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, http://mindlessdribble.net, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel.