Blogging through Europe (Part Four: Italy)

Blogging through Europe (Part Four: Italy)
Dec 03, 2007, 11:02 am
A quick one hour train ride through the Northern part of Italy took me to the feet of the Swiss Alps, to the small town of Biella, home to one of the best rags to riches basketball stories in all of European basketball. Here we got to check our second game in four days of Danilo Gallinari, as well as witness a breakout performance of a young 6-9 Swedish forward by the name of Jonas Jerebko.

Angelico Biella: the Launching Pad of Europe

This is a wonderful story that probably deserves more than the few paragraphs we can devote to the topic in this blog. We’re talking about a former 5th division team from a small town in Northern Italy that has embraced basketball and risen to the top of the standings of the Italian first division, using a minuscule budget (amongst the smallest in the league) compared to the competition, but superior knowledge of the American market. This pursuit of excellence was started by now-Benetton Treviso GM Marco Atripaldi, and is now continued by a 33-year old former journalist by the name of Daniele Baiesi, the current GM here described by some as “the Italian Sam Presti.” He is joined by an equally unique personality as his head coach, 37 year-old Luca Bechi, only in his second year leading a team, but praised unanimously by his players for his insistence on letting his players play the game the way they feel comfortable.

Biella has become known amongst scouts and player agents as the “launching pad of Europe,” largely because of the outstanding lineage of excellent American players who have gone through the ranks here, usually blossoming in the process and landing bigger contracts with bigger teams the following season.

That lineage include players such as Thabo Sefolosha, Reece Gaines, Mario Austin, Erik Daniels, Antonio Granger, Joseph Blair, Kyle Hill, Taquan Dean, Joe Smith, Corey Brewer, Norman Nolan, Brook Sayles, Cookie Belcher, Jamel Thomas, Jacob Jaaks, Malik Dixon, J.R. Bremer, and many others.

This year’s crop of American players (one of the best they’ve ever had) includes former NBA castaways Troy Bell and Brandon Hunter, as well as two of the top players in the D-League last year—B.J. Elder and Kevinn Pinkney. Following their win over Armani Jeans Milano, they clinched sole possession of third place in the Italian A1. Not bad for a team whose entire starting five makes considerably less than a single player of some teams in Italy. These players know their history, though…if the past few years are any indication, they’ll have an excellent season with Biella, and then move onto a bigger club in Italy and triple their salary in the process.

Biella Beats Milano

With starting PF/C Brandon Hunter out with an ankle injury, and French point guard prospect Carl Ona-Embo on the sidelines as well, Biella came into this game shorthanded as it is. Kevinn Pinkney picking up two quick fouls looked like an early recipe for disaster, but Biella’s Italian players came off the bench determined to show that this team should be known for more than their American scouting.

They held down the fort nicely (Coach Bechi even threw out an unprecedented all-Italian lineup at one point), aided by a near-one man show performance by Jerry West’s former #16 pick Troy Bell, who was absolutely on fire.

Bell has finally landed in the right situation as far as his strengths as a player are concerned. He’s playing the point, allowed to do virtually anything that he wants offensively, given the utmost freedom to push the ball up the floor, break off from plays in the half-court, and take basically any shot he pleases off the dribble. It’s working out extremely well for both parties so far this season, even if it’s clear to all that he overdoes things at times. He’s the captain of the team. Former Georgia Tech swingman B.J. Elder looks like the engine that makes them go, though, showing a complete game made up of under control forays into the paint, pull-up jumpers and floaters, accurate 3-point shooting, smart passes, strong defense, patient play, and outstanding leadership.

Biella jumped out to a big lead early on and held on at the end to come away with a huge victory that puts them in prime position to secure a spot in the Italian Final Eight, a cup reserved for the top eight teams in the league midway through the season. The backdrop to all this was an absolute box of a gym packed to the brim with about 5,000 screaming locals who adore their team and serenade them at all times with personalized songs. The atmosphere in the gym was absolutely electric the entire way through, and clearly plays a huge role in the success this small team has had over the years.

My Name is Jonas

It was just our luck that we got to witness the breakout performance of 6-9 Swedish forward Jonas Jerebko. The 1987-born player has been starting consistently over the past few weeks at the small forward position, but has usually played strictly in the 1st quarter, between 6-8 minutes per contest.

Slowly but surely improving from game to game, Jerebko was able to play 23 minutes this time around, scoring 12 important points (4/6 FG) and grabbing 10 rebounds. He outplayed the more heralded Danilo Gallinari in the matchup of small forward NBA draft prospects, and surely gained a great deal of both confidence and notoriety around Europe in the process. Besides us, also here in attendance to scout him were the Houston Rockets (Sam Hinkie and Gianluca Pascucci), who were actually the first NBA team to come watch him practice this season, as well as the Seattle Supersonics (Massimo Biasin) and the Milwaukee Bucks (Scott Roth).

Jerebko is a 6-9, but physically underdeveloped combo forward who is still coming into his own as a basketball player. An excellent athlete for a European prospect, Jerebko is defined first and foremost by the energy and activity level he brings to the floor, translating into 10 rebounds in this particular game. Both in practice and in the game you could notice the fact that he was constantly around the ball, getting his hands on offensive rebounds and trying to make a difference in the passing lanes. Jerebko has long arms and a decent frame that should fill out decently over the next few years. He is immature physically even for his age group, and it’s not hard to tell his youth on first glance.

