This is part of WTLC's coverage of the Eurobasket! Serge Ibaka won't be playing in Spain this year, but there will be a lot of familiar faces in Europe, so we'll be doing some skeleton coverage to keep you up to date. Here's my preview of Group D.
FIBA World Ranking: 4th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 6th
NBA Players: Kosta Koufos, Denver Nuggets
Team Overview: Greece has traditionally been one of the world most elite teams. They've never had a premiere NBA player, but their strong domestic league and the presence of their players throughout Europe has allowed them to compete on a high level. Their most memorable victory came in the 2006 World Championship, where they ousted Team USA in the semi-final and went on to win the Sliver Medal. Greece is far from a one-time Cinderella, though. They went on to strong 4th and 3rd place finishes in the subsequent 07 and 09 Eurobaskets, as well as an appearance at the 2010 FIBA Championship.
Greece has undergone a bit of a youth renaissance over the past couple of years though, and as such they've had to do a bit of reloading. Longtime stars Diantris Diamantidis, Theodorous Papaloukas, Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Kostas Tsartsaris, and Vassilis Spanoulis were absent from the team in 2011, leaving Greece weaker than they'd been in years. The talent pool of Greece is deep though, and the team managed to claw their way into the tournament stage, where they unceremoniously lost to France. They qualified for the Olympic qualifying tournament last Summer, but their run was cut short by a upset victory from a surprisingly talented Nigerian team.
This year, Greece's young guns are a year older, and they've got some legitimate talent to help them out. Vassilis Spanoulis will make his Eurobasket return this year, utilizing his amazing shooting skills and playmaking ability. Also returning will be Nuggets forward Kosta Koufos, who brings excellent hands, athleticism, and rebounding ability. Considering that he'll probably end up being the team's 5th or 6th man, it gives you an idea of just how talented this Greek team is. Capping off the returns will be Giorgios Printezis, an athletic and nimble forward with a myriad of moves that get him to the basket. Continuing to lead the team will be Ioannis Borousis, a center who can score with his back to the basket and off of the pick and roll. He can also nail a a three if he's left open. Nikos Zisis will play one of the wing positions, bringing his trademark lockdown defense. Leading the youth movement will be Kostas Popapnikolou, a dymanic scorer who could soon be Greece's next big star. Greece has a couple of absences whom could have really pushed this team over the top, though. Sofoklis Schortsanitis, the bulky big, suffered an injury over the Summer and won't be able to compete. Nick Calathes, Greece's capable penetrating and dishing point guard, will miss this Summer's competition due to recently signing with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Play Style: The best description I can give of the Greek offense is "surgeon-like". It seems like a cross between the creativity of Spain and the rigid set plays of a team like Belgium. None of the players are ball-hogs, or like to isolate anywhere but the post. Rather, they work off of each other beautifully, passing it to each other on the perimeter or drawing defenders with a drive. They don't use a lot of pick and roll, but they do set a ton of off-ball screens, some of which are really hard to catch of first glance. Really, I wouldn't even call it screening. It's just players running around other players, using them as human shields without the other player even knowing it. Also, Greece can tear up any zone defense with their great three point shooting. Defensively, Greece likes to use a strict man-to-man defense, rarely ptrapping or providing help defense in the paint.
Main Strength: Talent at every position. Greece doesn't really have a point guard, but that's beside the point. At every position on the floor, Greece has a well above-average talent. Most of their rotation players are capable of creating their own shot and heating up when the time is right. Moreover, there no real skill that they lack at any position. Most of their players are very dynamic and can fill a variety of needs.
Main Weakness: Lack of speed. Even before it was announced that Nick Calathes wouldn't be with the team, this was a major problem for Greece. Their team is pretty big, and will have career shooting guards running their point guard position. That's fine offensively, but defensively the team is going to get eaten up by more athletic guards. In the 2011 Eurobasket, Tony Parker and Bo McCalebb were able to have field days against Greece. In the 2012 Olympic Qualifying tournament, the team was upset by a more quick and athletic Nigerian team, despite the fact that their overall offensive scheme was a lot more sound.
Final Verdict: This Greek team is much stronger than the one we saw in 2011, and they should be able to easily win Group D. Their talent level exceeds everybody but Turkey, and the teams below them have a lot of holes that Greece can exploit. They should be able to easily make it into the tournament as well, and compete for the title. How far they go really depends on them. France would undoubtedly be their toughest matchup, but they can beat anybody in the tournament. Ultimately, they'll win gold if they can perform in the clutch and show an ability to contain opposing superstars, both on the perimeter and in the paint.
