Mitnick Column: What NBA Players Learned In Europe

From FIBA-Europe

With 43 players currently under NBA contracts having suited up in Europe over the last three months, it has become apparent that the differences between NBA basketball and European basketball may be greater than many had thought beforehand. After almost the entire 2010 gold medal U.S. team at the World Championship went on to have career seasons after spending the summer playing in Europe, it appears that the European game has a number of things American players can learn that could help improve their NBA games.

Here are five things NBA players have learned about European basketball during the NBA lockout.

European basketball is a team game

To the casual fan, the NBA provides the most entertaining brand of basketball of any basketball league in the world, as the one-on-one style promoted by the NBA’s rules makes for a great number of exciting plays. With no hand checking, and a n0-charge circle in the paint, players like LeBron James and Dwayne Wade are able to provide several highlight reel dunks every game, and defenses are left with little ability to stop them. Since most NBA teams typically have two or three players who can dance their way to the basket, most teams run an offense that consists primarily of isolation plays and pick-and-rolls, giving two or three guys the majority of the touches on offense. This type of game makes top players get impressive stats, developing one or two “stars” on each team to help the league’s marketability.

In Europe, however, teams typically share the wealth in terms of overall production. Some of this may be attributed to the fact that the best players in the world play in the NBA, but, in general, this is due to the fact that European teams run very few isolation plays. Several players, such as Andrei Kirelenko, Danilo Gallinari, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez, fit right in with the European style as they get most of their offense through the flow of the game and don’t need the ball in their hands every play to be effective.

Guys like Ty Lawson, Reggie Williams and Austin Daye, who are used to getting the ball on the perimeter and being given the freedom to operate, performed well below the value they normally bring to their teams in the NBA. Even Deron Williams took two months to adjust before he figured out what it would take to be successful in Europe. Unfortunately, the lockout will end before Evans has a chance to suit up in Europe, as his game seems to be the polar opposite of the European style. As a shoot-first point guard who likes to play one-on-one and have the ball in his hands the majority of the time, it would be interesting to see if he could be successful in Europe while relying primarily on his impressive combination of talent and athleticism.

European basketball requires less talent and athleticism but a greater understanding of the game.

In the NBA, teams typically play three to four times a week, often playing games on back-to-back nights. In Europe, the vast majority of teams play once a week in their domestic league, and an additional game per week if their team participates in international competition such as the Euroleague or Eurocup. Also, European games are 40 minutes long instead of 48 minutes, meaning that players will not only be playing fewer games, but fewer minutes. On top of that, teams typically use at least 10 players, and often all 12 players, in their playing rotation. The additional rest means that players have fresher legs on defense, which significantly slows down the pace of the game.

With a slower pace and more time to prepare between each game, games are more similar to a chess match than an NBA game. At the top levels in Europe, players study teams for a week in advance, and by the time the game comes, each player knows quite a bit about his opponent. To be able to succeed, it takes more than just energy and effort on game day, but a willingness to study and understand your opponent through preparation.

The world is filled with top level basketball talent

While the NBA is unquestionably the best league in the world, the perceived gap in talent between NBA players over their foreign counterparts is less than many would expect. The NBA unquestionably has the 100 top basketball players in the world.  However, the other approximately 350 players in the league have similar abilities to hundreds of players outside of the NBA. Since NBA teams run their offenses around stars, many players who are not as good all-around basketball players, but are excellent at one or two particular skills, will succeed more than a guy who is a good all-around player. Many expected that when NBA players came to Europe, they would destroy their competition. While some players have been quite successful overseas, few did much to distinguish themselves from other top overseas players.

Players like Williams, Lawson and J.J. Hickson struggled at times during their stints in Europe mainly because they underestimated the competition. What many members of the 2010 U.S. squad learned is that these international players can play, and will bring their all to every game. Players like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon and Kevin Love learned this mentality in 2010, and showed incredible maturity and consistent effort and production last season. Realizing that there are so many people who can play at such a high level can keep a player more focused on improving his game and bringing a consistent effort.

Strong character, a good attitude and a good fit are requirements of success.

One of the issues that American players have overseas is difficulty fitting in on certain teams. Many Americans think of all basketball overseas as “playing in Europe” and fail to recognize that each country has a different style of play, and each team has a distinct culture. There are many teams where only certain types of players can succeed, and other teams that will give players more freedom to play their game. Players need to have a good understanding of the team’s dynamic and what type of situation they will be getting themselves into if they want to have a chance to succeed.

