European Hoops Wrap-up: Ekpe Udoh is Europe’s best center

Apr 28, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Ekpe Udoh (13) gets pressure from Miami Heat forward Rashard Lewis (9) and guard Norris Cole (right) in game four of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 28, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Ekpe Udoh (13) gets pressure from Miami Heat forward Rashard Lewis (9) and guard Norris Cole (right) in game four of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

When Klay Thompson went for 60 points on Monday night, the NBA saw its biggest scoring outburst of the season to date. His flurry of three-pointers was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and it set off what was an explosive week in the NBA. With storylines like the Donatas Motiejunas saga and the developing CBA talks, and LeBron capping off the week with a 44-point explosion against the Warriors, it was one of the more memorable weeks of the season so far.

Alongside that, however, Europe didn’t want to be one-upped, and delivered an explosive week of their own. Klay Thompson’s explosion was followed the next day by two 40-point efforts across the pond. The Motiejunas saga was equaled in drama by the Alessandro Gentile saga. It was an explosive week, in many ways, and one that will be just as memorable as the NBA’s.

Don’t call my name, Alessandro

Euroleague was delivered a bombshell on Monday, as Alessandro Gentile left Olimpia Milano. The Houston Rockets’ stash prospect is a home-grown talent who had been with the club for years. This wasn’t exactly a shock, however: the club and player have had wars of words in the past, and Gentile was stripped of captaincy in the preseason and had been struggling mightily this year — averaging 10.3 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting and a career-low 15.8 percent from 3. He has been marginalized in EA7’s offense by newcomers like Miroslav Raduljica and Ricky Hickman, and it appeared that his rift with coach Jasmin Repesa was becoming irreparable.

For Gentile, this can be a fresh start for him as he pursues an NBA deal. Gentile has been very vocal about wanting to join the Rockets in the past, but his play the last two seasons has left a lot to be desired. There are significant questions about fit in Houston, both schematically as a volume shooter in Mike D’Antoni’s system and chemistry-wise next to a ball-dominant scorer in James Harden. He’ll now have a six-month showcase to prove he is more than his last 18 months at Milano, as he must wait until around Christmas to sign with another Euroleague team. Brose Bamberg, Panathinaikos, Galatasaray, and Eurocup club Bayern Munich are all possible suitors.

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Milano, meanwhile, had a game to play this week, and they got to face CSKA Moscow. They actually looked pretty together in the first half, Jumping out to a 38-36 halftime lead against a Milos Teodosic and Nando De Colo-less Moscow side. With Andrea Cinciarini in the starting lineup to replace Gentile, Milano was able to let Raduljica and Hickman dictate the offense, and consistently attacked CSKA at the rim. However, the good vibes didn’t last for long; after all, this is CSKA, who even without their best two players is still a 12-headed hydra of starting-caliber European players ready to dissect your every weakness. This time it just happened to be the Dmitry Kulagin and Aaron Jackson heads that did the most damage, as they spurred on CSKA’s 17-point edge in the 2nd half to put the game away, 79-64.

This is probably not the game to deeply analyze EA7’s prospects without Gentile. However, I’m sure of one thing after this game, and this week — I’m betting Gentile really enjoyed how this one played out.

Amar’e Stoudemire’s very, very rough day vs. Lokomotiv Kuban

Amar’e Stoudemire has had a pretty effective season for Hapoel Jerusalem. Averaging 10.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game, Stoudemire has provided a strong interior presence on offense for the Israeli side in their strong run through group play. He’s even provided a few antics to keep fans entertained. Wednesday, he even posted his best Eurocup point total, with 16 on 5-of-7 shooting.

Unfortunately for Amar’e and Hapoel, those 16 points were only a ray of light peaking through the eye of a tornado. Lokomotiv Kuban ran Jerusalem over, 88-68, taking an early lead and never looking back. Stoudemire scored well for Hapoel, but his output was undone by a woeful defensive performance that was straight out of Knicks fans’ nightmares. Stoudemire spent the night defending former Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Jones and Lithuanian center Ian Vougioukas, who combined to score 36 points on 18-of-25 shooting. Jones was particularly lethal, hitting nine of his first 11 shots, as Matt Janning and Dmitry Khvostov were consistently able to find him cutting or rolling to the basket against the sleeping Stoudemire.

