Remember, this is Europe, where teams can't allow the luxury of long-term projects because of financial and competition issues, where fans demand wins every season and where coaches and not players are the guys running the show.
One team has gone in a different direction this season, though. Displaying a weak roster, and plagued with injuries that have affected its key and most veteran players, Partizan Belgrade decided (actually, was probably forced by the circumstances) to throw away any chance in the competition and play the youngsters. But that has been the exception.
As you can see from the following recaps of the best performers among draftable players, most of them are the older 1983 guys, therefore automatically eligible for the upcoming draft. And besides Partizan's Uros Tripkovic, none but Nikos Zissis has consistently played more than 20 minutes per game. The Greek player has been the only true vital player for his team, and one of the big reasons why AEK Athens has achieved the great success of qualifying for the top-16 stage. The rest can be labeled as contributors, to a larger or smaller degree, in the process of trying to gain their coaches confidence with their work on the court.
We have decided to take into account only the players current level of play, so many kids with outstanding potential like Martynas Andriuskevicius, Andrea Bargnani, Ersan Ilyasova, Sergio Rodríguez or Johan Petro haven't made the cut. Their time here will come if they are smart and patient enough (basketball-wise) to decide to wait in Europe an extra year or two before declaring.
So let's see who are the players who've been able to hold their own in such a competitive environment, and see what they have done in the recently finished regular season to deserve to be mentioned.
(PG; 6-5; 1983; AEK Athens; 31 mpg, 10.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.7 apg)
However, the 21-year old guard responded very well to his new role. Quickly learning and adopting the fundamentals of playing the point, he started passing the ball around, attempting fewer shots than originally expected and trying to free up teammates, without being afraid of committing any turnovers. From game to game, he seemed more and more capable of taking advantage of the good wing players that AEK has (Nikos Hatzis, Toby Bailey) and the strong presence of Sandro Nicevic and Quadre Lolis in the frontcourt. Zissis' best games as a PG included a 9-point, 13-assist, 3-steal game vs. Euroleague title holders Maccabi Tel Aviv and Sarunas Jasikevicius and a 12-point, 5-rebound, 9-assist game vs. ASVEL. AEK made it to the top-16 round, one of the few regular season surprises in the competition.
Zissis' passing has definitely improved, no question about that, but his game on the defensive end remains a question mark. Although he is a very strong player mentally, he isn't equally strong physically. Furthermore, some would notice a decline in his mid and long-range shot. His 3-point percentage (23.8%) is more than worrying, especially for a usually excellent shooter like Zissis. He should definitely improve it in the top-16 round, in order for AEK to have the possibility to qualify further. Moreover, his athleticism (or lack thereof), which has been a concern for years, is becoming more obvious when it comes to his role in the team, which is more of a leading one right now. If he could improve these skills, he would be a dominant guard by all means.
However, a surprisingly good point guard for a surprising team could use some praise and Zissis is acquiring all the good words till the second round starts. Whether AEK does well or not depends on him and his further improvement in a short amount of time. Will he be able to handle the burden?
(SG; 6-5; 1986; Partizan Belgrade; 26 mpg, 10.7 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1 spg)
Tripkovic faced more responsibility in a decimated Partizan club than most normal 18 year old talents can handle on the Euroleague level, which would partially explain his poor field goal percentages and 2 turnovers per game. The addition of Blake Stepp and other players recovering from injuries lately (Milojevic, Bozic) didn't make Tripkovic disappear and lose his playing time, quite the opposite actually as he started to play even more impressively next to them, utilizing the fact that the opponents' defense was finally concentrating on his teammates and not him.
The first game after Partizan's best player Dejan Milojevic got injured, Tripkovic emerged with 15 points against Efes Pilsen. Shortly after when Partizan's second best player Vule Avdalovic went down, Tripkovic had a jaw dropping performance against last year's Euroleague finalist Climamio Bologna. Tripkovic scored 24 points (7/11 FG, 3/5 3P, 7/7 FT) and together with fellow Partizan talent Luka Bogdanovic, kept Partizan in the game until the last seconds, when he missed a three pointer that would have sent the game to overtime.
Partizan's 2-12 record certainly isn't in Tripkovic's favor, but I also believe his game suffered from it a bit. Many of his team's committed turnovers are partially due to the fact that Partizan was at the time a team where the average player on the court is only 20 years old, completely unheard of in the Euroleague before. Uros showed that he has good ball-handling even at this level, and due to playing a good amount of PG a lot in younger competitions he also possesses good court awareness to go along with the excellent athletic ability which he uses as a great advantage to create his own shots. Never mind his relatively low field goal percentages (37.2% F2, 35.5% 3P), his shooting mechanics are great and will be a constant threat from long-range in the future.