Avery Bradley signed to play with Hapoel Jerusalem, a veteran laden Israeli team that plays in the Eurocup. A team like Jerusalem is typically a difficult team to crack as a young player because it is a deep team with established players who are ready to take your minutes the instant you let up. Reggie Williams went to Caja Laboral in Spain, a team with other strong offensive options and a coach that wasn’t likely to give him the looks or touches he needed to succeed. Had these players done more research on their situations in advance, they could have known how to prepare in order to perform at the level to which they are accustomed.

From this experience, players can learn that it’s not always about making the most money, being the highest draft pick or playing on the most well-known team. Often, it’s better to go to a situation where a player can fit in quickly and will have a chance to contribute, grow as a player and build confidence. No matter how talented the player, if you go to a situation where you will become frustrated and lose your confidence, the chances of success are slim.

The NBA provides by far the best conditions and the most money

While several NBA players, including J.R. Smith and J.J. Hickson, have complained about their living situations, the lower standard of luxury of a basketball player overseas extends beyond the horror of living in an upper-middle class apartment. Instead of playing in fancy practice facilities, many teams play in high school gyms. Instead of having a multitude of assistant coaches, teams typically have one. This means that players have to do little things for themselves, such as rebounding for each other during a shootaround, or carrying their own bags. Overall, players’ needs are catered to far less than in the NBA.

NBA players enjoy the luxury of multi-million dollar, multi-year contracts, while European players typically play on one- year deals. Only the best players on a few of the top Euroleague teams get multi-year deals, and the list of players who make over $1 million a year is even shorter. Being in a situation where you have a large, guaranteed multi-year contract leads to a totally different lifestyle than playing on a one-year contract every year. Playing overseas does have some advantages, as teams generally cover a player’s taxes and his agent fee, and they also provide each player with a car and an apartment. However, these enticements aren’t significant. While playing overseas is an excellent place to learn the game and hone your skills, right now it just can’t compete with the money or the lifestyle of the NBA.

AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a  basketball blog,, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel.



  1. ΩΩAdam says

    “Handpicking certain players and making wide ranging conclusions about culture reveals more about you as a journalist than it does these players.”- Have to agree with wayne on this one.. too many sweeping generalizations here and all in all more of the same conjecture inundated articles

  2. Mike says

    Sorry, but You, Mr. Mitnick, are out there to make a statement no matter of the facts.

    You wrote on DW he did struggle early on, but he came to europe, was injured out of form and played badly in the EC qualifier. And look please what he did after that, 3 games in the turkish cup, 7 games in the turkish championship and eurochallenge. He was clearly in a class by himself , 24 ppg, 5apg, 4 rpg, 57 fg%, 53 3pts fg%. Kirilenko, Batum, Farmar did dominate in EL play in a way they could only dream of in the NBA. Because it is another level, even EL is a second division compared to the NBA. If you look over a 10-year period, the typical EL player has a reduction of 13 % in his fg %. These are facts and I would like to emphasize that there were not more than 16 real NBA rotation players in europe.

    • AJ Mitnick says

      I mention in my column what Williams was excellent after adjusting to Europe. If I remember correctly, Kirelenko did have a two year stretch when he was extremely productive in every facet of the game in the NBA.

      Also note, that I didn’t say that NBA players were awful in Europe and that European players are better than NBA players. I simply am saying that NBA players can and did learn a lot about the game from coming to Europe. Time will tell, as I think some players, notably Kyle Singler, will be much better off after the experience.

  3. Wayne Young says

    Delroy James is on a 1-5 team that has lost four games by 2 or 3 points. If you don’t like him, that is okay. It isn’t a great argument though to say his lack of awareness is why the team has lost games that have gone down to the final possessions.

    Darius Washington was the best player on a Lottomatica Roma that got to the Final Sixteen of the Euroleague last year. Is that not playing at the “top level of Europe?” I am just curious, did his style change from last year to this one or did he sign with a lesser team that offered him more money?

    Alexis Ajinca joined a team that was winless without him in Hyeres Toulon. In the two games he has played in, not only has he put up 21 points, 10 rebounds per along with 9 total blocked shots, but they won both games. Is that not respectable? Does that not point out that an athlete who was overwhelmed by the NBA only to return to Europe and find success? Two games is two games, but he did play well and help his team win. Nate Jawai, a giant man with some athleticism and very few skills if there ever was one, is playing well for the 5-1 Unics squad in the VTB United League. While it is nice to know that he still can’t play a minute without committing a foul, in the NBA that exiles a player to the bench. In Europe, he is still in the rotation going for 12 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes. He is 5 points and 4 rebounds per in the Euroleague. This is a guy who was easily a bottom five player in the NBA for both skill and production. He is doing fine a high level in Europe. Once again, you can dismiss me if you want, but my point about your overgeneralizations remain. It is wrong to pick and choose examples to prove something that you want to believe when it takes little effort to point out just as many examples showing the opposite to be the case. The complexity of team building in the US and Europe are not standardized. Well run teams are stylistically constructed to maximize the strengths of their most important personnel. The leagues in Europe do not have the talents of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, or Derrick Rose. If a player of that caliber was to play there, then the style of the team and personnel that team would want to surround them would be very different than building a team with Henry Domercant as the best player. It would be foolish to do otherwise, but personnel types (athlete, shooting specialist, shot blocker, rebounder, etc) that can work with those talents do overlap.

