Telekom Baskets Bonn is one of the most in-form teams in Europe right now, winning 15 of its last 16, but Emmet Ryan wonders if this momentum can be used to finally claim a major honour
There’s no shortage of silver. Telekom Baskets Bonn have been the second best team in Germany five times and losing cup finalists thrice. Silverware is another matter with not a single top tier honour in its 31 year history. Right now, there’s a feeling that might finally be ready to change.
Holding second place in the Bundesliga at present and a 2-0 record in the Round of 16 in the Basketball Champions League (BCL), there’s real momentum here. They’ve one 15 of their last 16 in all competitions, their lone defeat in that run coming on 15 January against Alba Berlin. With them already out of the DBB Pokal however they’ve already lost one of their three shots at silverware this season. There are two fronts remaining, both are promising yet daunting. This could be a fun ride.
An interesting build
This is not your typical contender, by any stretch, on paper. The vast majority of players on this Bonn roster don’t have English language Wikipedia pages, including Collin Malcolm who had a tremendous outing against Baxi Manresa in the BCL on Wednesday night. Malcolm went to Warner Pacific, a NAIA school (level 4 in the US college system), and far from a place you expect to find contributors of this level, and previously played in Georgia and Finland before making the big jump to Bonn.
Deane Williams is a better known name, as one of Great Britain’s better young pro ballers, but he was playing Pro B in France last year before moving to a contender in Germany’s top flight. Again, not the type of signing you’d expect. Leon Kratzer was long considered a solid talent but, again, not quite who you expect to be a core piece in a side that has big aspirations.
Yet here Bonn are, 15-2 in the Bundesliga, sandwiched by Euroleague giants Alba Berlin and Bayern Munich, and 7-1 in the BCL. All of this points to some really smart recruitment and scouting by the side in finding value where others don’t see it. Karsten Tadda is easily the best-known player on this roster and, at 34, is as much there to provide veteran nous as anything else to what is a rather young roster across the board.
This is a side that is encouraged to play fearlessly, leaning into the best of youth, while Tadda’s role is to shave off the rough edges where necessary. As a blend it’s fascinating and working well so far.
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I was on commentary for that win in Manresa by Bonn on Wednesday and the necessity of this lean-in to young tendencies was visible. Taking as read that one game, particularly against a side struggling horribly in Liga ACB, doesn’t tell a lot there were a few glimpses of what head coach Tuomas Iisalo is trying to do with this roster.
There was a spell during the first quarter that would normally have screamed for a timeout. After a free flowing start, Bonn missed a few shots and the ball movement suddenly became turgid. They looked robotic with all the fluidity of 8 bit graphics. Conventionally with such a spell, a coach calls in the troops to settle things down and try to get some rhythm back.
Instead, Iisalo decided to let his charges figure it out for themselves. With young players, knowing when not to say something is as important as knowing what not to say and by not stopping things he showed his faith in the young bodies around him. In turn, their aggression and rhythm returned.
There’s no shortage of aggression in this outfit, nowhere more visible than TJ Shorts II. Shorts is a classic undersized point guard in build, listed at 5’9”, and has clearly got a green light to seek to intimidate. His passing throughout the game was bold in its execution, daring opponents to see if he’ll fail, and his first step both on and off the dribble was always with the verve of a man demanding cover moves toward him.
Shorts, who leads the side in both points and assists across both the Bundesliga and BCL, had a quite night on the stat sheet by his standards against Manresa but his grinding was nonetheless unquestionably invaluable on the night.
This isn’t a roster deep in top tier talent not in obvious game breakers but what it has is variety. Bonn can’t compete financially with Alba or Bayern for the type of traditional bigs needed at the top tier of the Bundesliga but it has a whole lot of length and can put out an all wingspan line-up of Malcolm, Williams, Ward, Michael Kessens, and Sebastian Herrera to confound opponents.
A unique opportunity
There are cities where basketball is king in town, few as they are, but they are usually on the smaller side. There are large cities where basketball thrives but it still has to compete with football. Bonn is a city of over 300,000 people where there’s no other serious contender for fan interest.
The best football team plays in the fourth tier. There’s no ice hockey, handball, or volleyball team of note to take attention from Telekom Baskets. The local baseball side has won the German championship a couple of times but that’s a step down in terms of overall interest and there’s little season crossover anyway.
If you want to watch top tier national competition in Bonn, Telekom Baskets is comfortably the biggest name in town and that puts the club in an enviable position for long-term growth. The club clearly has the support too, as the travelling fans in Manresa on Wednesday night showed. Building something in Bonn is extremely doable.
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The format may help
As mentioned higher up this piece, Bonn is already out of the running for one piece of silverware. Telekom Baskets was unlucky to face Alba Berlin in the opening round of the DBB Pokal and exited.
That left them with two fronts which involve a rather horrible grind in terms of the ultimate goal, winning a first major honour. Winning a national cup isn’t easy but the odd bounce of a ball in your favour tends to be more likely in straight knockout competitions.
With the BCL, there are the two Spanish powerhouses of Iberostar Tenerife and Unicaja Malaga undoubtedly awaiting at some point should Bonn continue to impress, both of whom are daunting prospects. Domestically, come the playoffs it will still be hard to look past Alba or Bayern when it comes to lifting the Bundesliga trophy, although Bonn forced the full five games out of Bayern in last season’s semi finals.
Being in the BCL of all competitions may end up being exactly what Iisalo needs from his charges. Maintaining a winning season run in a straight league format, like the Bundesliga regular season, can be mentally draining as the process comes to a sharp thud and increase in intensity come the playoffs.
The many stages of the BCL allow for a more measured approach to the season, giving the variety of intensity and stakes that honestly are necessary to make sense of the grind. Assuming Bonn make the knockout stages, and I’m not betting against them, they’ll have a nice flow to work with down the stretch and have steeled themselves for the Bundesliga postseason in the process. Had they been in the higher tier of Eurocup they’d essentially have been playing a second conventional league for most of the campaign with even lower stakes, as 16 of the 20 Eurocup sides make the knockout phase.
Nothing is certain, winning is very hard, but right now Bonn are winning as much as anyone else in this sport. They’ve got the chemistry to keep it going. How far that will take them is anyone’s guess.
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