(SF; 1983; 6-7; Real Madrid; 23 mpg, 7.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1 apg)
All that seems forgotten now, as the athletic wing player has fit very well on the team, earning a solid place in the rotation, while the exposure that the Euroleague provides has done wonders for his draft stock.
Gelabale is hardly a star in the making, but throughout this regular season he has proved that he can be an excellent role player. For such an athletic guy like him (he's a fan favourite in Madrid, thanks to his dunks), he surprises with the coolness he displays on the court, rarely making mistakes and almost always staying focused. He's not super talented, nor is his basketball IQ particularly high, but he's fully aware of his limitations and plays accordingly while taking them into account.
Being the only true small forward of his team, he has mainly provided good defense, rebounding and mid-to-long range shooting (he has converted 67% of his 2-point shots, many of them 18-20 footers), although he has been rather inconsistent from behind the three point line.
After a very steady regular season, his goal for the top-16 round should be to become a little more fearless in the offensive end, of course providing it's for the good of the team, and trying to become more important to Real, especially as an offensive threat. So far, he has shown little versatility, although in the last weeks we sometimes could see him trying to take his defender to the low post if he had a size advantage there. It's obvious that his athleticism makes him intriguing, but it's still not clear if his talent and mind can take him to the next level.
(PF; 1984; 6-11; Climamio Bologna; 21 mpg, 7.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1 apg, 1.4 spg)
This season Lorbek has added some aggressiveness to his game, which allows him to live a better life inside the paint as a big man. As a result, his rebounding production has improved, his defense is more reliable, and he feels more comfortable when it comes to using his excellent various offensive skills, even shooting treys more frequently, although he might rely too much on jumpers to score sometimes.
But it doesn't end there. With Matjas Smodis (Bologna's main offensive reference inside the paint) sidelined since mid January, he has taken a big step forward, assuming the leading scoring role of his team's frontcourt. Indeed, in the last three games he has averaged 15 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 2 blocks; although we have to consider that the importance of those games for the competition was rather limited.
While Bologna's GM Zoran Savic should be celebrating having bet on Lorbek when the Slovenian ran away from Michigan State, the way back to the States for Erazem still doesn't look crystal clear. His quickness remains the biggest concern about his game, and you have to wonder how well he would be able to translate his skills to the NBA level with that flaw.
(PG; 1983; 6-3; Efes Pilsen; 20 mpg, 7.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2 apg, 1.2 spg)
Eight points per game is a number which should not be underestimated considering his role and the fact that his team is very defensive minded. Looking at his turnovers we see the low figure of 1.3 per game, whereas he made 1.2 steals per game.
Losing former Point Guard Kerem Tunceri made it look like Arslan was destined to become the starter before the season, but Efes decided to sign Solomon instead. However, the addition of the very talented Solomon didn't affect Arslan's game and minutes. For now he averages 20 minutes per game. Coach Mahmuti often tries to play with both Arslan and Solomon in hope to use the American guard more effectively at the Shooting Guard spot so he can profit from Arslan's more organized game.
Perhaps the point in which Arslan showed the biggest improvement is in his defensive ability. Especially when playing in a zone defense, Arslan shows great speed in his rotations. His man to man defense has improved as well. A reason for this are the 20 minutes per game, in which he brings tremendous energy to the game.
Now, the Top 16 waits for Efes. What can we expect from Arslan there? It seems that his minutes won't suffer that much, because he is very experienced and has already played key Top 16 games last year in which he contributed very well. Of course it often depends on the play of Solomon, but it is obvious that coach Mahmuti will use him at the Point Guard position as much as he can to keep the control of his team's offense.
(PF; 1983; 6-9; Real Madrid; 20 mpg, 8.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
The buzz around Axel when he came suggested that he was a combo forward on his way to the small forward position. Soon it was clear that Hervelle had little to do with a small forward (at least for the moment). Hervelle contributed more from the paint initially this year for Real, using his quickness, strength, athleticism, intensity and a pretty good basketball sense. He has become quite a valuable player on defense (especially team defense) and rebounding, providing his team with more aggressiveness and a better transition game, as he's an excellent floor runner. On the other hand, his offensive skills looked very poor, with nothing more than garbage points to speak of.
