One Sport, Two Continents, and the International Men of Mystery

May 27th, 2014 by Ben Werth

Editors Note: Please welcome new Staff Writer, and CtB European correspondent, Ben Werth.

I yell out “Check up top.” General dillydallying continues, and I yell again.  “BALL UP TOP.”  Okay, maybe something is lost in translation.  I try a different tactic.  “Der Ball ganz oben, bitte?”  That combined with the well known International Sign of “putting my hands out to receive a pass” have the desired effect.  I’m pretty sure my whack literal translation was not what yielded the ball.

“What do you guys usually play?  12 win by two, or 21 straight?  All ones?”  I generally detest playing with ones and twos in pickup ball.  The NBA short corner three is ridiculously inefficient compared to that two for one advantage.  Good thing most normal people can’t shoot.

“Okay!” says one lithe baller.

“Okay, what?  Bis zwölf, oder was?”  Have I been talking to myself?

“Einundzwanzig, twenty-one,” he replies.

We start playing before I ever get an answer about ones and twos.  I pass the ball over to a teammate on the right wing and space left behind the three point line looking for a cutting lane.  Wait, WHAT?  Are they playing Zone?!  I don’t remember ever playing zone in a pickup game in my entire American life.  I try to adapt.  Flash to the foul line. Force the big to make a decision to challenge and give up low position, or allow a foul line jumper.  At least that is what I am contemplating as my teammate drills a long jumper off my initial pass.


I guess we are playing ones and twos.  Apparently, referring to a shot beyond the arc as a three, regardless of point value, is an international phenomenon.

The other team comes back with the ball as I am scrambling to figure out whether we are in a 2-3 Zone, or 3-2.  My team doesn’t really seem to care.  Fortunately, the opponent mishandles a pass and the ball bounces back past the half-court line.  Everyone starts heading the other way, as one of my guys grabs the ball, sprints to the side, and quickly passes in to a streaking teammate for a layup.  I’m at a loss. Okaaaay.  The Germans play with “over and back” and pass in from the side instead of checking up top.  Interesting.

The lithe baller comes back down the floor, (we have thankfully settled into an attempted 2-3) and drives past everyone until I am forced to foul him.  I expect him to call something.  Nothing.  People give me a look of disdain.

“That was a foul!”

“Of course, it was.  Call it then!” I reply.

“You must call it.  Defense calls fouls!”  they say in charming stereo.

“Oh.”  Well that certainly begs a level of trust.

And so on.  Acclimating to German pickup ball has been strangely informative.  A country’s pickup style shows the basic way most people in that country understand the game.  Most of the guys I play with were born around the time the Dream Team consumed the 1992 Olympic Games.  They have grown up playing ball.  They have had a hero in Dirk, and a love for the game.  But it is a different game.  Every culture has its subcultures and basketball is no different.

North American basketball and the European basketball are converging, yet there is still a principle difference:  Pick and Roll offense vs Motion offense.
From 1947 to 2001, Zone defenses were illegal.  If there is a defender sticking a man, the best way to rid that defender is to set a hard pick. Kids grow up watching man-to-man.  They play it in every pickup game.  All basketball actions are learned in relation to that floor geometry.  How to cut, pick, roll, help and recover.  The first time most guys play zone, they are in collegiate ball.  By then, the man-up fundamentals are already in place.

Zone defenses have always been allowed in the European game.  Their kids have grown up playing mostly zone.(Though there is a continuing shift to man-to-man, their man is still not as hands on as American ball.) Soccer and Handball influence the game far more than I ever understood before moving here.  They apply good soccer strategy to basketball with mixed results.  Offensively, it can work quite well.  One does not set picks in soccer, but spacing and movement set up the best attack possibilities.  Reversing the ball, and avoiding over-dribbling are necessary in both sports.  Defensively, however soccer principles can be harmful.  In soccer, one should meet the ball early as to not allow the opponent too much time on your half of the field.  In basketball, stopping the ball is a must, but getting all the way back in transition requires a player to avoid reaching at half-court.

