To continue in our series of articles (see Russia and Spain), Simon Jatsch takes a look at the German BBL league. This is one of the most detailed and excellent articles I have read about the German league, so make sure you read it all. In case you want to get to know the German league and their players, this is the only article you have to go through to be an insider. Thanks, Simon!
German BBL tips off next Saturday
Going into the 08/09 BBL campaign, ALBA Berlin are the heavy favourite to win it again in Germany after almost entirely renewing their starting five by spending big money on several key off-season acquisitions. They sent a message around the league early in the summer by signing much sought-after Artland Dragons center Adam Chubb, who had excelled in the 07/08 campaign, especially in ULEB-Cup play. Next up was the signing of Ansu Sesay, who will try to replace the unspectacular yet efficient veteran Goran Nikolic, who left for Panionios, at the four spot. At the point, coach Luca Pavicevic, going into his second year with the club, trusts Rashad Wright and national team playmaker Steffen Hamann with the succession of Bobby Brown, who had an impressive showing in the NBA Summer league, getting him a two-year-deal with the New Orleans Hornets, and Goran Jeretin, who was expected to be a key player for Pavicevic, but in the end never played a single minute for ALBA. Last but not least, swing man Casey Jacobsen, who is coming off a frustrating NBA season with the Memphis Grizzlies, adds a lot of quality with his outside shooting, general scoring ability, smart play on both ends and veteran leadership. Starting at the shooting guard spot is last year’s BBL regular season MVP Julius Jenkins, whose only knock is a lack of size. Coming off the bench along one of the Wright/Hamann combo are three proven stars on BBL level: Aleksandar Nadjfeji and defensive stopper Immanuell McElroy both frequently fill up the stat sheet and proved to be key mid season acquisitions last year, while Patrick Femerling adds size, experience on the highest European level, and defensive presence. Completing the twelve-man-roster are Dragan Dojcin, a long-time companion of coach Pavicevic, and German national team players Johannes Herber and Philip Zwiener. Giving them another lift is their move to the all-new 14.800-capacity O2-Arena, which will host the Euroleague Final Four in spring 2009. Speaking of Euroleague, ALBA’s goal is to reach the Top16 group phase. But who is going to stop this team in the BBL? “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is what critics might say, but on the other hand, all Pavicevic has done is assembling a roster which is deep and balanced enough to survive a long season including three exhausting competitions. Many forget that with an overall budget which is believed to be a bit above 7.5 million Euros, the comparably high German taxes and high costs for the club apart from the first team roster, it is not possible for the German powerhouse to compete for established Euroleague players such as Sani Becirovic, who was rumoured to have had an offer from ALBA in the summer. A more hierarchically defined roster led by a couple of big stars might have been wished by some, but in the end it is probably exactly that: wishful thinking. So this is what ALBA 08/09 kitchen looks like: New, modern technology and many cooks. Let’s wait and see what comes out of the oven.
One of the teams trying to stop the big favourites from Germany’s capital will be last season’s overachievers Telekom Baskets Bonn. The club led by former Euroleague champion Mike Koch is moving to its new self-built 6,000-capacity Telekom Dome and will try to repeat last year’s huge success with a huge defensive-minded eleven-man rotation, consisting of many players that are able to defend multiple positions effectively. Key additions are former Artland Dragons point guard EJ Rowland, who was never happy with his bench role in Quakenbrück and is eager to prove that he can be one of the league’s best play makers, point forward Vincent Yarbrough, who is known for his outstanding defense but given a bigger role is believed by Koch to be a productive offensive player also, and Brandon Bowman, a quick, athletic and shot-happy player who is able to play both forward positions but will be asked to play at the four spot exclusively. Add to that center John Bowler, who is expected to come back in early 2009 after re-signing with the club for two more years before again hitting the injury list with a knee injury soon thereafter, the extremely active scoring guard Winsome Frazier, who had breakout performances in last season’s playoffs, the defensive presence Ken Johnson as Bowler’s replacement, plus a deep and reliable bench in veteran shooter Artur Kolodziejski, shotblocker Patrick Flomo, talented all-round-forward Moussa Diagne, high-energy backup point guard Johannes Strasser, rookie big man Tim Clifford and athletic German swing man Alex King. If Koch once again proves that he is a master in terms of team-building and getting the best out of every single one of his players, Bonn is in for another very interesting season.
