Blogging through the Copa del Rey, Part Two

Blogging through the Copa del Rey, Part Two
Feb 22, 2009, 11:03 am
After Tau Vitoria dismantled Barcelona and Unicaja Malaga squeaked by the local underdogs Estudiantes, the finals are set for the Copa del Rey. Storylines we'll be exploring include the upcoming finals matchup, as well as ever-amazing Ricky Rubio, and the latest on his chances of entering the draft.

The Finals: Tau vs. Malaga

Tau Vitoria fans have clearly been the loudest and most impressive bunch amongst the eight fan bases that united to celebrate the Copa del Rey, and it's only fitting that their team put together a masterful performance to thoroughly dismantle Barcelona and advance to the finals.

Igor Rakocevic, arguably the best player in Europe these days (surely based on production) carried the Baskonians to a 90-77 victory with a 27 point outing. Tiago Splitter more than held his own with 17 points in 21 minutes before fouling out (the fans, ironically chant “MVP!” in English to him, not Rakocevic) while Pablo Prigioni ran the show in typical fashion, delivering an extremely balanced all-around performance.

Tau did a great job emphasizing the main contrasts we find between NBA and European basketball—the physicality that the referees tolerate on the floor. They put a tremendous amount of pressure on the ball, suffocating Barcelona's guards all night long, while especially keying in on Juan Carlos Navarro, not giving him an inch (or rather, a centimeter) to breathe. Prigioni and Sergi Vidal bumped him off every screen, often switching or trapping aggressively on screens, which is made entirely possible by the presence of Tiago Splitter, looking as nimble as ever guarding the perimeter.

Our esteemed Director of International Scouting, Luis Fernandez, warned me the night before not to go too far heaping praises on Barcelona, a message that was foolishly ignored. In Fernandez's words: “Barcelona played a good game [against Real Madrid] but this team usually doesn't play up to its potential. They rely too much on Navarro to create from the perimeter, and he's not always so brilliant, while they don't have a reliable point guard. Sada has played some great games, but he's limited when it comes to scoring the ball and his presence tends to create offensive jams if the opponent team plays intelligent defense. Not to mention Grimau, who fortunately wasn't important in this game, but likes to take too many decisions (and he's the dumbest player on their perimeter).”

Quite prophetically, this is exactly the way this game evolved. Tau's game-plan was clearly to shut down Navarro (specifically his perimeter shooting—where he made just 1/6), and that worked to perfection. Far too many of Barcelona's possessions revolved around Navarro over-dribbling while his teammates stood around looking for spot-up jumpers, and no one else was really able to get into any type of offensive flow. Navarro was able to be Barcelona's Mr. Everything in the quarterfinals—creating offense for himself and his teammates on every possession seemingly—but it's unrealistic to expect him to carry that kind of workload every single game.

In addition, Barcelona's other main guard, Victor Sada, looked absolutely exhausted at the end of the game yesterday, being asked to carry double-duties defensively next to the offensive minded Navarro. Andre Barrett's DNP-CD yesterday really spoke volumes about the lack of faith rookie Coach Xavi Pascual has in him at this stage. The return of Jaka Lakovic from injury would help relieve the pressure on Barcelona's backcourt moving forward, but he still seems to be a ways away from being healthy. Anything less than an ACB championship and Euroleague Final Four appearance would be considered a huge disappointment considering their massive budget, which would surely put Coach Pascual firmly on the hotseat, right next to his embattled counterpart in Real Madrid, Joan Plaza. Former Spanish national team head coach Pepu Hernandez is already waiting in the wings.

Tau Vitoria's rivals in the finals, Unicaja Malaga, look to have their hands full, as not only will they be playing their third game in three days, they really have not looked all that impressive at any point here in Madrid. They seem to miss the creativity of their top guard, Carlos Cabezas (injured) and look all too content uglying the game up while pounding the ball inside. As good as Tau's backcourt is, this game will likely be decided along the frontlines, especially in their matchup with Marcus Haislip, who has looked absolutely brilliant at times. We'll have to see what kind of magic Coach Aito (coach of the Spanish national team in the Olympics and last year's Copa del Rey winners, DKV Joventut) can pull out of his hat this time.

Remarkable Ricky Rubio

Lest we forget the amazing performance delivered by Ricky Rubio in the quarterfinals, which unfortunately wasn't enough to avoid the upset by the local Madrid team Estudiantes. Rubio put together some of the most impressive moments of his career thus far in the second half, finishing the game with 16 points, 7 assists and 6 steals.

What was ironic is that he was quite awful in the first quarter, being burned repeatedly by the very experienced Corey L. Brewer (Arkansas), while turning the ball over on some very risky passes. He sat for that reason for most of the second quarter ,only to emerge midway through the third to give his team a huge shot in the arm that got them right back in the game, immediately scoring two consecutive layups going coast to coast by himself.

