In this first of two articles we look at the top five regular season performers. We have a really nice crop this year, a mix of talent, hard work and potential. Paulius Jankunas, leading the group, represents the hard work of a potentially limited player. However, his incredible steadiness for a strong team such as Zalgiris places him at the top. Right after him is Marco Belinelli, whose scoring contribution has been simply amazing considering his youth. No player his age had led a competitive team such as Climamio Bologna in scoring in top European competition since Sani Becirovic (a super talented guard whose career was set back by injuries) did it with Olimpija Ljubljana in the 2000/01 season (playing alongside other promising youngsters such as Jiri Welsch, Beno Udrih and Primoz Brezec). Tiago Splitter has landed in the top 5 after an awesome comeback, showing in the second half of the regular season superb reliability and intensity that has made him a factor in a powerhouse such as Tau Vitoria. Meanwhile, Andrea Bargnani has become one of the best sixth men in the competition for another strong team like Benetton, always providing a serious scoring threat off the bench. Finally, Yotam Halperin has probably been the only clear team leader among these youngsters, although Olimpija Ljubljana certainly hasnt been a top act in this campaign.
Zalgiris Kaunas; 1984; PF; 6-8; 25.5 mpg, 11.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
by Almantas Kiveris
For those who follow Zalgiris Kaunas closely, Jankunass performance in the second part of regular season came as no surprise. You might ask how a young player who never shocks or surprises can be up at the top of the list. The answer is simple with solid and stable play every week for a strong team.
As we mentioned in our recap of the first half of the Regular Season, Jankunas had extra duties due to the injury sustained by starting center Tanoka Beard, which left Zalgiris frontline depleted. Having more space around the basket, Jankunas united with fellow Lithuanian Darjus Lavrinovic to become a dynamic homegrown duo that was very hard for opposing teams to stop. Their passing on offense and tacit understanding of each other on defense allowed the pair to be very effective down low.
However with Beard back days before the New Year and striving for the leadership role again, Jankunas had to resort back to coming of the bench as the 6th man, but with just as much importance for his team. Pauliuss minutes went down from 29.4 to 21.5 with Beard in the lineup, but his production didnt decline relative to his playing time. Averaging 13.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in the first seven games, the 21 year old power forward settled for 10.1 and 6.6 respectively after that. What didnt lessen on the court despite the smaller minutes was Jankunass attitude and hard work on both ends. Setting screens and fighting for offensive rebounds, Paulius also at times found himself scoring points in stretches when it was needed the most, though it was obvious that he received fewer touches than in the first half of the season. Defensively Jankunas is capable of staying with his man and doesnt suffer from the lack of an inch or two playing in the Euroleague.
A successful and solid season at the highest level of play in Europe might improve Jankunas chances of hearing his name called at the end of the second round, but the same reasons (lacking a few inches combined with being fairly limited athletically) we mentioned in the first recap of the season can be an obstacle that is hard to bypass for him if he considers the NBA strongly. At this time it doesnt seem like the NBA is his early goal, but the track of having a great European career looks promising for Jankunas.
Climamio Bologna; 1986; SG; 6-5; 27.3 mpg, 14.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.8 apg, 1.6 spg
by Carlo Sandrinelli
In the second part of the Euroleague regular season, Belinelli confirmed himself as one of the most talented youngsters in Europe, as well as one of the best players on his team. After suffering from a bit of a mid-season slump (both in the Euroleague and Italian League), he eventually rebounded from it well with some very good outings in the last games.
Although his shot wasn't as deadly as in the beginning of the competition, it was still consistent enough to confirm Belinellis place as one of the best shooters in the Euroleague. With his 27.3 minutes per game and 14 point, he was easily his teams leader in both categories, which is quite impressive considering that he doesn't play for a weak team (Climamio qualified for the top 16 with the second best record in Group A). He's a regular starter, usually on the court and quite decisive in the most crucial moments of games. His role on the team is well defined, as he's Climamio's most dangerous shooter and best defender amongst the guards.
About his game, there isn't much to add since our recap of the first part of the Euroleague season. Most of his points come from outside, as his shot still looks very good in any situation; and on the fast break, where he takes advantage of his athleticism and good overall speed. He doesn't slash much, partly because he seems a bit timid when he could drive to the basket, and partly because in Climamio there are many other guards that can be dangerous off the dribble, such as Sani Becirovic, Nate Green or Kiwane Garris.
His defense still looks good, especially when applying full-court pressure. He suffers every now and then when guarding smaller and talented players, though; Yotam Halperin for example had two very good games against him.
Belinelli's role on the team will probably remain the same in the top 16, and there's no reason to think his contribution won't be as solid as in the regular season.
Tau Vitoria; 1985; C; 7-0; 20.5 mpg, 10.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1 spg
by Luis Fernández
Tiago Splitter has gone from leading the list of disappointments in the first half of the regular season to becoming undoubtedly one of the best youngsters in the competition. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the Brazilian got in the mood sometime around Christmas, when he received a spot in his teams starting five and the confidence of Taus new head coach had in him started paying off.
Tiago went from averaging 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in the first nine games (decent numbers, but not on par with expectations), to almost doubling his production with 14 points and 8.4 rebounds in the last five, becoming the most productive frontcourt player on the Spanish team in that span, even ahead of a Euroleague superstar such as Luis Scola, while surpassing Kornel David in the rotation and leaving Predrag Drobnjak as the teams towel-waver, although the Serbian did enough on his own to earn this distinction.
Only a minor injury sent Splitter back to his role coming off the bench three weeks ago, but his performance level hasnt suffered even one bit. On the contrary, every time he stepped onto the court he reproduced that intensity upgrade for his team that enamored coach Ivanovic last season, decisively helping Tau Vitoria clinch first place in group A.
Concerning his game, its all said in the aforementioned articles and in the Marquee Matchup report depicting his duel against the other Euroleague lottery prospect: Andrea Bargnani. He keeps sticking to the basics, playing a complementary role on the offensive end while being a factor on defense and displaying a contagious intensity level. Therefore, his excellent performances have much more to do with what he consistently brings to the table for his team rather than shining individually on the offensive end.
There's no reason to think that Tiago will slow down anytime soon. And we should be ready to enjoy a very solid performance coming from him in the thrilling Top-16 stage.
Benetton Treviso; 1985; PF; 7-0; 19.0 mpg, 10.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg
by Carlo Sandrinelli
Bargnani had a very solid second half of the Euroleague regular season, in line with the latter games of the first, showing that he can be a consistent offensive force not only in the Italian League, but even at the highest level in Europe.
His overall stats are affected by his slow start, but there's still something to take away from them; as his shooting percentages are very good, he's among the leaders of the competition in both 2 and 3-point shooting, and his accuracy in treys is especially impressive (being ranked 6th with a great 47%).
However, his stats in the second half show all of his improvements: in the last 6 games he scored in double-figures 5 times, averaging 14.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 spg, 1.17 bpg in 24.6 minutes per game (increasing compared to the first half in all categories), although always coming from the bench. His contribution was also consistent even when his shot wasn't falling. There are still some concerns about his rebounding, though, as his averages are not in line with his potential. This is due to his lack of strength and bulk, but also affected by the fact that due to team injuries he's played many minutes on the court with big men Marcus Goree and Uros Slokar, hanging out on the perimeter even more than usual.
We've analyzed his game other times, the last one in the Marquee Matchup report about his duel against Splitter. He usually doesn't force any situation on offense, as he waits patiently for a good shot or a chance to drive to the basket to come to him. Right now, he doesn't see many one on situations, but this is probably due to Benetton's offensive system, which gives these situations mainly to other players, such as Drew Nicholas, Ramunas Siskauskas and Marcus Goree. When he does, though, he often succeeds by taking advantage of his combination of size, athleticism and skills. On defense, he's not a liability, as he shows intensity and good footspeed, but sometimes seems to lose a bit of focus and generally doesn't look very comfortable in a complicated defensive system such as Benetton's.
Bargnani's role on the team should continue to increase as the season goes on, and his contributions should keep increasing as well. He definitely seems on his way to becoming a top 5 pick in June.
Union Olimpija; 1984; SG/PG; 6-4; 13.8ppg, 3.1rpg, 3.5apg
by Kristian Hohnjec
Yotam Halperin confirmed himself in the second part of the competition as the leader of a rather weak Olimpija team, falling one win short of qualifying for the Top 16, which means that his Euroleague season is over. Yotam was one of the very few bright spots for the Slovenians, as he played well above expectations and showed himself as one of the most prolific young scorers in all of Europe.
Even with the arrival of new coach Zmago Sagadin, who is known for using 10 or even more players in his rotation, Halperin stayed on the court for at least 30 minutes every game. He played almost strictly at the shooting guard spot, which seems to be his most comfortable position despite being successful as a full time point guard in the junior national team categories. He was more inconsistent in the second part of the regular season, with one awesome game for example against Climamio in Bologna, almost leading Olimpija to a sensational overtime win with 26 points and 6 assists; but also with poor ones like against Tau Ceramicas strong defensive backcourt where he finished with 6 points and 1 assist in 36 minutes of action.
Overall Halperin showed impressive scoring abilities combining very advanced shooting and slashing skills. His shooting stroke isnt the prettiest in Europe, but it is quick enough for him to get it off even under pressure and coming off screens. He is indeed more accurate when he has time to set his feet and perform static jumpers. Yotam proved to be a good slashing threat thanks to his ball-handling skills and deceptively quick first step. His speed isnt off the charts and that might be a limiting factor for him as far as the NBA is concerned, but for Europe it is more than adequate.
Defensively he was very solid defending shooting guards, but on a few occasions when he was forced to guard playmakers it was clear that his lateral movement is not good enough at the moment to execute this assignment properly. This, along with his inability to make teammates better is what makes us think that his NBA position is at the shooting guard position, despite having good passing and ball-handling skills.
As a 1984 prospect, Yotam is automatically eligible for this years draft and should be considered a strong second round pick. In the best case scenario he could get some love in the late first due to a not especially impressive class of NCAA point guards. Halperin is a player who at a young age appears to be close to fulfilling his potential and is more ready then most European prospects, but his possible production next year will depend on how well he can adjust to the speed and defensive requirements of the NBA game.