Sitting on one end is first Russian contingent, from CSKA Moscow, calmly sipping on warm vodka. They’ve had four, and they’ve yet to slur a word. They might have six or eight more before it’s all over, and if you ask them for their keys, they’ll shoot you a How dare you? glance before walking out when they damn well please and sliding home safely through the Moscow snowflakes. They are, after all, the grand poobahs of Russian basketball.
On the other end are the other Russians, Lokomotiv Kuban, all the way from Krasnodar. They’ve mixed their vodka with a splash of cranberry and asked for a lime wedge. They’re giddy, sloppy and loud. They don’t come here often and want to suck down as many Cape Cods as humanly possible before somebody notices they’re underage or yells at them for ordering a Cape Cod, of all things, in Russia.
About the time they ask for that fifth one, the bartender starts watering them down because hey, this is Europe and it’s not like he’s getting tips to deal with this rambunctious crew. “Hey barkeep”, says Malcolm Delaney. “I need more shots!” The man behind the bar, growing perturbed, cuts them off and haughtily suggests they call an Uber.
Then in the middle is Unicaja. They look at Lokomotiv, shake their heads and chuckle; they remember those days. Unicaja’s drink of choice used to be mojitos; they liked things sweet, tasty and pretty in green. Now, they’re all grown up sharing their fourth pitcher of San Miguel cerveza. It’s nobody’s favorite but it tastes like beer and that does the trick. They’re quick to fill an empty glass and nobody goes thirsty. They’ve opened a tab under the name Kuzminskas and they’ll be here a while.
In this bar, instead of an ID, you’ve got to present an undefeated Euroleague record to gain entry.
After four weeks, only these three teams qualify, and they’ve all taken different paths to wet their respective whistles. Let’s get to know these Euroleague bar flies, and some of the NBA-level talent that’s helped them get here.
CSKA Moscow – Nando de Colo, Milos Teodosic, Kyle Hines, Andrey Vorontsevich and Aaron Jackson
For the six-time Euroleague champions, this is nothing new. After all, they went 10-0 in last year’s regular season with an average point differential of 16.2 per game. (To give you an idea of how dominant that is, the Golden State Warriors are currently outscoring opponents by 17.8 points per game.) And in CSKA Moscow’s second season under head coach Dmitris Itoudis, they could very well do that again if they can get by Unicaja this week. That’s right: Unicaja and CSKA are in the same group and we’ll get to enjoy two head-to-head matchups between these two. One now and another in five weeks.
Just like every season, CSKA boasts a roster full of fringe NBAers or better.
People (might) remember Nando de Colo from his Spurs and (brief) Raptor days. With career averages of 3.8 points, 1.7 assists and 36% from three he wasn’t breaking Canadian hearts when he turned down Toronto’s qualifying offer to play for CSKA two Summers ago. But that QO looms larger now that de Colo is 28, one of Europe’s best guards and headed for his second straight All-Euroleague season.
He is crafty off the dribble, capable of getting all the way to the rim or setting up teammates in Itoudis’ pick-and-roll heavy offense. And that good-but-nothing-special 36% from three? He countered with the old 50-40-90 line last year: 52% from the field, 45% from three and 91% from the stripe. He’s in excellent condition and can play fast forever, sliding his feet on defense and getting his hands into passing lanes (2 steals per game this year). In short, he’s a much more mature, much more complete Nando than the one who left the NBA.
Sharing the backcourt with Nando is fellow All-Euroleague guard Milos Teodosic, and Aaron Jackson.
Teodosic is undeniably an NBA-level offensive talent and mind at the point guard position. His vision is rivaled only by Real Madrid’s Sergio Rodriguez, but Milos gets the edge because he’s 6’5” and can see over, around, and right through defenses. Sergio is Drew Brees; Milos is Aaron Rodgers — if Rodgers also hit 43% from downtown and 95% from the stripe.
Jackson is a 29-year-old dynamic guard who played his college ball at Duquesne. He runs the break like a bat out of hell and finishes with flair. He has learned how to pump the brakes and smoothly switch gears, which has helped him maintain a 3:1 AST:TO ratio the last two seasons. And he can shoot now, too! Forty-two percent last year.
This is the Euroleague. If you’re a guard and you can’t shoot, then have fun in the EuroChallenge or (gasp!) the D-League. Jackson is not taking anyone’s NBA team to the next level, but he’s got the speed, and if you trust the shot then he’s worth a flier. I’ll tell you one thing: Philly would win more games with Aaron Jackson than T.J. McConnell. You know, if winning were the goal.
Then you’ve got Kyle Hines and Andrey Vorontsevich. Hines is the world’s coolest undersized big man at 6’5” (even that’s iffy). He is a bull with long arms and tightly wound calves that spring him into the air effortlessly to block shots and grab rebounds you thought were reserved for players 6’10” and taller. He plays harder than anyone. He’s not a shooter, but find somebody in Europe that cares. Put him on my team and I’ll beat you. NBA teams are missing out on a world class competitor because they’re afraid to sign a power forward that stands in the front row of their team picture. Silly.
Vorontsevich can do everything a modern power forward is supposed to do: shoot the ball (over 42% from three for three seasons), finish at the rim, pass the ball and defend both the perimeter and post. Last season he flashed an Offensive Rating of 130 and a Defensive Rating of 98. That’s an elite margin. He’s got a deal keeping him in Moscow until the end of next year. If he doesn’t have NBA suitors, I’ll eat one of those fluffy Russian hats.