FIBA World Ranking: 6th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: Bronze (3rd)
Team Overview: Russia isn't the fearsome Soviet Union team that they once were, but they are definitely still an elite power in Europe. Some of their most recent accolades include Gold at the 2007 Eurobasket, and Bronze at the 2011 Eurobasket and 2012 Olympics. That Bronze was the team's first post-Soviet Olympic medal. Sadly for Russian fans, the recent era of success is about to fade away. David Blatt, who coached the team to all of those medals, stepped down last fall for personal reasons. A few players have gone with him. Andrei Kirilenko unofficially retired from international play in February. The second banana on the team, former NBA Player Viktor Khryapa, has decided to forego the event due to exhaustion. Their best big, Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov, has also pulled out due to personal reasons. Their next best big, Sasha Kaun, also decided to pull out of the tournament. To make matters worse, their next next best big, Andrey Vorontsevich, had to pull out because of a late injury. Piling on the party is reserve guard Sergey Bykov, who will miss his second consecutive tournament with injury.
Despite all of that, Russia's starting back court will remain largely intact. The point guard, Aleksey Shved, will continue to provide excellent court vision and creativity as he drives into the paint. The shooting guard, Vitaliy Fridzon, will continue to be an excellent sharpshooter. And the small forward, Sergey Monya, a former NBA player, will provide his brand of lockdown defense and off-the-dribble shooting. Anton Ponkrashov, the team's backup point, will function as a decent playmaker. Their front court, unfortunately, is another story. They'll be leaning on 34 year old Aleksey Savrasenko and Dmitry Sokolov, who sits on the bench of his Russian domestic league team. Their options at power forward, the young Evgeny Valiev and Eurobasket 2011 rotation player Semen Antonov, both only post pedestrian numbers in the domestic league.
Play Style: It's a bit hard for me to say because Russia's changed the face of their team and I haven't seen much of their preparation games, but their offense should work from the outside in. Expect lots of picks to be set on the perimeter for the guards, and for their guards to get a lot of isolation sets, even in the post. Defensively, Russia should stick to a man to man game with lots of pressure and trapping.
Main Strength: Court vision. Russia doesn't have the best penetrating guards in Europe. That distinction might go to Slovenia or Greece. But their guards do have excellent court vision. They have a good ability to pass the ball back out or give it to the open man on the other side of the lane, and that should really be the main driving force of their offense in this tournament.
Main Weakness: Post scoring. The team simply doesn't have a back to the basket scorer, and that spells trouble when you're going toe-to-toe with Europe's elite teams. Moreover, they're not entirely great at three point shooting, so I could definitely see a lot of bad turnovers or offensive stagnation on their end.
Final Verdict: If the old crew of Russia were here, they'd be able to duke it out with Greece for the top seed in the group. But as it stands, they're a really distant second. There's no way they can compete with Greece in the post, or be able to keep their offense at a similar rate. But they should still be able to make it to the second round. Italy and Finland are limited in what they can do, and as long as Russia can control the ball and defend the perimeter, they should be able to beat them. Turkey could potentially upset them, if they were somehow able to get their act together. Russia will have to battle hard for a spot in the tournament, but I could see it happen as long as they could keep a consistent offense going.
FIBA World Ranking: 21st
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 20th
Team Overview: Until recently, Italy was strong European contender. They have several powerful clubs in the country, and basketball interest is high. But over the past decade or so, Italy's team has provided nothing but disappointment. In 2011, the team featured all three Italian NBA players (Andrea Bargnani, Danilo Gallinari, and Marco Bellineli), but they crashed and burned due to poor defense, poor three point shooting, and a tough group. This year, Italy figures to disappoint again. Both Bargnani and Gallinari were ruled out of the competition because of injuries. Injury hit the non-NBA players as well, with starting point guard Daniel Hackett and post presence Stefano Mancianelli both sitting out this year.
That leaves only one player who averaged over 4 PPG in 2011 slated to play for Italy in 2013. That man is the highly recognizable Marco Bellinelli, who will provide excellent long range shooting and able defense. This leaves the door open for the fearless Luigi "Gigi" Datome, a forward who just recently joined the Detroit Pistons. He should provide a level of athleticism that wasn't seen in 2011, as well as stable three point shooting. Joining the strong swingman core will be Pietro Aradori, a well-rounded scorer who shoots well off the dribble. Bringing up the point will be Andrea Cinciarini, a penetrating glue guard who's capable of a triple-double. Holding down the post will the primarily defensive Marco Cusin. Leading the youth movement will be Alessandro Gentile, who is primarily a scorer but may see time at power forward due to Italy's lack of size.
