EuroLeague Week 12 Winners and Losers: Barcelona and Valencia's defense, and Nikola Topic's Red Star recall

With one game until the halfway mark of the season, all four Spanish teams are in the play-in or better. Some are trending up, and others down, with defense playing a key role for one team on each side of the regular season rollercoaster.

EA7 Emporio Armani Milan v Valencia Basket - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
EA7 Emporio Armani Milan v Valencia Basket - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague / Roberto Finizio/GettyImages

After this week’s games, we will officially be at the halfway mark of the EuroLeague season. That will open the window for awards predictions, and furious debate about who could see a drop in the second half of the season and who could rise. With all four Spanish teams currently sitting in the top 10, we felt it was a good time to talk about a slumping Barcelona side and rising Valencia. Both team's form seems to be tied to their defense. 

EuroLeague Week 12 Winners and Losers: Barcelona are good but vulnerable on the defensive end

Sitting at 11-5 and tied for second with Virtus Bologna, putting them a whole two games ahead of fourth, may make putting Barcelona under a microscope seem pernicious, but when you lose to ALBA Berlin you can expect some questions. Also, we labeled them a contender in last week’s column and sang their praises when they got off to a flying start this season. We’ve been fair to the Catalan club and will continue to be. 

Barcelona are 2-3 in their last five. One of those losses was on the road to Bologna which is understandable, Luca Bianchi’s club has lost one home game all season: Round 1 against Zalgiris. But the other two are away to ALBA Berlin and at home to Milano. Yikes! And the two wins in their last five are over a flailing Zalgiris and at home against Fenerbahce, who hasn’t won a road game all season. 

There has been shooting variance during this stretch for sure. After shooting 38 percent from 3 in Rounds 1 through 11 they’re shooting 36 percent from deep in Rounds 12 through 16. That’s a fairly normal shooting downswing that can happen to anyone during the season. 

Opponent shooting, though, is where things get interesting. Barcelona has held opponents to 36 percent shooting from deep on the season but opponents have made a whopping 42 percent of their 3s over the last five rounds. That is an absurd swing in opponent shooting to see over a five-game sample. That’s not just bad luck, but an issue, a segway to talk about how Barcelona’s defense seems to be exploitable in a number of ways overall based on their current rotations and lineups. 

The biggest issue is that Barcelona does not have a solid rim protector… that they play regularly. Their center rotation of Jan Vesely and Willy Hernangomez is arguably the worst defensive center rotation in the league, at least toward the top of the standings. Madrid has Edy Tavares and Vincent Poirier, Bologna has Bryant Dunston, Panathinaikos has Matthias Lessort, Monaco has Donta Hall, and Partizan has Bruno Caboclo. All those guys offer either rim protection or switchability, some are great on the perimeter or in drop, and some are great at multiple of these things. Vesely and Hernangomez are worse defensively than all of these guys. 

This is only the start of their personnel issues. On top of the struggles of Vesely and Hernangomez as the back line of the defense, Barcelona’s front line has issues too. Two players, in particular, stand out who get targeted as perimeter defenders: Joel Parra and Nico Laprovittola. 

Laprovittola’s offense outweighs his defensive struggles. He’s a small guard who isn’t the quickest laterally so being targeted is not a surprise and simply the cost of a player as skilled as he is at the other end. For Parra, well, why is he even in the rotation? At 23 years old the young forward has plenty of time to improve and believing in him as a EuroLeague quality player in the future is reasonable, but playing him nearly 13 minutes a game right now is an obvious detriment to the team. He cannot move his feet with perimeter players, gets bullied by post players, and is shooting 20 percent from deep and only averaging 2.29 points per game. 

His offensive game does not make up for what he’s giving away at the other end. It only makes it worse. His drop from what he could do for Badalona last season is shocking, but this can happen with young players. The jump from EuroCup to EuroLeague may not sound big on paper but in practice it is. Parra is not ready for regular minutes at this level, yet. There’s no shame in that. He’s got plenty of time to improve and figure things out. Sasha Vezenkov was having similar struggles for Barcelona at his age and he went on to win a EuroLeague MVP and get a solid NBA contract. Parra has time, but Barcelona does not. Moving him out of the rotation should be an easy and obvious decision. 

