 210, his ability to slide between multiple positions upfront gives Croatia some versatility with their line-ups, but he has mostly played as a small-ball PF in Spain. Unlike for his club team, where he gets to dominate the ball as one of the primary options, Saric has primarily played off the ball, setting picks, cutting to the rim and spotting up from the perimeter. A hard-nosed player with a high basketball IQ, he can impact the game in multiple ways.

It’s easy to see where the excitement comes with Saric. He is a mismatch nightmare - he can put the ball on the floor and take bigger players off the dribble as well as play with his back to the basket and punish smaller players on the block. He can clear the defensive glass and start the fast break himself and he knows how to accept the double team and find the open man in the half-court. Not many guys have his combination of size, skill and athleticism.

On the offensive side of the ball, the big question is his three-point shot, something he has struggled with in his first few years as a pro. He is coming off his best season as a shooter, going 34.5% on 3.1 attempts a game in the Adriatic League, but he shot only 30.8% in Eurocup play and was at 30.3% and 33.3% the previous two seasons. That’s been the biggest hole in his game in Spain, where he has shot 2-11 from deep, mostly on open looks off ball movement.

That shot is almost always going to be there for Saric, since very few big men have the speed and quickness to match up with him so far from the basket. Being able to consistently stretch the defense will take his game to the next level - not only will it open driving lanes for everyone else on the team, it will give him the ability to create a good shot against even elite defenders. As is, international teams are happy to concede the jumper and play him for the drive.

For a point forward like Saric, the three-point shot is a crucial weapon in his repertoire, especially at the highest levels of the game. When looking for possible NBA comparisons, the most optimistic ones - Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Toni Kukoc - are all guys who made a living at the three-point line. Even at the World Cup, he isn’t going up against many of the long 6’9+ athletes in the frontcourt that he will see on a nightly basis in the NBA.

For the first time in his life, he will be matching up with defenders who are just as big and just as athletic as him. That’s what makes combo forward one of the most difficult positions to project in the draft - all of a sudden, a guy who was too big for small forwards and too quick for power forwards becomes too slow for small forwards and too small for power forwards. Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley are two prominent examples of that in recent years.

Saric is bigger than Beasley and more skilled than Williams, but he could have many of the same issues on the defensive side of the ball. He only has a 6’10 wingspan, so he has a hard time contesting shots on the perimeter or protecting the rim. Like most guys his size, Saric is not totally comfortable getting into a stance and sliding his feet on the three-point line, which opens him up to reaching and committing silly fouls. He is averaging 4 a game in the World Cup.

To be sure, a lot of that is inexperience and few players come into the league with the ability to be impact defenders. Saric gets an impressive amount of steals (1.3 a game in Spain) and should become a stronger player and a better positional defender as he gets older, but his inability to block shots (0.3 a game) will always give him a ceiling on that side of the ball. He may never be able to match up with the best players in the NBA at either SF or PF.

A good rule of thumb for combo forwards, whether in Europe or the NCAA, is that they are probably best suited as small-ball PF’s in the NBA. Saric is no exception - if he can play with a rim protector, he should be able to survive in the post and guard most PF’s on the perimeter. That’s Croatia’s biggest problem in the World Cup, as they don’t have a lot of team speed or interior defense, so opposing teams can put their head down and get easy looks at the rim.

Going forward, the best case scenario for Saric is that he continues to develop his three-point shot and becomes capable of being a primary or secondary option in the NBA. While he will never be a great two-way player, if he can come into the league as a high-level ball-handler, shooter, passer and rebounder at 6’10, he could be a starter on an elite team. He has the floor of a solid NBA contributor and he still has lot of room to grow as a player.

One interesting rookie to track next season will be Nikola Mirotic, a high-level European combo forward who is about the same age Saric will be when he comes over in 2016. While their games aren’t identical - Mirotic is a better shooter and a worse passer - they are both 6’10 small-ball PF’s with above average skill and average athleticism for their NBA position. If Mirotic can survive defensively in Tom Thibodeau’s system, that will be a good sign for Saric.

Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup. If Croatia makes the Olympics in 2016, he will probably be their best player and he will still be only 22. No matter what happens in the NBA, Saric will be a player to watch at every international tournament for the next decade.

Euroleague Interview: Martynas Pocius Of Galatasary

After dealing with injuries and playing in only 27 games during 12-13 season, 28-year-old guard Martynas Pocius revived his career in Kaunas where he was one of the key players for Lithuanian champion Zalgiris.

Pocius played the best game of his career against Galatasaray last season, a team he will join for 14-15 season, scoring 26 points and along with four rebounds. The Lithuanian national team and former Duke University guard also managed to make seven threes in a single game against Strasbourg and repeat Zalgiris Euroleague record in that category. Pocius averaged 10.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 23 minutes in Euroleague and helped Zalgiris to reach Top 16 stage.

RealGM caught up with Pocius in Kaunas during the Lithuanian national team training camp to talk about being raised in sportsmen family, development of young players, 2014 FIBA World, future with Galatasaray and more.

RealGM: First of all, what was it like to grow up in a family of athletes?

Pocius: The main difference between a regular family and mine was that I was always surrounded by sports. At the same time, it is more difficult because my father was a professional basketball player and if a father wants to make a good basketball player of his son, he wakes him up every morning and takes him to the basketball court. I had to train there and it didn’t matter if I wanted that or not. He knew that I needed that, while a regular dad who does not know much about the game maybe would not do the same thing. Apart from this, I don’t think it differs a lot. When you are a kid, everyone supports you and wishes you all the best.