Play Style: Italy will use their traditional run and gun style this year. They'll be looking to push the pace and take shots early in the clock. When in half-court sets, they like to have individual players try to create something on the top of the arc or on the wing, while other players make cuts to or from the basket. High screens are occasionally used, but they rarely directly result in a score. The players seem to use it moreso as a way to create space and distract the defense. Defensively, the team runs man to man, and they're not afraid to switch on screens and pack the paint.
Main Strength: Shot creation. Italy has a lot of players who are capable of creating their own shot, and Italy uses that advantage to a T. They're not afraid to have a guard post up another guard when they see a potential mismatch, or let one of their players hurl up a difficult three. This can work against them sometimes, but it leads to a very low turnover rate, which is never a bad thing.
Main Weakness: Post defense. This was amplified in the 2011 Eurobasket by the presence of Andrea Bargnani, but it remains a problem. Even in the preliminary rounds, Italy had lots of problems containing guys like Semih Erden. Marco Cusin will do a little bit to alleviate this problem, but if the other team had a big guy who could post up really well at power forward, I could see Italy having a lot of problems.
Final Verdict: Italy is certainly a lot weaker than they could be, but as it stands, they're no slouches. They're a bit gimmicky, but they've got solid talent to lead them and I don't see any of the teams here taking advantage of them in the post. I don't see them making it far beyond Round 2 though, as they should run into a brick wall against Spain, the post-heavy Poland, and the high scoring Slovenia.
FIBA World Ranking: 48th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 9th Place
NBA Players: None
Team Overview: Finland has never been known as a great basketball country, and their team reflected it. The nation had only made two Eurobasket appearances since the country last hosted it in 1967, and they never saw much success. That all changed in 2011 though, when young Petteri Koponen led his ragtag team to the second round of the Eurobasket, registering wins over Bosnia and Montenegro. In the second round, they were able to beat a solid Georgian squad, missing out on the tournament but registering the country's best finish since 1967. Granted, they did get a pretty easy route to where they got, but for a team that regularly failed to qualify for the tournament, it was a great feat.
The good news for Finland is that every rotation player from their 2011 squad will be returning this year. They performed well in the qualification games, registering wins over Poland and Belgium, and have done decently in their warm-up games. With another year to grow together, the steady Finnish team looks to surprise in 2013. Their primary player will be Petteri Koponen, a fantastic young point guard. He'll isolate and score against pretty much any opponent, and can score just as easily from three as he can with his back to the basket. He also has quick hands, having the ability to steal the ball off the dribble and drive and dish. Helping him out will be the undersized but effective post player, Gerald Lee Jr. Also helping out will be the athletic marksman, Shawn Huff. Finland's role players shouldn't be underestimated, either. Sasu Salin and Mikko Koivisto will provide accurate three point shooting, while Tuukka Kotti provides a solid defensive presence and good hands down low. Not to be forgotten is Hanno Mottola, a formerly dynamic scorer who might show flashes of his past Euroleague glory.
Play Style: Finland's play style is extremely iso heavy. Usually their preferred way to get a shot is by eating the other team up the floor, but if that fails, Finland will dish it to one of their players on the top of the key or on the baseline and let them go to work. Their bigs are capable of scoring on their own, so they don't work off of the pick and roll very often. The basic glue that holds it all together is a combination of Koponen's creativity, the ability to hit difficult threes, and all-around quickness. Defensively, they play man-to-man and use tons of pressure. They're notoriously bad at defending the pick and roll though, because their defenders look to get in front of their man.
Main Strength: I mentioned it already, but Finland's ability to hit deep and contested threes is amazing. It's basically what their entire highlight reels consist of. You'll see guys regularly spotting up from five feet behind the line, and throwing up difficult shots in other players' faces. And, despite that, they manage to average around 40% as a TEAM. It boggles the mind.
Main Weakness: As I mentioned above, the team really struggles against pick and roll centers, because they like to pressure and don't have a lot of height. But they can also really struggle if Petteri Koponen is out of control. He's not a selfish player by any means, but he's asked to do a lot to keep this team going. So when he's not in shooting rhythm or turning the ball over, he's really hurting the entire team. I'd go so far as to say that he has the biggest role for his team in the tournament, even when considering Bo McCalebb and Tony Parker.
Final Verdict: Finland has a lucky matchup advantage against Turkey and better talent than Sweden, but those are the only teams that they'll beat in this year's Eurobasket. My heart wants to think that they could pull off an exciting upset over Italy or Russia, but Italy employs basically the same strategy as they do with more talent and better passing, while Russia's perimeter defense and excellent ball control should see them victorious. Anything could happen, though.
