With the NBA regular season nearly one-quarter finished (yeesh, when did that happen?), Ball in Europe takes a look at the league’s freshmen and sophomores from The Continent. The NBA currently lists over 80 international players on its rosters, with exactly 50 coming from European quarters. About one-fifth of those are recent enough entries to be considered newbies in America; so today it’s time for a little informal hazing. Early on, who looks to be the next Darko or the next Dirk? Read on!
• SG Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks would like to be temperate in the development of their no. 25 overall draft pick, with Donnie Nelson stating in late November – a week after Beaubois went for 14- and 12-point games on the road – that “we want to continue to have him develop with NBA court time versus developmental [league] court time.” But there’s still been no need to send the Guadeloupian to Albuquerque, as he’s been steadily munching away at Josh Howard’s playing time to good effect.
• SF Omri Casspi, Sacramento Kings
Believe the hype. Despite not yet starting a game for the Kings, the Team Israel standout has nearly seamlessly made the transition from Euroleague to NBA ball. Some respectable defense comes with 10.1 points per game for Casspi this season, and for November the first-rounder shot 52.7 percent from the floor, including a 15-for-28 rate on threes. Sacramento reportedly signed Casspi to a multi-year deal, so you can figure he’ll be playing in this league for some time to come.
• C Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
It’s amazing to think that a 14.6 ppg/9.7 rpg guy continues to be known as someone’s younger brother, but that’s what happens when you’re born after perhaps the greatest European player in the game right now. Quietly in the tiny market of Memphis, Marc Gasol has improved on his underrated performance for the hapless Grizzlies in 2008-09 and could well establish himself as one of the game’s key centers by early next season. Or if he lands on a decent team this off-season. How long before we see the Gasol Brothers teaming up for the West in an NBA All-Star Game?
• PF Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee Bucks
Taking some liberties with the rules here, but we’ll generously pretend that the 2006-07 stint with Milwaukee when Ilyasova was 19 years old didn’t really exist. Why? Because the Turk has become a completely different player three years down the road by bulking up and apparently taking some serious aggression pills. Now a starter, Ilysova is starting to bring numbers – 11.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg – the Bucks’ve been desiring since the 2006 NBA Draft. The future remains uncertain for this squad, but if the front office manages to keep this United Nations of a team together (currently listed as active for Milwaukee are Roko Ukic, Carlos Delfino, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Andrew Bogut, Dan Gadzuric and Francisco Elson not to mention that point guard fella who used to play for Lottomatica Roma), Bucks and international basketball fans will groove on these guys for a few years of playoff action at least.
(And then maybe ESPN will get Ersan a player pic for his online bio, eh?)
• PG Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks
Again, we’re taking liberties, but the truth is Brandon Jennings and European basketball (particularly, i’d daresay, Euroleague basketball) will now forever be linked. It may yet be years before folks realize that it takes more than talent to temporarily transfer to a top-level team, as a long time coming was the backlash against high school players jumping directly to NBA ball. For every Kevin Garnett, there were 10 Joe Smiths in those days; figure every Brandon Jennings results in 10 Jeremy Tylers.
• F Jonas Jerebko, Detroit Pistons
Think preseason games don’t matter? Here’s to thinking that the fire Jerebko showed in the preseason in taking out Jamaal Magliore impressed blue-collar brass in Detroit and helped get Team Sweden’s man a starting position on the Pistons. While Jerebko may need some polish, he is rapidly learning how to use his 6’10” height to his advantage against smaller teams, going for a 10/11 in Atlanta last week and a 16/7 in Milwaukee on Friday.
On the cusp of greatness (or at least really good-ness)
• SF Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers
What was supposed to be a year of The Leap for Batum turned into another lost year in the NBA, though we may see his return from the shoulder injury suffered in the preseason in January. Meanwhile, one of the NBA’s most exciting teams has simply become one of its most injured.
• SG Rudy Fernandez, Portland Trail Blazers
Another Blazer, another injury: Fernandez is currently scheduled for an MRI on his back and is questionable for tonight’s game against the Knicks. Too bad if it’s serious, because Fernandez has been excellent off the bench with eight games scoring in double-figures of 20 played including the sit-up-and-take-notice breakout game of 22 points against the Denver Nuggets in game two. If Fernandez can dodge the injury bug in future, however, he’s looking forward to a prosperous NBA career.
The question mark
• SF Danilo Gallinari, New York Knicks
So Ball in Europe called Gallinari out a bit for some bench-induced timidity and slack play for the losing cause known as the Knicks in his sophomore season. What happens? In the next two games, the Italian goes for a 27/10 and a 20/7. Go figure.
Wait and see
• C Alex Ajinca, Charlotte Bobcats
The 21-year-old seven-footer hasn’t gotten much more playing time in Charlotte this season than last, appearing in just four games for single-digit minutes at the ends of halves. The good news: Ajinca was convincing enough in D-League ball for the Bobcats to exercise the team option to keep the Frenchman there through 2010-11. The bad news: Ajinca was last week assigned to the NBADL Maine Red Claws. Surely he’ll be back but not ‘til after the ‘Cats are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention (so, say, by Christmastime).
• SG Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns
Dragic’s three games last week nicely summed up the sharpshooter’s hot-cold rookie NBA season. Last Tuesday, Dragic went 0-for-6 from the floor and managed as many assists as turnovers (three) in the brutal loss to the Knicks. The following night, the Slovenian turned in a 5-for-6, 14-point, five-assist effort against the Cleveland Cavaliers in just 16 minutes of play. Two days later, Dragic was mostly a non-factor in playing just 12 minutes against the Kings. Last night? Four-for-10 shooting and four turnovers given up to the Los Angeles Lakers’ tight D. Dragic will stick around at this level, but his consistency issues must be addressed.
Return to Europe inevitable
• PG Roko Ukic, Milwaukee Bucks
Ukic forestalled his NBA career back in 2005 to instead enjoy a key role with TAU Cerámica, FC Barcelona and Lottomatica Roma. After seeing action in nearly every game in 2008-09 for the Toronto Raptors and fighting his way to some respectable playing time, ultimately averaging over 12 minutes a game, Ukic was traded in the off-season to the Milwaukee Bucks, where the Croatian was destined to sit behind Brandon Jennings from the go. Add to the mix Luke Ridnour’s nice season coming off the bench thus far in ’09 (11.9 points and 1.0 steals in 25.1 minutes per game) and Ukic is surely counting down the minutes remaining on his three-year contract.
Next: How the American rookies playing Euroleague ball are faring.