An American Perspective on Europe: The Big Men (Part One)

An American Perspective on Europe: The Big Men (Part One)
Jun 25, 2006, 02:44 am
This year’s draft crop is, as we all know, the first ever without highschool players; but it’s also the first time that the 18 year old group of Europeans has been excluded as well. This is an underrated facet to the draft that undoubtedly has European clubs breathing a huge sigh of relief. Both the long and short term impact of this rule will bring more polished and experienced international players to the league as the “draft eligible” crop of players (1984 born Internationals this year) is expected to improve once the European well is replenished and order in the four year International draft cycle is finally fully restored.

In the meantime, we find a mixed bag as far as this year’s group of Internationals is concerned. Stars from all the top leagues in Europe are mixed in with largely unknowns featuring upsides (and downsides) that are perceived to be considerable. The cream of the crop as far as youth of the Euroleague, Adriatic League, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Israeli leagues are represented--and for the most part, the majority of these players share a significant role on their current team already, which will surely ease the transition to the NBA. Last year saw four international players drafted in the first round, and 13 total, and this year will be similar in terms of the quantity we’ll see.

In part one of our four part article about the top International prospects in this year’s draft, we’ll look at three power forwards who are projected in various spots in our mock draft. Andrea Bargnani is a name that has become well known to NBA draft fans everywhere over the past two years, and he carries the torch as far as European prospects in this draft are concerned. Joel Freeland was unknown to most NBA scouts up until two weeks ago, but he too might end up cracking the first round if the buzz from his latest batch of workouts is any indication. Vladimir Veremeenko is probably the one that NBA GMs heard first of any player on this list, but as is all too often the case, waiting too long to enter the draft has hurt him in the eyes of scouts when considering the lack of significant improvement he’s shown since he first emerged.

Andrea Bargnani, 7-1, Power Forward, 1985, Italy, Benetton Treviso


Jonathan Givony

The most intriguing European player to enter the draft since Pau Gasol in 2001, Andrea Bargnani’s credentials speak for themselves coming off playing a leading role in helping his team win the Italian League Championship just last week. The comparisons to virtually every other European player that’s entered the draft since Gasol in 2001 end here for that reason precisely, as he’s been through the fire repeatedly after playing a grueling NBA-type season with two or even three games a week in the most competitive and demanding environments a player his age can face outside the NBA.

For that reason alone Bargnani is an attractive prospect, being proven again and again to be one of the top talents in the world in his age group and having seen and experienced far more than any NCAA player in this draft. Watching him play, it’s impossible to deny what GMs see in him as far as his talent and mismatch potential goes. His combination of size and offensive skill is without parallel in this draft, and it’s not difficult at all to see where the Nowitzki comparisons come from.

Bargnani is a potential nightmare as far as defensive matchups go. Put an average 6-10 NBA power forward on him and he’ll pull him right away from the basket and attempt to blow by him with his excellent first step and ball-handling skills. Sag off him and knock down a 3-pointer right in your face. Bigger forwards will have their hands full once he reaches his full potential, as his footwork and ability to read angles and slither his way to the basket for a creative finish is both surprising and quite effective coming from a player his size.

What makes him even more difficult to defend is the fact that he can pull up fluidly from mid-range and knock down difficult shots even when off balance or fading away. His understanding of how to throw the ball in the basket is extraordinary at his age, as his smooth, slithery movement and the confidence he has in his offensive skill goes well with the cool and calm demeanor he brings to the floor.

The pick and pop should be a play his coach begins running from day one for him, as he understands how to move off the ball and has the size and shooting mechanics to get his shot off basically whenever he pleases. The fact that he averaged 44% from behind the arc on just under 4 attempts per game in the Italian league playoffs is no fluke. Get him a good point guard, run some offense for him, and he’ll knock down his shot with no hesitation more often than not if he can get his feet set.

Beyond his terrific offensive skill, there are other things to like about Bargnani’s potential. Defensively, he can deny angles to the basket due to his quick feet and excellent length. He’s quite an agile player, not explosive, but moves his feet well enough to get the job done.

All indications are that he’s a hardworker who is very much dedicated to achieving his goal of becoming an NBA star, which is the type of work ethic you’d expect from a player who was almost a complete unknown even in his home country three years ago. As mentioned, his court demeanor is excellent, as he’s a mature player who understands the game, executes well, plays under control and is relatively mistake free despite his age. People often mistake his calmness for a lack of intensity, but you must understand that chest-beating and trash talking isn’t the European way.

On the negative side, there are concerns about most of the other parts of his game beyond his offense. While he’s a smooth and fluid athlete, he most certainly is not an explosive one. He plays under the rim for the most part, and has fairly small hands, which combined make him a below average rebounder, particularly in traffic. He gets pushed around too often and doesn’t fight back as much as you’d perhaps like to see. It’s not rare to see bulky American big men back him down in the paint and score on him, without intense resistance coming from Bargnani’s direction. He is able to contain players on drives to the hoop, but not prevent when strength becomes a factor in static situations. In team defense situations, he is just average in terms of the awareness he shows. In both team and man to man defense, he can be quite foul prone, as he gets baited into using his hands and body excessively and therefore commits unnecessary fouls by players that are more experienced than him.

On the other end of the floor, he’s not really as much a focal part of Benetton’s offense as you would expect, and you have to sometimes wonder why. People will say that its his youth and that’s the way things are in Europe—which is true to a certain extent—but it’s tough to fathom that if his (quite forward thinking) coach thought giving him a bigger share of the team’s offense would give them a better chance of winning, he would refuse to because of tradition.