  4. AJ Mitnick says

    First of all Wayne, thanks for reading my column and taking the time to challenge what I wrote. I’d like to point out the McCaleb, Pargo, Landesberg and Pullen haven’t played in the NBA yet. Pullen I haven’t watched too often, but the other three I think have learned a ton about hoops since heading overseas and I think we will see all three players succeed in the NBA, and ultimately have greater success due to learning the game overseas.

    As for Delroy James, if you think he is playing well than you haven’t been watching the Israeli league. His team is the second worst team in Israel, and the only reason his stats are high is because in Israel the American players are given the minutes no matter how well they play. James lack of understanding the game is a major reason why Bnei Hasharon is having a terrible year.

    Darius Washington may put up numbers, BUT HIS TEAM SUCKS! Turk Telekom plays in the Eurochallenge and is nothing special in the Turkish league. Overseas nobody cars about your stats, you can take that garbage and throw it out the window. That is for the casual fans, or for the people who don’t understand basketball enough to see through meaningless numbers. Washington’s ball dominant tendencies will keep him from playing at the top level of Europe, unless he significantly re formats his game.

    I never overlooked the overwhelming excellence of D-Will, as I wrote a column about his 50 point night the other day, and he did struggle early on before figuring out how to succeed. Parker definitely warranted a mention, especially since he is possibly the best non-Greek pick and roll player from Europe. As for Sheyer, my last column covered his struggles with Maccabi in detail. I also have no idea where you came up with the fact that Jawai and Ajinca have done “quite well” unless your only means of assessing how well they did was the box score.

    I understand that it is frustrating to read a column that makes generalizations however I didn’t think it would be appropriate to make my column much greater than 1,500 words and had to work with what I had. If you disagree with me, or want to debate over any players, feel free to shoot me an email.

  5. Wayne Young says

    You can’t pick three players at random and make wide ranging conclusions about American players and the culture of European basketball. If you want to overlook the overwhelming excellence of Tony Parker and Deron Williams that is your choice, but to make this team first claim about European basketball while ignoring the immediate impact of undrafted American players in recent years like Sylven Landesberg, Bo McCalebb, Jeremy Pargo, and Jacob Pullen is the height of ignorance. Darius Washington is the definition of a ball dominant guard, and he has been outstanding in Turkey. Von Wafer is getting his points off the bounce in Italy the same way he did in Houston. Alonzo Gee is playing out of his mind. Well chronicled bust Adam Morrison is still a shoot first shoot second player who has never guarded anyone, but that seems to be working for him in Belgrade. Do you want me to keep going with Delroy James, Talor Battle, Justin Harper, Denzel Bowles, and E’Twaun Moore? I also noticed you left out of your bullet point of “less talent and athleticism but a greater understanding of the game” that Nathan Jawai, Kevin Seraphin, Ian Mahinmi, and Alexis Ajinca have done quite well. Through twelve games in the ACB and Eurochallenge with Fuenlabrada, Saer Sene has given them the same production as Biyombo. Do you want to defend their lack of intelligence stateside, or have you ignored their play? Have you noticed the struggles of Jon Scheyer and Ben Hansbrough, or was your commentary about them being dumb and not showing a “willingness to study and understand your opponent through preparation” edited out?

    The problem with Austin Daye is not the cultural divide of the basketball being played, it is that he is a 6’10” shooting guard. His skill set and size makes him incredibly intriguing to scouts who choose to ignore the game being played, but when he gets on the court he is just another mediocre shooting guard who happens to be incredibly tall. This is why he was placed behind Jonas Jerebko in Detroit, and the reason he never gained a foothold in Moscow. Reggie Williams was a systematic fit for VMI’s run and gun system, which allowed him to transition well to Nelliball. He was never going to guard anybody or function in a structured system on either side of the Atlantic. Avery Bradley never proved himself at any level higher than the AAU ranks, so the only question should be why the Celtics would bother to draft him not why he would struggle in Israel. Handpicking certain players and making wide ranging conclusions about culture reveals more about you as a journalist than it does these players.

  6. p00ka says

    Hockey benefited from exposure to European team play, but I have my doubts that the NBA accepts much from it. Both the rules and the culture are too geared toward individual wow moments. Mr Naismith would be far more impressed with how they treat the game in Europe.

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