Eurobasket is over, some domestic leagues have tipped-off, and there’s been pre-season action as well. But Euroleague is still two weeks away, and that’s what everyone is itching for.
Two weeks ago, Def Pen launched our season preview, which was dope, but there are still plenty of other points of interest for the upcoming season, including specific players – and a trio – to watch.
Euroleague newcomers were left out of this list, they’ll be saved for another column. Instead, the focus will be on familiar faces.
5. Bryant Dunston
Anadolu Efes had a great 2016-17 season. The club finished sixth in the regular season and pushed Euroleague runner-ups Olympiacos to their absolute limits in the playoffs. It was an overachievement for sure, but with overachievement comes summer departures.
Thomas Heurtel, Jayson Granger, Tyler Honeycutt, Cedi Osman and Brandon Paul – key players from last season – have all sought out pastures anew. The key player and team star, who has remained, is veteran center Bryant Dunston.
Dunston was the catalyst to Efes’ shock push for a Final Four spot last season. The 31-year-old American averaged 14.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 40 minutes. He was arguably the best two-way big man in the league behind Ekpe Udoh and was rewarded by being named the All-Euroleague second team center.
He still has his twin tower by his side in Derrick Brown – who was also really good at times last season and deserves more recognition for his game – but Efes has a lot of new faces that were added after the club accomplished their main goal of the summer in retaining Dunston’s services.
Josh Adams, Errick McCollum, Ricky Ledo and Brock Motum arrive as the pieces meant to help get the most out of Dunston.
McCollum and Adams are new pick-and-roll partners for the former Olympiacos man. Last season, Dunston played with Granger and Heurtel, two accomplished pick-and-roll creators with the latter being one of the best in Europe. He had an incredible chemistry with them that was the foundation of Efes’s emphatic offense.
Those are two different types of rolls – the quick release roll and delayed roll – and two different types of passing angles from Heurtel. Both passes hit Dunston right in the chest and right in stride. That understanding of each other’s game and timing is elite and takes time to develop. Both players were also aided by years of experience operating in Euroleague pick-and-rolls.
Adams and McCollum have a combined zero Euroleague pick-and-rolls between the two of them. It’s unlikely that Efes will be capable of leaning on the pick-and-roll for their primary threat of attack from the get. If that holds true, can they figure out other forms of attack? Will that keep them in the playoff hunt long enough for a late-season surge that gets them a favorable postseason match-up like the season before?
Again, that will depend on Dunston. As Efes’ offense takes shape in the early stages of the season, they’ll have to trust their defense to help them win games.
Dunston will be the anchor of that defense, as he was last season. I mentioned his 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 40 earlier and those numbers speak for themselves. Dunston’s defensive prowess goes beyond the box score, though.
Dunston is a versatile shot blocker, always showcasing a variety of ways to protect the rim.
Here we see him do it as a help defender, coming off the corner to swat away the open dunk.
In this set, Dunston does damage control and makes a recovery block after defending the pick-and-roll.
For the final clip, Dunston sticks to Maodo Lo’s hip after switching onto him and swats his layup attempt away effortlessly.
Dunston is everything to Efes. Their season will go as far as he takes them, and that’s why everyone will be locked in on him from Efes’s first game to their last. Time will tell if Dunston gives his club their desired return on investment.
4. Fabian Causeur
When Real Madrid made three consecutive Euroleague title games from 2013-2015 – and won the 2015 title – they were led by Sergio Llull (injured), Sergio Rodriguez (now with CSKA), and Rudy Fernandez.
Fernandez was an All-Euroleague first teamer in 2013 and ’14, and made the second team in ’15. Fernandez averaged 13.7 PPG, 13.2 PPG, and 12.7 PPG in each of those seasons, respectively.
But ever since Los Blancos won their ninth Euroleague title in ’15, Fernandez’s back issues have caught up with him and he hasn’t been able to supply the perimeter flair and scoring punch that helped carry this team to multiple title games. His points-per-game averages fell to 7.6 in ’16 and 6.5 in ’17.