If that weren’t enough, Stoudemire also made an unfortunate decision to rotate slowly to contest a Mardy Collins drive in the fourth quarter. It ended poorly.

Jerusalem was running out a pretty short bench for this game, but this was a Kuban team that has struggled to consistently score in the halfcourt this year, and the Russians torched them. Unfortunately, a lot of that was on Amar’e. Now Jerusalem will have to secure a win over ratiopharm Ulm, who has another bruiser in the paint in Tim Olbrecht, to hold on to second place in the group.

Jimmy Baron becomes Jimmy Buckets

NBA Twitter had their timelines taken over briefly by FIBA Champions League action on Tuesday, as Adrian Wojnarowski and David Pick sent out highlights of Neptunas’s 103-88 win over Usak Sportif. The day after Klay Thompson’s 60-point explosion, Neptunas guard Jimmy Baron nearly equaled Klay’s inferno with the best shooting performance of the year: 42 points on 15-of-20 shooting, including 10-of-15 on 3-pointers.

Baron is the son of former Rhode Island coach Jim Baron, and is a former Ram himself. While he never received much NBA interest (three summer league tours of duty with Utah, Portland, and New York), he’s carved out a nice little international career. He’s been a Eurocup-level player since 2013, providing valuable outside shooting in stints for Lokomotiv Kuban, Virtus Roma, Proximus Spirou, and now Neptunas. But he’s never done anything like this.

Baron brings value to Neptunas for his ability to shoot both off the catch and off the dribble. Equally comfortable operating in space or off pick-and-rolls with Jerai Grant, Baron has an incredibly quick release and the ability to get his feet set on a dime. He’s developed into one of the most lethal volume shooters in Europe, and is now hitting 43.3 percent from 3 on the season.

While Baron doesn’t really defend well, and that likely keeps him away from the Euroleague level, he can be devastating in a competition like this, where he can shoot over smaller guards and generate switches against slower bigs to get space. He’s been a big part of Neptunas’s 7-1 run through group play, and this performance should start getting him on the radar of bigger clubs.

Kataja continue to surprise because of Rion Brown

One of the biggest surprises of the FIBA Champions League so far has been Kataja Basket. The Finnish club didn’t look like a group contender coming in, but at 4-4 through eight games, they’re tied with Avtodor Saratov for the last qualifying spot in their group. A big reason for that has been the emergence of former Miami Hurricanes guard Rion Brown. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard is in his third season in Europe, and he’s exploded this year, averaging 19.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game.

He also made sure Baron wasn’t the only big-time scorer in the Champions League this week, also hitting the 40-point mark in an 88-69 victory over Maccabi Rishon. Brown would finish with 40 on 15-of-20 shooting, hitting nine threes and adding 7 rebounds, all while containing D-League veteran Javon McCrea on the defensive end.

Brown was not a high-level prospect coming out of Miami, he was mostly a bench player for the ‘Canes, though he started in his senior year, averaging 15.6 points per game. The concern about Brown was his fairly limited offensive game; he had good shooting mechanics but poor numbers (31.7 percent from 3 as a senior), wasn’t a strong driver, and his defense was solid, but not special enough to compensate. But this year, it looks like his offensive game is coming around. Brown has been much more comfortable attacking off the dribble, adding a solid hook shot and floater to compliment his more athletic power finishes.

Brown has also rediscovered his 3-point shot, steadily climbing from 33.8 percent to 35.4 percent to a blistering 56.9 percent this year. While this is surely an early-season hot streak that will cool off, Brown’s mechanics have continued to improve, and he’s been very comfortable shooting off the catch.

Brown is helping Kataja punch above their weight this season through his continued development, and he’s been a very underrated player in a less well-known basketball league. With his ability to knock down shots from outside and score off the bounce, he’s a player I wouldn’t be surprised to see head to the D-League this spring or next fall, in an attempt to further his NBA aspirations.

