Mitnick Column: Ranking American Players In European Cups

While NBA training camps may be getting under way, players such as Jordan Farmar, Sonny

Bo McCalebb (shown here playing for Macedonia) scored 21 points as Fenerbahce of Turkey defeated the Boston Celtics on Friday in Istanbul.

Weems, Shelden Williams, Craig Smith and Bo McCalebb are getting ready to start their seasons in Europe.

McCalebb has begun with a bang, as his team, Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul, managed to beat the Boston Celtics during their European tour, showing that European hoops is continuing to close the gap on the NBA.

Yes, the Celtics have only been together for a short while, and the loss says nothing about their prospects for the upcoming season. But this is another reminder that the style of play in Europe is far different than in the NBA, and that American players have the same difficulty adjusting overseas that European players do transitioning to the NBA.

While every American player grows up with the dream of playing in the NBA, the option of playing overseas has become quite alluring for players who haven’t distinguished themselves as starters or rotation members.

Aside from the obvious opportunity to be a focal point of a team abroad rather than a role or bit player in the NBA, it is important to note that contracts overseas are structured differently than NBA deals. While an NBA player needs to pay taxes, agent fees and lawyer fees, European teams pay the taxes and all fees involved in the deal, meaning that a player making $300,000 overseas actually sees all of that money. By comparison, a player making the $473,000 NBA minimum only actually receives roughly half of that salary. For players whose other option is the D-League, where the maximum salary is $30,000, playing overseas is almost a no-brainer.

Similar to soccer, European basketball teams not only play in their domestic leagues, but some of the top teams also compete in FIBA’s European cups, known as the Euroleague, Eurocup and Eurochallenge. Teams that finish at the top of their domestic league standings are chosen to play in these European competitions based on recent domestic league results, team budget and arena attendance.

With European cup games only taking place once a week, games are treated with an NFL-type intensity and scrutiny. Teams have a full week to study their opponent’s tendencies, and each possession is far more crucial to the big picture of a team’s season.

With many NBA-caliber players and former college standouts taking their talents to the mother continent, here is a look at the top 20 American players currently playing in European competition.

1. Bo McCalebb, G, Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul (Turkey), College: New Orleans

Entering his fifth season in Europe, McCalebb has taken the reins as the best American (and Macedonian) player currently in Europe. Although he is just 5-10, McCalebb is one of the few players who can single-handedly take over a game at the highest levels of European hoops. While he can get to the basket at will with his quick first step, strong upper body and fantastic body control and is a lights-out shooter, it is his competitive spirit that sets him apart from the rest of the pack. Down 10 with less than five minutes to play, there are few as capable as McCalebb at shifting the momentum back in his team’s favor.

In Europe, McCalebb is an MVP-caliber player, and has the ball in his hands a great deal. If he made the leap over the pond, he wouldn’t likely be the main player on an NBA team but projects very well as a sixth man who can change momentum with his ability to get buckets and play aggressive defense. Whether he wants to give up being the alpha dog at a very high level to be a key cog off the bench is another story altogether.

2. Sonny Weems, F, CSKA Moscow (Russia), College: Arkansas

After proving himself as a solid rotation player with the Toronto Raptors in the back end of his three-year NBA career, Weems committed to playing a full season in Europe amidst last year’s lockout. While Weems significantly improved his jump shot and decision-making throughout last year, he opted to stay in Europe to replace Andrei Kirilenko with CSKA, one of Europe’s powerhouses.

The athletic wing man will prove very valuable with his versatility and ability to fit in with the elite talent he is surrounded by at CSKA. After Weems signed a three-year deal to play in Russia, it will be interesting to see whether he makes another go-round in the NBA or is content making big bucks competing for championships in Europe, like Trajan Langdon.

3. Jaycee Carroll, G, Real Madrid (Spain), College: Utah State

Arguably the best shooter in Europe, Carroll’s shooting ability makes him one of the continent’s deadliest weapons. His ability to shoot coming off screens rivals the greats such as Reggie Miller, Richard Hamilton and Allan Houston, and demands an inordinate amount of defensive attention, opening things up for the rest of the offense.

Carroll definitely could cut it in the NBA as a shooter, but his lack of size for a shooting guard and his slight frame would likely make him too much of a defensive liability to make a big impact. In the right system, he probably could be a big weapon like Steve Kerr. But at this point, it seems more likely that Carroll will continue giving opposing European coaches nightmares.

