European Roundup: Llull Sparks Real Madrid

European Roundup: Llull Sparks Real Madrid
Oct 31, 2008, 01:08 am
Player of the Week: Sergio Llull

The life of a young player in Europe is full of peaks and valleys. The most coveted prospects often get snatched up at an early age by the top clubs in the top leagues around, only to struggle to see playing time due to the extremely high level of competition their team plays at. Once an opportunity opens up, it must be seized immediately, as the rosters of the top teams in Europe are always incredibly deep, the stress-levels high, and the leash for tolerating the mistakes of youngsters about as short as they come.

Seizing an opportunity is exactly what Spanish combo guard Sergio Llull (pronounced Youll, rhyming with mule) has done thus far this season, taking advantage of an injury to veteran point guard Raul Lopez to see significant minutes in both the Euroleague and ACB League, and in turn deliver terrific results. Through six games thus far (two Euroleague and four ACB) Llull is averaging 13.5 points in 23.5 minutes per game, shooting 68% from the field and 57% from beyond the arc.

Llull is coming off the bench replacing either Louis Bullock or Pepe Sanchez in Real’s rotation, and is seeing minutes at both guard spots. He’s bringing a great burst of energy, creativity and flair to change the tempo of the game for Real, which has made it very difficult for Coach Plaza to take him off the floor, even now that Raul Lopez is healthy and reclaimed his spot in the starting lineup. Llull played 29 minutes last weekend against Cajasol Sevilla and contributed 17 points on 6/11 shooting, and then was arguably Real’s best player on Wednesday in the Euroleague at Partizan Belgrade (an unbelievably hostile arena), pouring in 19 points in 28 minutes on a near perfect 8/9 shooting from the field. He saw significant playing time down the stretch and made a number of clutch plays in both games—but was unable to avoid his team being defeated in both encounters.

The main reason Llull has managed the incredibly difficult task of contributing significantly at the highest level of basketball outside the NBA, despite being only 20 years old, is that he’s an extremely cold-blooded player. He brings a similar type of confidence and aggressiveness to the floor like Ricky Rubio provides to Joventut, not quite as pronounced perhaps, but still quite noticeable. He’s not afraid to take responsibilities and seems to have the physical tools and skill-level to make a significant impact at the European level, particularly in his ability to play the pick and roll and get out in transition.

Llull stands out from many of his International counterparts due to the excellent athleticism he displays for a European prospect. He not only has great size at 6-3 and a well proportioned frame, but he’s also extremely quick, fluid and agile, as he’s shown slashing apart defenses at will and wreaking havoc on fast breaks—often to finish with an emphatic dunk. He can create his own shot with either hand interestingly and has no problem finishing with his off-hand once at the rim. He needs to add strength to his frame in order to become a better finisher, but there seems to be quite a bit to work with as he continues to fill out.

Possibly the biggest development in his game so far this season has been the consistency of his perimeter shot—a very pronounced weakness last season that made it very difficult for him to see playing time. He’s shooting a terrific clip from both the field (68%) and beyond the arc (57%) thus far, compared with 40% from the field last season and 15% from 3-point range. It’s obviously still extremely early and those numbers obviously will level out as the season progresses, but he does seem to have a nice stroke and is even hitting jumpers off the dribble or from well beyond the arc these days.

The main question mark about Llull as an NBA prospect is the position he will end up at eventually. He sees minutes at both guard spots right now, often asked to bring the ball up the court and get his team into their offense, but not quite acting as a traditional half-court playmaking floor general. It’s pretty obvious that Llull thinks shoot-first and is most comfortable alongside another strong ball-handler, but he does see the court reasonably well, and is capable of executing offensively and making the extra pass as a a play develops. The fact that he’s a pretty solid ball-handler himself and is quick and agile enough to dribble himself out of trouble is a good sign. He’s managed to cut down on his turnover rate significantly thus far this season—a sure-fire sign of maturation and a very positive development if he can keep it up.

