As the NBA lockout wears on, and the 2011-12 season is threatened, it's time to talk about some more alternatives. Now that the summer's big international competitions are over, we'll turn our attention to the next-best-thing to NBA hoops: European basketball. This year's crop of Spurs-related players overseas is quite large, but not all of them are playing in the big leagues. Follow me into the beyond for some updates on where everyone is playing.
We're going to follow some different Euroleague clubs this year, along with some of the ones we followed last season. Some of the Spurs-related players we look forward to following every year have been shuffled around, and some others have signed overseas due to the lockout. After having a conversation with our former overlord Wayne Vore a couple months ago about it, I decided to find them all.
Qualifying Tournament (September 30 - October 2nd)
There are still two open spots in Euroleague, and 16 teams trying to get them. What does that mean? A single elimination tournament, of course!
The team managed by Tony Parker also features one player somewhat familiar to Spurs fans: Pops Mensah-Bonsu. They've also signed former NBA player Hilton Armstrong, but he was probably going to Europe with or without the lockout anyway. I'm not high on ASVEL's chances of making the Euroleague regular season, as there are some powerhouse teams in the qualifying stages on their side. But, they managed to get a #1 seed, and they do have some pretty decent players. We'll see what happens. Relegation to Eurocup isn't the end of the world, but the Eurloeague has much better financing(read: TV money). If we're being honest, I'm surprised Parker hasn't already joined the team to help them qualify, especially with countryman Nicolas Batum already playing for SLUC Nancy, and with his best player Mickael Gelabale out with injury. Without Tony or Gelabale, the odds are definitely against ASVEL.
BC Khimki Moscow - Chris Quinn
That's right. Everyone's favorite 2010-11 HVC decided that he couldn't wait for an NBA payday, and headed off to Moscow to make some money. Khimki has had a pretty good run in recent years, despite not having the financial resources of their crosstown rivals CSKA(Mikhail Prokhorov says hi), and Quinn looks like a smart signing for them. These guys look like a virtual lock to make their way into Euroleague after re-signing Timofey Mozgov to a lockout contract and adding Austin Daye as well. It's too bad they're on the same side of the qualifying bracket as ASVEL, so only one of them can make it into the Euroleague regular season. Does Quinn = win?
Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul - James Gist, Curtis Jerrells
After spending last season together with Partizan Belgrade, James and Curtis find themselves on the same team yet again, albeit in a much different location. Ulker had one of the best regular-season records in Euroleague play last year, but fizzled out when the groups were reshuffled for the top 16, as Valencia held the tiebreaker over them at the end of group play. Along with Jerrells and Gist, the team also signed Nets draftee Bojan Bogdanovic in the offseason. Turkish teams in general have been very active this offseason, with Ulker's crosstown rivals Efes Pilsen signing Sasha Vujacic and Ersan Ilyasova among others, and Besiktas signing Deron Williams and Zaza Pachulia. Partizan had a disappointing season with James and Curtis, so we'll have to see if the two Spurs products can have a better impact on their new team than they did on their old one.
Emporio Armani Milano - Ioannis Bourousis, Malik Hairston
Milan has been one of the most active teams this offseason in terms of signings. They snatched Omar Cook away from Valencia(getting rid of SpurNando's primary competition for minutes), grabbed Bourousis almost immediately after he was waived by Olympiakos(see below). They've also signed former Spur Malik Hairston, after buying out his contract with Serie A rivals Montepaschi Siena, but he'll only see backup minutes behind lockout-deal beneficiary Danilo Gallinari. On top of that, they snatched another quality Greek big man - Antonis Fotsis - from Panathinaikos. A third-place finish in the Italian league and a failure to advance beyond Euroleague's regular season was obviously not seen as satisfactory, and it appears that they have re-worked their sponsorship deal with Armani for some extra cash to build a better roster.
Olympiakos BC Athens - Vasillis Spanoulis, Rasho Nesterovic?
Olympiakos has experienced somewhat of an exodus of talent, and will probably not be anywhere near the team they have been for many years once Euroleague play resumes. Starting guard Milos Teodosic(one of the best guards playing overseas, mind you) left for greener pastures, and Rasho may be retiring after suffering a nasty injury late last season. The club is accepting buyout offers, and Bourousis's ties to a doping and game-fixing scandal* gave the team an excuse cancel his contract, even though money was probably a motivation there as well. Unless the team find some good replacements, they could be in danger of relegation next season. OK, maybe not, since the Greek league basically stinks outside of OLY and PANA, but that would be one heck of a development.
* = (Even though Bourousis himself was not implicated, what I understand is that his lady's family was running the whole scheme. It's pretty messy.)
Union Olimpija Ljubljana - Davis Bertans, Danny Green
Slovenia's premiere club team returns for another season of Euroleague and Adriatic League competition. An interesting little note about this team is two names that stood out when looking at their roster - former Bucks(by way of the Spurs) draftee Damir Markota, and their likely starter at the 2 is Samo Udrih, older brother of Beno. They also signed young Latvian phenom(and Spurs draftee) Davis Bertans in the offseason, which is why we'll start following them. It doesn't hurt that they recently signed Danny Green to a lockout-based contract, either. This team never really seems to make a big splash in Euroleague, so I know next to nothing about them, but I'll happily watch to see how our guys are doing.
