Keith Langford helps Maccabi win Adriatic League Championship

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TEL AVIV — After a long and arduous season, Maccabi Tel-Aviv took home the 2012 Adriatic league title with an 87-77 win Monday night over KK Cedevita Zagreb.

This season, Maccabi Tel-Aviv has played in three separate leagues, playing well over 80 games in a compact schedule that often involved taking connecting flights around Europe to get to countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Despite the fact that Maccabi typically breezed past opponents in the Adriatic league, there was no doubt that the team felt a large sense of accomplishment with this title after their intense travel schedule.

Maccabi controlled this game right out of the gate, with impressive defensive execution.

Dominating the paint from the opening tip, Maccabi held Cedevita to a mere 1-for-18 shooting on 2-point shots in the first half.

Keith Langford, the game’s MVP, led Maccabi with 21 points, penetrating his way through Cedevita’s defense and making some difficult contested shots. Richard Hendrix was fantastic around the basket, scoring 16 points (8-of-10 shooting) and pulling down seven rebounds in a mere 21 minutes while limiting the up and coming 7-footer, Miro Bilan, to 4 points. Any time Cedevita showed signs of life, Maccabi’s shooters David Blu (3-for-3 on 3PT) , Guy Pnini (2-for-3 on 3PT) and Devin Smith (3-for-4 on 3PT) knocked down timely buckets, breaking Cedevita’s spirit.

Cedevita seemed quite nervous in their first time playing in an Adriatic league championship, arguably the biggest game in the history of the franchise.

The team knew going into the game that they needed to come out strong to hang with Maccabi, but they were outmatched from the early moments of the game. Cedevita was led by the game’s leading scorer, Levour Warren (South Carolina), who had 24 points on 6-for-8 shooting from behind the arc. Star guard Dontaye Draper (Charleston), was limited to 8 points, barely making an impact on the game amid rumors that he has agreed to a deal with Real Madrid for next season.

Cedevita is in the midst of its best season since the franchise was purchased by Atlantic Grupa in 2005, competing in the Eurocup, finishing 2nd in the Adriatic league, and currently in contention in the Croatian league after finishing the regular season in 2nd place.

The club will be making its first appearance in the Euroleague next season, and with good ownership and smart decision-making, Cedevita is surely a team on the rise in Europe.

As with players, it is crucial for teams to take a step by step approach to playing at the highest level, and the fact that Cedevita built themselves up before hoisting themselves to the Euroleague should bode well for the long-term success of the club.

Teams should take note (Maccabi Haifa, this means you) that creating a plan that involves incremental progress, and sticking to that plan without making impulse decisions, is the only way to build a team that will consistently play at the highest levels in Europe.

Maccabi participated in the Adriatic league this season in an attempt for the league to build up its product by adding another team with a high level of talent and tradition that will draw fans.

Maccabi was well received on the road in the Adriatic league, drawing big crowds on the road, and occasionally getting applauded for their play in opposing gyms. In addition, the chance to play at the Nokia Arena in Tel-Aviv proved to be a great experience for many Adriatic league teams. Members of the Croatian media were amazed by the atmosphere in Tel-Aviv during the Final Four, as 11,500 fans packed the stadium, chanting and singing from start to finish.

The additional schedule of the Adriatic league may have been tough travel-wise, but since the league has no restriction on how many foreigners can play, it gave Maccabi the chance to use its full roster, as opposed to the Israeli league in which only four non-Israelis can dress. Those extra minutes kept most of Maccabi’s roster happy throughout the year, and helped the team keep its chemistry strong over the duration of a long season.

Whether Maccabi will participate in the Adriatic league next season has yet to be determined, but with Maccabi currently lobbying for the Israeli league to change the rules limiting the number of foreigners, it is possible that Maccabi will use the threat of leaving the league to only play in the Adriatic league, as a means to get what it wants.

With their Euroleague and Adriatic league seasons both wrapped up, Maccabi looks ahead to the Israeli league playoffs, where they will square up against Frank Robinson (Cal State Fullerton) and Dion Dowell’s (Texas) BC Habikaa squad in the quarterfinals. Habikaa will be playing without leading scorer Paul Delaney (UAB), giving the team very little chance of sneaking a win in this best-of-five series. However, with a one-and-done format in the Israeli league Final Four, Maccabi’s work this season is far from over.

