NBA teams not only look for draft prospects at the Spanish Kings Cup. There are many past draft investments, mostly second-round bets, still playing and developing in the ACB League, while its also one of the best international markets to acquire quality free-agent veterans to help a team out right away.
Actually, with lights and shadows, successes and failures, this is a growing trend that opens new alternatives for the NBA squads to strengthen their rosters during the summer market. Considering only last year's edition of the King's Cup, we see the likes of Jorge Garbajosa, Walter Herrmann and Shammond Williams as free-agents currently on a NBA roster. On the other hand, its a trend that is hurting European basketball, and the success of a player like Garbajosa (not your prototypical NBA prospect) and the Toronto Raptors (stacked with guys who matured playing the Euroleague) might invite other teams to fish in the already damaged European pool.
With the superstars-to-be already leaving before making a big impact in the Old Continent (Bargnani is the last example, and he did last longer in Europe than your usual top prospect), these less glamorous leaders such as Garbajosa (until he left this past summer), Theo Papaloukas (recently honoured as the FIBA Player of the Year) or Nikola Vujcic (early frontrunner for Euroleague MVP this season), among others, form the European star system. It's not that attractive for wide audiences, but still effective enough to build a quality competition with a solid fan base. Without them, the general crisis will only get worse.
Anyway, there werent that many interesting free agents to look for in the Cup. One of them, Jordi Trías, came up with the MVP award.
Hes a 6-9, hard-working power forward with nice athleticism and limited skills. Despite somehow being a veteran born in 1980, hes a player that has made great strides lately and might keep developing in the near future, so hes a name to keep under the radar. For the moment, well get into details with Felipe Reyes and former draft phenom Nikoloz Tskitishvili.
There was much more to bite on the drafted-players side, with a nice bunch of guys who are maturing in the ACB League. Lets start with them first:
Winterthur F.C.Barcelona, SG, 1980, 6-4
He didnt come up with eye-popping stats this time, and the MVP award went to his teammate Jordi Trías, but still Navarro managed to emerge as one of the top performers in this Cup, if not the best. He was again a lethal offensive weapon that sprung to action any time F.C.Barcelona needed him, for example taking the scoring load in the dangerous third quarter in the quarterfinal against Unicaja Malaga (Barcelona has a history this season of dreadful third quarters), or building a definitive lead early in the final against Real Madrid. Navarro scored 14 points in each of the three games, which reflects on his consistency in this tournament over the years.
We could see the usual repertoire, including terrific off the ball play, impressive first moves after receiving the ball to anticipate his opponent's reaction, the ability to create his own shot attacking his rival and generating separation for a shot, his creativity finishing near the basket with high-arched runners, or his impressive shooting range that goes beyond the NBA three-point line. Still Navarro didnt abuse his abilities (his moderate stats are a good proof) and played within the flow of the offense, making good decisions, sharing the ball and creating opportunities for his teammates, particularly the big men, dishing out 8 assists in the span of the tourney.
Nevertheless, the biggest news came on the defensive end, where Juan Carlos emerged as a very reliable defender, even in very complicated match-ups against the likes of Rudy Fernandez or Louis Bullock. This is a department where Navarro is steadily improving, showing better intensity and taking advantage of his quickness to stay in front of his man (hes likely answering the demands of his very tough coach Dusko Ivanovic). Obviously hes still a bit undersized and not the strongest guy around if we talk about dealing with very physically gifted shooting guards, but Navarro has reached a level of playing and maturity on court that should enable him to eventually succeed at the NBA level--meaning to establish himself as a useful player there. Still buyout complications (he has a 10-million escape clause) picture an unlikely scenario to happen unless he reaches some kind of agreement with F.C.Barcelona. Navarro wants to play in the NBA, though,and there is a sentiment that Barcelona might be willing to work with him on achieving that goal if it makes sense for them.
Luis Scola (San Antonio Spurs)
Tau Vitoria, PF, 1980, 6-9
At this point, its hard to predict if or when Scola will be able to play in the NBA. His high buyout, the apparent lack of interest in him that the San Antonio Spurs show lately and their own reluctance to sell his rights are a difficult equation to sort out.
Fran Vazquez (Orlando Magic)
Winterthur F.C.Barcelona, C, 1983, 6-10
He hadnt spent even 3 minutes on the court in the quarterfinal against Unicaja Malaga when Vazquez fell to the ground, hitting his head on the floor after attempting to block a shot. He left the game for good as a preventive measure. Things got even worse in the semifinal against DKV Joventut. Fran was severely outplayed while defending the low post in consecutive plays by Andrew Betts, who is far from being any type of paint dancer. It was so obvious that Joventut ran the same play again for a third time, but in this opportunity Vazquez stayed cool, wasnt faked by any of Betts moves, and avoided conceding the basket. He didnt stay on the court much longer anyway, enjoying only 8 minutes of playing time.
As if he had finally learned a lesson, his defensive effort in the final was much more efficient. He had to deal with Felipe Reyes, a very dangerous inside player who moves really well on the paint. This time Vazquez focused on staying in front of his rival, preventing Reyes from his right-handed drives, and controlling his desire to attempt to block every shot. Still, he had time to record 4 excellent blocks, most of them on defensive rotations, and showed much better criteria in terms of deciding when to attack the ball. Offensively, he took advantage of the good ball movement of F.C.Barcelona to score easy points under the basket.