The dissolve of Fernandez’s star power was prominent in last season’s Final Four matchup with Fenerbahce, where Llull was the team’s only source of offense. When he was off the court, Real could barely get the ball past the three-point line, even with Fernandez in the game.
Madrid finally addressed that issue this offseason by signing French shooting guard Fabian Causeur from Brose Bamberg. Luka Doncic and Facundo Campazzo will be the point guard rotation that will try to replace Llull and Chacho, while Causeur will be tasked with providing the perimeter offense that Fernandez brought.
Causeur averaged 14.6 points per 40 in the 2015-16 season with Baskonia, and 15.7 points per 40 in 2016-17 with Bamberg. He’s not quite at the level of Fernandez’s 19 points per 40 in 2014 and 18.5 points per 40 in 2015, but Causeur did have a lower usage rate in each of those seasons: 17.9 compared to 22.3 and 19.4 compared to 21.7.
The French gunner will also be playing with more star power this season than he did last year. Bamberg featured one player who instantly drew help from extra defenders last season when he touched the ball in Nicolo Melli. Madrid features two in Doncic and Gustavo Ayon, and maybe three when Anthony Randolph plays at the level he’s capable of.
Causeur has a smooth left-handed stroke from three and shot 35 percent from behind the arc last season on 3.3 three-point attempts per game. Fernandez shot 36 percent on 5.5 three-point attempts per game during the 2014-15 season.
Causeur can attack in a variety of ways, similar to prime Fernandez. He’s comfortable working off the dribble.
Similarly to Rudy.
Causeur is also very good at attacking closeouts.
Similarly to Rudy.
The list of comparisons goes on for these two wing scorers. Los Blancos’ fanbase might not be led to La Decima by the Spanish trio of Llull-Rudy-Chacho like they dreamed of. But if Doncic-Causeur-Campazzo helps the club maintain their status as a Final Four team, and maybe push further thanks to their new perimeter weapon in Causeur then those dreams will vanish and become a thing of the past.
3. The Panathinaikos Trio
After two seasons of watching their Rivals celebrate as Greek League champions, Panathinaikos finally got over the hump and bested Olympiacos last season in the Greek League Finals.
However, dark clouds hung over the Greens’ title, both literally and figuratively.
Figuratively, clouds hung over the title because the Panathinaikos players and fans still remember what happened during the Euroleague season.
After changing coaches two games into the season, the Greens played solid and consistent basketball throughout the season. It wasn’t the most entertaining at times, but it got the job done.
As always, they were nearly impossible to beat at home and challenged teams on the road. This ultimately led to the Greens finishing in fourth place, thus setting themselves up well to return to the Euroleague Final Four after a four-year absence.
That’s not what happened though. Instead, the Greek side got swept by Fenerbahce and became the laughingstock of Euroleague when their owner tried to punish players for their poor performances by making them travel back from Turkey to Greece by bus.
The Greens suffered some departures this summer as electric point guard Mike James signed a two-way deal with the Phoenix Suns and Ioannis Bourousis left for the CBA. The club brought in replacements and added some more firepower with guys like Marcus Denmon, Lukas Lekavicius and Matt Lojeski.
But the most intriguing players on this team are three returning players from last seasons core: Nick Calathes, KC Rivers and Chris Singleton.
Calathes is one of the most consistent point guards in Europe. He can run the pick-and-roll, values the basketball, is an extension of the coach on the floor and an accomplished defender. For a 30-game regular season, he’s the ideal point guard to help a team establish stability and meet expectations.
But the Florida alum comes with his weaknesses, and those can be easily exacerbated in the postseason.
Calathes can’t create for himself on offense; he isn’t much of a threat with the ball in his hands unless it’s to set up others. In last season’s series with Fenerbahce, opposing Head Coach Zeljko Obradovic took advantage of this and gave Calathes the Rubio treatment and dared him to be selfish and be the player that won the Greens the game. Calathes wasn’t capable of that.
Calathes shot 25 percent from three last season on 3.5 attempts per game. That’s appalling. He’s not a threat to shoot from deep off the dribble, in catch-and-shoot situations or coming off of screens. He’s so bad at shooting threes that I don’t understand why Panathinaikos pays him to shoot them, though I’m sure their opponents would be willing to pay him to shoot threes against them.
