The Euroleague’s regular season provided us with plenty of storylines involving NBA Draft prospects. Young players were at the center of some of the most gripping narratives over the last 10 weeks and they provided us with plenty to discuss while we waited for the college basketball season to get into full swing. We were able to get a fantastic picture of several prospects in particular, too, both those already drafted and those up for selection in 2016.
With the Euroleague Round of 16 upon us next week, let’s reflect on some of the best, worst and most interesting performances from the 32-team group play.
- One of the most impressive team-wide performances of Euroleague’s regular season was that of Crvena Zvezda. Zvezda lost Sacramento Kings prospect Luka Mitrovic, their team captain and leading scorer heading into the competition, to a knee injury after the first weekend. Zvezda went into a tailspin for a few weeks, but rallied to make the Round of 16 by soundly beating Bayern Munich. Zvezda signed former Denver Nugget Quincy Miller after week 5 and promoted German center Maik Zirbes into a regular rotation role. Both rose to the occasion to help Zvezda advance, and both helped their NBA prospects as well. Miller has been showing great rebounding instincts and an improved 3-point shot by hitting 38 percent from deep, an area he struggled in during his three NBA seasons. Zirbes, meanwhile, hasn’t really been on the NBA radar because he’s rather slow and has historically been unpolished on both ends. But this season he’s made a great leap at finishing at the rim and with his midrange jumper, and he leads Zvezda in scoring at 16.3 points per game. NBA interest is a definite possibility for him if he keeps this up, because he could eventually fit as a Kosta Koufos type that can finish pick-and-rolls and clean the glass off the bench.
- Group A was a group for bigs to showcase their talents — Zirbes and Miller weren’t the only guys who impressed on the interior in this wild group. Willy Hernangomez did the most with his chances off the bench for Real Madrid, while Gustavo Ayon has been one of the best defensive players in the tournament. Portland Trail Blazers prospect Marko Todorovic showed excellent defensive instincts and interior scoring ability off the bench for Khimki Moscow. Ekpe Udoh has potentially resurrected his career with Fenerbahce, leading the Group A leaders in blocks and averaging 11 points per game. And Paul Zipser of Bayern Munich impressed off the bench, averaging 5.3 points and 3.1 rebounds and showcasing versatile defense.
- Bayern Munich being the odd man out in Group A is a disappointment because Zipser’s been impressive at the top flight of European competition. He’s ranked No. 42 in Draft Express’s top 100 prospects, and a lot of that is because he’s done so well tangling with some of the best bigs in the competition. Zipser may be a little small as a power forward at 6-8 and 210 pounds, but he’s quick enough to defend on the perimeter. While he’s hit just 5-18 3-pointers in this competition, he’s 11-19 from outside in domestic play and has been a pretty solid finisher inside on cuts, too. He’s one of those guys who does a little bit of everything well and it’s a shame we don’t get to see him with a little bit more pressure on him in the Round of 16. Luckily, he’ll be headed to Eurocup action, where he should solidify himself as an early 2nd-round pick.
- Zipser isn’t the only NBA Draft prospect who has made a name for himself in this regular season, though. Cedevita’s Marko Arapovic is draft eligible next season thanks to a birthday close to the cut-off date, but the last few weeks have been huge for making him a potential 1st-rounder in 2017. Arapovic looks like a good stretch four at the next level because he’s a blossoming 3-point shooter (39.3 percent through ten games) and, as he showcased last week, he’s a solid passer from the elbows. Arapovic’s biggest area of improvement needs to come on the defensive end, where he doesn’t have a real natural strength despite a good motor. But offensively, Arapovic’s starting to come into his own for Cedevita and he’s worth keeping an eye on as we look towards next year’s draft.
