Blogging Through Europe (Part 7: France)

Blogging Through Europe (Part 7: France)
Dec 10, 2007, 04:41 am
I passed the day in between games here in Le Mans avoiding the raindrops, watching practices, video sessions, shoot-arounds and hanging out with the team. A big part of this trip for me has been about expanding my knowledge of European basketball, learning about the way teams operate from the inside, understanding the dynamics of what makes a successful team and organization, and establishing relationships that will hopefully last for years.

On Saturday, Le Mans (ranked 3rd in France), played against the top team in the league, Nancy, who to me clearly look like a better team than they faced earlier in the week in Armani Jeans Milano.

Le Mans Defeats Nancy

There was a really nice atmosphere in the Antares arena. It’s difficult for fans in Europe to attend many mid-week European cup games because of work, family, and other obligations, but during the weekend it seems like attendance is much stronger, and this city was no exception. They are a bit on the fickle side, but when things are going well, they are right there behind their team.

Watching nearly every second of preparation Le Mans conducted for this game gave me a fantastic perspective on what they need to do in order to win this game. Opposing forward Ricardo Greer, arguably the best player in France these days, was the clear focal point of Le Man’s game-plan. Le Mans wanted to push him as far away from the paint on his post ups as possible, which is where he does much of his damage, either facing up and getting past his man using his quickness and smarts, or finding the open man brilliantly on their quick dives to the basket if the double team comes. They also wanted to keep him off the offensive glass (he has outstanding hands), as this is another part of the game he excels in.

The message was quite clear. Le Mans was ready for it, and had a clear cut strategy for how to stop him. But once the game started, it seemed like his “defender” Luka Bogdanovic promptly forgot (or ignored) everything he was told to look out for. Greer started torching him time after time in the post, receiving little to no opposition, and then added insult to injury by completely destroying him on the offensive glass as well. Greer accumulated 12 quick points, and then began finding his wide-open shooters (particularly his brother Jeff Greer) on the wings when Le Mans was inevitably forced to throw double-teams at him. Before anyone could even catch their breath, Nancy was up by 15 points at the end of the first quarter, and it looked like Le Mans’ youth and lack of mental toughness was going to haunt them once again. Mighty Antares sounded like a graveyard at that moment.

Alas, this team has more fight in it than people might be giving them credit for. Once Bogdanovic was banished to the bench (where he would sit and sulk for the rest of the game), the team started getting some stops on the defensive end (switching to a matchup zone), and slowly began climbing back into the game.

This seems like a really good moment to stop and talk about 18-year old French guard Antoine Diot. He came off the bench at the end of the first quarter, and instantly became a key cog in the successful eventual comeback that his team made, primarily through his toughness and smarts.

Rather than stand around and let his team get pummeled on the offensive glass for the second straight game in a row (16-4 was the count in the Milan game) like was already happening, Diot went and helped his post players out, boxing out bigger players than him and coming up with 4 big rebounds in the process, helping set the tone for his team along the way.

The 1989-born Diot is still a very inexperienced kid at this level, but the intangibles he already shows cannot be ignored. Every single time his team calls a timeout, Diot is always the first one out to greet his teammates from the bench and encourage them. When things heated up late in the game and the refs needed someone to talk to about Sam Clancy (who was complaining just a little too much), it was Diot who promptly made peace and calmed his much older teammate down.

He did more than just being mature beyond his years, though. Diot also had an excellent game, playing solid defense, getting in the passing lanes, pushing the ball up the floor, and also doing a terrific job running the offense, something his team has sorely been lacking from what we’ve seen. Diot very calmly moved the ball around, doing an outstanding job in particular on the pick and roll, coming up with a game high 6 assists in 26 minutes. He’s a fairly athletic player with great size for the point (6-4) and a nice frame for a guy his age, although his inconsistent perimeter stroke is a real hindrance if he’s to develop into a serious NBA prospect over the next few years. Diot sometimes has problems with his decision making in the half-court, but on this particular evening, he was as cool and calm an 18-year old as you’ll find anywhere on the continent.