Personnel is one issue with Barcelona, and you are somewhat limited in what you can do during the season. It is worth noting, though, that they do have some good defenders. Nikola Kalinic, Tomas Satoransky, Rokas Jokubaitis, and even Alex Abrines are plus-defenders who bring varying degrees of length, IQ, and versatility. These guys are good enough to hide someone like Laprovittola if they had a good rim protector. 

Barcelona’s scheme does not suit these players, though. They apply high ball pressure, which is consistent for most of the league and something they are capable of with Satoransky and Jokubaitis, but also have their off-ball defenders chase opponents beyond the three-point line and deny passes to almost excessive lengths. This approach does not fit Kalinic and Abrines. Kalinic is a strong player who uses his body well against players of all sizes but can get burned with speed, and Abrines uses his length to be a pest against opponents putting the ball on the floor or when they’re shooting. Abrines, like Kalinic, is not the quickest laterally. The further he gets dragged out, the more open he is to getting blown by. Even Satoransky and Jokubaitis are not the quickest on their feet. The only player on their roster who truly fits their defensive scheme is Oscar Da Silva. Dario Brizuela and Jabari Parker are also not suited to how this team defends. 

If Barcelona wants to get back on track, they need to make some changes. For starters, get Parra out of the rotation and get James Nnaji in the rotation. The Charlotte Hornets stash is the only rim protector on their roster. He was solid enough for Sarunas Jasikevicius to trust him for stretches against Real Madrid last season and in the ACB playoffs. He should be playing anywhere from 10-15 minutes a night to help fortify their defense. 

Additionally, stop with the full-deny defense and fly-by closeouts. Start helping in the gap, stunt to opponents on their drives, and then close out to contest opponents 3s. Barcelona can keep the paint clogged this way to make up for their lack of rim protection, and give up more threes but hopefully less open ones. Barcelona’s defense is in a rut, but it is not helpless. With some tweaks, they can return to where they were to start the season. Without them, they’re begging for their season to end in disappointment. 

EuroLeague Week 12 Winners and Losers: Valencia is borderline impenetrable and a tough game every time you play them. How do they do it? 

Valencia is the opposite of their Catalan counterparts. They are 4-1 in their last five, beating a red-hot Bologna at home in Round 16 and Olympiacos away in Round 14. They are second in EuroLeague in defensive rating at 104.1, and their execution on that end is near perfect. 

Valencia does not have an elite shot blocker on their roster. Starting center Brandon Davies is averaging 0.3 blocks per game on the season and his understudy, Boubacar Toure, averages 0.5 Both these players, unlike Vesely and Hernangomez, do protect the rim well. While they’re not shot swatters like Tavares and Poirier for Real Madrid, Davies and Toure both work with their team as a unit to limit attempts at the rim and make them difficult. Valencia has conceded 1.5 points per shot at the rim on the season, tied for second-best in the league. 

Nearly every drive an opponent makes is met with either Davies or Toure, and at the very least the original on-ball defender applying pressure still as well. At times, even more players can jump into the paint and clog the area to increase the level of difficulty for the shot. Valencia is also the best in the league at limiting paint shot attempts, with only 17 percent of opponents' shots coming in the paint this season. They also do this while holding opponents to 31 percent shooting from beyond the arc on the season. Which is once again second-best only to Real Madrid. 

How do they do this? How does Valencia protect the paint and the arc so well? For starters, they have the personnel. There’s not one player on this roster who’s a true liability defense besides maybe Jared Harper due to his height. Chris Jones and Kassius Robertson are quick on the perimeter and strong, allowing them to hold their own in less-than-ideal matchups. Stefan Jovic and Josep Puerto are plus-sized guards and plus-defenders who are more than capable of defending multiple positions well. 

Their additional wings such as Xabi Lopez-Arostegui, Semi Ojeleye (injured), Nathan Reuvers, Victor Claver, and even the newest addition Justin Anderson are more similar. Jaime Pradilla and Inglis are both capable of guarding up and down as versatile big bodies as well, giving head coach Alex Mumbru even more in the defensive toolbox. They all bring a lot to the table defensively, and with Davies and Toure behind them, Valencia rarely has anyone exploitable on the court on the defensive end. 