RealGM: Did you feel at the time that your habits came from your family were different than your friends?

Pocius: Of course. Everything was related with basketball. Before going to school, I always went to the basketball court. While everybody sleeps, you make shots. Then you go to school and afterwards you cannot spent too much time playing outside because I had to do my homework before the evening training. I was always busy because those extra trainings took my time.

RealGM: I read that your move to the U.S. in 2003 was very spontaneous. Do you remember how that happened?

Pocius: It all happened after I attended Steponas Kairys' basketball camp in Silute. I went there for only one day and he really liked what he saw. In a week or ten days I was already in the U.S. and I didn’t expect everything to happen so quickly.

RealGM: Usually basketball coaches emphasize the importance of giving playing time for young players. However, you did not get many chances to play while you were at Duke, but you still developed yourself into a Euroleague and national team level player.

Pocius: A basketball game lasts for 40 minutes. But everyday you train at the highest level for two or three hours, this is what brings you most benefit. I didn’t play much and it was difficult for me but everyday I was part of training. I believe that those practices, lessons I learned from Coach K and routine we had there gave me a lot.

RealGM: Do you think that coaches in Lithuania feel too much pressure to play young players?

Pocius: If you have great young players and they deserve to play, then why not. But you cannot play youngsters who are not ready for a certain level just because somebody tells you to do that. If a player deserves that and coach see his performance in practices, he should play. Of course, there are situations when you have to play over 70 games in three or four leagues in one season, and you want to rest your older guys or leaders, then you can give chances for young players as well.

RealGM: While watching you play last season, it seemed that you were slowly becoming a veteran player. For example, instead of driving to the basket, now you more often take a three-pointer or make a pass. Do you feel that your game and decision-making is changing?

Pocius: I agree. At first, you do not think much because everything is new, you can run as much as you want and you want to score. I remember Marcus Brown was telling that I was a great player but I need to calm down and start to think. It also has much to do with injuries I suffered and pain I feel and sometimes because of that instead of driving and dunking, I try to make smarter decision, take a shot or do something else. Before I broke my hand last season, I didn’t feel good but afterwards my health condition got much better. In every team you play, you try to take as much experience you can. I took a lot while I was with Real Madrid, this season I learned from Sarunas Jasikevicius. I try to use my main strengths while also taking care of my health. I feel like I am slowly becoming a so-called veteran player.

RealGM: I see some similarities between you and Tomas Dimsa. Did you have much time to work out with him and give him any advices?

Pocius: We were roommates last season and he’s a great player. It is difficult to say what kind of player I was at his age because that was very long time ago. He’s 20-years old right now and at that time I was still in the States and I did not play for Zalgiris. Despite his young age, he’s already a member of this team, he got enough playing time and he performed really well in practices. I learned throughout my career that the main thing is when you think that you already archived something, do not stop and keep going forward. When you calm down and you feel you’re a great player, then you start to fall down.

RealGM: Moving on to the Galatasaray, why did you decide you join this team and did you have a chance to have a better look at their summer moves?

Pocius: In basketball, you never know where you might end up playing. Before we signed a contract with Zalgiris, both me and the general manager, Paulius Motiejunas, knew that most likely I will leave the team after one season, therefore Zalgiris could get a buyout. It was a great offer that I could not refuse. Also I talked with the coach and he really wanted to see me playing for Galatasaray. I did not see a reason why I shouldn’t sign with Galatasaray.

When I had my health check in Istanbul, I talked with coaches and agents who told me what the roster would look like. I know pretty much all the names while not all of them have been officially announced. I know some of the guys personally as Nolan Smith was my teammate at Duke for three years. The team will be really good but for me it was also important that coach likes me and he wanted to have me on his squad. I really did check everything and so far everything seems to be ok.

RealGM: Is it easier to concentrate on work with the Lithuanian national after sorting out the contract with Galatasaray?

Pocius: It is always like that. I had a contract by the end of first week with the national team. It also helps with insurance. It is not official yet, but signatures are there. Right now I do not think about Galatasaray as everything seems to be so far away. My concentration is on the national team now.

RealGM: Talking about FIBA decisions, what was players’ reaction to the news that EuroBasket will change to a four-year cycle?

Pocius: I didn’t really think about it. When does it start? I hope I’ll still be playing at that time, otherwise it might not be important for me. However, a free summer is priceless for every basketball player. Especially it is tough if you have such long season as I had with Real Madrid. Because of not getting any time to rest, in the middle of the season you start to break down and get injured. Proper rest is very important but it is not up to players to decide and you cannot say, “I’m not coming”. 

RealGM: What are your personal goals for this upcoming 2014 FIBA World Cup?

Pocius: I don’t want to talk loudly about it. However, for the last couple years the most important thing for me is to stay healthy. If I stay healthy, everything else will come in time. I don’t have any high goals for myself as we play for Lithuania and the most important thing is team’s result.

RealGM: Did you ever have offers to participate in NBA summer league? Do you see yourself trying your luck in the NBA?

Pocius: I had two offers while I was with Zalgiris to take part in NBA training camp, but I had a back surgery and it did not work out. Anyway, I don’t have big intentions to play in the NBA. Everything is great in Europe, both playing and money wise. I’m not that young anymore to try myself everywhere. However, if I get a chance, you never know. But I don’t think about it now.

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