Starting on Monday, 16 teams will meet in various locations across Poland to compete in EuroBasket 2009, which is known unofficially as the European championships. Plenty is riding on the outcome, including pride, bragging rights and bids for the World Championships in Turkey in 2010. Just to give you a sense of how important that is, most countries, aside from the United States, consider the Worlds to be the most prestigious international tournament, more so than the Olympics. With six bids riding on the results of EuroBasket, you can be sure every team, even those with little chance of winning the tournament outright this time around, are going to play hard the whole way through.
The quality of basketball in Europe is improving every year, with almost every EuroBasket roster claiming at least one current NBA player. The Portland Trail Blazers have two players, Rudy Fernandez of Spain and Nicolas Batum of France under contract and two players, Joel Freeland of the United Kingdom and Victor Claver or Spain, whose rights are owned by the team who are participating in EuroBasket, so from a Portland fan perspective it’s definitely worth taking a more detailed look at the tournament.
Role With It
It’s always interesting to see how an individual’s play differs depending on what team he’s on. A role player in the NBA could very well be the best player on his national team, and while it’s not necessarily the norm, a high-level NBA player might not put up big numbers for his national team due to any number of reasons. This change of persona can give the international game a bit of added intrigue, especially if you’re a Trail Blazers fan.
Rudy Fernandez, who in his first NBA season showed a tremendous ability to score from the perimeter, is one of the leaders on the Spanish national team, a holdover from the 2006 team that won gold at the last FIBA World Championship in Japan and the 2008 silver medal Olympic team. He’s used primarily by Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan as a scorer off the bench behind Brandon Roy, but under Spanish national team coach Sergio Scariolo, Fernandez is one of the first options. Between the ’06 Worlds and the ’08 Olympics, Fernandez bumped his averages in scoring (9.1 ppg to 13.1 ppg), rebounding (2.3 rpg to 3.5 rpg) and assists (0.9 apg to 2.1 apg), and a similar statistical jump could be expected in the upcoming Euros.
“Rudy will be a focal point offensively for Spain and you will see the ball in his hands a lot, especially since Calderon is not playing and if Pau is not 100% healthy yet,” said Chad Buchanan, Trail Blazers Director of College Scouting. “I think you will see Rudy looking to score the ball a little more than he does for us.”
For Nicolas Batum, the distinction between his role on the Trail Blazers and the French national team isn’t as distinct. He starts at small forward for both teams and should be considered one of the best defenders on either squad, but according to Buchanan, he does take on more of the scoring load when he’s playing with Les Bleus.
“Nicolas has made great strides this off-season and his role on French team is a little different than what you see from him for us,” said Buchanan. “Tony Parker is obviously the focal point of the French team and he is the primary decision maker the majority of the time, but you will see the team run some plays for Nic to put him in position to go score the ball. He plays more aggressive with the ball for his French team than he does for us, but that is because we don’t need him to be looking to attack as much – we need him to help keep the floor balanced and spread. With the French team he has become the second or third option for them offensively – and he will guard literally every backcourt position at times for them.”
With Batum, maybe more than any other player in the tournament, what we see at EuroBasket could be a window into the progress he’s made this summer. At 20 years of age and with just one season of NBA ball under his belt, Batum has a lot of room to grow, both physically and mentally.
Joel Freeland could be considered the ying to Batum’s yang when it comes to the differences between who they are with their international teams and who they are or would be with a team in the NBA. Freeland, who recently signed a contract with Unicaja Málaga of the Spanish ACB league, has never played a second of NBA basketball outside of the Las Vegas Summer League, so we can only speak in hypotheticals when discussing what kind of player he’d be in Portland, but according to Buchanan, what you see out of Freeland the British national is probably what you’d see out of Freeland the Trail Blazer.
“Joel’s role for Great Britain is much the same as it will be in the NBA – to rebound, defend and finish simple plays offensively. When he is healthy he provides a physical presence and he does a really nice job on the glass.”
Freeland, who has been battling a shoulder injury leading up to EuroBasket, is one of the building blocks for the United Kingdom, a team not historically known for their basketball prowess. If the Brits can ever get all their eligible players together, which includes Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Freeland could be the guy who does the dirty work for a talented squad.
“Joel is not going to be a guy that teams build their offense around,” said Buchanan. “He is a complimentary big who is going to throw his body around for you.”
When it comes to Victor Claver, the player Portland selected with the 22nd pick in the 2009 Draft, playing with the Spanish senior national team is a new experience. Also 20 years old, Claver is still cutting his teeth on the international scene, but the fact he’s earned a spot on the Spanish team, especially considering the stable of players that country boasts, speaks to his talent and versatility as a ballplayer.
“Victor is making a big jump right now as he is playing significant minutes at a young age for one of the elite national teams in the world right,” said Buchanan “He has done a great job so far of trying to fit in with a group of players that have been playing together for a long time.”
At 6-9, 225 lbs., Claver can play both the small and power forward positions, with range out to the three-point line, though he can also finish well near the basket. He’s started a number of tune up games leading up to EuroBasket, scoring 13 against Lithuania and 12 against Israel, and with the Spaniards having to deal with a myriad of injuries, he might be looked upon to provide more offense once the tournament gets into full swing.
According to Buchanan, Claver has been able to find a groove playing alongside his more experienced teammates, a skill that could prove beneficial when he finally makes the jump to the NBA
“He takes advantages of his opportunities on both ends of the floor and does a nice job of still deferring to his veteran teammates,” said Buchanan. “I think he will be a nice spark for the Spanish team and that this experience will help catapult him into a more significant role in the future for the Spanish national team.”