The biggest improvement we've seen from Rubio this year has to do with his incredible passing skills. Slow to recover from the wrist injury that kept him out of the first 11 games of the ACB season, and still sporting a heavy bandage on that same right hand, Rubio has been forced to become more of a playmaker to provide maximum value for his team. He's averaging a ridiculous 11.5 assists per-40 pace adjusted, tops in the league and by a wide margin. Based off what he showed here at the Copa, it was very easy to see why.

Rubio is one of the best pick and roll players you'll find in basketball today, NBA or not. According to Synergy Sports Technology's quantified report, an astounding 62% of his offensive possessions come in this fashion. His ability to deliver crisp, perfectly timed passes directly into the hands of a cutting teammate for an easy basket is uncanny, as he makes the game so incredibly simple, doing everything but put the ball into the net for them. It's exactly this type of court vision and feel for the game that has produced comparisons to Steve Nash, even if their perimeter shooting and defensive skills couldn't be any more different. He has a similar ability to change speeds with the ball and simultaneously see every inch of the court, not hesitating for an instant to deliver a bullet pass underneath the rim for an easy layup.

What made this particular game more noteworthy than the previous times we saw him was Rubio's willingness to put Joventut on his back and carry them with his scoring. With the shot-clock running down, Rubio put his ball-handling skills on full display, slashing apart the defense with a beautiful crossover and finishing strong around the basket in traffic, sometimes with a nifty floater. Unable to use his right hand for the first few weeks following his wrist injury, Rubio has improved his ability to create with his left, which has made him a more dangerous player. One NBA scout we spoke to after the game astutely pointed out that Rubio could develop into an even better scorer in the NBA than he is here, as the improved spacing and strict rules about hand-checking on the perimeter will greatly favor his style of play.

Rubio's perimeter shooting remains very much a concern, as highlighted by the 0-4 he shot in this particular game. He is shooting 42% from beyond the arc on the season thus far, but that's on a very small sample size (8/19). His mechanics still look poor, and he's especially dreadful shooting the ball off the dribble—which is a big reason why he was forced to pass the ball in the game's decisive possession (resulting in two free throws for Eduardo Hernandez Sonseca, one of which he fatally missed) rather than try to score himself. Rubio has become fairly decent spotting up with his feet set, but NBA scouts will want to see more to be totally convinced.

A part of his game we've discussed time after time, but continue to take great delight in, is his uncanny knack for getting in the passing lanes. Needless to say, Rubio leads the ACB in this category at 3 steals per-40. One of the most fun parts of seeing Rubio perform is watching him off the ball defensively. As the opposition moves the ball around the court, you can see Rubio anticipating their next move, closing down angles just as a pass is about to be made, pouncing at just the right moment, getting his long arms on the ball to create the deflection, and taking the ball the other way. At one point he had three consecutive steals in three possessions, all of which finished with a basket for his team—highlighting the way he can change the complexion of a game in his own unique way.

Speaking of which, you're going to find a lot of differing opinions about Rubio's ability to translate his style of play to the NBA. Some scouts still question his athleticism and perimeter shooting, with one GM we spoke to recently going as far as to say that he would “never draft a white guy.” Another NBA scout pointed out his incredible natural talent and basketball IQ, saying that “it's impossible for a player this smart not to end up being successful.”

The news out of Spain last month was that Rubio's team DKV Joventut had unilaterally decided to double his salary on the year, from 80,000 Euro to 160,000. This is obviously an attempt to get his pay closer in line with what his value is to the team, as he's clearly their most important player. There's been some talk that Rubio's contract would not hold up in court if challenged, as a 6 million Euro buyout is obviously not proportionate to an 80,000 Euro contract. It's highly unlikely that it would get to that, though.

According to David Carro, the Spanish partner of Rubio's NBA agent, Dan Fegan, who we spoke with here at the Copa del Rey, there is “still a chance that Rubio could find his way into this year's draft.” Negotiations are reportedly underway to lower his buyout to more manageable proportions, possibly 3-4 million Euro. A solution could come as early as “this month” Carro told us, and in that case, Rubio would be able to afford getting out of his contract if he were to be “a top-3 pick” (which he very likely is), as long as he could pay off the buyout over the course of his rookie deal. Asked why Joventut would have any reason to even negotiate considering the leverage they hold in this situation, Carro responded that Rubio is the “image of the team” and that they “would not want to have a mad player.”

Obviously the door has yet to be completely closed on Ricky Rubio and this year's NBA draft, so we'll have to stay tuned.

Tomorrow: Copa del Rey wrap-up, the status of NBA rights held players such as Tiago Splitter, Ersan Ilyasova, Fran Vazquez and Joel Freeland, the seemingly waning interest in European players on the part of NBA teams, and a couple of free agent prospects that caught our eye.

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