With this personnel, the scheme they use optimizes all of it. For starters, they don’t switch, they recover. Against ball screens Davies and Toure will hedge and chase, cutting off driving angles and forcing opponents to move the ball to the wing. As this happens, the weak side corner defender is in the paint tagging the roller. When the ball moves to the wing, Toure or Davies race back to their initial match-up, timing this effort perfectly so that if a skip pass is thrown the tagger can get back out to his original corner assignment. 

On off-ball action, they take a similar approach. Again, they do not switch. Even against Bologna and Belinelli who is arguably the best movement shooter in Europe right now they opted to chase over the screen, have the screen defender stunt, and bring gap help to avoid switching. 

They can get burned on this sometimes by back cuts, Belinelli executed one perfectly against them in Round 16 but these breakdowns are rare. As you saw in the clips above, Belinelli still made some shots against this defense too but they were tough and very well contested. Not many other players in Europe are making those shots when Valencia defends it that well. 

Valencia appears to be intentionally averse to switching, a move that seems to recognize and appreciate their defensive prowess as a team and individually. They set their match-ups and rarely move away from them, play-by-play, game-by-game, they dance with who they’ve got. 

Against Bologna in Round 16, Inglis and Pradilla drew the matchup with Tornike Shengelia. Shengelia had a good game, but in the fourth quarter, Valencia finally started to get the better of him. They wore him down and forced him into some bad decisions. Belinelli was covered by Puerto, Lopez, and Robertson. Again, Valencia stuck to these matchups and avoided switching like the plague. 

The only time you see Valencia switching is after slowing down their opponent's transition offense they’ll look for opportunities to switch back into their preferred matchups. While most teams trust their best offensive players to figure things out and help their teams win, Valencia trusts their best defensive players to make the plays and get the stops necessary for their offense to grind out wins. 

Valencia are not pretty to watch, but there is beauty in their defense. It is tough, connected, and committed. It may be only second in defensive rating, but easily first in its importance to a team's wins. Valencia is valiant, and the thought of facing them in the playoffs should scare everyone. 

EuroLeague Week 12 Winners and Losers: Nikola Topic is returning to Red Star; we’ll find out if he’s the real deal or not

In our International Basketball Big Board, we listed Nikola Topic as the number two international prospect in the upcoming NBA draft. He’s having a fantastic season with Mega Bemax, which is a double-edged sword. 

Putting up the numbers he is as an 18-year-old — 18.6 points per game, 6.9 assists per game, and 3.7 rebounds per game on 53/29/85 shooting splits — playing against grown men is always impressive, but slightly less so when you add some context. Mega is an agent-run team, built to let young prospects thrive and put up numbers. For some players, this was great, like Nikola Jokic! For others, it helped them get drafted but not much else. This was the case for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Ognjen Jaramaz, for example. 

While Topic’s play was notable, there was plenty of doubt cast over it. But now, Topic is returning to Red Star Belgrade, the EuroLeague team whose academy he came up through and was on loan from. At Red Star, he’ll serve as an understudy to Milos Teodosic who is still one of the best point guards on the continent. He’ll be held accountable for the slightest of mistakes, on both ends of the floor, and will be proving himself at the second-highest-level of professional basketball in the world. 

If Topic can perform as a reliable backup point guard, it will not only solidify his case as arguably the best international prospect in this class but also legitimize the gaudy numbers he posted earlier this season. Topic is betting on himself, and the boldness of that alone already leans us towards potentially ranking him higher in our next big board. 

EuroLeague Week 12 Lines of the Week

Milos Teodosic finished with 27 points and 14 assists to give Crvena Zvezda a key road win over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Even at 36, he’s still got it. 

Codi Miller-McIntyre’s 14 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds was a close second.  

EuroLeague Week 12 Quote of the Week

There’s been more than enough Shabazz Napier drama this season but with Nemanja Nedovic adding more fuel to the fire it seems unlikely to end anytime soon.  

EuroLeague Week 12 Clip of the Week

It's not EuroLeague, but we’re okay with breaking the rules for this Rayjon Tucker poster dunk. 

Also, keep BCM Gravelines-Dunkerque in your prayers. Their arena spontaneously burned to the ground on Christmas Day due to a reported technical malfunction.

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