The same can be said about EWE Baskets Oldenburg, a club which has been revived by Bosnian head coach Predrag Krunic after years of disappointment under the leadership of Don Beck. Krunic did exactly what we knew him for from his spell with Telekom Baskets Bonn earlier in the decade: Building a high-calibre team in no time. This year, it’s all about stabilising and possibly extending the success of reaching last year’s playoff semifinals, and the club has been managing to keep nearly all of its key players, most recently extending playmaker Jason Gardner’s contract until summer 2010. Point guard has historically been the key position on Krunic’s roster, and Gardner is no difference here: Good shooter, even if sometimes questionable in his shot selection, solid passer, capable defender. Playing alongside and sometimes backing up Gardner is the quick and equally shot-happy combo-guard Je’Kel Foster, who had an excellent BBL season a couple of years ago playing for ENBW Ludwigsburg. Foster is the successor of Branimir Longin, who left for Cibona Zagreb. Ricky Paulding excels at the small forward position, while Jasmin Perkovic is a key player on both forward positions, but mainly the four spot. Big man Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje scares oppositions with his defensive presence. Coming off the bench are former Turow big man Marko Scekic, workhorse Milan Majstorovic, shooter Miladin Pekovic, plus, in limited playing time, the two Germans Daniel Strauch and young guard Marco Buljevic. A club with huge financial resources no doubt, Oldenburg is a team everybody expects to reach the semifinals again.
Deutsche Bank Skyliners Frankfurt move into their fourth season under the leadership of charismatic Turkish head coach Murat Didin, a true magician tactically, but questioned for his player-management from time to time. The Skyliners were close to making last year’s finals, but eventually fell to Bonn in a one-point-nail-biter. Now they’re coming back with a roster which is believed by many to be the strongest since the Chris Williams era, and, yes, you remember correctly, they won their first and so far only championship back then. Among the key off season transfers are German Olympics participant Konrad Wysocki, a good shooter and rebounder, talented shooting guard Keith Simmons, and undersized inside player Lorenzo Gordon, who had played in Turkey before. Anthony King gives them some depth at center, while the key players stay the same: point guard Pascal Roller is coming off his best club season in a long time, and power forward Derrick Allen will again be asked again to provide a large part of the scoring inside and from midrange, however, they will count on the latter to finally play well in the playoffs, something he has yet to demonstrate after four seasons in Germany.
In for a new era is Bamberg club Brose Baskets, one of less than a handful of true basketball-bastions in Germany. The extremely successful head coach Dirk Bauermann had to decide between club and country due to a new domestic federation rule, which doesn’t allow the national team head coach to be in charge of a club team, and went for the DBB’s lucrative five-year-offer, thus making space for one of the most respected head coaches in German basketball, Chris Fleming, who had previously formed a top-level team in the small town of Quakenbrück. Fleming brings fresh blood and a fresh coaching philosophy to the city, which is used to defensive-minded non-fastbreak play and will probably be thrilled upon witnessing comparably fast basketball played by a team which will rely mainly on the backcourt to create scoring opportunities for themselves and teammates. However, an early setback is a knee injury to one of the main summer signings, floor general John Goldsberry, who will be on the sideline for approximately two months. A replacement for Goldsberry is Jason Forte, but few expect the US-guard to be more than a backup for the second point guard on the team, Filiberto Rivera. Rivera was arguably the main catalyst behind Quakenbrück’s deep postseason run in 2007 before going down injured right before the finals, which the club eventually lost – to Bamberg. The Puerto Rican served as a pure point guard back then and will be asked to play the same role now in the absence of John Goldsberry. However, when both are fit, Rivera will with high probability be used by Fleming primarily as a playmaking two guard, which would suit both player’s attributes – Goldsberry’s ability to control the tempo and find teammates in the right places, and Rivera’s ability to make plays for himself and others out of nothing – best. Questions might be asked about the defensive capabilities of such a duo, as both are rather small in size, but let’s face it: How many shooting guards are there in the German league who are able to post up and/or consistently shoot over smaller players with high efficiency? Not many. As both are solid natural defenders, the problem is manageable. Another part of the team’s core, the backcourt, is national team shooting guard Demond Greene, who indeed is a shooter, but apart from his shot has his limits offensively. Robert Garrett is the x-factor off the bench, leaper Jared Newson will be asked to start at the small forward spot, and among the short but versatile big man rotation, two names draw special attention: The athletic Tim Ohlbrecht has been called the hottest German prospect for a long time but needs to work on his fundamentals before he can make the big step forward, and the most recent acquisition, Alexander Johnson, who was a role player for the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies from 2006 to 2008, is expected to be the main weapon on offense.