International Play: A Long Way From The NBA
There’s no denying the NBA has the best collection of players in the world, but as Team USA found out during the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 Worlds, having the best group of individuals doesn’t necessarily equate to wins. Having roster stability, as most European national teams do, plays a part in the ability to win with inferior talent, but that’s only part of the story.
“NBA talent does not always translate to winning in the European game,” said Buchanan. “The style of play, officiating, coaching is different from the NBA game in so many ways. I think the familiarity with their teammates helps, especially for a veteran team like Greece, but it is not like these guys play all season together, so the basketball IQ aspect comes into play for these teams as well.”
Team basketball IQ is a facet of the international game that teams from America have only recently learned, but it’s old hat in Europe, where teams utilize advantages in the more cerebral parts of the game to make up for physical limitations.
“The European game is about ball and body movement, where as the NBA game is much more centered around matchups,” said Buchanan. “There is no illegal defense in the European game, so weakside defenders can shade the paint and clog driving lanes that are more available in the NBA game so European coaches have to occupy weakside defenders with more movement off the ball. This creates more ball reversals, inside-outside passing, cuts weakside. The Greeks and Spaniards are masters at this and that is why a team that may not be filled with a ton of NBA-caliber talent can be so difficult to defend. They are fun to watch because they put five skilled players on the floor together at all times and when you put smart and unselfish players together with multiple skills – that can be really hard to defend.”
The Spaniards possess the best of both worlds. With a roster full of current and former NBA players who have come up through the international ranks together, Team Spain enters EuroBasket with the talent and intelligence necessary to win the tournament.
“Spain plays your traditional European style where ball and body movement are the focal point,” said Buchanan. “They do a tremendous job of utilizing Pau and all four players on the court do a great job of playing off him. Spain is unique to most Euro teams because they have such a skilled low post player in Pau and they maximize his talents.”
France is the only team in the tournament that can put has much talent on the floor as Spain, but they’ve yet to come together as a unit in the same way the Spanish have. The French, thanks to the personnel at their disposal, employ a style of play that is more reminiscent of what we see in the NBA, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
“France plays more up-tempo than other European teams and that is a reflection of their point guard,” said Buchanan. “They are the opposite of Spain in that they run more NBA-type sets and give Parker the freedom to go make plays for himself and everyone else.”
EuroBasket ’09 is the first big tournament where most of the best French players have come together at the same time, which is why many consider Les Bleus to have an outside shot at gold.
The (Born) Contenders
As noted above, Spain is the odds-on favorite to take the top spot at EuroBasket ’09, assuming injuries to Rudy Fernandez and Pau Gasol don’t keep both players off the floor for too long.
“They’re just a team with tons of experience,” said Mike Born, the Trail Blazers Director of Scouting. “They’ve got that good chemistry. They’ve played together forever, Rudy, Navarro, the Gasol brothers, Garbajosa, a role player like Suarez. Those guys have been teammates for six, eight, ten years. There can run, they can pass, they can shoot it, they play together, they have experience, unselfish. And then they’ve got good players, so they’ll have a chance.”
Greece, Lithuania, Russia, France and Turkey all have a legitimate chance to taking down the Iberians, depending on which players show up.
“Greece as a team have a ton of veterans,” said Born. “They play really well together. They do a terrific job of moving the basketball. When I went to the Olympics last summer in Beijing, it’s like I could sit down and watch those guys play five games a day because of how they play. They play the game the right way. The guys understand who’s on the floor, what their job is when they’re on the floor. They make the extra pass.
“Lithuania is probably pretty similar. Again, good depth. (Linus) Kleiza plays with them. So do the Lavrinovic twins. They’ve just got a lot of experience. Really shoot and pass the ball well, really good toughness. They really play the game the right way and together. They’re going to go out and give themselves an opportunity to win every game just because of the combination of all the things they have. They’ve got good, smart players who know how to play, good skill sets.
“France is kind of an up-and-coming team. They’ve always been pretty successful because they’ve had good athletes, they can get out and run, pretty good defensively. And again, you look at all the NBA guys they have on their team now: Parker, Diaw, Batum, Pietrus, Turiaf. Those aren’t just guys who are making it in the NBA; those five guys alone are all pretty good players, and obviously a guy like Tony Parker is really good. Moving forward they’re going to have a chance to be pretty darn good, and with the development of some of the younger players like Nic it’s going to make those guys stronger. They’ve got size, they’ve got talent, they’ve got athleticism. They may be a team that challenges moving forward.”
Climbing The Golden Ladder
The layout of the tournament bracket can get a little tricky, as is sometimes the case when it comes to FIBA competition. Here is an attempt to breakdown the path though the EuroBasket ’09 table.
The preliminary round has four groups of four teams. They are as follows:
Each team plays one game against the other teams in their group. After that round, one team from each group is eliminated. Next, a new group is formed combining the three remaining teams from each group, with Group A and Group B forming one group and groups C and D forming the other. Teams are also seeded at this point based on their win totals. In this round, teams play three games against the teams that were not in their original group, after which the bottom two teams from each newly formed group are eliminated. Results from the teams in the same preliminary round groups count when determining what teams are eliminated. From there it goes into standard tournament play, as in quarterfinals, semifinals, finals. “Loser” brackets are also formed in the quarters, as seeding for the World Championships are determined by which teams finish where.
For a more visual explanation of the tournament progression, check out the EuroBasket ’09 competition system page.