Ekpe Udoh is Europe’s best center

Ekpe Udoh was a fun player to watch in his NBA career. The 6-foot-10 former Warrior, Buck, and Clipper was a solid shot-blocking presence in the NBA, and he is a wonderful Twitter presence, best known for running a successful online book club. But he was hurt by a very limited offensive game, and ultimately couldn’t stick in the league, heading over to Europe to play for Fenerbahce.

Now in his second year with the Istanbul side, Udoh has solidified himself as a dominant force. In the more open Euroleague offenses, Udoh stands out as a solid rim-runner and passing big man, and he’s much more comfortable in these sets, even getting occasional looks from midrange. Defensively, he’s the anchor for a decent Fenerbahce defense, and at 1.8 blocks per game, he’s Euroleague’s best shot-blocker.

Thursday was Udoh’s moment in the sun, as Fenerbahce demolished Crvena Zvezda 87-72. Udoh dominated a mismatch against the bigger, slower Ognjen Kuzmic, finishing with 15 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 blocks in a showcase of how versatile he can be at the NBA level. Udoh got a majority of his points off pick-and-rolls, where he used his mobility to establish position against Red Star’s slower bigs. That led to Udoh being fouled seven times, which further crippled the Serbian side’s ability to defend him. Udoh also was able to showcase his abilities as a passer, using his advantage to create a few nice opportunities out of perimeter looks:

Udoh has made his mark on the defensive end first in his career, but playing in Europe has allowed him to transform into a successful offensive player as well. After averaging 4.0 points per game on 43 percent shooting in the NBA, Udoh is now averaging 12.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game on 54.9 percent shooting in Euroleague play over the last two years. Like Anthony Randolph, Udoh is yet another NBA player who’s found the right home in Europe.

Elsewhere on the continent

Real Madrid needed some strong execution to edge Zalgiris 96-91 without Sergio Llull. Luckily, though, they have Luka Doncic, who poured in 17 points, most of which came in a third quarter outburst. Doncic continues to prove that he’s the real deal, and Real Madrid continues to show that they’re a true contender for CSKA Moscow’s throne.

Lietuvos Rytas played in yet another fantastic close game, losing a tight matchup with Alba Berlin 99-97. The loss gives Group B a three-way tie for third place, meaning Rytas absolutely needs to beat Fuenlabrada in Spain next week to advance. Otherwise, we could lose the competition’s most entertaining squad, with Arturas Gudaitis’s post game, Drew Gordon’s high-flying acrobatics, and Josh Akognon’s bench wizardry, way earlier than should be allowed.

Galatasaray had another banner week, officially cutting ties with Justin Dentmon and reinstating Russ Smith. They then went out and got blown out by Panathinaikos, 85-58. The defense has been an issue for Galatasaray all season, but the Turkish club shot just 34.3 percent from the field in the loss, and looked listless offensively. Galatasaray has lost no matter who is their point guard this season, which makes head coach Ergin Ataman’s constant berating of Smith look even sillier.

The entertaining Nemanja Nedovic is back for Unicaja Malaga, who used overtime to knock off Spanish rival UCAM Murcia 89-86. Nedovic is a talented creator as a combo guard, and he’s been missed throughout the season as he’s recuperated from injury. He was limited on Wednesday, posting 5 points and 3 rebounds in 19 minutes, but Malaga getting him back right as we head to the Round of 16 could heavily influence the next round.

A quick standings check of the Basketball Champions League, with six games to go:

Group A: AS Monaco and Banvit sit at 7-1 apiece, the clear class of the octagonal.

Group B: Petr Cornelie and Le Mans are tied with Reyer Venezia, with Avtodor Saratov and the aforementioned Kataja tied in the elimination spot.

Group C: Jimmy Baron-led Neptunas leads what’s been the least eventful group so far.

Group D: Tenerife and Avellino are both 6-2 at the top, with Frank Ntilikina and Strasbourg also looking safe. Mega Leks and Ante Zizic’s Cibona have a lot of work to do at 2-6.

Group E: It’s Besiktas at the top, Skolnoki Olaj at the bottom, and a quagmire in the middle. Several good teams, including Sassari and Partizan, will attempt to find their way into the three other advancement spots.