Blogging through the Copa del Rey (Part Three)

Blogging through the Copa del Rey (Part Three)
Feb 26, 2009, 07:17 pm
There were a number of high-level players at the Copa del Rey whose rights are held by the NBA teams that drafted them in years past. We update the status of Tiago Splitter, Fran Vazquez, Ersan Ilyasova, Joel Freeland and others in this article.

DraftExpress NBA Rights Held Rankings

Tiago Splitter, 7-0, PF/C, Tau Vitoria, 1985
#2 on NBA Rights Held Rankings

Tiago Splitter (the longest player profile in DraftExpress history, at over 16,000 words and counting) continues to improve his game year by year, clearly emerging as one of the best players in European basketball this season, and maybe the top center around. His production is pretty astounding, ranking 3rd and 4th in PER in the Euroleague and ACB respectively, 8th in scoring in both categories, and amongst the league leaders in blocks, steals, free throw attempts and shooting percentage.

Offensively, Splitter continues to evolve his game, emerging as a real force for Tau Vitoria, to the tune of 16 points per game, on phenomenal percentages. He shoulders a big offensive load for them, and it’s clear that that’s something that is important for him in the way you see him calling for the ball on the left block. Splitter is primarily a low post player, showing an excellent assortment of footwork and spin-moves with his back to the basket, and a very effective jump-hook he can shoot with either hand. He is a little bit old school in that aspect, really putting pressure on his defender to hold his ground as he backs him down aggressively, which draws him quite a few fouls.

Splitter is extremely aggressive putting the ball on the floor and creating, showing excellent coordination and fluidity, and emerging as a terrific finisher thanks to his great hands and touch. He’s not incredibly explosive around the basket, which may emerge as more of an issue in the NBA (if and when), but with his excellent skill-level and high basketball IQ, he’s about as effective a low-post scorer as you’ll find at the European level. On top of that, he manages to find plenty of scoring opportunities with his ability to run the floor, play pick and roll with the likes of Pablo Prigioni and Igor Rakocevic, and just find open spots around the basket to catch and finish.

Splitter is finally becoming a more consistent free throw shooter, now making about 66% of his attempts—nearly 10 per-40 minutes pace adjusted. He’s not really showing any kind of mid-range jumper, but probably doesn’t really have to for Tau considering that he’s shooting over 64% from the field.

Still not a great rebounder, Splitter has become even less prolific in this department on the offensive end this year, which is a relative concern and probably his biggest weakness. He is showing much better awareness in his ability to pass the ball, though, sporting an impressive 1/1 assist to turnover ratio for the first time in his career.

Defensively, Splitter is obviously a huge asset as we’ve discussed many times, as he has the size, strength and length to be very effective in the low post, but is coordinated and mobile enough to step out and hedge screens with great accuracy. The intensity he displays on this end of the floor tends to get him in foul trouble at times, but this is something that his coach will obviously live with. Splitter is seeing better productivity in the shot-blocking department than in years past, particularly in the Euroleague, where he currently ranks second in blocks per game.

Obviously a high-level rotation player and likely starter whenever he decides to step foot in the NBA, Splitter has a very difficult decision coming up when his current contract expires in the summer of 2010. The paltry $836,000 he’s slotted to earn from the Spurs on the very cumbersome first round rookie scale can’t compete with the 2.3 million dollars net he currently earns, meaning he’d have to take something in the neighborhood of a 75% paycut for the honor of playing in the NBA.

Talking to Splitter after the final, he seemed non-committal at best when the topic was broached, although it’s pretty clear that he would love to play in the NBA. “Right now it’s the middle of the season and I’m only thinking about Tau. The Spurs have some good players and we’ll have to see what happens.” In response to my question about whether his slot on the Rookie scale might impact his decision, Splitter obviously didn’t seem too happy with his predicament, jokingly asking me if I could “talk to David Stern about that.” He reiterated that “it’s a dream to play in the NBA,” stating “I’m still young, and for sure I want to play there”, but said that “we’ll see what happens when my contract is up in two years.”

Fran Vazquez, 6-11, Center, Barcelona, 1983
#5 on NBA Rights Held Rankings

One of the revelations of this year’s ACB season has been the sudden revival of Barcelona big man Fran Vazquez. Already left for dead after struggling to get off the bench last season playing for the very strict and demanding Dusko Ivanovic (now in Tau), Vazquez has taken full advantage of the opportunity presented to him by new head coach Xavi Pascual, emerging as one of the most productive rebounders, shot-blockers and finishers in European basketball. He ranks #1 in both in the Euroleague and ACB in blocked shots per-40 pace adjusted, 4th in the ACB in rebounding, and 1st in the ACB in FG%. Physically, he looks better and his confidence seems to be way up.