- I don’t really know what to make of Alessandro Gentile‘s first round. The Houston Rockets prospect had some good offensive outings, with 24 points and seven assists in a week 3 loss to Olympiacos and 22 points in a loss to Anadolu Efes. But he had some very inefficient games as well, highlighted by a 7-20 shooting night in an embarrassing loss to Limoges. Part of this was because EA7 Milano’s offense was run almost exclusively through Gentile, and that level of usage was probably too much of a load for the Italian scoring guard. However, this team’s defense was horrendous as well, and Gentile was a major cause of that — he had plenty of apathetic defensive play and got burnt when guarding elite dribble penetrators like Dario Saric. EA7’s defense was a systemic issue, but Gentile’s weaknesses matched up perfectly with the team’s, and while he was probably one of the most talented scorers in the tournament, Milano played noticeably better with him out with injury in the last few weeks. It’ll be interesting to follow what changes EA7 makes after this disappointing performance in Euroleague play, and what that means for Gentile’s NBA hopes.
- Each of Efes’s three NBA prospects impressed in the squad’s strange run through Group B that saw them lose to Limoges but destroy Olympiacos this weekend. Dario Saric, of course, was the headliner, averaging 12 points, six rebounds and two assists throughout the regular season. The biggest development for him has been that he has a 3-point shot now, which has made a tremendous difference for him in becoming a more complete offensive player. Saric has hit 52 percent of his 3s so far, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue to hit at that clip.
- Furkan Korkmaz and Cedi Osman have seen limited minutes, but Efes has done a great job of letting them showcase their strengths in their time on the floor. Korkmaz has been able to capitalize on the space that Jon Diebler, Saric and Thomas Huertel command, and he’s hit 6-12 from 3-point range — the main reason he’s a probable 1st-rounder in 2016. Osman, meanwhile, has had a horrendous shooting performance (31.4 percent from the field), but he was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 for his defensive ability and he’s been awesome playing passing lanes for Efes, averaging almost a steal per game in just 12 minutes of action per contest. It’ll be interesting to see how much of a role each player has as Efes advances. They’re a team that should have good odds to go far based on their level of talent.
- This has been mentioned repeatedly since Georgis Printezis and Patric Young both went down with injuries, but Olympiacos’s frontcourt is the best in this competition. When you can bring Spurs 1st-rounder Nikola Milutinov and Hawks prospect Dimitris Agravanis off the bench, you’re in great shape. Once both got chances to get regular playing time, they looked solid. Milutinov particularly stepped up in wins over Olimpia Milano and Limoges, and working with Printezis and the Olympiacos coaching staff has allowed him to experiment with his post game.
- Tomas Satoransky was probably the best of the many prospects on Barcelona through the opening round — the Wizards prospect averaged seven points, two rebounds and four assists per game. More importantly, he helps create Barca’s matchup nightmare frontcourt because he and Ante Tomic are both amazing passers. Stratos Perperoglou is hitting 48 percent from 3, making the Barca offense a spacing haven for guys like Alex Abrines and Samardo Samuels to capitalize on. Satoransky, who can handle guys on the perimeter, has been solid defensively for Barcelona as well. Wizards fans should be excited about Otto Porter/Satoranksy/Gortat frontcourts in 2016-17.
- Aleksandar Vezenkov has dropped in mock drafts for 2016 after being a projected late-1st rounder in 2015, and I’m not sure why. Vezenkov made a leap in competitive level from Aris in Greece to Barca this summer and while he’s not playing as much, he’s improved as an offensive player. Vezenkov is hitting 46.7 percent from 3 in Euroleague play and helping to provide even more spacing in the Barca offense. He’s also developed as an athlete, and while he’s still definitely not up to NBA standards, getting to the point where he’s hitting over 50 percent at the rim and isn’t a total zero defensively is certainly helpful. It’d be nice to see Vezenkov’s game expand a little more, but he has a genuine NBA-level skill in his 3-point shooting. He’s going to get drafted, probably close to the end of the 1st round.
