Mike Born, Trail Blazers Director of Scouting, was in Poland for the start of EuroBasket 2009, so I caught up with him via telephone to get some details about Tuesday’s game between Spain and Great Britain in which Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland all played.
"I thought all played pretty efficient, unselfish basketball," said Born. "All of them made good plays and played the right way. It wasn’t like Joel went out, got ten rebounds and played selfish; he played the right way. All of them made a lot of winning basketball plays and that’s probably the most encouraging thing when you look at all three of them."
Getting a chance to see Rudy playing with the Spanish national team was more of an ancillary bonus than anything else for Mike Born. He knows pretty much everything he needs to about Rudy after seeing him for years in Europe and last year in the NBA, but there’s never a bad time to see Rudy play. Tuesday’s game was no exception.
“They don’t win that game without Rudy is how I felt when I left the building,” said Born. Fernandez, who had been suffering from some variety of hamstring injury, got the OK to play the morning of the ESP v. GB game, which probably saved the defending World Champs from being prematurely bounced from the tournament.
“I felt like during the course of the game, Rudy provides for them an offensive terminal,” said Born. “He’s a guy that can give you offense but he’s also a guy that can draw enough attention away from other people as a passer and by moving without the ball. You have to be aware of where he’s at and you have to play him on the perimeter and you have to pay attention to him, so I think it allows Pau Gasol and some other guys to get more space on the floor.”
The statistical improvement from the Spain’s first game, a loss to Serbia, in which Rudy didn’t play, and their second game against Great Britain, this time with Rudy in the lineup, does much to support Born’s theory of Rudy as Spain’s “offensive terminal”. The Iberian’s showed significant improvement from Game One to Game Two in two-point field goal percentage (42.9 percent to 48.3), three-point percentage (10.5 percent to 52.6), free throws attempted (28 to 40) and assists (9 to 19), and one would figure at least some of that improvement is attributable to Rudy’s play. Serbia is considered by most to be a far superior team to Great Britain, which could have something to do with the improvement, but Rudy didn’t seem to be 100 percent healthy either.
“I just really felt like Rudy gutted it out tonight,” said Born.
Victor Claver, the Trail Blazers’ surprise pick (though one guy had KP pegged) of the 2009 Draft, is still a curiosity to Portlanders. He’s not a big name player in Europe (at least not yet), he’s in his first stint with the Spanish senior national team so there’s no Beijing Olympics recognition and he doesn’t have general managers visiting bi-weekly in attempts to convince him to come to the NBA, so unless you’re the ultra-inquisitive type, you probably don’t know a whole lot about the ginger kid from Valencia. No worries; he won’t be making his way to the Pacific Northwest for at least a year, probably two, so you’ve got plenty of time to get schooled.
So here’s your first lesson: kid can play. He’s not getting many opportunities to show it at EuroBasket, but when he gets some tick, he makes the most of it. He played 7 minutes in the opening loss to Serbia, finishing with no points and 2 turnovers. And he didn’t once get off the bench in Spain’s last game against Slovenia. But when he got 17 minutes against Great Britain, he put up 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting, went 2-for-2 from the three point line, pulled 4 rebounds and handed out 3 assists. Not a bad night.
“He has a good feeling,” explained Born. “Part of that is how he has to play because of who he is, his age, he’s playing with the national team. They’ve got Navarro, they’ve go Rudy, they’ve got Gasol, they’ve got Gasol. Felipe Reyes is a really good European player even though he’s never played in the NBA. They’ve got Garbajosa. They obviously have some pretty darn good players and him and Ricky Rubio are the two younger guys on that team. I was glad to see him come out tonight he’s going to be a complimentary guy. When you say complimentary it doesn’t mean that the guy can’t get 25 a game, because they can, but he’s going to play off of other people and defer a lot to Pau Gasol and Rudy and some of those guys, which at this point he should.”
The notion that younger players should defer to their elders in international play might be one of the reasons Claver isn’t getting the kind of minutes you might expect the 22nd pick in the draft to get. When it comes to international play, unless you’re over-the-top talented, you’ve got to pay dues. He’s playing behind guys like Reyes and Alex Mumbri, guys who have a long history with the senior national team, not to mention that both play for Real Madrid, a much higher profile ACB team than Claver’s Valencia squad.
Spot minutes notwithstanding, Born has been encouraged by what he’s seen out of Claver,
“We drafted him on his potential of what he could be but we also know he’s a pretty skilled player. I think he’s done some pretty darn good things already with this team and part of these international teams is you don’t see guys score 25 or 30 very often with some of these teams because there’s such good balance. So when you see someone like Vic come in and have 12 points in a game and he’s playing with a bunch of pretty good NBA players on his team, it’s pretty encouraging.”
Ah, Freeland. Ever since he was selected with the last pick of the 2006 draft, Trail Blazers fans have waited patiently for the day when he would finally come over to the NBA. That wait will continue at least one more year, as Freeland recently signed a contract with Unicaja Malaga of the ACB, but the decision makers in the Blazers front office are still keeping close tabs on the 22 year-old Brit.
“He got started late in playing basketball so his feel for the game is still a work in progress,” said Freeland. “There’s some things about his game: he sees the floor pretty darn good for a guy who hasn’t played a lot of basketball. Part of it is because he’s a European player. They make passes that you feel like they don’t hesitate. If they see an opening, and because they’re so used to ball movement and swinging the ball and stuff, if a guy is open they don’t even think a second about it. It’s out of their hands. Joel has that too. There were a couple of times where he was dribbling the ball and he picked it up and boom, right to a guy.”
Aside from improved passing, Born noted Freeland looked much more at ease on offense. Good news for a player drafted primarily because of his raw physical tools.
“He did some good things,” said Born. “He didn’t back down. He had that one little baseline move where he dropped it over the front of the rim. You can tell he’s getting better and playing with confidence.
“Shoot, the play where he stole the ball from (Pau) Gasol, that whole play was pretty impressive. He picked him and then took it the length of the floor. I don’t care if it’s Shaq or Gasol or anybody else chasing you. For a big 6-11 guy to put it on the deck for five dribbles then go in and punch it, that’s a pretty impressive play.”