You can complain all you want about FIBA’s way of doing things, you’d probably be right more often than not. Only two teams from Europe can earn berths to the Rio Olympics this summer, while there will be four teams from FIBA-Americas (USA, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina)?
But if you are a fan of basketball, this EuroBasket Tournament is an overdose of fun after a long empty summer. The best national teams in Europe go at it day after day nonstop, with the winners caring more about bragging rights than a ticket to Rio.
As we get in to an epic quarterfinals stage, here are some of the players (aside from Pau Gasol, who has been brilliant, as colleague AJ Mitnick notes) who are making a name for themselves playing for their countries.
Nemanja Bjelica, Serbia (Timberwolves)
In their very first game of the tournament, Serbia took on international power-house Spain and beat them in a match that felt like a heavyweight title fight. Bjelica dominated the game with a line of 24 points, 10 boards and four assists, and showed the NBA his intentions for next year. Wolves fans should feel very lucky about getting the 27-year-old forward, who seems ready to contribute right away. If and when he’ll get a chance to crack the rotation, the 6’10” long-armed playmaker can show he belongs.
The reigning Euroleague MVP will surely have to adjust to the American way of doing things, but he has all the tools to do so. While not being an explosive athlete, Bjelica is an extremely fluid one, and he knows where he needs to be on the floor.
As far as his ability to adapt to the NBA 3-point line, Bjelica showed he has the range to make it work, and it seems he would gain more from the added space to operate than what he would lose with shooting the ball further out.
An impressive Serbia team has yet to lose in the tournament, and will face a surprising Czech Republic squad in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Danilo Gallinari, Italy (Nuggets)
Gallinari had the misfortune of playing the role of the tragic hero in Italy’s first game against Turkey. After going 9-10 from the field, 14-14 from the line in an amazing 33-point effort, Gallinari clanked his final free-throw, the one that could have tied the score with 7.9 seconds to go. However, the close loss didn’t change this – “The Rooster” is back!
Rolling out a roster filled with both NBA and top-Euroleague talent, Italy have been the classic underachievers of International play. But with a 3-2 record in a very tough group B – including an impressive win against Spain – the tide maybe starting to shift for the Azzurri.
While it feels like Gallo has been with us forever, you probably didn’t realize he is only 27. It’s easy to peg the Italian as a guy who’ll never be able to sustain the grind of a full NBA season, his injury-riddled past makes it hard to dispute. But when you watch the lanky combo-forward do his thing, you simply can’t help but appreciate his tremendous upside.. Versatility is devastating tool for a player to have, but its potential can only be unlocked when combined with a decent feel for the game, something Gallinari has.
So far he is the tournament’s third-leading scorer with 18.5 points per game to go along with 6.8 rebounds, while putting his imprint all over the floor for the Italians, who are set to face Lithuania in their quarterfinal match on Wednesday.
Omri Casspi, Israel (Kings)
The recent loss to Italy was understandable as the Israelis were clearly overmatched talent-wise, but the team can go back home with their heads up. After looking like a punching bag in their eight preparation games, of which they only won once, Israel managed to sneak in to the second seed in Group A, and their go-to-guy had a lot to do with it.
Casspi is a valuable piece for the Sacramento Kings off the bench, and had some nice games under new coach George Karl. While his skill set maybe more fitting for NBA role-player, Casspi’s aggressive nature allows him to take on a bigger burden on the international level. He usually has some sort of an athletic edge on his defender, and is a bigger threat from the perimeter with the closer 3-point line. He led a feisty Israel team with 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds, spending time at both forward positions.
Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania (Raptors)
Valanciunas and the Raptors had successful extension talks this summer, and the price for the bigman’s services was set at $64 million dollars for four years.
At his size, Valanciunas has the talent to make that number look like a huge discount. The main question for the Lithuanians coming in was whether they can tweak their up-and-down style to accommodate for Valanciunas’ strength on the block. They passed the test so far, as the center got his fair share of touches to score 15.4 PPG on 11.8 shots per game, while also anchoring the paint with eight boards.
If Valanciunas gets position near the rim, they feed him the ball and let him go to work. If he can’t get it, he would usually go right to the ball and set a screen, before rolling right back to the hoop, where he does most of his damage.
The 23-year-old Valanciunas had some dominating performances to lead his country to the first place in Group D, with their only loss coming on a cruel buzzer-beater tip-in against Belgium. After going to toe-to-toe with Georgia in a tight win on Sunday, they are now matched up with Italy for a ticket to the semis.
Tomas Satoransky, Czech Republic (Wizards draft rights)
Unlike the rest of this group, you will not see Satoransky wearing the NBA logo on his uniform next season. The 23-year-old was considered an interesting draft prospect once, and heard his name called on the 32nd pick of the 2012 Draft for the Washington Wizards. After a quick stint in the Wizards’ Summer-league squad in 2012, Satoransky’s career rose to the highest levels of European ball, and he is now going into his second season for FC Barcelona.
So far, the 6’6″ point-guard has played in just about every meaningful minute for his team, and produced terrific all-around numbers with 13.2 points per game, complemented by 8.8 assists (leads tournament) and six rebounds. His size advantage allows him to be in control from the perimeter, where he dictates the action with his heady-yet-aggressive style of play. Unlike many European big guards, Satoransky has some burst and skill off the bounce, and he can find the cracks to the rim when they’re available. Coach Nano Ginzburg knows the car is in good hands when his point guard has the keys, with his 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Nobody expected much from the Czechs, led by Satoransky and NBA-fallout Jan Vesely, but their play earned them a ticket to the quarters, where they will try to upset a talented Serbia team.
Oren Levi is a writer, amateur scout and diehard NBA fan. Follow him on Twitter.