After Fenerbahce put this fault on strong display in last seasons playoffs, I imagine more teams will look to exploit it this season. Calathes’ jumper has to improve if he wants to help the Greens improve. He shot 33 percent from three in Eurobasket on 4.7 attempts per game. If he can sport a mark near that this season – somewhere around 30 percent – he could really start to open up their offense and find whole new passing lanes for himself.
James brought electrifying perimeter offense to the Greek side last season. With him gone, the club decided to commit to Rivers long-term and signed him to a deal through 2021. The club is counting on Rivers as they still don’t know what they’ll get out of Euroleague rookie Denmon.
The 6-foot-5 American shot 42 percent from three-point range last season on 5.1 attempts per game while averaging 16.1 points per 40. When on the floor with Calathes, you could argue that he was scoring and spacing the floor for the both of them.
Rivers is going to need to continue to do that this season, even if Calathes improves his jumper. When a club commits to a 30-year-old for another four seasons, they’re telling that player that they’re expecting big things in these last two years of his prime that will make it worth it for them to pay him after his prime has ended.
Rivers will need to continue to flash that quick release left-handed shot that he has in catch-and-shoot opportunities.
As well as in pull-up jumper opportunities,
and when coming off screens.
Rivers should look to pursue more isolation opportunities as well, and try to establish himself as the focal point of the offense for stretches. If he pulls this off with relative success, he’ll make the transition of new guards Lekavicius and Denmon much easier, and help Panathinaikos keep their status as a top-four challenger.
Singleton is the star of this Panathinaikos team, and arguably the most sought-out American archetype in European basketball. His size and athleticism grant him versatility that is almost unheard of on the old continent and allows him to guard any position comfortably, and at times with ease. He can also shoot (see his 44 percent from behind the arc last season) and create for others at times.
With that being said, he can also be the most frustrating player in the league due to his habit of losing focus and not playing to the best of his abilities. When his mental toughness is put to the test, it doesn’t always pass.
Similarly to Calathes, this really showed against Fenerbahce in the playoffs last season. It may seem redundant to continue to bring up that series, but it’s necessary given that it’s the hump the club needs to get over.
During the series, the former Washington Wizards player just seemed overwhelmed. By the crowd, the pressure, Fenerbahce’s scheme and last season’s best big in Europe – Ekpe Udoh.
Singleton can’t let that happen again. This season, he needs to be locked in from the get and be kicking ass and taking names from October to May. He averaged 17.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 last season. Those numbers need to rise, and plays like this one can’t just be in his highlight reel; they need to be the norm for him.
If Singleton locks in for every single bounce of the ball next season, that improvement will come and he’ll be an All-Euroleague first-teamer, an MVP candidate, help Calathes and Rivers improve and allow Panathinaikos to return to the top-four and have a shot at playing in Belgrade in May.
2. Tornike Shengelia
Remember two seasons ago when Baskonia shocked everyone and made the Euroleague Final Four? Bourousis facilitated their offense in the pinch post, allowing the dynamic backcourt of James and Darius Adams to thrive. It was beautiful and remains one of the most entertaining Euroleague teams in recent memory.
Since then, the club is now on their third head coach with this summer’s signing of rookie head coach and club legend Pablo Prigioni. Only two players remain from that Final Four team, and only one had a significant role. That player is Georgia’s version of the Tasmanian devil, Tornike Shengelia.
The former Chicago Bulls man posted 20.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per 40 last season, constantly displaying the variety of ways that he can score.
Toko’s athleticism and nose for the rim make him one of the most feared transition players in Europe. He covers ground and rises for strong finishes like no one else.
His athleticism isn’t just a weapon in the open court, even in the half-court his ability to get from the three-point line to the rim in one dribble lets him make light work of most opponents.
Toko has excellent footwork as well, pairing that with his athleticism makes him borderline unstoppable in post-ups.
He has a wide array of moves,
and finishes when in the post as well.
