The ULEB Cup is somewhat of a poor man's (or team's) Euroleague competition. Teams that earn a decent position in their respective national league, but not good enough to qualify for the Euroleague, play in this sort of consolation competition, a contest with a truly appealing prize, a direct invitation for the following year's Euroleague. That's why those games are really important, other then money and bragging rights. For you soccer/football fans out there, this is sort of what the UEFA cup is to the Champions league in Europe.
Podkolzine's team, the Italian Metis Varese, was one of those not-so-good but still decent teams, and Real Madrid from Spain was their opponent in the quarterfinals. There is tons of European basketball history under their belts, but this isn't the most successful time for either of them. Real Madrid features some interesting matchups in its frontcourt, like 6-8 former Runnin' Rebel Kaspars Kambala, 6-10 former Orlando Magic player Pat Burke, 6-10 Spanish international player Antonio Bueno and 6-10 former Grizzly Antonis Fotsis. A very decent European frontcourt by any standard and a good challenge for young Pavel. These playoff matchups are two games long, and they are decided not by which team wins each game, but the point margin total that separates the two after both games. The first one was played in Madrid on the 3rd of March, and second one in Varese, exactly one week later. Podkolzine is just coming off a very good game in the previous round of the ULEB cup, where he had 12 points, and 7 rebounds in 17 minutes.
Most of you probably haven't had the chance to ever see Pavel in action. So we are going to try something a bit different and relay a play-by-play of Pavel's time on the floor, focusing on the significant offensive and defensive sets to give you an idea of what kind of presence he has on the court at this early stage of his career.
Pavel is in the starting five, and obviously in charge of the tip-off, which he promptly manages to lose to 6-10 Antonio Bueno.
Defensive end: Pavel is defending Kambala, who manages to avoid Podkolzine's box-out attempt and grabs an offensive rebound. Podkolzine recovers his position and intimidates Kambala enough to make him miss his putback attempt. Pavel gets the rebound with his feet on the floor, showing some problems but eventually managing to secure the ball.
Offensive end: Podkolzine sets a screen and rolls to the lane, establishing good position in the paint, but his point guard (former Pittsburgh Panther) Jerry Mccullough doesn't pass him the ball. This becomes somewhat of a common theme when scouting Podkolzine.
Def: After a defensive rebound, Elmer Bennett (former Irish with NBA experience and considered one of the top PGs in Europe for several years) takes the ball in transition and drives for a wild mid-range shot in motion, missing it. Pavel, showing a decent ability to run the floor, has followed him closely, but can't get the rebound due to his precipitate leap.
Off: Another good positioning by Pavel, this time in the post. Once again, though, he gets no love from his teammates.
Def: Kambala gets the ball in the post and Pavel tries to keep him away by pushing with his right arm. Personal foul. Kambala makes a screen to execute a pick & roll with Bennett around the three point line. Pavel keeps close and tries to stop Bennett, who dishes off to Kambala rolling towards the basket. Podkolzine recovers nicely, but he gets another foul trying to block his layup.
Off: Pavel gets a screen and looks to recieve in the post. Finally MacCoullough feeds him, lateral and 13 feet away from the hoop. Pavel turns around, draws some contact from Kambala and simply shoots the ball. It's good. No attempt to post up at all on this play.
Def: Kambala recieves in the post and uses his quickness to beat Pavel along the baseline, trying a reverse layup. Airball. Pavel has followed him around nicely, distracting Kambala's shot with his arms, perhaps even slightly touching the ball.
Off: Podkolzine is around the paint area. A teammate cuts and receives the ball alone near the basket. Pavel's defender goes for the help, so the Russian giant is fed completely alone under the rim to finish with a dunk. Nothing too fancy.
Def: Kambala receives the ball again in the post. This time he chooses to go through the middle of the paint, but the result is pretty similar: Podkolzine gets a touch on the ball and avoids the basket.
Off: After asking in vain for the ball in the post, Pavel gets good position on the perimeter. He receives and shoots a sweet jumper from 19 feet out, but misses.
Def: Bennet asks Kambala for a screen 28 feet from the basket. They are trying to take the Russian far from the paint. Pavel goes for the help as Bennett takes off after the screen. The refs forgive Pavel for a foul when he tries to stop Bennett with his left arm. Antonio Bueno gets a good position in the paint but misses. Podkolzine, after recovering his place in the paint, gets an easy rebound, but doesn't show good timing, jumping earlier then he should of.
Def: After three pick & roll plays by Bennett and Kambala, veteran wing shooter Alberto Herreros penetrates and finishes with a layup. Pavel wasn't far from him, but he doesn't have enough quickness to get the block.
Def: Antonio Bueno recieves the ball at the free throw line. Pavel is defending him. The Spaniard makes a good reverse to get an easy layup close to the basket, but Pavel follows his movement and blocks his attempt.
Pavel leaves the game with 2:57 remaining of the first quarter and with his team winning 16-5, he will return with 3:40 remaining in the second quarter and with his team still dominating 31-18.
Def: Metis Varese plays a 2-3 zone defense and Pavel is placed in the middle of the key (keep in mind there's no three seconds defensive rule in Europe). Wing player Mario Stojic penetrates from one side and attempts a lay-up which he misses, right in front of Podkolzine.