Artland Dragons Quakenbrück meanwhile had to experience a huge setback in the departure of longtime head coach Chris Fleming. His surprise successor, Thorsten Leibenath, is already feeling the heat after bad preseason results and will be under pressure more than anyone else to win games in the early part of the season. His offseason acquisitions had originally given reason for reserved optimism: college stud Drew Neitzel and Leverkusen’s Zack Whiting should be able to form a potent tandem at the point, small forward Adam Hess led the club to the BBL finals in 2007 and is coming of a solid Euroleague season where he averaged double digits in points for Chorale Roanne, while big man Darren Fenn was top scorer and second best rebounder for Brose Baskets last year. Add to that the explosive off guard Lamont McIntosh, the smart, hustling, and hot-shooting power forward Chad Prewitt, and the huge, still efficient Darius Hall – and everything points towards a secure playoff spot. However, the most important position in all of sports – the coach’s chair – is occupied by someone completely unproven. Preseason results are not to be given too much attention. However, in this case, fans might get nervous, and understandably so, as Leibenath had not done anything outstanding on the pro level before Artland surprisingly trusted him to fulfil their high expectations. As in many cases, time will tell.
The seventh team suddenly widely expected to make the playoffs is Eisbären Bremerhaven. The reason: Two huge late additions in Marcus Slaughter and preseason surprise Giordan Watson. Not much has to be said about the qualities of Slaughter, who played for Hapoel Jerusalem last year before being cut due to disciplinary reasons. Simply put, the power forward is a huge scoring threat on BBL level. Watson meanwhile, coming right out of college, was signed on a tryout contract at first before showing flashes of brilliance in the recent Domreitercup, which had Bremerhaven face Bamberg, Kiev and Nancy. Tryout no more. Another key player should be off guard Mike Gansey, along with center Yemi Nicholson, who will try to step out of the shadow of some excellent big man choices head coach Dr.Sarunas Sakalauskas has made in the last three years: Darren Fenn, Charles-Judson Wallace, Matt Haryasz. Last but not least, the duo of Zygimantas Jonusas and Ivars Timermanis delivers solid play at the small forward position.
Moving on is Giants Leverkusen, a club which lost the sponsorship of pharmacy colossus Bayer after last season and is looking to establish a new home in Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf is not exactly believed to be a sports city and many observes might think that the new/old club in Düsseldorf is not going to survive for a very long time. However, if this turns out to be true, it has nothing to do with coach Achim Kuczmann and his crew, who have over the years proved to do excellent work scouting players coming out of college and using a low budget. While former captain and MVP contender Nate Fox left for Estonia and Zack Whiting got a more lucrative contract in Quakenbrück, shooter Brendan Winters remains on the team as one of the leaders. Another one is high-percentage shooter Matt Lottich at point guard, who is coming right out of college, as is athletic swingman Marc Antonio Carter, who has been struggling a bit in the preseason, but is expected to make his mark as a scorer sooner or later. Logan Kosmalski and Todd Hendley provide smart play and hustle on the big man positions, while Gordon Geib and Brant Bailey will do exactly the same coming off the bench. Even in a new environment, it seems Kuczmann might be able to reach the playoffs for the third straight time.