He even has a decent shooting stroke when left open, but the release needs to be quicker. His numbers drop when he shoots in higher volume (he shot 54 percent on 24 attempts in Euroleague play last season, but only shot 33 percent on 37 attempts in ACB action).
Shengelia was diagnosed with a grade two ankle sprain on Sept. 25. The timetable for recovery is usually around 4-6 weeks for that injury which means it’s likely that Toko will miss at least the first five games (Olympiacos away, Maccabi away, Valencia at home, Bamberg away, and Panathinaikos at home) of the season.
When Toko comes back, will he lift the team by playing to the best of his abilities and help raise the chemistry, or will he disrupt the five-plus game start-up and send them back to square one?
1. Will Clyburn
Will Clyburn might be the most underappreciated signing of the Euroleague offseason. The signing happened early, and then later in the summer, the club signed Sergio Rodriguez to replace Milos Teodosic, stealing headlines for the entire summer.
Clyburn should be getting attention though, as he’s really the only addition the club made for the upcoming season. Yes, they signed Rodriguez, Leo Westermann, Othello Hunter and Alan Makiev but they are mainly replacements for players who left. Rodriguez replaced Teodosic, Westermann replace Aaron Jackson, and Hunter and Makieve replaced James Augustine and Joel Freeland.
If CSKA’s offseason moves stopped there, then they’d be the exact same team as last season.
Final Four? It would be a shock if they weren’t playing in Belgrade this May.
Champions? Eh, couple bings, couple bounces, you never know.
But the Clyburn addition brings a new element to this team. He averaged 18.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per 40 for Darussafaka in Euroleague play last season. The energetic wing also shot 29 percent from three, which isn’t ideal, but he did shoot 33 percent from three on a career-high volume – 4.6 attempts per game – the season before with Hapoel Holon in the Israeli Super League. Sporting a career free-throw-shooting mark, around 70 percent, gives hope for his shot mechanics. Include the fact that he’ll be playing on the most talented and well-organized offensive team of his career, and it’s hard to argue that his three-point shot won’t go back up to the desired 33 percent mark.
Clyburn is most lethal in transition, isolation and as an off-ball spacer and cutter. CSKA will definitely capitalize on his transition skill set due to the fantastic open floor players that they have. Just imagine Kyle Hines throwing an outlet pass to Rodriguez or De Colo, and having that guy run the fastbreak with Clyburn and Cory Higgins filling out the wings. For opponents, it should be terrifying to think about.
For example, look at what Clyburn is capable of on his own in transition.
You pair that with a guy who throws transition passes like this, and realistically, no one can stop you in the open court.
Clyburn is a good isolation player as well, which really helped Dacka at times last season when they struggled with spacing and ball movement.
Clyburn does a good job in isolation here, but it was kind of a last resort with the shot clock running down, and the spacing was far from ideal. This was the case on too many possessions for Dacka last season, but it usually isn’t for CSKA.
Take a look at this isolation play by De Colo.
Look at how much space he was working with, which allowed him to use a right-to-left move and score with ease on Anthony Randolph, a player you’d expect to stand a chance against De Colo in isolation.
If Clyburn gets set up in environments like that, he’ll be a whole new basketball player in terms of isolation efficiency.
Clyburn will also be a threat for CSKa due to his movement without the ball. This is one example of his exquisite movement as a floor spacer.
The timing is just perfect; it lets Erick Green think he’s safe to jump one passing lane and also lets Adrien Moerman get off the pass just as he comes down from his jump. The movement is like a center-forward in soccer, who just always finds open space at the right time.
Clyburn is an exceptional cutter as well. Again, the movement on this play is perfect.
As soon as Clyburn’s defender takes his eyes off of him and tries to help one pass away, Clyburn slashes into the lane and gets himself an easy bucket. That basketball intelligence working together with the basketball IQs of Rodriguez, De Colo, Hines, etc., just isn’t fair.
With it looking likely that CSKA will help Clyburn breakthrough last seasons ceiling, he could become the best role player in Europe.
That opportunity and the ones granted to the other players on this list are what make them the most intriguing players to watch for the upcoming Euroleague season.