Regal Barcelona - Erazem Lorbek
Barca has dominated the ACB the last 3 years, coming away with the best regular season record in each of those season. If not for Tiago's 2009-10 Caja Laboral team, they would have won the ACB championship in all 3 seasons as well. Oddly enough, the one year they didn't take the ACB crown is the year they won the Euroleague title. A perrenial favorite in Euroleague, they've had to replace the recently-departed Ricky Rubio with one of my favorite non-NBA players, Brazilian PG Marcelinho Huertas. While perhaps not as well-known as Rubio, Huertas' ability to consistently hit jump shots may make him a better fit. With weapons like Eurobasket MVP JC Navarro and Spurs PF prospect Erazem Lorbek on his squad, he'll have a chance to show whether he belongs on NBA teams' radar. Don't be surprised if these guys try to sign Tiago Splitter to a lockout deal as well, but they'll have some competition from his previous team Caja Laboral.
Zalgiris Kaunas - Robertas Javtokas
Javtokas returns to his native Lithuania this season, after having an extremely good season for Valencia last year. By buying him out of his contract with Valencia, and subsequently bringing Nuggets PG Ty Lawson and former Raptor Sonny Weems on board, Zalgiris is obviously hoping to improve their prospects in the Euroleague. After playing .500 ball last year, it was obvious that they needed more help to compete with the more storied European teams, so they went out and got it. It'll be fun to see where they end up in the standings.
Panathinaikos BC Athens - Romain Sato
One of the hardest changes for me to figure out for the new European season is the fact that Valencia got relegated back down to the Eurocup level. Since I don't fully understand the Euroleague's promotion/relegation rules, I'm going to make the assumption that their disappointing results in the ACB playoffs are the culprit. Valencia actually did well in Euroleague last season, making the quarterfinals, and they would have even made the final four if not for a narrow loss to Real Madrid. in the ACB playoffs, they were upset in the first round by eventual runner-up Bizkaia Bilbao(who were subsequently promoted to Euroleague). Still, Unicaja was an 8th seed, lost in the first round of the ACB playoffs, and still made the Euroleague for next season. It's a confusing system, and I'm at a loss to explain it.
With the departure of Javtokas, Nando De Colo is now the only Valencia player whose NBA rights are held by the Spurs. There were rumors immediately after the end of last season that he would be bought out and signed by another team(Can't remember which one), but those rumors died quickly. The last time PEV was in EuroCup, Nando hit a game-clinching basket to give them the title, and promotion to Euroleague. Last season, he seemed to regress, although he played fairly well late in the Euroleague season and playoffs. If he doesn't improve this year, Nando will probably never see an NBA court.
Krasnye Krylya Samara (Russia/EuroChallenge*) - DeJuan Blair
* - must win qualifying matchup
Blair is the first Spurs rotation player to sign overseas, and he's already making his presence felt in the Russian league with his new, nearly un-pronouncable club. [In case any of our DBB brethren are reading, the team's name is the Red Wings - crazy, right?] Some folks will worry about him getting injured, but I think that DeJuan's desire for keeping his skills sharp and staying in shape after last year's weight-gain debacle can only be a good thing. As a bonus, this team probably has enough talent to qualify for the Eurochallenge(they still have to win their qualifying round), meaning that DeJuan will have twice as many games to help him stay sharp. Don't hurt those Russian kids too badly, Blair!
Assignia Manresa Basket (ACB) - Adam Hanga
One of the most enigmatic Spurs draft picks in recent years, Hungarian sensation Adam Hanga will be playing in a top league for the first time in his career. Unfortunately, Manresa has struggled in recent years just to avoid relegation to Spain's second-tier domestic league(LEB). They won't be competing in any of the three continent-wide competitions, as they did not qualify. That would change with a strong showing in the ACB, and Hanga's reputation as an offensive machine from the little-known Hungarian league will be put to the test in what is likely the top domestic basketball league in Europe.
Virtus Pallacanestro Bologna(Serie. A) - Viktor Sanikidze
This team doesn't play in any continent-wide competitive leagues, but still bears watching for a couple of reasons. Sanikidze played very well at Eurobasket this year, and may have earned more responsibilities with his club team when the Italian League resumes. Another reason to pay attention to Bologna is that this is the team that Manu Ginobili won two Euroleague championships with, and the team has made him an offer to return and play there during the NBA lockout. If Manu decides to play overseas, the lure of playing in front of fans who already adore him has to be a very strong selling point. Meanwhile, the club has signed Chris Douglas-Roberts, and has entered talks with Kobe Bryant, trying to sign him to a lockout deal as well.
Lugano Tigers (Swiss League) - Ryan Richards
Richards is a difficult guy to keep track of. After looking set to play this season with Gran Canaria of the ACB, he mysteriously disappeared from their roster a few months back(even though his contract was still valid). Then after his stint with the British U-20 national team, he suddenly re-appeared signing a contract to play in Lugano. The Swiss league isn't exactly the ACB, and Lugano did not qualify for any continent-wide leagues after a poor showing in EuroChallenge last season, so if Richards isn't dominant this season, we should probably all lower our expectations for the kid.
If the lockout continues much longer, there might be more players(like Parker or Ginobili) to keep an eye on, and we'll keep track of that here.