It is often feared that players coming out of Syracuse will have too steep of a learning curve converting to the NBA’s man D.  (We have seen that at times from Dion, but he is vastly improved).  Zone players, both offensively and defensively, tend to ball watch far more as there isn’t the same reliance on backscreens.  Most of the European players have been figuratively going to Syracuse their whole lives.  As for Handball.  They allow three steps.  Where was the Eurostep born? …Right.

With the Adelman Kings incredible popularity,  the NBA saw the advantage of opening up the game.  People grew tired of watching Shaq’s bully ball and loved watching the Kings pass happy big men.  A zone makes one-on-one dominance more difficult and promotes ball swings to the weak-side.  Interestingly, allowing zone has mitigated the effects of eliminating the handcheck rule and promoted ball movement from side to side.   Smart coaches can now overload the strong side and play the man/zone mix that basically all good defensive teams now employ.  A guy can beat someone off the dribble more easily without the handcheck, but if a team is zoned up on the strong side, that penetration usually leads to a kick out pass.  People like to watch the ball fly around.

Like with most things, a good balance between ideologies delivers great results. It’s no coincidence that the Spurs have eight International guys on the team.  Popovich has created a beautiful system that utilizes the best of PnR basketball and Motion Offense.  Tony Parker (who is still criminally underrated) is so clever in the PnR. Parker or Duncan gets to the middle almost at will, which is chaos for any defensive system.  At least one of them is always going to the hoop.  You don’t see Parker shot hunting while Duncan pops.  (one of my biggest pet peeves.  I’m looking at you Spencer Hawes and Kyrie).  The Spurs off ball movement and spacing are great, at least in some part, because their players are used to playing against a zoned defense.  They rarely crowd the strong side and their weakside geometry is clockwork.

As the draft approaches, unknown International guys will be touted as having great basketball IQ or fantastic measurements. Some with poor stats will be seemingly too highly ranked. But we must remember that sometimes one’s natural talents have not been fully realized in a certain basketball culture. The popular example is Ricky Rubio. Even with an, ehem, cough, inconsistent jumper, he has been a far greater talent in the NBA than he would be in the European Game. His defensive skill and offensive PnR game are best utilized in America. Conversely, there are guys putting up fantastic numbers which almost assuredly wouldn’t translate to the NBA.

When attempting to analyze International stats and players, we must keep in mind a few basic things:

1. They play 40 minute games everywhere else in the world.

2.Individual usage is usually quite a bit lower because of the “motion offense” dominance. Various traditional stats take a hit.

3. Often, stats are accumulated between the various leagues. i.e. 30 games in Adriatic league and 10 in Eurocup.

4. All leagues are not created equal.  If a player is tearing it up in the Spanish league, we should take note.

5. Young players often have to pay their dues for minutes. They don’t care that much about getting an 18 year old athletic phenom big minutes solely for development.  Seniority plays a larger role in minute distribution.

Since we have yet to install cameras in every arena on the planet, much of the evaluation still relies on statistical guess work and the now dreaded “eye test”.  I have a set of scouting questions that help to discern whether a player’s skill-set will translate well to the NBA’s basketball culture. Below is a sampling of some highly touted European prospects.

My Major Questions:

How well does he move laterally?
Does he thrive in Pick and Roll, both offensively and defensively?
How fast is his release?
Finish above the rim/How much does he rely on superior athleticism?
Does he actually box out?
Does he have an NBA position?

Dario Saric SF/PF Croatia

projected top 10

The Word:

Widely considered the top International talent in this draft, Saric has the prototypical size of a stretch four.

At 6’10” and 220 lbs, he has a rather filled out frame for a 20 year old. He is most often lauded for his playmaking ability off the bounce, solid defensive fundamentals, and defensive rebounding skills. There are the customary questions about whether he will be able to come to the NBA in the near future.  It seems unlikely that he will make his NBA debut this season.

My Questions Answered:

He has good lateral quickness for a man his size. He should have no trouble guarding most PFs off the dribble, but it could get dicey against SFs with handle.

As far as the PnR is concerned, I have no idea. There is so little video of him in a PnR or defending it. His turnover rate was obscenely high. I doubt it would be a good idea for him to be the PnR ball-handler. The roll/pop man?

