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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.

Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

Through the first six games of the World Cup, no player has been more valuable to his team than Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania’s 22-year old center. After riding the bench in the 2012 Olympics and serving as a role player at Eurobasket last summer, Valanciunas has moved into a featured role in this year’s tournament. He is the backbone of Lithuania’s game-plan on both sides of the ball, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block a game on 77% (!) shooting.

Despite losing star PG Mantas Kalnietis to a collarbone injury before the start of the World Cup, Lithuania has played extremely well in Spain. They went 4-1 in group play, knocking off Slovenia and losing to Australia, and beat New Zealand 76-71 in the round of 16. If they can get past Turkey on Tuesday, they would face the US in the semifinals and they appear to be the only team on that side of the bracket with a chance to give the Americans a game.

That’s almost entirely due to the presence of Valanciunas, one of only two NBA players, along with Donatas Motiejunas of the Houston Rockets, on their team. He almost single-handedly carried them to victory over New Zealand - not only could the Tall Blacks not match up with him in the post, they could barely even box him out. Valanciunas towered over their undermanned frontline, finishing the game with 22 points and 13 rebounds on 8-11 shooting.

At 7’0 245 with a 7’4 wingspan, Valanciunas is one of the biggest players in the NBA and he appears to have gotten even bigger in the offseason. Like many big men in their early 20’s, he is still filling out his frame and growing into his body. While he’s not an elite athlete, Valanciunas moves well for a player his size, which allows him to be an effective player on both ends of the floor. He is the rare center who can impact the game on offense and defense.

The offensive side of the ball is where Valanciunas has shown the most improvement at the World Cup, where he is getting the chance to be a featured player. Instead of using him primarily in the pick-and-roll game, Lithuania is making a concerted effort to pound the ball into him in the post. He has the size and strength to establish deep post position, the length to score over the top of defenders and the touch to get the ball softly on the rim.

Valanciunas is still far from a finished product with his back to the basket, but he is steadily improving that aspect of his game, to the point where opposing teams almost have to double him. The result is that he opens up the floor for the rest of Lithuania’s players, almost all of whom can knock down the three-point shot. With Motiejunas spreading the floor from the power forward position, they are a tough match-up for just about any team in the tournament.

Even the Americans, who gave up 25 points and 8 rebounds to Mexico’s Gustavo Ayon in the round of 16, will have their hands full with Valanciunas. That is why Lithuania’s quarterfinal game with Turkey will be so intriguing, as they have one of the only big men in the World Cup (Omer Asik) with the size to bang with Valanciunas in the paint. Asik, one of the best post defenders in the NBA, will be a good test to see how far his individual offense has come.

What makes Valanciunas so interesting, though, is that he provides value on defense as well. Most guys with his ability to score in the paint can’t match his ability to protect the rim or vice versa. Asik is the perfect example - for as good as he is on defense, he’s a non-entity on offense. Valanciunas, on the other hand, can give the Lithuania 20+ points while also serving as the backbone of their defense. He makes everyone better on both sides of the ball.

Lithuania doesn’t have a ton of athleticism on the perimeter, but their guards can extend out on defense and jump passing lanes because they know have a mobile Goliath behind them. Valanciunas doesn’t have monstrous block numbers, but he doesn’t need too to have an impact on the game. Just by moving his feet, waving his arms and standing at the front of the rim, he makes life much harder for any offensive player who gets into the lane.

In essence, having Valanciunas on your team means you have will a good defense and a good offense, which automatically makes you a dangerous team, at any level of basketball. Few players can have a bigger impact on a game than a two-way center, which is why they have always been one of the most coveted players in the sport. Without Kalnietis, Lithuania doesn’t have much perimeter talent, but Valanciunas’ presence means they can punch above their weight.

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. He’s still only 22 years old - he should be a senior in college. Not only does he still have room to improve as a post scorer and an interior defender, he’s shown flashes of a perimeter jumper and a passing game in Spain.

He hasn’t gotten much press because he’s been confined to a smaller role with the Toronto Raptors, with usage ratings of 16.9 and 18.5 in his first two seasons in the NBA. They won’t turn their offense over to him overnight like Lithuania has done, but you can expect that they will continue to gradually expand his role over the next few years. The Raptors will be counting on internal improvement and featuring Valanciunas is one easy way to do that.

The reason that big men tend to develop slower than guards is that they are pressed into service at a much earlier age. A perimeter player as raw as Valanciunas would not have broken into the NBA as a starter at the age of 20. However, because there are so few human beings in the world with his combination of size, skill and athleticism, he was forced to learn on the job. He didn’t go to high school or play AAU basketball - he was a pro at the age of 15. 