Coach Pascual has done an excellent job simplifying the game for the physically gifted, but not terribly skilled or smart big man. His role is essentially to run from rim to rim and back, maximizing his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses. Almost all of Vazquez’s shots come in the immediate area of the paint, where he is an awesome finisher thanks to his freakish length and athleticism. He makes an incredible 82% of his attempts around the basket according to Synergy Sports Technology, and is a constant target for lobs and simple drop-offs from his very generous teammates.

Vazquez gets to the line at a decent rate, and shoots a solid 75% once there (69/92 this season). He has a very nice looking stroke from mid-range, but hardly if ever gets a chance to show it, as he usually plays alongside the perimeter oriented David Andersen on a team that has quite a few players with quick triggers. Inside the post, Vazquez is pretty limited with his back to the basket, showing insufficient strength, poor footwork and a pretty average feel for the game, not being particularly fluid or graceful when forced to create his own offense. Not much of a passer, Vazquez regardless knows how to stick to his strengths and doesn’t seem to be very turnover prone these days.

Speaking of strengths, Vazquez has really embraced his role as defensive stopper this year, showing terrific activity level on this end of the floor. As mentioned, per-minute he ranks as the #1 shot-blocker in both the Euroleague and ACB, and his impact extends beyond the paint, as he’s able to accurately hedge pick and rolls and even stay in front of opposing guards. As a post-defender, Vazquez is not quite as effective, as he lacks the strength to hold his ground against the bigger and burlier big men he’ll go up against at times, and also some awareness not biting on fakes on such, as he’s not the smartest guy you’ll find around. Still, his combination of size, length and athleticism makes him quite a presence on this side of the floor, and would also make him a valuable asset in the NBA. Not particularly known for his mental toughness, and never considered much of a self-starter, he’s done a better job staying focused and motivated this season, even when things aren’t going his way.

Even though his development was stunted somewhat as he struggled to live up to expectations since being drafted back in 2005, Vazquez seems to be back on the right track and is clearly having the best season of his professional career. Still only 25 years old, Vazquez is very clearly an NBA caliber rotation player, and relative to his price would be an excellent addition for the Orlando Magic if they were somehow able to bring him over.

Vazquez has just one more year on his contract after this, and considering his salary slot on the NBA’s rookie scale as the #11 draft pick—nearly two million dollars—could still be a realistic target if Orlando (or any team that trades for his draft rights) were able to bring him over. Talking to his NBA agent Marc Cornstein about that, he thinks that from the Magic's perspective "the door has always been open for him if he wants to play in the NBA," although he pointed out that he has not discussed that matter recently with them. "With Fran it's always been more a matter of desire rather than money."

Joel Freeland, 6-11, Center, Kalise Gran Canaria, 1987
#8 on NBA Rights Held Rankings

Joel Freeland’s (#7 on rights held ranking) scouting report was just updated back in November, and there isn’t a great deal to add to that besides saying that he’s continued to play well. He’s playing solid minutes in the ACB and continues to score efficiently and pull down plenty of rebounds, particularly on the offensive end. The fact that he ranks 6th in the league in PER while being amongst the league leaders in a host of other categories is obviously no joke considering that he just turned 22.

In the one game we saw in Madrid he did a good job putting his athleticism on display, going after rebounds on both ends, chasing blocks and generally being very active. Offensively, he looked somewhat tentative, not being much of a presence for Gran Canaria, which is not a huge surprise considering his limitations on this end of the floor. He’s mostly a finisher at this point (albeit a very good one at that) and seems to struggle when asked to do much more than that, as he lacks great footwork or much range on his jumper. He’s also somewhat foul prone and clearly not very experienced, averaging a high amount of turnovers relative to his role.

Although it’s pretty clear that that Freeland is not ready to contribute in the NBA, it seems like this summer will be the time for Portland to bring him over if they indeed intend on getting him in a Blazers uniform. He has an NBA escape clause and is drawing major interest around Europe from some of the top teams around, for example Real Madrid, Barcelona and Fortitudo Bologna, who all appear to have interest. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Gran Canaria decide to cash in and sell his rights at some point, which would likely make Freeland’s spot on the NBA rookie scale (around $800k gross) look paltry relative to the new contract he’d receive.