Unicaja – Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Fran Vazquez, and Nemanja Nedovic
Isn’t Fran Vazquez the guy who screwed the Magic and never came over after being a lottery pick in 2005?
Yeah. Same guy. And before you get your briefs in a wad, all incredulous that Fran never made the jump, stop and think: would you like to play professional basketball in your home country for elite teams and millions of dollars? If you answered yes to this question, then chill. That’s what Franny V did. Not everyone has to bend to the will of the NBA’s iron fist just because David Stern said his name on ESPN an ocean away. He would’ve been a good NBA rim protector, not an All-Star or anything, but a starter. But he stayed home, stayed happy, and he’s with Unicaja now blocking shots and eating tapas at 32. It sounds like a good life to me. You can keep your Islands of Adventure and leather-skinned Floridians; I’ll take the jamon croquetas and sangria.
Nedovic, too! He was the last name Stern called as Commissioner when the Warriors selected Nemanja 30th overall in 2013. People called him the Serbian Derrick Rose and I rolled my eyes, but turns out they were totally right. They’re both terrific athletes who drive urgently and can’t shoot with any consistency. On this Unicaja team, Nedovic gives defenses a different look than point guard Stefan Markovic, Unicaja’s calm hand on the rudder. Nemanja comes in and sparks things up, gets breaks going and defends with energy. He still can’t shoot, but playing alongside gunners Edwin Jackson and Jamar Smith help bridge the gap.
From two guys with NBA pasts to one guy with an NBA future: Mindaugas Kuzminskas. He is 6’9”, 26 years old and confident now, no longer a string bean lacking conviction. He had never averaged double figures before this year when his scoring jumped up to 13.3 per game on a career-high 55% from the floor. He is not a playmaker off the dribble, but this Joan Plaza-coached Unicaja team shares the ball and finds Mindaugas in positions to do damage. He can take smaller defenders into the post and finishes with a soft touch, or he can drive a closeout with 1-2 dribbles from the corner and finish. Confident Kuzminskas came out to play this Summer with Lithuania in EuroBasket and to my glee, that has carried over into the regular season. It’s been a long time coming for Mindaugas, but NBA teams are circling him and nibbling at the bait now. If he shot better than 32% from three then they would be ravenous.
Lokomotiv Kuban – Malcolm Delaney, Victor Claver, Chris Singleton
Frankly, I’m surprised Delaney didn’t make his way onto an NBA roster this offseason. After chucking his way through his Virginia Tech career, he got the chance to really play point guard in Europe with Bayern Munich and fared well, cultivating a composed style that he’s carried with him to Kuban. Malcolm is a more accurate and willing passer now, but he knows he’s in Krasnodar to get shots up — and he’s been doing exactly that. He is behind only Nando de Colo (19.0) and Rockets draft pick Alessandro Gentile (19.3) in the Euroleague scoring race (Delaney is at 18.8) and he is doing it efficiently at 53% from the floor. Lokomotiv will ebb and flow along with Delaney’s shooting stroke, but you could anchor your boat in far rougher waters. Lokomotiv is still new to this Euroleague success, however, and their unbeaten (4-0) record is the least likely to stand for six more regular season weeks. As for Delaney’s NBA chances, he will get signed if:
- Somebody believes he can be efficient enough to be their backup point guard (ie: limit turnovers and make open threes).
- Somebody believes he can competently defend both guard spots.
I would take a shot on him and certainly bring him to training camp, but Malcolm wouldn’t be my Plan A. He’s good enough to score 20 in an NBA game on a given night, though, and those types of players don’t just fall off the turnip truck.
Claver and Singleton are names that NBA fans might recognize as well.
Claver was given opportunities to succeed in Portland and never looked comfortable, but he’s where he belongs now. He has made 14-of-19 two-pointers and 6-of-13 threes so far, adding some impressive defensive stops to his ridiculous offensive efficiency. His athleticism was exaggerated coming into the 2009 draft and injuries knocked him back even further, but he’s still a good athlete at the four and playing the best basketball of his life right now, and Lokomotiv Kuban are the beneficiaries. I would sign him as my 10th or 11th man on an NBA team, but Victor has to ask himself: What would Fran do?
Then there’s Chris Singleton. Can’t buy a bucket: 32% from the floor. Beastly defender: 1 steal, 1 block and over 5 rebounds a game in just 20 minutes. He can literally guard four positions in Europe (not many playmaking, attacking twos in Europe make this possible) and he can switch onto points if need be. The shots might never fall at a high rate, but he won’t shoot in the 30s all year. Between him and Claver, Lokomotiv have the bodies to defend damn near any wing duo, or any post combination. That’s rare. Throw ballhawk Dontaye Draper in at the point with Delaney at the two and suddenly you’ve got a team that’s very hard to score against.
This week, all three of our undefeated teams will face their biggest test yet. Lokomotiv Kuban travels to Barcelona, where Tomas Satorasnky and Co. treat intruders poorly. And in the Russian capital, CSKA Moscow and Unicaja will try to give the other its first loss.
And at week’s end, I’d wager that Unicaja and Lokomotiv shuffle out of the bar with their heads in their hands as CSKA swigs on another warm vodka with a wry smile.
Either way, cheers. The Euroleague is back.
Nick Gibson covers international basketball for Sheridan Hoops. He spent the last two seasons working in the Atlanta Hawks front office scouting international players and is the editor of Euroleague Adventures.