Valanciunas won’t reach his ceiling as a player until 2020, when he is in his late 20’s. Until then, he should steadily improve every season on both sides of the ball, much as he has done over the last three years, since he made his debut on the international stage. He is a franchise player in every sense of the word, both for his NBA and national team. As long as they have Valanciunas, both Lithuania and the Toronto Raptors will be teams to reckon with.

Surprises And Disappointments Of The 2014 FIBA World Cup Group Stage

The 2014 FIBA World Cup group stage didn't bring too many surprises, with the quite predictable result of all favorites reaching the quarterfinals and will continue to fight for the gold in Madrid and Barcelona, while Iran, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Philippines, Ukraine, Finland, Angola and South Korea head home early.

After all of the teams played five games and got ready for the playoffs, RealGM took a look at some of players, who despite their team success struggled to reach expectations, and others, who unexpectedly were very productive.

Surprises 

- Aron Baynes (Australia): 17.2 points and 7 rebounds per game.

Best performance: 21 points (8-for-13 on FG) and 7 rebounds in 29 minutes against Slovenia.

Aron Baynes continues to build his confidence which now turned him into one of the best centers in FIBA World Cup. Baynes more than doubled his statistical numbers from 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 2012 Olympics to 17.2 points and 7 rebounds in FIBA World Cup group stage. Considering that Baynes is 27-year-old, Patty Mills and Joe Ingles, two surprises of 2012 Olympics, both are 26, in 2019 FIBA World Cup Australia will be no less than a medal contender. 

- Andray Blatche (Philippines): 21.2 points and 13.8 rebounds per game.

Best performance: 25 points (9-for-16 on FG) and 14 rebounds in 37 minutes against Puerto Rico.

The best rebounder of FIBA World Cup, Andray Blatche made his name known on the international scene. It was obvious that Blatche would be the key piece of Philippines national team, but very few expected that he would record a double-double in every single match he played in Spain. In five games, Blatche scored no less than 14 points and collected no less than 12 rebounds in each of them, helping the Phillipines achieve their first World Cup victory in 40 years. 

- Dario Saric (Croatia): 13.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

Best performance: 15 points (6-for-9 on FG), 6 rebounds and 4 assists in 28 minutes against Senegal.

Transitioninig from youth basketball to the highest levels of the world - Dario Saric never heard about it. It’s been only the second offseason that the 20-year-old big man joined the Croatian national team, but Saric has became one of the key players almost instantly. Same as Baynes, Saric doubled his statistical numbers compared with 2013 EuroBasket and was unexpectedly consistent - Saric scored in double-digits in every of five games he played.

- Gorgui Dieng (Senegal): 18 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

Best performance: 27 points (8-for-14 on FG), 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 40 minutes against Croatia.

The 24-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves’ big could be called not just a surprise, but a true sensation of the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Dieng helped his team win two group games and advance to the playoffs, while averaging 18 points and 11.4 rebounds. The 27-point performance against Croatia has sparked the U.S. media to talk about why Dieng will be a future All-Star and why Timberwolves should now move Nikola Pekovic.

- Miroslav Raduljica (Serbia): 14.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

Best performance: 21 points (8-for-13 on FG) and 7 rebounds in 29 minutes against France.

Recently waived by the Los Angeles Clippers, Miroslav Raduljica has definitely raised his stock after a very solid performance in FIBA World Cup group stage. The 26-year-old Raduljica didn’t score more than 14 points in a single game last season, while in this championship the Serbian big man averages 14.2 points after scoring in double-digits in every of five games he took part in. It seems that Raduljica is not ready to give up his NBA dreams, but in case that happens, he is now one of the most wanted big men in the European market. 

Disappointments

- Derrick Rose (USA): 5.4 points, 2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.

Worst performance: 2 points (0-for-4 on FG), 0 assists, 2 turnovers in 17 minutes against Turkey.

So far the recent videos demonstrating Derrick Rose’s incredible physical capabilities has not turned into reality. Even though the US has been dominant, Rose struggle to score as he made only eight out of his 32 field goal attempts and has missed nine of 10 3-point attempts. However, Rose and Team USA coaching staff do not seem to be surprised as missed shots and turnovers normally comes with not playing for two years.

- Mickael Gelabale (France): 5.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.

Worst performance: 4 points and 1 rebound in 24 minutes against Spain.

Mickael Gelabale, currently a free agent, recently received interest from European powerhouses and NBA teams, which planned to watch Gelabale perform in FIBA World Cup. So far the experienced 31-year-old forward has been struggling to find ways to score as Gelabale averages career-low 5.8 points per game. In his first five games, Gelabale did not had a single double-digit scoring game and went to the free throw line only twice.

- Nenad Krstic (Serbia): 4.7 points and 1.3 rebounds per game.

Worst performance: 2 points, 1 rebound in 6 minutes against Spain.