Zabian Dowdell helped keep Nancy in the game, coming off the bench to score 12 points in just 21 minutes. He provided a real calming presence for his team behind the athletic but somewhat erratic Pape Phillipe Amagou, who has been splitting minutes with Dowdell throughout the season. You couldn’t help feel that once Le Mans settled down, Nancy was much better off with Dowdell running the show, as he was solid on defense, excellent in transition and really played the game at his own pace in the half-court. The fact that he’s not shooting the ball particularly well has been his Achilles heel (plus he’s not a jaw-dropping athlete), but he’s made a terrific transition to European basketball for being just a rookie, and his coaches are very pleased with him so far from what they told us.

When it was all said and done, though, it was Alain Koffi who ended up being the hero for Le Mans in the closing minutes. Coming in off the bench following a long rest after Phil Ricci fouled out, Koffi scored one basket on a post-up move to push Le Mans up by four late in the game, and then scored again on an offensive rebound put-back to finally put the game out of reach.

The French 1983-born big man is having a breakout season for Le Mans, and this is actually a great opportunity to touch on his progress here.

Koffi is intriguing first and foremost because of his awesome physical attributes. A 6-10 PF/C with a 7-4 wingspan, he’s an excellent athlete whose skill-level is finally starting to catch up to his physical tools. He’s averaging 9 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes in the French league, and 7.5 points and 7 rebounds in 23 minutes in the Euroleague. Koffi was a menace in both games we saw on the defensive end, blocking 5 shots both coming from the weak-side or sliding his feet and rejecting his man on the ball. His timing looks terrific, as does his activity level, and his excellent lateral quickness allows him to cover power forwards just as well as his recently improved strength allows him to hang with centers. It was really impressive to see the way he can just smother his matchup with his imposing wingspan, and even use his length and instincts to get in the passing lanes.

Although his physical tools allow him to really make his presence felt as a rebounder, at times you felt like he was relying too much on his athleticism rather than being fundamental boxing out his man. His team got outrebounded by a good margin in both games I saw, particularly on the offensive end. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed when you see an athletic specimen like him go up and snarl away a one-handed rebound in mid-air.

Offensively, Koffi is not a very fluid player, looking fairly mechanical in his post moves (besides some basic hook shots) and seeming very hesitant to shoot the ball from medium range, even though we saw him hit a few both in games and in practice. Thinking too much has been a problem with him for quite some time, but from what we can see and also were told, he’s getting a lot better in this area this season. By all accounts, his attitude is excellent, and he really does want to achieve his full potential as a player.

Koffi has one more season on his contract after this, and it’s quite possible that he becomes a hot commodity on the open market already this summer. Le Mans was offered a 700,000 Euro buyout a year and a half ago by a team in Russia, but they decided to hold onto him to see how he continues to develop. He missed all of last season with a broken wrist he suffered in Summer League playing for Cleveland, and is really starting to blossom now at the age of 24. It’s not out of the question that he ends up playing in the NBA someday, since players with his tools are rare commodities and he’s probably good enough defensively to at least make a roster.

The Star of the Game: Nicolas Batum

We’ve spoken about everyone already except for the most interesting prospect on hand here in Le Mans (and possibly in all of Europe), Nicolas Batum. After a pretty lackluster showing against Milano in 19 foul-plagued minutes, Batum came back with one of the best performances possibly of his professional career—just on time as far as I was concerned personally.

Batum scored in a variety of different ways in this game. His 3-point stroke was definitely on, coming off screens on separate occasions and knocking down two pretty difficult looks-- catching, elevating, shooting pretty fluidly and hitting tough shots. His shot looks to be improving all the time it seems, even if his mechanics aren’t perfect, he’s clearly putting in a ton of work from what we saw over the four days we spent here.