The son of an American basketball player of Russian heritage who moved to Sweden to play and later coach (and married a Swedish woman), Jerebko has received some attention already early on in his career. He was offered a contract by Real Madrid before Biella came into the picture, and also had some thoughts of playing college basketball—being recruited by prestigious programs such as Syracuse, Boston College and West Virginia. After an excellent showing in the U-20 Division B European Championships this past summer in Poland, he was offered a three year contract by Biella. He’ll become automatically eligible for the draft in 2009, and if he continues to make progress off what he showed us this past weekend, could receive some consideration to be drafted potentially.

Jerebko is a player who does many things well at the moment, but nothing outstanding yet. His perimeter shot has improved since arriving in Biella, showing good touch and nice (flat-footed) mechanics, although a fairly slow release. He hit the only 3-pointer he attempted in the first quarter, and shot the ball pretty well in practice the day before. Athletic enough to get to the basket using a screen or off one or two short dribbles going either direction, Jerebko’s ball-handling and shot-creating skills could still use work in order to be considered a full-time small forward. He has a high basketball IQ, and this shows in the way he passes the ball and generally conducts himself out on the floor—looking pretty focused for a player with such limited high level European experience. Defensively, he lacks strength in both the lower and upper body—meaning he can’t be considered a great perimeter defender, nor could he avoid being posted up in the game by players such as Danilo Gallinari or Travis Watson.

All in all, Jerebko is an excellent situation to continue to develop as a basketball prospect, and is someone that teams should take note of because of the intriguing tools, talent and upside he brings to the table. Right now he’s taking his first steps in professional basketball, and is just starting to gain the confidence of his coaching staff to be thrown out on the floor in such a demanding environment. He’s making good progress and fairly quickly as well, to it will be interesting to see how he continues to develop.

The Good and the Bad of Danilo Gallinari

Whereas the expectations from Jonas Jerebko were slim to none coming into this game, his younger counterpart born in 1988 Danilo Gallinari is already carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The scrutiny coming from the fans, scouts and media has been intense to say the very least, and we were able to witness both sides of the spectrum from watching him twice in the Euroleague and Italian League in just four days.

There is no doubt first of all that Gallinari is already his team’s best and most important player. When he’s involved in the offense and showing his versatility, everything flows much better. The problem is that that isn’t always the case, and besides a few Isolation plays at the top of the key, Gallinari was basically forced to go out and find his own offense within Milano’s disorganized half-court sets, which probably isn’t the ideal situation considering the type of player he is.

Let’s first start with the good things he showed…starting with his 3-point stroke. Gallinari is getting closer and closer to being considered a light’s out shooter, as you can see the way he releases the ball from many different situations (off the dribble, fading away, spotting up, coming off screens) that his potential here is absolutely immense. His stroke is pure, blessed with picture perfect mechanics and beautiful arch and rotation, and he’s become increasingly confident in it, indeed knocking down 3 of 6 shots from behind the arc in the Euroleague game on Thursday against Maccabi. He’s also Milano’s designated technical free throw shooter, which tells you a little bit about how highly his coach thinks of his 19-year old prodigy.

Creating his own shot off the dribble, Gallinari looked pretty spectacular, using a dizzying array of head and body fakes to get his man off balance, and awesome ball-handling skills crossing his man over from left to right or right to left with excellent body control getting in the lane. He did so on a number of occasions, first going left, then right, and even finishing through contact for the And-1, adjusting his body in the air and switching hands to avoid the defender. His first step isn’t what you could call explosive, but he’s such a smart and skilled player that it almost doesn’t matter at this level. We should note that the length of 6-9 Jonas Jerebko did seem to give him some problems in the Biella game, though.

Gallinari is used as his team’s de-facto point guard at times, bringing the ball up the floor and getting them into their offense. We saw this on at least a half dozen occasions, and he appeared to have no problem whatsoever doing so. He’s a very unselfish player, never forcing the issue, communicating well with his teammates, and already appearing to have their trust. At times you got the feel that his team even needed more out of him than he was able to provide, as he lacked a bit of aggressiveness looking for the ball in key moments that Milano just could not find a way to put the ball in the basket. He had opportunities to take his man down to the post in both games and take advantage of his superior size at the small forward position, but still lacks some refined post moves and maybe a bit of toughness to get the job done down low.

Defensively, Gallinari did not appear to be as effective as we remembered him being last year. He looked to be showing a bit more fire on this end of the floor previously, fighting through screens, being passionate about staying in front of his man, hitting the glass, etc. This might be a product of the much increased offensive role he has on the team (one player simply can’t do everything and still remain effective), or it might be related to the fact that he’s just returning from an injury. Regardless, his lateral quickness and the effectiveness he shows being able to guard wing players will play a huge role in the way he’s evaluated by NBA teams, so this is something we’ll continue to keep a close on as the year moves on.

We’ll have one last chance to watch Gallinari in person next week, in a dream Euroleague matchup on Thursday against Nicolas Batum and Le Mans. We’ll be back with another report after that.

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