We're only two days away from the start of the Pre-Season!!!!
And before you shut off your computers until the end of the month, hear this: The Thunder will be playing their first pre-season game in Istanbul, against Fenerbahce Ulker. Now, I know that playing against European team at 8 in the morning might not be the most exciting thing in the world to some fans, but it's a really cool opportunity. I mean, when's the last time Oklahoma City got to take on the City of Istanbul....in anything?
Anyway, don't dismiss this team as a bunch of slouches who couldn't get into the NBA. Because they have some real talent, and a huge chance of upsetting the Thunder on their home floor.
Team Name: Fenerbahce Ulker (Ulker is a Turkish snack company, Fenerbahce is their real name.)
Accolades: They currently play in the Euroleague, which is Europe's highest level of competition. They also hold an "A License", which allows them to play in the Euroleague every year without first qualifying through their domestic league. Last year, they were eliminated in the last stage of group play, finishing 15th. They also play in the local Turkish league, where they've won 5 championships in total, including 4 of the last 7. In other words, they're one of Europes top 10-15 teams.
What you might know them for: During the 2011 lockout, many NBA players went over to Europe to keep in shape and grab a few extra dollars. The Thunder saw Serge Ibaka go to Real Madrid, and B.J. Mullens go to a second division Greek team. But, more importantly, Thabo Sefolosha got a nice contract with Fenerbahce. He got a nice chance to show off his offensive skill, and benefited from the shorter three point line. He should get a nice ovation when he shows up in Istanbul. (They're not the team that Allen Iverson played for in 2010. That was Besiktas.)
Track Record Against NBA Teams: The team is actually undefeated, winning their only previous game against an NBA team. Back in 2012, the Celtics took on Fenerbahce in the very same arena, and were thoroughly outclassed. Both teams dipped deep into their benches, but Fenerbahce was able to hold off a second half Boston comeback while both teams played their starters.
Who are the players? Here's my projected lineup for Fenerbahce, with a few names that you might recognize....
|Center:||Luka Zoric||Gasper Vidmar||Oguz Savas|
|Power Forward:||Nemanja Bjelica||Ilkan Karaman||Izzet Turkyilmaz|
|Small Forward:||Linas Kleiza||Omer Onan||Metecan Birsen|
|Shooting Guard:||Bojan Bogdanovic||Emir Preldzic||Melih Mahmutoglu|
|Point Guard:||Bo McCalebb||Baris Ermis||Kenan Sipahi|
Anyway, let's break each of these positions down.
Center: This is where the team is weakest, but it's also where they have their most depth. Zoric is probably the best player out of the bunch, playing solid minutes behind Ante Tomic on a solid Croatian team this Summer. His main asset is his ability to create his own shot and nail mid-range jumpers. He's definitely more offensive than he is defensive, and he should create some definite problems for the slower Kendrick Perkins. Zoric is aided by Gasper Vidmar and Oguz Savas, both of whom are solid backup centers and should battle for minutes. Vidmar is pretty athletic, while Savas has really nice hands and court-vision near the basket.
Power Forward: Nemanja Bjelica made a huge name for himself this summer, playing a featured role in Serbia's surprisingly good (and then surprisingly bad) national team. He's definitely a player that's very off and on in terms of production, but when he creates mismatches by going to the perimeter for jumpers, he can really make the opposing team pay. Ibaka should be able to keep him from exploding, but it's not hard to imagine him having a semi-decent game. Ilkan Karaman was a solid backup for Fenerbahce last year, using his extreme athleticism to make a name for himself. He was drafted by the Nets this summer. Izzet Turkyilmaz rounds out the group as another prospect. He was drafted by the Nuggets in 2012.
Small Forward: Linas Kleiza, the former Raptor, saw declining success in the NBA and signed with Fenerbahce over the Summer. He's definitely taken a small turn for the worse over the past couple of seasons, losing a bit of his athleticism and reportedly gaining weight. But he did see a bit of a late renaissance during the later stages of the Eurobasket, and he should provide an interesting matchup for Kevin Durant. He likes to create his own shot with his turnaround jumper, and he's always lurking for threes or cuts to the basket. He's not much of a ballhandler or defender, but his scoring can definitely offset those weaknesses. Behind Kleiza is the venerable Omer Onan, a three point marksman who's played for Fenerbahce since 2006. The third-team Small Forward is Metecan Birsen, a 17 year old prospect.
Shooting Guard: Bojan Bogdanovic is one of Europe's rapidly rising stars, due to enter the NBA this season. Some contract negotiations prevented his debut with Brooklyn this season, but if his performance at this Summer's Eurobasket is any indication, he'll be a name to watch for years to come. He's back-to-the-basket oriented, which is strange for a guard. But he uses his bulk to create space, and is an expert at producing easy points. His three point shooting and distribution need work, but he's not far from being a complete player. Backing him up is Emir Preldzic, a developing swingman who's really good at working within an offense and finding the open man. He played a lot of point guard for the Turkish national team this Summer, but, as evidenced by the team's colossal failure, he can't play the position full-time. Backing him up is Melih Mahmutoglu, a spot three point shooter.
Point Guard: Bo McCalebb is Europe's best kept secret. He was glorified by Macedonia's run to the semi-finals in the 2011 Eurobasket, but he's really a lot better than you think. He managed a 21 point performance on 9 for 14 shooting playing against Rajon Rondo last Fall, so it's a real shame that he won't get to play against Russell Westbrook. He can't distribute the ball as well as he'd like, but with the amount of self-creating scorers on the team, it's not a real problem. Baris Ermis is a pass-first point guard who provides a perfect change of pace from Bo McCalebb, ala Eric Maynor during the Thunder's early days. Rounding out the roster is Kenan Sipahi, another 17 year old prospect and adept passer.
So, how good are they really?
Fenebahce Ulker are about the equivalent to a 30 win NBA team. If some of their younger stars were more developed, I might say that they were on a borderline playoff level. But as it stands, they've got a lot of depth and a lot of question marks. Can Linas Kleiza consistently produce? Is Bo McCalebb losing his explosiveness? Is Bojan Bogdanovic for real, or disgruntled about contract negotations? Can this team distribute the ball to their bigs? A lot of the answers aren't clear, but the Thunder have some equally pressing questions of their own. The Thunder are definitely more talented, but whether talent equals a victory remains to be seen....
What do you think about our opponents? Let us know in the comments!