Blogging Through Europe 2008 (Part One: Belgium)

Blogging Through Europe 2008 (Part One: Belgium)
Nov 26, 2008, 07:08 pm
To celebrate my annual trek through Europe, expect to read about my travels over the next three weeks through places like Belgium, France, Russia and Spain. I’ll be watching Euroleague, EuroCup and Domestic league games, taking in known prospects and trying to find new ones, meeting up with business associates and others in the basketball industry, and logging some of my less offensive thoughts along the way. My first stop was to the defending Belgian league champions, Spirou Charleroi, as they hosted historic Serbian club Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) of Belgrade, in the opening night of EuroCup (formerly ULEB Cup) play.

Quickly jotting down the list of reasons I decided to start here, and how things turned out:

-Important to note for purposes of full disclosure is that Spriou Charleroi pays for my scouting services, like some of the other teams I will be visiting in this trip.

-A number of NBA draft prospects were slated to be playing here, especially Marko Keselj and Elmedin Kikanovic, not a surprise considering that Red Star sports no less than 6 players on their 12-man roster who are age 22 or younger.

Keselj was unfortunately out with a stomach virus, but we did get to see Kikanovic see a decent amount of playing time in not a particularly noteworthy performance. Luck would have it though that we would be able to take in a short glimpse at what might be an intriguing prospect for down the road, Serbian Nemanja Bjelica. Surprisingly never having played for any of the various Serbian national teams, Bjelica is having somewhat of a breakout season, seeing solid playing time at a very high level of competition, in basically his first season of professional basketball.

Despite standing 6-10, Bjelica saw some minutes as a defacto point forward, being asked to bring the ball up the floor and get his team into their offense in this all-important road game in a fairly hostile environment. That should tell you a little bit about the confidence that Pesic has in this kid, and he couldn’t help but smile when asked about him afterwards in the press conference, noting that he is indeed a very intriguing prospect, while taking the politically correct approach to saying that they have many nice youngsters they are developing. He did throw out the obligatory Toni Kukoc comparison, which we heard from other sources as well.

Bjelica is a very long and skinny wing player, reasonably athletic, with a solid, yet underdeveloped frame, looking quite comfortable putting the ball on the floor with solid ball-handling skills and a nice first step, and even going into the paint to post up his matchup on one occasion. His decision making skills seemed a bit too erratic to fully trust at this level, and he was quickly benched after just a few minutes out on the floor. Defensively he has the length and footwork needed to compete on the perimeter, even if there is obviously work for him to do on this end of the floor. Still, he’s a guy to keep under the radar for now to see how he develops. He did show a very nice stroke from beyond the arc in warmups.

Already drafted Tadija Dragicevic (taken by Utah in the second round last year) was here as well for Red Star

Utah Fans would probably be disappointed by his performance, as he ended up shooting 1/9 from the field, while turning the ball over four times, but managing to draw quite a few fouls and get some points at the free throw line, in what ended up being quite a forgettable night. Dragicevic is sporting a big brace on his knee these days, having just returned from injury, and therefore appearing to be even slower and less athletic than we recalled him being, and looking clearly out of sync. He forced the issue quite a bit, turning the ball over and not being able to connect on his perimeter jumper.

-The matchup of coaches might have been just as fascinating as the players. On one end we found Croatian Drazen Anzulovic, considered one of the more promising young minds in the business (already with Euroleague and Russian league head coaching experience under his belt at age 41 from stops with Cibona Zagreb and Ural Great), pitted against his former coach, Serbian Svetislav Pesic, a grizzled veteran with an impressive resume, including a world championship won with the Serbian National team (Indianapolis, 2002), and European championships with both Serbia (2001) and Germany (1993). His domestic league resume features decorated stops in places like Barcelona, Rome, Alba Berlin, Dynamo Moscow and others.

Anzulovic, rumored to have the inside track on coaching the Croatian national team starting this upcoming summer, sports a 29-3 record for Charleroi since taking over the team last February. His home country of Croatia appears to be on a serious upswing as of late, having qualified for the Olympics through the “last chance” tournament in Athens and then putting in a very respectable performance which saw them lose to Spain in the quarter finals, with him as the assistant coach under Lottomatica Rome’s Jasmin Repesa. Cibona Zagreb looks like the darlings of the Euroleague early on, A number of spanking new arenas have been built (in Zadar, Cibona, Split) while more are being built, and it seems like things are finally starting to look up for this very important basketball country which has underachieved badly as of late.

Anzulovic and his very well respected assistant Dario Gjergia are a very intense duo, about as animated as you’ll find on the sidelines.

-This was not only a high quality matchup—pitting two teams ranked first and sporting just one loss each in domestic competition thus far , but it was a very important one for both sides as well.

The entire program in Charleroi is under an immense amount of pressure to make a deep run in the EuroCup this season, after failing to get out of the group stage last year with former coach Eddie Casteels at the helm. The nerves were felt from the moment you entered the gym in the morning for shootaround. Coach Anzulovic acknowledged in the press conference that this was felt in his lockerroom as well, and definitely contributed to the team’s poor start.

There is some talk the team will be given an opportunity to qualify for the Euroleague next season, as it sits in a very important part of Western Europe that remains very much untapped by ULEB, despite showing great potential. Charleroi is one of the few big clubs in Europe that is actually able to turn a profit (thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals with companies like Coke, Belagcom, CPH Bank, Vittel Water and many others), and they have one of the better arenas you’ll find in this area, a cozy, impressive little dome (which seats 6,000) with NBA style luxury suites, resteraunt and lounge, and without a single bad seat to be found (fellow journalists would be happy to hear that their press section is right above the scorer’s table and is simply the best seating in the house). The noise from the fans was very impressive tonight, creating a very unique atmosphere that leaves a lot of room for optimism regarding the future.

For some reason many of their chants (“Defense!” or “Let’s go Spirou, let’s go!”) are in English, a bit odd considering that the crowd is almost entirely French speaking. There was also some kind of clown walking around aimlessly in the building, which was a bit odd to say the very least.

Charleroi ended up coming away with the win, 71-65, in a real nailbiter

I was just happy to get out of there 1) with a win (last year they lost to Girona with me in attendance), and 2) having somehow avoided being kissed on the cheek by a member of the same sex all day long.

The unlikely hero was American Len Matela, a lumbering big man and product of Bowling Green University with a terrific attitude and an even better stroke from beyond the arc. Matela drilled three 3-pointers and finished with 17 points in 26 minutes, which helped compensate for the foul trouble suffered by star defensive players Justin Hamilton and Andre Riddick. Point guard Jerry Johnson was terrific as well, showing an extra gear and shiftiness that made him nearly impossible to stay in front of, chipping in 12 points and 6 assists, while Matt Walsh came up with some big shots from beyond the arc and the charity stripe to seal the victory, finishing with 13 points in 20 minutes.

Ex-NBAer Andre Owens was likely the most important player on Red Star. He showed a great first step and a much improved jumper from beyond the arc (knocking down 3 of his 6 attempts), looking extremely intense on defense and very focused and under control on offense. He ran into the buzzsaw known as Justin Hamilton (arguably the best defensive guard in Europe) in extended stretches, which definitely cooled him off, but made some clutch shots in the 3rd and 4th quarter and ended up having a very nice game. His value to Coach Pesic becomes incredibly evident when you look down at the boxscore and realize that he didn’t even manage to get him four minutes of rest in this game. The people in Red Star say very good things about him, and it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see him in a much bigger European club next season:

Definitely a fun night, and certainly a great way to kick off a three week trip through Europe.

Next up: Josh Childress and Olympiacos visit Le Mans

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