Ersan Ilyasova, 6-9, Power Forward, FC Barcelona, 1987
#8 on NBA Rights Held Rankings

Following up on our last entry to Ilyasova’s profile back in November, the 21 year old Turkish forward continues to have an excellent season for FC Barcelona and is clearly one of the more intriguing young players in Europe. He’s no longer draft eligible, as his rights are held by the Bucks, and probably is older than his 1987-listed date of birth, but is still a player teams should keep an eye on thanks to his nice physical profile and strong production at the highest level of Europe.

Ilyasova is playing the power forward position almost exclusively for Barcelona, where he stands out primarily for his ability to space the floor and his terrific rebounding skills. Super long, athletic and very quick off his feet, Ilyasova has emerged as one of the best rebounders in European basketball these days, ranking #1 in both the ACB and the Euroleague.

Offensively, he’s a clear-cut role-player, being asked to function mostly as a spot-up shooter, offensive rebounder, transition player, and off-ball finisher on cuts and pick and roll plays. His limitations are pretty clear, as his ball-handling skills are average, he does not possess any type of post-up game, he rarely gets to the line, is not much of a passer, and is somewhat turnover prone. Ilyasova does not really stand out with his feel for the game, but he can be a very useful player when put in the right role. Barcelona likes his ability to open up the paint for their big men and slashers, and he’s really developed into a terrific 3-point shooter, to the tune of 46/104 or 44% on the season. He can make shots spotting up or off the dribble, showing unusual shooting mechanics (kicking his right leg out violently on every attempt) but seeing terrific results from all over the floor.

Defensively, Ilyasova can be useful thanks to his nice combination of size, length and athleticism. He does a good job contesting shots on the perimeter, but is not very quick laterally and is prone to getting pushed around in the post by stronger power forwards. He looks much better suited to play as a modern PF than as a true SF (in the NBA or not) and players in his mold seem to be en vogue.

It’s funny that we compared him to a European version of Rashard Lewis at best, or Bostjan Nachbar at worst back when we wrote up his initial profile four years ago. That’s a very accurate way of describing his strengths and weaknesses, although he’s probably a better rebounder than those two.

Ilyasova might not be in a huge rush to return to the NBA anytime soon, but he would likely fare far better now that his game has developed. He probably still has more room to improve down the road, so it’s possible that the Bucks may end up seeing some value out of holding his draft rights. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, so other teams can bid for his services as well. If he's really only 21 years old, he likely still has quite a bit of upside left to continue to improve.


-David Andersen (#11 on rights held ranking) decided to leave CSKA Moscow for the much more comfortable living standards of Barcelona, and is playing similarly to when we last wrote about him. The Atlanta Hawks decided to change management right when Andersen’s contract expired last summer, and he in turn signed a three year contract with Barcelona for 2 million Euro per season. That might close the book on his NBA chances.

-Juan Carlos Navarro (#10 on rights held ranking) had an outstanding first game against Real Madrid and then an average second one against Tau. He’s a clear-cut NBA rotation player, but after his experience last year with the lowly Grizzlies—losing more games in one season than he likely did in the previous five years combined—it’s questionable whether we’ll see him in the League again. He signed a 5-year contract for 12.5 million Euro this summer with Barcelona, so it would be very difficult to envision an NBA team being able to compete financially, even if he were somehow able to get out of his deal.

-Axel Hervelle (#22 on rights held ranking) may be the one affected most by the signings of American combo forwards Jeremiah Massey and Quinton Hosley, as they play essentially the same position of him. The scrappy Belgian is having a far worse season than last year, seeing his efficiency numbers drop dramatically, as both his 2-point and 3-point percentages are down by around 10%. He’s also rebounding much worse and turning the ball over much more, making him quite a bit less interesting for the NBA than in the past. Considering the tightrope act Denver is walking with the luxury tax, it seems highly unlikely that we’ll see him coming over anytime soon. He signed a three year contract this past summer regardless, for over a million Euro per year.

Stanko Barac (#25 on rights held ranking) saw little to no playing time in the three Tau Vitoria games we got to take in at the Copa del Rey. His minutes are down from last year (12 per game in the ACB) and his FG% is very low at just 41%, as his jump-shot doesn't seem to be falling for him quite as well this season and he lacks the strength to operate effectively with his back to the basket. He is rebounding at a good rate, but his extremely high rate of fouls might make it difficult for him to stay on the floor even if he weren't stuck behind the likes of Tiago Splitter, Will McDonald, Mirza Teletovic and at times Pete Mickael when he moves to the PF position. He's playing slightly better in the Euroleague. Barac is likely a more skilled player than he's able to show at the moment, but considering his lack of athleticism and production in high-level Europe he'd have to show something special in summer league to earn a roster spot with the team that drafted him, the Indiana Pacers.

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