Nenad Krstic has been in decline over the past few seasons but his role with the Serbian national team has changed even more dramatically. Krstic’s playing time was limited due to his poor conditioning, which was mainly caused by a knee injury. It is uncertain if Krstic, who averaged 15.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 2013 EuroBasket, will get in shape soon, but for now he remains overshadowed by Raduljica and spends most of the time off the court supporting his teammates.

- Nicolas Batum (France): 9.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.

Worst performance: 11 points (5-for-15 on FG), 1 rebound and 2 assists in 29 minutes against Spain. 

Nicolas Batum was unstoppable in 2012 Olympics and was a big piece of gold-winning French national team in 2013 EuroBasket. After Tony Parker announced his decision to have rest this summer, Batum was expected to step up once again and carry this team on his back. So far, Batum is averaging career-low 9.2 points per game, shooting only 26.3 percent from beyond the arc. If France has intentions to go any further than quarterfinals, they definitely need bigger contribution from their leader Batum.

Renaldo Balkman (Puerto Rico): 12.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.

Worst performance: 2 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists in 20 minutes against Philippines. 

As Carlos Arroyo was sidelined for the most part of FIBA World Cup group stage, Renaldo Balkman had a chance to put up MVP-worth numbers as he did in 2013 FIBA Americans where he averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds per game. However, after putting 23 points and five rebounds performance against Greece, later Balkman scored just two points in a win against Philippines and just six points in a do-or-die type of game versus Croatia. That was not enough to beat Croatia and advance; therefore Balkman together with Puerto Rico had to go home early.

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

Dario 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.

RealGM Interview: Goran Dragic Of The Suns

RealGM caught up with Goran Dragic in Europe to talk about the Sunsí offseason, Slovenian basketball, what is it like to play with his brother and much more.

Team USA's Big Problem Playing Small In World Cup

Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. But instead of Durant, LeBron, George, Love and Carmelo, he finds himself with Parsons, Faried and Gay.

Boris Diaw Held No-Brainer Decision To Return To Spurs

Once last seasonís NBA Finals ended, Boris Diaw spent reasonable time deciding on the player option on his contract with the San Antonio Spurs. For Diaw, the choice had been made simple far beyond the amount of money on the deal.

10 Most Disappointing Performances Of EuroBasket 2013

Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic, Hedo Turkoglu and Georgios Printezis were amongst the 10 most disappointing performance of EuroBasket 2013 for a variety of reasons.

Jonas Valanciunas And The New Big Man Synthesis

The highest-drafted Lithuanian of all-time (No. 5 in 2011), Jonas Valanciunas is the rare gigantic center with both athleticism and coordination. When the biggest guy on the floor knows how to use his size to his advantage, itís a problem for everyone else.

Europe Interview: Petteri Koponen Of Finland

Right before the tip-off of EuroBasket 2013, Petteri Koponen talked with RealGM about Finish basketball, his NBA dream, first season with Khimki and much more.

RealGM Interview: Jan Vesely

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EuroBasket 2013 Power Rankings

Compared with previous tournaments, EuroBasket 2013 will be a weaker competition in terms of talent, as a lot of stars for various reasons won't suit up for the championship. But the tournament will still have many top players from the NBA and Euroleague.

Picking A Starting Five From The 27 USA Basketball Minicamp Participants

Paul George, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried received the most votes to be included in their best starting five of some of the NBA's most talented American-born players.

RealGM Interview: Andrew Sullivan Of Leicester Riders

Andrew Sullivan sat down with RealGM to discuss joys and sorrows of the British basketball, his personal career, Great Britain national team, Luol Deng and much more.

Europe Interview: Dontaye Draper Of Real Madrid

Over the past couple of season Dontaye Draper has established himself in Europe as a pass-first type Euroleague point guard with excellent scoring skills.

Kirilenko's NBA Departure And Return

Andrei Kirilenko talks to RealGM about his experience with CSKA, winning the bronze in London, the impact of Mikhail Prokhorov on the Russian game and his initial days with the Wolves.

RealGM Interview: J.R. Holden

J.R. Holden was a European game changer and retired a year ago after a long career with CSKA and the Russian National Team. Now, Holden begins the next phase of his life as a businessman and maybe one day as the GM of a team in Europe.

Surprises And Disappointments Of The 2012 Olympics

Patrick Mills, Joe Ingles, Nate Reinking, Darius Songaila and Salah Mejri were amongst the players with surprisingly good performances in the Olympics, while Matt Nielsen, Jonas Valanciunas, Ronny Turiaf, Al-Farouq Aminu and Sergey Monya struggled.

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

Star Among Stars (LeBron's Performance For The Ages)

More impressive than even his stats was LeBron James command of the game. While his teammates restricted their game and played more as specialists, LeBron expanded his. Whatever Team USA needed -- scoring, playmaking, rebounding, perimeter or interior defense -- he provided.

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