I worry most about his release. Though his shooting percentages are decent for a young player and his form is solid, he takes forever loading up. He has a tendency to hold the ball, pause, then drop it below his waist as he starts his motion. He might end up being a high percentage three point shooter, but he won’t be a high volume guy unless he can speed that up.

I lied, I worry most about his finishing ability. He most certainly does NOT finish above the rim. 20 year olds usually have lively legs. If he isn’t getting up now, it’s not happening. That combined with a slow release, makes it hard for him to be a primary partner in the PnR. What’s worse, most of his best plays come off the bounce against inferior athletes. He is not going to be able to use his slow motion left to right crossover in the NBA. It is a blatant carry anyway.

But, I love how he boxes out! Many young players from all parts of the world have totally dismissed this crucial part of the game. A stretch 4 who can actually rebound his position is priceless. He will get many catches on the weak-side ball-swing. His handle and court vision will help him if the defense stops his languid three point attempt.

Cavs relevance: If he drops past 20, because of his contract status, the Cavaliers and many other teams would be wise to trade up. I don’t think he is athletic enough for the top 10.

NBA Future: Mix between Boris Diaw and Hedo Turkoglu when those guys weren’t playing at their best.

Jusuf Nurkic C Bosnia

projected top 15

The Word:

He is huge. At only 19, Nurkic was measured at 6’11” and 280 pounds. He has completely destroyed the Adriatic league in limited minutes. He is a traditional Center, with a relatively soft touch for his massive frame.

My Questions Answered:

For his position, he moves pretty well laterally. He keeps his behind down a lot better than most guys his size. There is actually footage of him both defending the PnR and offensively as a roll partner. He is underwhelming if adequate at both. His lateral quickness is good enough to stretch out Adriatic league PGs, but we shall see if a coach would have him even attempt that in the NBA. As a roller, his footwork is a little sloppy and his hands aren’t great, but he tries to finish with authority when he can.

He needs a lot of dribbles to get to the spot he wants on the block, but once he gets there, he has fluid spin move into a soft jump hook. With better early work, he should able to catch closer to his preferred post spot. Not a jump shooter.

He doesn’t have much lift at all. He relies on overpowering guys with his size. He is in no danger of winning a dunk contest. Many of his bull moves will be useless in the NBA, but he is not an obscenely obese 280 lbs at just under 20 years old. He will get even stronger.

He gets a ton of rebounds, but I would like to see him get lower into his legs when he boxes out. There is value in leaning on a guy from above to control him, but that won’t cut it against bigger opponents.

Cavs relevance: No thanks.  The Cavs desperately need a rim protecting big with a quick second jump.  He is not.

NBA Future: Cherokee Parks? Cole Aldrich?  He is probably better than those guys, but I don’t think he will be anything more than a backup C on an average squad. He just doesn’t have enough athleticism for today’s game.

Clint Capela PF/C Switzerland

Projected Top 25 

The Word:

Capela is very long with good athleticism and great defensive potential. He has a ridiculous wingspan of 7’4.5″  Today’s basketball players continue to make a mockery of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Capela plays like a center, but has a power forward body.

My Questions Answered:

His lateral quickness is great for a big man. He looks more like a wing player moving side to side, but then, considering his slight build, he always looks more like a wing player. He reminds me of a bigger Hakim Warrick, though far less polished, if that’s possible. He measures at 6’11” in shoes, but doesn’t look it.

He has great PnR potential both offensively and defensively. He does a good job of keeping the ball high when he catches and elevates quickly. His timing seems ok, but it is always a challenge in the NBA. It’s the reason Brandan Wright is as valuable as he is on offense. Great roll timing is an art form and not all guys have it. Defensively, he has the quickness to show and recover if he actually tries. He seems to give up on a play more easily than I would like.

There is no shot release to speak of. I guess you could say he has a quick dunk release.  He finishes above the rim, but not through contact. His length is his primary weapon, and why wouldn’t it be with that reach? He should be able to dunk against space at the next level too. Defensively, he has to get into better position, or his physical attributes will go to waste.

