BARCELONA — Between the NBA and the Euroleague lies an ocean. Over here, we may have some of the best NBA trade deadline assets that you might hear about by Thursday afternoon. More and more, teams are pushing their shopping carts across the Atlantic in hopes of stumbling upon a Gary Neal or Gustavo Ayon. Other teams did their legwork early, drafting and stowing Europeans whom they hoped would mature into NBA caliber players. Some of them have. Here are the 10 best players in Europe whose rights are currently held by Western Conference teams. Next, we’ll hit the East. …
1. Joel Freeland, PF, Portland
European Club: Unicaja (Spain) Odds He’ll Defect: 70 percent. Those murmurs of discontent have matured into agitated roars in Freeland’s third year with Unicaja, as the team has made a habit of blowing its beefy budget on shoot-first, pass-third mostly American guards who rarely make it through a full season. Let me throw you some names: Zabian Dowdell, Taquan Dean, Juan Dixon, Pooh Jeter, a had-been Shammond Williams, an erratic Omar Cook and the shell of a man who was once Terrell McIntyre. This year, Earl Rowland, Gerald Fitch and Kristaps Valters (Latvia) kept tradition alive, guiding Unicaja into the Euroleague’s statistical cellar for turnovers (15.2 per game; 16th out of 16 in Euroleague’s second phase) and assists (11.8; 14th out of 16). Add a swift dismissal in the Copa del Rey, and Unicaja’s winless Euroleague Top 16 to his teammates’ lack of deference and yes, Joel Freeland is frustrated. This summer, however, Freeland’s a free man. With his contract up at season’s end, he will choose one of three paths: Option A: Re-sign with Unicaja. Option B: Sign with Portland (or whoever holds his rights if they are traded) Option C:Sign with another Spanish Euroleague team such as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Caja Laboral. Freeland’s clipping his own wings with Option A. With Option C, he guarantees himself a fat chunk of Euros, but also relinquishes a great deal of offensive freedom if he lands with Barcelona, the club most frequently rumored to have interest in the British power forward. That leaves Option B as the logical leader in the clubhouse. Unfortunately, Portland cycles through general managers like Unicaja does inoperative point guards, and it’s uncertain whether acting GM Chad Buchanan wants to bring the uber athletic Freeland into the fold just yet.
2. Sofoklis Schortsanitis, C, LA Clippers
European Club: Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) Odds He’ll Defect: 65 percent Priest Lauderdale, Shaquille O’Neal, Eddy Curry. Too slow, too dominant, too dreadful. Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Joe Thomas. Ah, yes. Left tackles. That’s more like it when describing Big Sofo. Baby Shaq’s mammoth frame and feathery footwork might have been born in the wrong country and drafted by the wrong league, but he’s carved out a home—a very large, round, cavernous home—as Europe’s most lovable wrecking ball in his time with Olympiacos, Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Greek national team. Aside from the conspicuously apparent reasons (Hint: He’s a gigantic human being), Sofo’s most intriguing quality to an NBA team is his propensity to dominate for small spurts while willingly sitting during others. Last season with Maccabi, the 370-pound (give or take a couple dozen pounds) Sofo needed only 19 minutes per game to lock up the first All-Euroleague nod of his career. Sofo’s job in Los Angeles would likely be the same as it is in Tel Aviv: check in, be large, grab boards and back your way into other centers’ nightmares. Lob City, get ready for Blob City if he goes to the NBA.
3. Erazem Lorbek, PF, San Antonio
European Club: Regal Barcelona (Spain) Odds He’ll Defect: 25 percent. Erazem Lorbek is having the best season of any power forward in the Euroleague, his unassuming genius populating box scores with big numbers before you even realize he’s taken a shot. When he does shoot, he usually makes it: 63 percent of his 2-pointers and 44 percent from 3 in the Euroleague this season. So of course the Spurs got the Pacers to toss him in the George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard deal last June. If the Spurs offered him a deal this summer, would Lorbek take it? I asked him that very question at the 2:20 mark of the video below.