Even if his 3-point shot is still streaky (29% in France, 23% in the Euroleague, 14/53 total), his mid-range game is looking as deadly as ever. Coach Vincent Collet (who really seems to enjoy working with the young players here from what we can tell) is putting in a ton of time on an individual basis with Batum every single day, working with him on all the little things he needs to improve on to be successful in the NBA. The part of his game that he seems to be stressing the most (besides the mental aspect) is his in-between game, which could become a lethal weapon in the NBA for a player with his tools at his position. Blessed with fluid and quite freakish athletic ability (combined with the high release point of his shot), Batum is capable of creating separation from his defender and through his pull-up mid-range jumper almost whenever he pleases. He found lots of success in this game by utilizing a sweet crossover move leading into a smooth pullup jumper from 17 feet.

Being just an average ball-handler at the moment, and thus not the most dangerous shot-creator in the half-court, Batum is forced to rely on other parts of his game to produce offensively. We saw him do that in this game by moving off the ball intelligently, finding seams in the defense, and making sharp cuts to the hoop, as well as by being his typical spectacular self in transition (where he truly excels).

Batum is the type of player who could really benefit from having a point guard with outstanding court vision, something he lacks here in Le Mans. One play that stood out in the Milano game was on a 3 on 2 fast break where he was streaking down the floor begging for a good lob that he could flush home. Instead, Raviv Limonad (a very talented scorer in his own right) threw up a wild pass that was not even close. Batum could get 4-6 points in this fashion just by moving off the ball every game, and this certainly seems to be an area that the free-flowing style of the NBA could benefit him.

Although the players around him aren’t particularly gifted passers, no one can say that about Batum himself. That’s something we saw on a constant basis, whether it was through his excellent post-entry passes, his drive and dish plays, or just his lightning quick decision making as a key cog in his team’s half-court offense. This is both a blessing and a curse for a player like him, since he’s clearly able to make everyone around him better, but at times you’d wish that he would just be a little bit more selfish and get his team the easy two points.

Sometimes you wonder if it’s just a lack of aggressiveness he suffers from, while in others you begin to wonder if he’s simply afraid of taking contact at the hoop, something that he clearly avoided in both games we saw. He had a chance on one play for example after an offensive rebound in the paint to go up strong and finish emphatically (he would had have absolutely no problem doing so), but instead, he decided to get cute and instead flip the ball to a teammate inside the paint for him to finish instead.

This is a bit of a trend as far as we can tell with Batum. He’ll have an open lane to the basket sometimes and will barely look at the rim, or in certain minutes as he did during the Milan game for example, will just completely fall asleep on the court and barely make his presence felt. We saw both sides of this in the Euroleague and French league games this week. In the Euroleague, he didn’t grab a single rebound in 19 minutes, while against Nancy, he came away with 9 in 40 minutes. Defensively, he did a very good job for the most part (his tools are just outstanding here), but there were a few moments that he looked a little too laid back—exactly his nature off the court by the way. Growing into his terrific frame will help him fight through screens, and might make him tougher finishing around the basket too.

What’s scary is that a player like Batum can warrant so much criticism after producing such an excellent stat-line (he also added 5 assists to go along with his 25 points and 9 rebounds). That might give you a hint as to how much potential he still has at his disposal to tap into. His ball-handling and perimeter shooting skills are still very much improvable, but he’s already an excellent player as it is.

He really does remind quite a bit of Rudy Gay, although he probably possesses an even better feel for the game. To really reach the type of success we can surely envision as a do-it all, 3rd option Scottie Pippen-type role player, he’ll have to land in the right situation, with a good point guard, and a coach that likes to play up-tempo. He’ll also have to be pushed quite a bit to get there, since he might not be able to get there if he’s on his own. We must say that he’s clearly making some important strides in this very valuable extra season he decided to give himself in Le Mans.

Next Game: Benetton Treviso at BC Kyiv (ULEB Cup)

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