He doesn’t use his lower body well on the boards. He seems content to look for the ball and go get it. Welcome to 2014 basketball. He has Center skills at the moment. At only 20, it is plausible that he can develop an offensive arsenal to play at the 4 or get heavier to bang that 5.

Cavs relevance: If he can learn to play with more intensity and not be a liability on the offensive end, he is worth a look. He has a chance to develop into a good defensive player. If he can develop a soft touch to finish off the PnR, he could be a steal at the end of the first round, and a great value at 33.

NBA Future: A team’s second big off the bench is probably his future, with a Brandan Wright ceiling. That’s nothing to sneeze at.


Artem Klimenko C Russia

projected Top 45

The Word:

Klimenko is a true seven footer with a soft touch around the rim.  The 20 year old runs the floor well and has superior length to contest shots. Looks a like a puppy on roller skates.

My Questions Answered:

Laterally, he covers a lot of ground due to his size, but he is not a beacon of balance.  Anyone know how to say slow motion flail in Russian?

Offensively, he shows good timing on his roll to the rim.  He finishes well if his feet are unobstructed, but struggles with contact. Defensively, he gets caught in between help and his man, but that could be said about almost every young prospect ever.  He keeps the ball up on the catch.  He shoots a solid percentage from the line. Perhaps that can be developed into a solid catch and shoot in PnPop situations.

His real problem is his lack of strength and balance.  He relies almost purely on his length and soft hands for his success.  He doesn’t leap quickly off two feet.  While he has a nice wide base in the post, he doesn’t understand how to use his arms at all. Defensively, he doesn’t utilize a legal forearm and offensively, he doesn’t fend off.

Cavs Relevance:  He has a standing reach of 9’4″ so one would think he could be a rim protector.  Unfortunately, he has shown no real evidence of good defensive timing.  He isn’t athletic enough to make up for his poor strength.

NBA Future:  He needs to spend a few years more in Europe.  If he develops a catch and shoot, things could get interesting.  Otherwise, he is a fourth big off the bench.  Maybe.


Walter Tavares C Spain

Projected Top 40

The Word:

Remember when I said Nurkic was huge? Mr. Tavares is gigantic. At almost 7’3″ and about 270 lbs, this 22 year old fits the upside potential narrative. Just recently started ballin’? Check. Is he unnaturally athletic for a man so big? Check. He has played well in limited minutes, but that’s not really the point with him.

My Questions Answered:

The fact a man this large can move laterally at all is impressive. He keeps his chest up with pretty good regularity and has good balance. His natural talent lies in the PnR game. This is an example of a guy who will likely be much more productive in the NBA than in Europe. He has zero post game, but that doesn’t even matter anymore with way the game has changed. If he can continue to develop his footwork on both sides of the ball, he can be a monster. I’m in love. Though, it must be noted that I fall in love with at least one raw bigman per draft season.

He doesn’t shoot a jumper yet, but his release is surprisingly good for a virtual beginner. He hit 71% from the stripe. That says a lot right there about his potential.

He finishes above the rim, but mostly because he is so tall. Either way, I will take it. He does rely on that size, but again, he is just learning. He actually does a decent job of boxing out on the glass. Most guys that size don’t ever need to until it’s too late to learn. He needs to use that same leg strength to work earlier on defense and not allow his man to pin him.

Cavs Relevance: Yes. Yes, and please yes.  Could be the rim protector and lob catcher that Cavs fans dream about.

NBA Future: Ok, you can say Hasheem Thabeet if you want to. He does have similar problems getting pushed around by stronger players. But, he isn’t a lottery pick and already has a better shot release than Thabeet ever dreamed of.



Other than Saric, I have focused on players who could potentially fill Cleveland’s need at Center.  Tavares is my favorite of this group, but we will look at some other potential picks next time.  There are also a few interesting backcourt players I will address.  Depending on how this crazy summer plays out, the Cavs might end up needing guard help too.  Until then!  Or rather, Bis dann!

 note: All statistical info was taken from DraftExpress