Fran is still an intriguing player NBA-wise. His combination of length and athleticism is terrific. This season, he even managed to deliver a triple-double in the ACB League, recording double digits in blocks. Besides, the recent injury of Mario Kasun is helping him, as now he always shares the floor with a power forward (he feels much more comfortable playing center) and obviously enjoys more playing time. Anyway, there are doubts about his willingness to go to the NBA anytime in the future, and certainly hes not the most endeared figure in Orlando.
Axel Hervelle (Denver Nuggets)
Real Madrid, PF, 1983, 6-9
As usual, he shined the most in everything that had to do with intensity and activity. His defense was remarkable, showing excellent positioning and staying physical on his opponents. His strength, mobility and wingspan are good tools to remain effective on a regular basis. He was also very active cleaning the boards on both ends of the court, getting as a result several points off offensive rebounds. Actually, he was one of the few guys who came alive in the massacre his team suffered in the final, recording a double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.
Since the first game he played in Madrid, two years and a half ago, Hervelle has always showed a nice basketball IQ in defensive settings, while its everyday more visible in the offensive end. You can see him more integrated in the offensive flow, recognizing advantages, taking good and quick decisions or eventually trying things like penetrations to give good use of his explosiveness. Still his main offensive weapon is his perimeter shot, not that much effective in this Cup, but a nice resource to spread defenses and add points.
With the Denver Nuggets holding his draft rights, hes a player that might eventually receive an opportunity in the NBA, possibly as soon as this summer. He could become a very decent role player there, although perhaps he lacks the tools (size, skills) to emerge into something more.
Roko-Leni Ukic (Toronto Raptors)
Winterthur F.C.Barcelona, PG, 1984, 6-5
However, we cant ignore how he struggles distributing the ball. Sometimes it takes him too much time bringing the ball up-court, which puts pressure on the set offense. Other times, its just that he overdribbles incessantly before passing it. A good point-guard doesnt allow the ball to stop, and if hes not going to create the advantage by himself, he looks to create the best possible offensive flow, and that means to free the ball up as quick as possible and in the best conditions. That first pass to the wing guy (in case its the desired option) should be automatic. This doesnt happen with Ukic, and too often hes just forced to play one-on-one or two-on-two to solve the possession as the shot clock is running out and he still hasnt found a good option. Besides, he stays a bit static whenever hes off the ball, so he rarely contributes to the fluidity of the offensive game. However, these are flaws he should be able to fix with experience and maturity.
Anyway, his more individual-oriented playmaking approach perhaps suits better with the NBA game than the European, even if improving in this regard will certainly help him wherever he plays. Still, the EuroRaptors are not precisely your typical NBA team, and its not clear they are interested in bringing him over at this point.
Real Madrid, PF/C, 1980, 6-9
Reyes belongs to that magical 1980 Spanish generation that includes the likes of Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Raul Lopez and José Manuel Calderón (although the Raptor PG is born in 1981), that came up victorious at the European and World stage in the junior category, eventually leading Spain to conquer the World Championship in Japan last summer. Felipe was never considered to have the type of potential some of his teammates enjoyed, but his hard work and determination has placed him amongst the European elite.
Very strong, but at the same time extremely mobile, Reyes moves pretty well in the paint despite not enjoying a very glamorous low-post game. But he can bang, and hes quick, aggressive and quite reliable finishing around the rim. He can also attack his match-ups off the dribble, although he usually goes to his right, which makes him highly predictable. His mid-range jumper is becoming really solid while hes expanding his range, which really helps him in order to increase his repertoire and enables him to display a more orthodox power-forward's game. On defense, he shows excellent positioning and a lot of activity, becoming a very reliable piece. As aforementioned, hes a terrific rebounder with a great knack for the offensive boards. All in all, hes a kind of basketball soldier on the court.
Not a super intriguing talent NBA-wise, it wouldnt be that far-fetched to think that he could become a decent role player in the paint for some team in need of inside help. However, given his star status in the wealthy ACB League, a hypothetical NBA adventure looks like a long shot.
Caja San Fernando, PF, 1983, 7-0
Actually, it seems he wasnt in the game plan for coach Comas, and only could hit the court once the victory looked like a distant possibility for his team, in the third quarter. Nikoloz delivered a decent, albeit inconsistent performance. On the offensive end, he basically stuck to face-up moves, missing a mid-range shot (he doesnt seem to have the confidence to nail them down) and putting the ball on the floor to force fouls and produce from the free-throw line. Hes a quick guy who is difficult to stop once hes near the basket thanks to his length and athleticism. Defensively, his inconsistency was even more evident, as he did a very nice job on Luis Scola (one of the top offensive bigs in Europe) in one-on-one situations, where Nikolozs lateral mobility, length and aggressiveness were quite effective. At the same time, he committed some big mistakes defending off the ball, getting caught behind screens due to his lack of concentration and not properly following Scolas off-the-ball moves, which provided easy baskets for Tau. These mistakes sent him to the bench after less than 7 minutes on the court, with 5 points and 2 rebounds to his name. Tskitishvili still needs to learn the ropes of European basketball, and he doesnt look like your most naturally gifted player in terms of his basketball IQ. Anyway, until next season we wont be able to make a fair assessment on his success here.