Def: Podkolzine isn't able to grab a defensive rebound in his area, and it's Pat Burke who takes advantage using his superior mobility to score off a reverse layup.
Off: Pavel goes for a screen around the arc. A teammate in trouble tries to leave him the ball, but the Russian kid doesn't succeed in grabbing it. Those hands...
Def: Podkolzine can't seal off Kambala by boxing him out. Fortunately, a teammate tips the ball to Pavel, who grabs it, but not without a feeling of insecurity again.
Off: Podkolzine sets a screen and establishes very good position because of it. As usual, he doesn't recieve the ball.
Def: He grabs a rebound facing not much competition, but finally showing some good timing and confidence.
It's the end of the second quarter, with Metis winning by 34-24. Pavel doesn't start the third, but has to step in just some seconds into the quarter because of foul trouble to his teammate Dragan Ceranic. No scoring changes meanwhile.
Def: Pick & roll between Bennett and Kambala. As usual, Pavel goes for the help to stop Bennett, but Kambala receives the ball all by himself. Podkolzine tries to recover and goes for the block, but the ball is already falling off the glass and in.
Def: Due to defensive rotations, Pavel is left guarding Antonis Fotsis, who from the three point line beats Pavel very easily to go for the dunk.
Def: Baseline out of bounds. Kambala fakes out Pavel and receives the ball alone under the rim.
Off: A teammate attempts a layup and misses. Fighting with Kambala, Pavel tries to tip-in the ball, but his bad timing doesn't allow him to do it. Finally he touches the ball enough to give it to a teammate who, unfortunately, is out of bounds.
With 4:20 remaining of the third quarter and 41-33 on the scoreboard, Podkolzine sits on the bench for good. His team can't keep the advantage as Real Madrid raises its defensive intensity and the shots start falling. The game ends with a minimal victory for Real Madrid 68-67. A victory by more then one point in Varese will be enough for the overall win for Pavel's team.
This time Pavel isn't starting, but he enters the game with 5:46 remaining in the first quarter and his team leading 6-4.
Defensive end: Pavel is matched with Kambala, but this time he helps a teammate to contain Fotsis in the low post. Somehow, the Greek player releases an akward hook that goes in.
Offensive end: Pavel fights with Kambala for an offensive rebound, but can't grab it. Kambala has slightly better position, and the Russian doesn't manage to take advantage of his height.
Off: Real Madrid is playing zone defense, and Podkolzine looks for a good position around the paint. Big surprise though, the pass never comes. Madrid players know this pattern and don't bother to stop Pavel from getting decent position in the paint, as long as he isn't too deep.
Def: Kambala posts Pavel up, spins and beats him, and Podkolzine tries to stop his movement with his leg and hip, drawing a personal foul. After the ball is put in play again, Podkolzine grabs a rebound. He barely has competition and doesn't even jump. With a standing reach of 9-8, you might not need to.
Off: Real Madrid goes back to individual matchups, but a defensive rotation mistake leaves Pavel alone in the paint. He recieves the ball 5 feet from the basket. Some players would go for the dunk, others would use the glass given the favorable angle position, but Podkolzine drops (we can't call it a shot) the ball directly on the rim. After some heavy heart beats, it finally goes in.
Off: Pavel recieves the ball around the three point line. He fakes a shoot and it seems he will try to penetrate, but he doesn't put the ball on the floor, opting to pass a teammate instead.
Def: Elmer Bennett penetrates and Pavel unnecessarily goes for the help defense, as his teammate Mccullough hasn't lost Bennett. Pavel's matchup Kambala is left wide open, recieves the ball and avoids Pavel's efforts to stop him.
Def: Bennett penetrates and Pavel can't get the block on the help. Does it sound familiar?
Def: Pavel earns his second foul trying to stop Fotsis in the low post with his hip. Obviously, the former NBA Greek player is way faster.
Def: Pavel grabs another rebound with some authority, although there wasn't too much competition for it.
That's it. Pavel leaves the court with 7:07 remaining in the second quarter and his team still up 19-14. Unfortunately for him and his team, Real Madrid gets the final victory by 62-57 and advances to the semifinals of the ULEB Cup.
As for Pavel, he has done a decent job. His team has outscored Real Madrid by 9 points with him on court. His presence has been felt mostly on the defensive end. It's really difficult to beat him one-on-one from the post, although he has problems rotating, especially when he's forced to leave the proximities of the rim. Other then that, his timing for blocks and rebounds needs some serious refining. His quickness and athleticism are quite good for a man his size, but he's clearly a notch below Yao. Offensively, his teammates still don't trust him and he has a world of work to do with his post up moves, as right now he prefers to shoot the jumper, but he moves decently without the ball and seems to have already been familiarized with the game. His attitude is good.
So, any conclusion? You probably guessed it: he's a very raw player. Potential? Yes, lots of it, but perhaps not as much as you might think. Not Yao-esque potential, that's for sure. But with the appropriate developement of his post up moves, enough playing time to improve his feel for the game and more maturity, he could be really dangerous in the League on both ends of the court. He's defitively worthy a lottery pick, although a top-3 might be just too much for him (but of course, this also depends on who is picking and the competition he faces in the draft).