Defensively is where some more question marks pop up regarding Llull’s NBA potential. Unlike most European guard prospects, his physical tools are not that much of an issue in this case, as he has good size, a nice frame and reasonable quickness. On top of that, he’s pretty active and seems to put a decent amount of effort in—make no mistake, he would not play a minute in Europe at this level if he didn’t—but he seems to lack some strength fighting through screens and some fundamentals staying in front of his man in the half-court on the perimeter. Llull gets in the passing lanes at a nice rate, but tends to gamble a little too much. We’ll have to keep an eye on how he looks as the season progresses here, as it will likely play a big part in how he’s viewed by NBA executives.

Right now, there are very few European prospects his age who are playing and producing as significantly as Llull is, and even fewer who share his long-term upside due to his combination of physical attributes and versatile skill-set. It’s still very early in the season and Llull could easily revert back to the wild, inconsistent and unreliable player who was buried on Real Madrid’s bench for most of last year—but if he doesn’t, he’s an extremely intriguing prospect to keep an eye on. Even though he’s only 20 years old right now, Llull is automatically eligible for this year’s draft, as he will turn 22 in the calendar year of the draft (he was born in November).

Looking Beyond the Draft

In each edition from now on, we’ll focus on one or two non-draft eligible players in Europe who are performing well

Lasme Maturing in Europe

With Nikola Pekovic leaving the cozy confines of Pionir Hall for a massive contract with Panathinaikos, along with Dusan Kecman and Milt Palacio (now playing in Russia), most people thought this would be a down year for Partizan Belgrade. That doesn’t appear to be the case thus far, as the team with arguably the best supporters in European basketball (surely the most vocal) has knocked off mighty Real Madrid this past week, and came very close to beating Efes Pilsen on their home floor last week as well. It’s business as usual for Partizan in the Adriatic League as well, as they sit atop the table thus far with a perfect 5-0 record after securing a tough win this past weekend at Zagreb.

There have been many keys to their success this far, including the inspired play of draft prospect Milenko Tepic, the revival of ultra talented Aleksandar Rasic, and the gritty production of combo forward Novica Velickovic. If there is one thing that the fantastic Serbian school of basketball cannot produce, though, it’s the freakish length and athleticism found in a big man like Stephane Lasme.

Just a month or so off being cut by the Miami Heat, Lasme has adapted himself superbly to European basketball thus far, allowing him to produce impressive numbers in nearly every statistical category, in both the Euroleague and Adriatic Leagues. Lasme has given Partizan a huge boost with his activity on the glass and defensively in the paint, as well as in running the floor in transition and being a terrific target to catch and finish passes around the rim. He’s drawing tons of fouls, making a huge impact as an offensive rebounder, and possibly most surprisingly, is showing a very advanced understanding of his team’s half-court offense with the way he’s moving the ball around the court intelligently.

This could be a very important season in Lasme’s development as a player, and he’ll surely learn quite a bit more playing twice a week against a high level of competition than he would have warming an NBA bench. If he continues to perform the way he has early on, he’ll have quite a few options for himself this summer.

Another Alaskan Assassin?

No player in the ACB has been as productive as Brad Oleson in this young season, and possibly no player in Europe has been as surprising in his production. The 6’4 shooting guard and native of North Pole, Alaska, who made a name for himself as a prolific scorer during a three year collegiate tenure with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in Division II, has been nothing short of brilliant in his team’s first four contests. After helping Bierasar Rosalia earn promotion from the second division of the Spanish LEB to the first in in 2007, Oleson signed with Alta Gestion Fuenlabrada.

Despite this significant jump in competition, Oleson has been more impressive on both ends this season than he was during any of his three seasons in Rosalia. His deadly outside shooting stroke (he is the most prolific shooter in the ACB at four 3-pointers made per game, hitting 67% of his attempts) has been the key to his ACB leading 22 points per game, but his defense has been equally impressive (he also finds himself ranked 2nd in steals per game).

