Through the young NBA season, many have been surprised about the emergence of Minnesota Timberwolves rookie point guard, Ricky Rubio, as he has quickly shown an ability to play with the elite guards in the NBA.
After two seasons putting up mediocre stats for Barcelona, one of the most stacked clubs in Europe, everyone is astonished that he is able to put up eye popping numbers in the NBA. For those that have had the chance to follow Rubio consistently during his time in Spain, his performance shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the European game is not a numbers game.
Many American sports fans have an obsession with numbers, as the sports culture originally centered on baseball, a sport in which a player’s value is directly correlated to his statistics. Therefore we tend to fall into the trap of undervaluing basketball players who don’t put up big numbers.
In basketball, however, players are not performing individually, and are out on the floor playing offense and defense as part of a five-man unit. A player can put up 20 points by consistently shooting early in the shot clock, yet be significantly less effective than a player who gets six points, but takes good shots and plays team basketball.
In short, putting up numbers doesn’t necessarily mean helping the team win.
Rubio may have only posted numbers of roughly six points and four assists per game his past two years in Spain, but he played on a veteran roster competing for a title, where no player plays over 25 minutes per game. He may have struggled with his shot, but he was able make scoring passes in the crowded defenses of the Spanish ACB league and the Euroleague.
Those who had the chance to observe Rubio during his time in Europe saw a player who clearly would thrive in the NBA, where there is much more spacing for players who like to drive and dish. They also saw a player who learned from a very young age to play for his teammates instead of for his own individual statistics, which will go a long way toward leading a young Timberwolves group to start playing together.
If a typical NBA fan were to head over to Eurobasket.com and look at statistics of players overseas, they most likely would scoff at some of the top players in Europe after looking at their numbers.
Former Orlando Magic lottery pick, Fran Vasquez, is averaging four points and two rebounds per game in the Euroleague this year, which could lead many to believe he is having a terrible year and is nowhere near NBA ready. Vasquez, however, is doing his job rather nicely, playing outstanding post defense and holding down the fort in the middle as he shares time at center with three other top European big men. Vasquez absolutely could contribute to an NBA team next season, and his numbers give no indication about his true value as a player.
Furkan Aldemir, playing for Galatasary in Turkey, is averaging a mere seven points and five rebounds per game in the Euroleague, but has been looked at as a player who likely will be the first international player off the board at this year’s NBA draft. To NBA fans, these numbers are what you expect from a bench player, but on a big club in Europe, it’s not about the numbers, it’s about being able to play smart basketball and playing hard every second you’re on the floor.
Aldemir’s teammate, former Virginia Tech guard Jamon Gordon, has emerged as one of the top guards in Europe, despite averaging only eight points per game. Gordon has proven in college and early in his pro career that he can score a lot more, but as a player who picks his spots on offense, and goes all out every time down on defense, he has become one of Europe’s most well-rounded guards. There are no statistics for stopping your man on defense, energy or hustle.
In Europe, sometimes a player can be doing more while producing less. Former Stanford wing Dan Grunfeld has been showing this during his time this year with Hapoel Jerusalem. After being the leading scorer among Israelis while with Bnei Hasharon last year, Grunfeld has been averaging 7.5 points per game this season. Grunfeld is a player whose basketball IQ is off the charts, and he almost never takes bad shots, patiently waiting to capitalizing on the weak points of the defense.
It is impossible to measure what having a player like that every day in practice and in film sessions can do to improving the overall team chemistry and the balance of a team throughout the course of a season. It should come as no surprise that only three games after his addition to Hapoel, they managed to beat Israeli superpower, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, for the first time in over 20 years.
To judge an NBA player’s value solely by his numbers can be a bit tricky, but to do so with an international player is downright foolish. Teams and leagues have such vastly different styles of play, and many teams have very deep player rotations, that it is almost impossible to find some form of consistency to compare the players.
It’s no wonder that Fantasy Basketball never caught on for the Euroleague.
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.