One of the biggest rivals for that eighth spot might be ENBW Ludwigsburg, the club which sacked Silvino Poropat early in the summer and found a successor in former Gießen and Bamberg player Rick Stafford, who had been coaching second division team Breitengüssbach, the Brose Baskets farm team, last season. Ludwigsburg will count on Stafford to bring the veteran leadership, emotion and intelligence, which had been making him quite a special player in Germany, to the sideline. Experience however, he has not, hence many were surprised that such an ambitious club would give it all into the hands of a rookie coach. Stafford did not wait long before making his first move on the transfer market, signing former Eisbären Bremerhaven floor general Brian Jones, who had been playing in the Spanish LEB Gold last year. Proven BBL guard Dominic Jones is the second man at the point, while do-it-all shooting guard Brandon Woudstra will again be counted on to carry the load offensively. De’Angelo Alexander showed flashes in the preseason and might be a suitable addition at small forward, however, the frontcourt is where the worries start: Brazilian center de Nascimento left the team a few days ago due to disciplinary reasons, and the trio of Dane Watts, Marco Sanders and Kelvin Gibbs does not look like a big man rotation that sends shivers around the league.
Another team that has been rather disappointing over the last few years is New Yorker Phantoms Braunschweig, guided or misguided – whatever you want to call it – by former ALBA Berlin head coach Emir Mutapcic. Braunschweig is not among the poorer ballclubs in this league, far from it, yet playoff participation has been few and far between over the years. The roster’s backbone should be the strong-four-man big man rotation consisting of Andrew Drevo, veteran Nils Mittmann, Kyle Visser and Jason Cain. Young guard William Franklin is obviously trusted in to play the point, while starting shooting guard Jonathan Levy is going into his fourth season in Germany, three of them in the BBL. Dustin Salisberry and Jeremy Crouch could both start at the three spot, however Braunschweig is not among the hottest candidates to make next year’s BBL playoffs.
A small club doing excellent work is ratiopharm Ulm, where the charismatic player’s coach Mike Taylor is known to create a strong unit year for year. Taylor is known for offense rather than defense – as is his biggest off-season move, former Florida standout Lee Humphreys, a shooter of the highest pedigree and 2007 national champion as a key player on US-college-level. At the point, Dru Joyce had outstanding games at the end of last season and is now trusted to succeed Kyle Bailey, who returns to Göttingen. Romeo Travis will start at the three, trying to make up for the loss of Konrad Wysocki to Skyliners Frankfurt, while the phenomenal Jeff Gibbs, a 1.88m power forward who outjumps, outmuscles, outworks and outsmarts opponents, will have a go at the league’s crown in the rebound category again. At center, Sean Finn will provide solid play off his exceptional colleague at the four spot. Another difference maker might be Keith Triplett, a very interesting guard who might take over the role of defensive stopper on coach Taylor’s team.
There are the overachievers. And there is Doug Spradley. Paderborn has been widely expected to be relegated prior to every single one of their three BBL campaigns so far, but did it ever happen? Spradley somehow manages to find the right mix year for year, and this season seems no different. Yes, superb scorer Tim Black has left, but look who has replaced him: A player who possesses all the tools to be a worthy successor, the talented all-around play maker Lavelle Felton, who played in the Greek A1 and French ProA before joining a chaotic Jena team last season. Joining him in the back court are the quick and small guards Bryant McAllister and Steven Wright, while Stefano Garris have another try in kick-starting his basketball career after it had all gone downhill since leaving ALBA Berlin in 2005. Shooter Steven Esterkamp is another key man on offense, and crowd favourite Marius Nolte will provide all the hustle. Even if their big man rotations lacks a bit in quality, don’t make the same mistake again by writing Paderborn off – because they will positively surprise again.
Another club trying to overachieve will be TBB Trier, relegated from the BBL last season, but kept alive via wildcard. They seem to be back in business with Belgian head coach Yves Defraigne, who brought along big man George Evans, a long-time companion and efficient back-to-the-basket player, as a leader. Evans will be accompanied by Chris Copeland, a very strong and versatile power forward who exploded in preseason play, to form the team’s core. A bit undersized, yes, but other teams have proven to be successful in this league without having big bodies on their rosters. At point guard, Defraigne chose Derek Raivio, a smart playmaker who came alive in the second part of the season playing for Köln 99ers in 07/08. Norman Richardson is expected to provide solid play at small forward, while swingman Jamal Shuler showed flashes of brilliance and could prove to be an outstanding find by the Belgian. While he had to work with players he didn’t choose last season, the time has come for Defraigne to finally prove what he’s worth. According to the preseason, that is quite a lot.