While Oleson is by no means a likely NBA target, it is tough to ignore how well he has played with defenses keying in on him. The German passport he acquired in 2005 could garner him some serious interest around Europe in the future, especially if he continues to play at such a high level. Players like Oleson show us how much improvement can be made by college players once they reach the professional level, as there surely weren’t many anticipating him being where he is now after he graduated from Alaska-Fairbanks in 2005.

Quick Hitters

-While we decided to go with Sergio Llull for player of the week honors, he received some very stiff competition from Milenko Tepic and Victor Claver. Tepic was likely the best player on the floor this week in Partizan’s win over Real Madrid in the Euroleague, and has been his team’s top scorer early on in the season. Claver started off the season on fire before cooling off this past weekend, which put his debut in this column on hold. We suspect we’ll be discussing both of these players quite a bit over the next few months.

-Brandon Jennings is long overdue for an in-depth look regarding how he’s been playing thus far in Italy. Even though the results have not been very positive thus far, it seems premature at this point to jump to any conclusions (as it’s hardly much of a surprise all things considered), which is what has prompted us to wait for another week or two at least. We are confirmed to attend the highly anticipated matchup between Jennings and Ricky Rubio on December 11th outside of Barcelona, but will surely evaluate his play at least once before that.

Nando De Colo started off the season on a tear in France, carrying the scoring load for Cholet in their first three games in the French League by putting up 20, 26, and 18 points respectively. His quick start certainly seems to warrant considering for the “who’s hot” list, but a recent set back in the Eurocup qualifying round against ASK Riga has landed Cholet out of the competition and into the Eurochallenge which doesn’t feature the type of competition that NBA decision-makers want to see De Colo compete against.
After warranting a number of significant offers from big teams in Spain, Italy, and Russia, De Colo’s one million dollar buyout led him back to France, and has put him in a difficult situation in terms of his prospects for the NBA. With the Eurocup and Eurochallenge playing their games on the same day, De Colo will have to carry his team deep into the competition to earn the exposure to improve his stock. He should have no trouble maintaing his spot amongst French Pro A’s top scorers and is no doubt a legitimate NBA prospect, but his struggles against ASK Riga cost him a golden opportunity.

Enes Kanter is entering Ricky Rubio territory, seeing a handful of minutes in the Euroleague competition despite being six months away from turning 17 years old. The 1992-born Turkish center saw 10 minutes of playing time today against Alba Berlin, not disappointing his head coach Bogdan Tanjevic by delivering a solid 5 points and 3 rebounds in the process. Kanter saw even more playing time last weekend in the local TBL, getting 21 minutes in which he delivered 8 points and an awesome 12 rebounds against Kepez. We suspect this is NOT the last you’ll be hearing about him.

With Zalgiris Kaunas having to let Marcus Brown go due to financial difficulties, young 1989-born point guard Zygimantas Janavicius has surprisingly stepped into a position of receiving significant playing time in the Euroleague and Baltic League. He started this past week in a blowout loss against Siena, and has seen over 34 minutes in two of the last BBL contests. His team is in the midst of an awful season thus far (0-2 in the Euroleague, a shocking 2-3 in the BBL) and Janavicius has seen his ups and downs, but that doesn’t change the amount of experience and exposure he is garnering as a key cog for a Euroleague team. Whether his minutes stabilize remains to be seen, but he’ll be a player worth keeping an eye on, especially if he emerges as a starter.

Giorgi Shermadini’s rumored imminent signing with Panathaniakos would be a huge step in the right direction for the young center. While he was able to dominate the Georgian League with Maccabi Tblisi with his size and inside-outside ability, he would likely never have the opportunity to reach his potential against that level of competition. In Athens, Shermadini would spend his days getting pummeled in practice by Mike Batiste and 2008 draft selection Nikola Pekovic, arguably the most physically dominant center in European basketball today. Whether the club opts to loan Shermadini out to a lesser team or gives him some garbage minutes remains to be seen if they do sign him, but either way, he would be taking a big step up in competition and put himself in position to do a lot of good for his NBA stock.

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