- Vasilis Charalampopoulos played just 10 minutes per game in five contests for Panathinaikos, so it was hard to get a read on his NBA prospects. He has been a decent 3-point shooter (although he’s slumping a bit this year, hitting just 3-13) and his passing is definitely a strength. It’s hard to tell how well he’d fit at the next level right now, though, and of the three 3-point specialist international wings in this draft pool, he’s firmly third behind Korkmaz and Vezenkov.
- It’s been a joy to watch Olivier Hanlan play as Zalgiris’s sixth man. He’s looked comfortable coming to Lithuania from Boston College, averaging nine points, four rebounds and two assists per game for the surprise squad from Group C. Hanlan looked like a decent combo guard who could score in bunches off the bench coming out of college and his play at Zalgiris has confirmed that, especially with how well he’s shown to rebound at this level. The Utah Jazz should do what they can to secure him for 2016 if Dante Exum isn’t 100 percent ready to return.
- This might have been the most discombobulated Maccabi Tel Aviv has ever looked and it’s a shame we have to lose Dragan Bender from Euroleague play just as he was beginning to hit his stride in the Maccabi lineup. We’ve discussed the progress Bender has made at length already, but suffice to say he was really starting to break through in Maccabi’s reguar rotation, coming up huge on the defensive end in the squad’s two late wins. However, he didn’t play in the week 10 loss to Darussafaka, by far one of the strangest games you’ll ever see. It was a do-or-die situation for Maccabi, so I understand the decision to not put Bender in the game and instead to lean on guys like Jordan Farmar and Taylor Rochestie. But considering the difference maker Bender has been for Maccabi in the last few weeks, throwing him out there for a few minutes may have helped.
- Now we have to turn to Eurocup and domestic action to watch Bender. The main interesting competition for Maccabi in their group is Olimpija Ljubljana, who has Class of ’96 center Vassilije Vucetic and Class of ’94 guard Gregor Hrovat. In the domestic league, I’d expect Bender to continue to get increased playing time. He had 15 points in 17 minutes in this weekend’s win over Hapoel Jerusalem, in fact, and he has earned the chance to get more run as Maccabi attempts to come back in the Israeli League standings.
- As for Darussafaka, their advancement means we get to see more of Furkan Aldemir, who was huge for the Turkish side this weekend when he posted 12 points and six rebounds in the loss. With Luke Harangody struggling with injury, his presence in the middle has allowed this team to somewhat stay afloat. Aldemir flamed out with the Philadelphia 76ers because he wasn’t very mobile and was a poor fit next to Nerlens Noel. Nonetheless, he could have some use as a space-eating rebounder next to an elite offensive power forward in the NBA because of his rebounding instincts and defensive awareness. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to the NBA, especially if he can continue to demonstrate scoring ability, which he’s done better at as he’s gotten more time in the Darussafaka rotation.
- Round of 16 play features two groups of eight and both groups will feature plenty of interesting action. In Group E, we will get to see how Anadolu Efes holds up against plenty of other guard-heavy teams, as Kuban Krasnodar, Unicaja Malaga and Panathinaikos will all offer interesting challenges for Efes’ young guys on the perimeter. Crvena Zvezda should get Mitrovic back near the tail end of this round, so I wouldn’t count them out either, and naturally Fenerbahce’s stable of NBA-level talent should be formidable as well. I’d expect Fenerbahce, Efes, Malaga and Krasnodar to advance, but won’t rule out Zvezda if Mitrovic gets back in time or Cedevita.
- On the other side of the bracket, though, there’s even more to like. Group F features Real Madrid, Barcelona and Laboral Kutxa, so there will be plenty of ACB action which will give us good storylines. Olympiacos is also here, so we get to see the Madrid-Olympiacos frontcourt battle, which will be amazing. Zalgiris will also get another pair of shots at Barcelona and I’m interested to see where Alexey Shved and Khimki Moscow fit into the picture. The Round of 16 should be an incredible showcase, and with several NBA prospects still alive, you’ll want to pay close attention to how the top flight of European play unfolds.