Too often we’d see Bargnani going through long stretches where he just disappears within the flow of the game, not trying to make his presence felt, and certainly not helping his team out that much in other aspects. When his shot is not falling, there are legitimate concerns about how much he will be able to contribute elsewhere. Becoming a better passer, rebounder, defender and post-scorer are all things that Bargnani needs to work on.

All in all, Bargnani’s success will mostly depend on the situation he lands in, and how well he can adapt himself to the American style of play. If he falls on a team with a great coach who understands his strengths and will know how to utilize him, he will blossom. If he doesn’t, people will once again decry the European hype machine, which is a shame considering just how talented he really is. People forget that Nowitzki landed in Dallas to play for one of the best offensive minds in basketball in Don Nelson, which set the stage for what is sure to be a hall of fame career. Where Bargnani lands will be of utmost importance; and his team will have to design a fair share of their offense around him to really let him maximize his full potential.

Joel Freeland, 6-11, Power Forward, 1987, England, Gran Canaria Fadesa

Luis Fernandez

Joel Freeland is this year’s international man of mystery. After enjoying little exposure playing in last year’s European Division B Junior Championship, a season in Gran Canaria Fadesa of the Spanish fourth division and the second division of the U-20 Circuit, he surprised everyone in Treviso by showcasing his excellent potential.

Freeland is an athletic big man, extremely quick and highly coordinated. Although he’s a bit too skinny right now and has a tendency to get pushed around, he enjoys an excellent frame to put the necessary weight on to make a living in the NBA.

Freeland has reportedly only been playing basketball for three years, but the game comes natural to him. He’s not a polished player, but he does a little bit of everything. Shooting is the department that he looks to be strongest at right now. He shows good mechanics and a quick release, enjoying range out to the international three-point line and already some nice accuracy, even being able to knock it down off the dribble. Indeed Joel can put the ball on the floor rather easily, although he rarely faces and attacks his matchup from the perimeter using his ball-handling skills. He’s more of a post guy when it comes to playing one on one, regardless of the fact that his movements down low are still pretty limited. However, given his excellent coordination and footspeed, he should be able to develop a very nice post game if he works hard enough.

Defensively he’s just as promising. He’s a smart and an intense player, which helps quite a bit. Joel shows good positioning and lateral quickness, and battles to keep his position in the low post. Not a bad rebounder at all, perhaps he could use a little extra effort in terms of boxing out.

At this point, Freeland is mostly about potential, but it’s highly realizable potential. He seems to have everything in place to become a very useful player: the physical foundations to end up with an NBA body; a raw, but wide skill set that will only get better thanks to his learning curve and excellent coordination, and the right hard-working attitude to be effective on the basketball court. He projects as a late first to early 2nd round pick.

*Yes we cheated, and yes this is called an American perspecitve on Europe. But unfortunately the only one who has seen Freeland play from DraftExpress is a European.

Vladimir Veremeenko, 6-10, Power Forward, 1984, Belarus, Dynamo St. Petersburg


Jonathan Givony

While Freeland was bagging groceries three years ago and Bargnani was toiling somewhere in the fourth division in Italy, Vladimir Veremeenko was already playing at one of the highest levels in Europe with Avtodor Saratov in the extremely competitive Russian league, where he averaged a Bargnani-esqe 11.3 points and 6 rebounds per game at age 19.

The progression we’ll see from Freeland and Bargnani will hopefully be more dramatic, as three years later, he is averaging 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Statistics never tell the entire story and Veremeenko is certainly playing for a much stronger Russian team, but this is emblematic of the lack of incredible improvement we’ve seen from Veremeenko over the past few years.

Whether he is a great NBA prospect is certainly a matter of debate, but no one can deny the fact that Veremeenko is definitely an excellent basketball player. His skill level is extremely high and his talent is evident in the intelligence he shows in putting the ball in the hoop. He is a very good ball-handler and has a nice first step, which he uses consistently to create mismatches out on the perimeter and blow by his man. Veremeenko gets to the free throw line at an excellent rate, which comes from a combination of attacking the basket off the dribble and using his size inside to his advantage, mainly in the form of pivot moves and turnaround jumpers. Veremeenko is more of a mid-range shooter than a 3-point shooter, possessing a very quick, but low release reminiscent to a certain extent of Shawn Marion. He moves off the ball well, passes unselfishly and generally understands how to maximize himself as a bit of a freelancer offensively.

Veremeenko might not be quite the 6-10 he’s listed at, and he lacks a bit of length on top of that. His athleticism is good, but certainly not great, and there are some concerns about how exactly his game translates over to the NBA, along with how much he’ll continue to improve in the future. In Europe he is a mismatch with his ability to take players outside and also do damage in the mid-high post, but in the NBA he might not quite be big or quick enough to translate those same skills to consistent scoring. There are concerns about his unorthodox shooting mechanics, which hampers him from getting a consistent release point on his shot, and is evident in his unimpressive production from behind the FIBA arc. Defensively, he lacks the lateral quickness to stay in front of most players, getting by mostly on his smarts rather than on his physical attributes.

With the small-ball direction that many teams are headed in, Veremeenko could find himself a spot as a face the basket power forward in the NBA down the road. He will have to improve his accuracy from behind the NBA 3-point line, though, as well as become a more capable man to man defender. He is a prime candidate to draft somewhere in the 2nd round and stash overseas for a few more years, hoping he develops a go-to skill that an NBA team can rely on when they bring him off the bench. Right now there isn’t quite one thing for him to hang his hat on.

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