FIBA World Ranking: 7th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 11th
Team Overview: Turkey has always been a peripheral contender on the international basketball scene, and they've always had strong domestic clubs. But they've recently had a great crop of home-grown players spring up, and they've taken the Turkish team to never before seen heights. In 2010, when Turkey hosted their first FIBA World Championship, the team managed to achieve an unprecedented Silver medal, losing to Team USA in the title game. They didn't do as well in 2011, when three of their key players (Turkoglu, Ilyasova, and Arslan) turned in terrible shooting performances. They also had turnover problems, with no pure ballhandler leading the team. Most of the team's key players thus abandoned them during 2013 qualifying, and they barely made it into the Eurobasket.
However, the vast majority of them will be returning for the 2013 Eurobasket. The only omissions from their 2010 Silver medal winning team are Karem Tunceri, who wasn't included on the call-up list, and Omer Onan, who suffered a freak leg injury days before the competition. Neither of them were amongst the team's top four scorers though, so it shouldn't be too huge of a hit. Bolstering the squad will be the pick and roll-heavy Semih Erden, who returns after a 2011 absence. The returners include Omer Asik, who will form a ver powerful post combo with Semih Erden. Kerem Gonlum will back them up with good back to the basket scoring. Ersan Ilyasova will provide excellent scoring from the wings, as will the aging Hedo Turkoglu. Ender Arslan battled through injury to be with the squad, and should be the team's primary scoring guard. Turkey will look to allieviate their ballhandling problems by relying upon Emir Preldzic, a 6'7" small forward who recently morphed into an extremely efficient point guard.
Play Style: Given the inclusion of Semih Erden and Omer Asik on the roster, it should be pretty obvious that Turkey is a pick and roll heavy team. They've allowed for a bit more isolation with the increased ballhandling duties of Preldzic, though. Generally if they want the wings to score, they'll have them receive the rock off of an off-ball screen. Defensively, Turkey likes to switch on screens and apply pressure. As a result, they'll allow a few too many open threes.
Main Strength: Talent. In terms of sheer ability to play basketball, Turkey has one of the best teams on the planet. They boast a lineup consisting of players who have starred on their respective teams in the Euroleague and the NBA, and should be able to beat a lot of teams in this competition on that aspect alone.
Main Weakness: Distribution. I feel like Turkey lost a certain cohesiveness with the departure of Karem Tunceri. If pick and roll centers are going to be consistently successful, they need someone feeding them the ball. Without that happening, you've got to rely on guys like Ilyasova and Turkoglu to create a lot of shots, and they end up having terrible offensive performances. I haven't seen enough of Preldzic to determine whether he's a true Tunceri successor or not, but I think he's better at finding shooters than he is at passing it into the post.
Final Verdict: I'll probably end up looking like an idiot for ranking them this low, but I just feel like this Turkish team is flawed. They haven't performed well in warmup games, and they don't have a sound strategy that will pull them through their lack of a point guard. When you have a pick and roll heavy offense, you need a point guard, and I don't think that the score-first Ender Arslan or the isolation heavy Emir Preldzic is the answer at that position. So they'll lose out to more soundly built Italian and Russian teams, while getting upset by Finland because they can't take care of the ball and give up open threes. I could be totally wrong about this, though.
FIBA World Ranking: 65th
2011 Eurobasket Result: Did Not Qualify
NBA Players: Jonas Jerebko (Detroit Pistons), Jeffery Taylor (Charlotte Bobcats)
Team Overview: Sweden isn't exactly a hotbed of basketball interest, and it shows. This will be their first entry into the competition since 2003, when they automatically qualified by hosting the event. It will surprise you to know that Sweden possesses two legitimate NBA Players in Jonas Jerebko and Jeffery Taylor. Jerebko will provide a variety of offensive skills in the post, while Taylor will provide athleticism in the backcourt. But it won't surprise you to know that these two players are by far Sweden's best. Your best bet would be Viktor Gaddefors, a swingman and NBA Draft prospect who drives the ball pretty well. Sweden does possess other players that play at high levels, like the three point marksman Kenny Grant, who plays in France, the back to the basket Jonathan Skjoldebrand, who plays in Israel, the Defensive Thomas Massamba, who plays for a EuroCup Bulgarian team, and the athletic Erik Rush, who plays in Italy. But these guys aren't much more than role players on their native squads. Joakim Kjellbom is probably the best Swede who plays domestically, sometimes playing a role as the third primary player in warmup matches this summer.
Because the team has changed so dramatically since their qualification and it's near impossible to find clips of them playing, I'm going to refrain from commenting on their play style.
Final Verdict: Sweden is a two-horse team, and those two horses need more time to develop. This squad just isn't on the same level as other teams talent-wise. The only way I could see them winning is if Jerebko and Taylor absolutely explode.
Who do you see winning Group D this year? Let us know in the comments!
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- Eurobasket 2013 Group B Preview
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