A club nobody really knows what to think of currently is Köln 99ers, the 05/06 BBL champion who had experienced a financial crash including last-minute-rescue in January 2008 and is since under new ownership. A look at the current roster suggests that expectations should be lowered more than a bit, however, there are certain things to be positive about. The emergence of Philip Schwethelm for example, an already solid allround small forward of BBL calibre and one of the biggest hopes in German basketball. Or the quite probable starting five spot for the likewise 1989-born Tibor Pleiß, a lanky center who showed in preseason play glimpses of what is to come, producing points inside and crashing the boards with energy against physically superior players. There are worries however, and they start at point guard, where Jeremy Hunt, Stefan Nikolic and Danilo Smigic will not answer our questions. Neither will Julian Terrell at power forward and center, in fact, he has been a complete disappointment in preseason play. Natural scorer Zarryon Fereti and athletic freak Hollywood Turner might provide some help on the wing, but they won’t be enough to keep Cologne out of the relegation zone.
After successfully avoiding relegation as newcomers last season, BG Göttingen will try to repeat that job in 08/09 with the return of Kyle Bailey, who was arguably the best player of the German second division before leaving Göttingen for Ulm in the 2007 off season. Captain Jeb Ivey left for Eisbären Bremerhaven after being rumoured to join ALBA Berlin, which has to be re-evaluated as probably a belated April’s fools joke by his agent, but a recent arrival for the off guard position is Charles Lee, who seems to bring all the tools to be a capable acquisition. The big man duo of Clif Brown and former Jena center Jason Miller meanwhile looks as if it might do some damage inside, taking pressure of the historically important guard play in Göttingen. Headcoach John Patrick will again look for his team to press a lot in the full court and play fast and attractive basketball. A repeat of last season’s final spot – 14th – does seem possible.
Financial worries blowing basketball results off the headlines – nothing unusual to the fans of Gießen 46ers, a former German basketball powerhouse which has been struggling a lot financially lately and is again standing with its back against the wall after miscalculations prior to this season. In contrary to its management, the club’s first team showed its competence in preseason games, impressing with surprising efficiency on offense and a lot of enthusiasm in general play. As we hope somebody will help the 46ers out of their latest hole, Heiko Schaffartzik is expected to lead the floor at point guard, a big and demanding task for him after being the hot-shooting backup playmaker for most of his BBL career. Wing players Maurice Jeffers and Mike Umeh will add scoring punch and a lot of highflying antics can be expected from power forward Corey Rouse, who builds a solid tandem with the experienced Robert Maras inside. Hard to see them getting relegated should they soon overcome their most recent problems.
A trio of key players is returning to coach Tolga Öngören and Walter Tigers Tübingen for the 08/09 season. Point guard Jermaine Anderson is a solid scorer but has deficits organising the game, crafty swingman AJ Moye is a very good scorer from inside and midrange, while Rasko Katic is a rare old-school center in a league which is getting more athletic and versatile on every position each year. Michael Haynes and Kenneth Williams will try to fill the void left by Bingo Merriex at power forward, and the outside shooting of Justin Fountain is expected to provide help on the wing positions. For Tübingen, it can only get better after a forgettable 07/08 season, which was started with playoff hopes but eventually turned out a huge disappointment.
Newly promoted Giants Nördlingen are relying on several top performers from the second league to help them stay in the BBL. Monta McGhee joined from Cuxhaven, while Avi Kazarnovski, Carl Mbassa, Joe Tesfaldet and Osvaldo Jeanty were all key players on last year’s ProA team. Omari Westley, Ty Shaw and Varnie Dennis will be asked to hold their own against the league’s elite inside, but in general it looks as though the newcomers will have a hard time trying to fight relegation.