4. Jordan Farmar, G, Anadolu Efes Istanbul (Turkey), College: UCLA

The two-time NBA champion got his first taste of Euroleague last season with Maccabi Tel-Aviv during the lockout. While he counts as a local player in Israel thanks to his Jewish roots, Farmar opted to team up with Sasha Vujacic in Turkey to see if the former Lakers backup backcourt can achieve the same success in Istanbul that they had in LA.

Last year, it took Farmar a couple of weeks to adjust to Euroleague play. He should be far more prepared heading into this season and could easily shoot up these rankings after the first couple of months of the season. A true point guard who can get in the paint with ease, Farmar stays true to his UCLA roots by playing top-notch defense. When combined with defensive ace Jamon Gordon, Efes likely will have the best defensive backcourt in Europe.

5. Keith Langford, G, EA7 Emporio Armani Milano (Italy), College: Kansas

After winning an Israeli league and Adriatic league championship with Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Langford has moved back to Italy, where he will try to build on the success he has had since crossing the pond. While his generously listed height of 6-3 makes him undersized for a wing in the NBA, his incredibly strong upper body gives him a big advantage at both wing spots in Europe.

Langford is incredibly crafty as a scorer and one of the few players who has the green light to play 1-on-1 at a high frequency at the higher levels in Europe. With his incredible talent, Langford would be an impact player in the NBA if he were a few inches taller. While he doesn’t have the mindset of an NBA point guard, he could be a good fit paired next to a point guard who can defend bigger guards.

6. Joey Dorsey, C, Olympiacos Pireus (Greece), College: Memphis

Last season, Dorsey was able to redeem the success that Mario Chalmers robbed him of in the 2008 NCAA title game by winning both the Greek and Euroleague titles. He is the perfect fit for the Greek league, a circuit with a very physical style of play and an incredible amount of pressure for each game. He may not be the most technically sound player, but his effort level is off the charts.

Dorsey’s knack for making big defensive plays at key moments and grabbing important rebounds down the stretch make him a big man that every team in Europe would love to have. He may never be a player who can impact your fantasy basketball roster, since his stats do not reflect his effect on games. But this is a player that any NBA team should feel comfortable using down the stretch of close games.

7. Craig Smith, F-C, Hapoel Jerusalem (Israel), College: Boston College

Known as “The Animal,” Smith will hands down be the most physically imposing player in the Israeli league this season. While a 6-6 center may be grossly undersized in the NBA, he is not considered small in Israel and Eurocup, where his enormous frame will give him a huge advantage over just about anyone he will face.

A known NBA commodity who has proven he can provide energy off the bench, Smith has a chance to establish himself as a star in Europe. Jerusalem is coming off a down season, and if he is able to help lead the team back to its accustomed success, it will go a long way toward enhancing his reputation in the international basketball community.

8. Henry Domercant, G, Galatasaray Medical Park Istanbul (Turkey), College: Eastern Illinois

A 32-year-old veteran of the Euroleague, Domercant came from a small time college to become one of the stars of European hoops. He should be one of the poster boys of the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, as he made the unlikely jump from Eastern Illinois to the first division in Turkey as a rookie and never looked back. This incredible shooter should be a motivation to every unheralded player that even if you may not have the hype that the All-Americans are getting, you can still cut it if you are dedicated and stay ready for whenever your opportunity may arise.

9. Mike Batiste, F, Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul (Turkey), College: Arizona State

After having a cup of coffee with the Grizzlies in the 2002-03 season, Batiste went back to Europe where he starred at Panathinaikos for nine seasons full of titles and endless accolades. One of the best roll men in the pick-and-roll, Batiste has established himself as one of the top forwards overseas for the last decade. While he will have to show this year that he can do his damage without the help of super point guard Dimitris Diamantidis, he likely will make a seamless transition playing with McCalebb. At 34, he may be trending down but still has a couple more years as a top player.

10. Shelden Williams, C, Chalon (France), College: Duke

The former fifth overall selection is one of several former lottery picks and NBA vets to make the leap across the pond. Williams has been a big disappointment so far in the NBA considering his draft position but has shown he belongs in the league as a fourth or fifth big man for defensive purposes. While his athleticism and height may prevent him from being the type of presence he was at Duke, he should be a better fit for the European style of play.

In Europe, where each possession is magnified, being in the right spot defensively and making the right play on offense are far more valued than in the NBA game, Williams’ knack for being in the right spot should make him very valuable this season. With his ability to absorb new concepts from coaches, he could learn a couple new tricks overseas that could help him be a more effective backup big during the back end of his NBA career.

For players 11-20, click here.

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