4. Nick Calathes, PG, Dallas
European Club: Panathinaikos (Greece) Odds He’ll Defect: 65 percent. Calathes left Florida as a guard with size, tools and questionable judgment. Under the tutelage of Panathinaikos head coach Zeljko Obradovic and his backcourt mate, Dimitris Diamantidis, Calathes has blasted up the learning curve and left most of his silly turnovers in the dust. There’s still a contingent who doesn’t understand the extent of Obradovic’s faith in Calathes. I’m of the mind that it’s Obradovic’s trust itself which has infused the 6-foot-5 Calathes with the confidence necessary to reach his full potential. He’s not quite there, but he is close. Close enough to lead Greece into Olympic qualifiers this summer and definitely close enough to run an NBA offense for 20 minutes on game nights.
5. Donatas Motiejunas, PF, Houston
European Club: Asseco Prokom (Poland) Odds He’ll Defect: 90 percent. It came a season later than we’d hoped, but Motiejunas finally flexed his muscles this season in Poland, knocking down 1.4 3-pointers per game and setting a single-game Euroleague record for defensive rebounds with 18. Motiejunas has chiseled some of that boyish lank into grown man muscle and shed the softtag, ranking second in rebounding in a VTB United League which includes guys like Andrei Kirilenko, Nenad Krstic and former SEC Player of the Year Lawrence Roberts. (Toronto Raptors draft pick, Jonas Valanciunas, is first in the boards category. More on him when we look at the East.) With production and hype finally in lockstep, I’d expect Daryl Morey to offer Motiejunas a jersey as soon as this summer.
6. Sergio Llull, G, Houston
European Club: Real Madrid (Spain) Odds He’ll Defect: 15 percent. The man’s a pure delight with the rock in his hands and empty space ahead of him. When defenses tighten up, however, so does he. Running has never been the problem. Running a team has proven more difficult. With Kyle Lowry playing out of his gourd, Goran Dragic showing us what a more refined version of Llull looks like and Jonny Flynn in the background, trying to figure out where it all went wrong, I doubt Sergio has any immediate future with the Rockets.
7. Latavious Williams, PF, Oklahoma City
European Club: FIATC Joventut (Spain) Odds He’ll Defect: 90 percent. The man from Mississippi is putting up some crooked numbers in the rebounding column for FIATC Joventut in Badalona, Spain, and he says he won’t quit until he’s made it to the NBA. At 6-foot-8 with arms that could hug a redwood, I’d be astounded if he’s not with the Thunder (or some NBA team) before the 2013-14 season begins, if not sooner.
8. Victor Claver, SF, Portland
European Club: Valencia (Spain) Odds He’ll Defect: 55 percent. Injuries have grounded Spain’s highest flyer intermittently, since just before the Blazers drafted him in 2009. Claver was supposed to have locked up the starting small forward role for the Spanish national team by now, but his on again, off again relationship with health has made it difficult to gauge his progress. With two strong legs beneath him, he’s a monster.
9. Adam Hanga, G/F, San Antonio
European Club: Manresa (Spain) Odds He’ll Defect: 30 percent. Hanga’s a decent looking deep ball away from NBA material on the offensive end (just 19 percent on 3s this season), but he’s already figured out how to disrupt just about everything on defense. Luckily, Hanga hails from basketball bereft Hungary and has entire summers to dominate the ball, hone his skills and generally freewheel his way through qualifying tournaments that Hungary never wins. If he does make it to the Association, he’d be only the second Hungarian ever to have his name on an NBA jersey. If you remembered that the other was Kornel David, who split 109 games between Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto between 1998 and 2001, you’re a better man than me. (Eds note: I disagree. We’re just older and remember some of Jerry Krause’s post-Jordan fiascoes-CS.)
10. Nando de Colo, G, San Antonio
European Club: Valencia (Spain) Odds He’ll Defect: 35 percent. Here’s another guy who could benefit from the decongested NBA lanes and a hastier offense, but as long as Nando’s a defensive liability (which he irrefutably is), I can’t see Gregg Popovich getting too psyched about seeing him in silver and black. Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear each Friday. Click here to follow him on Twitter.