But as the season has advanced, he has begun showing a better perimeter shot every day, to the point that he has scored half of his treys attempted, which became quite a lot by the end of the regular season (he has averaged 3.4 attempts in his last seven games). This consistency has given him more confidence on the offensive end, daring to try even more things with the ball. It has also been noticeable in his passing, which is somewhat improved.
The top-16 stage awaits him, and given the offensive progression he's showing, his role in Real Madrid might grow hand in hand with his statistical production. He seems to be quite a competitive player, and he surely won't shy away from this challenge.
However, Hervelle is still rather unpolished, not particularly skilled; a role player in a competition where he barely reaches the category of an average player. But he has written his name in the second round bubble thanks to his effort on the court and his willingness to improve.
(PF/C; 1985; 6-11; Tau Vitoria; 20 mpg, 8.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Nevertheless, this season he's kept the same good defensive effort of the past year, and has significantly upgraded his offensive arsenal, becoming another piece in the already powerful post presence of Tau Vitoria. Coach Ivanovic hasn't just handed him even a minute of playing time this year, he has gained them all due to his solid play. There were some games in which he came off the bench at some point of the second or third quarter, providing a notable defensive upgrade and some scoring production, and ended up not leaving the court after that.
But he still has a lot of work ahead of him, starting with his mid-range shot. You can count with the fingers on your hands the mid-range attempts he's tried in the entire regular season, and they not very successful ones by the way. Besides, while he has played pretty well against shorter and/or weaker frontcourts of Pau-Orthez, Opel Skyliners or Panathinaikos, he has suffered against the bigger ones like CSKA, Ulker or Benetton, and that's because Tiago still has problems finishing over bigger players.
Anyway, the level he's showing for being so young is remarkable, and it can only get better considering how hard of a worker he is. In fact, he has probably secured himself at least a lottery pick for the upcoming draft.
(PF/C; 1983; 6-10; Unicaja Málaga; 19 mpg, 8.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.6 bpg)
Vázquez has provided his team with size, athleticism, intimidation, rebounding and scoring. He has played center full-time, teaming with the more perimeter oriented (and leader of the team) Jorge Garbajosa at power forward. Fran's main duty on the offensive end has been to take advantage of the spaces created from his teammates attacking the basket (his dunks have become a routine) or deliver mid-range jumpers. Indeed, his mid-range shot is probably his most improved skill since last season. Nobody will deny that he played his part after scoring 70% of his 2-point shots (second in the Euroleague).
Not everything has been a secondary role for him. Fran has eventually showed his potential to become a good scorer as well. His game against CSKA Moscow, the strongest team in this regular season, deserves to be mentioned especially. Vázquez had 17 points here while taking his team on his shoulders offensively during some stretches of the game, playing one-on-one ball effectively in the low post and scoring on contested shots.
Also, a guy with his wingspan and athleticism has to be a presence on defense, and being ranked in second place among all Euroleague players in blocked shots isn't a coincidence. But besides this glamorous detail, he remains a pretty raw defensive player who still makes youthful mistakes. Things like not knowing to when and where to concede space to his matchup, getting fooled when a rival player fakes a shot, not properly boxing out his defender for the rebound, and so on.
However, the bright spots outshine his flaws, many of which he has time to work on. Being one of the youngsters who benefited most from this competition, he might have worked his way into the lottery for next June.
(SF; 1983; 6-8; Climamio Bologna; 18 mpg, 6.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.2 apg)
Besides his personal effort, there were two big things for Stefano Mancinelli to work on heading into this season: gaining playing time and especially meaningful minutes at the small forward position, as he was too often used as a power forward by his team. Despite playing for a very competitive team (Climamio finished the regular season with a 12-2 record), coach Repesa has given him both, and it has paid off big time.
Of course Mancinelli has mainly been a role player for his team, another piece of Bologna's deep rotation, bringing to the court athleticism, intensity, rebounding and defense, to allow other teammates to shine. But in the process he has shown a much improved perimeter shot (he has netted 50% of his treys) as well as very nice passing abilities. Spending more time on the perimeter, he has been able to handle the ball more, revealing quite good court awareness, and looking rather comfortable. However, he has delivered most of his best performances this season in the Italian league, where for a few times he has looked like first round material.
It will be very interesting to see how Stefano evolves in the near future. His physical and skill set make him a very attractive long-term prospect, and he might end up being one of the big sleepers of this year's draft.