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. Follow him on Twitter.

 

Steven Smith: From Philadelphia to Panathinaikos

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Steven Smith is the starting power forward for the Greek team Panathinaikos, which will be competing in the Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul next month.

After having a successful career at La Salle, where he was a two-time Atlantic 10 player of the year, the Philadelphia native took his talents overseas after a short spurt with the Philadelphia 76ers.

After working his way through the ranks in Europe, Smith will get an opportunity to participate at the highest level of competition in European basketball.

He graciously took the time for a one-on-one interview:

Sheridan Hoops: You’ve gotten many new stamps on your passport, playing in Greece, Germany, Italy and Israel. What are some of the differences between the different countries and leagues you’ve played in?

Steven Smith: “The first real experience I had playing the European game was in Italy with (Solsonica) Rieti and that really was the full experience. The style of basketball they play in Italy is a mixture of everything, finesse, physicality and just some of everything. At the time I was there, there were a lot of strong import players, a lot of Americans throughout the league, so it was a pretty strong league and still is today.

“Israel, I was trying to see where I was health-wise, and getting back into a rhythm of things, making sure that I can perform after my injury. It was a rough season with Nahariya, since we didn’t have much team success, but it was a great way for me to get back into the rhythm.

“The German league is not a very physical league, especially compared to the Greek league, with that style of play. I was only in Germany for a half a year, but it was a good experience as far as just being able to see what the German league is like.

Sheridan Hoops: This season, you’ve gotten the opportunity to play for the Greek powerhouse, Panathinaikos, where you have reached the Final Four of the Greek League and the Euroleague, and won the Greek State Cup. What has it been like being a part of a team with so much tradition and expectation of success?

Steven Smith: “It’s cool to have this opportunity. Playing for two other teams in the Greek league, you get a small taste of how important this team and Olympiacos are to this country and to Greek basketball. To actually get the opportunity to come here is just great, because not too many guys make it to this level.

“The Euroleague is pretty serious business. To come here in my first year and be part of this team, that has had so much success in the past, coming off championships last year in the Euroleague and the Greek League, to come in and be able to come right back to the Final Four with these guys is a great experience.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to get to play on the grand stage in just my first year in the Euroleague. I just need to keep working and try not to get too nervous. I’m just anxious to play these Final Four games, and I want a championship really bad, so we’ll see what happens.”

Sheridan Hoops: You’ve played on smaller clubs where you have had the ball in your hands a good amount. Now you’re playing with a team that uses almost the entire roster in its regular rotation. How has it been transitioning from being a focal point on a small team to being a role player on one of the top teams in Europe?

Steven Smith: “It’s been simple, quite honestly. It’s not that difficult of a transition if you know what to expect. Coming to a team like this, you know your role is going to be reduced and you’re going to have to become a role player. Especially with the way this team is built, it’s pretty much the same team as last year, built around a bunch of people who have been around a while who have won multiple championships together. I’m playing on a team with (Dimitrios) Diamantidis and Mike Batiste, two guys who have been through it all.

“To come to a team with a lot of experience, guys that know how to play basketball and that have been through everything, it’s easy to come in here. That’s what they told me when I came, that I won’t be relied on to create, but they’ll depend on me to execute.  A person in my position, I just have to sit back offensively and let the game come to me. To understand that right off the bat is a great thing that’s helped me a lot.

“I’ve been on so many teams and played so many types of basketball, but it’s all about getting the opportunity to play at a high level and play team oriented basketball.”

Sheridan Hoops: “This season you’re playing for legendary Serbian head coach, Zeljko Obradovic. What have you learned playing for Coach Obradovic, and what makes his coaching style so unique?

Steven Smith: “Playing for Coach, you learn how to win games. You learn how to have patience in the heat of some pretty tense moments. To come to work hard every day because that’s all he expects. He’s a great guy, a great coach, and all he wants from his players is just to come to work and give it all of our effort.

“To have the opportunity to play for a legendary coach, who has won so many things, especially here in Panathinaikos, is just a great experience. For them to give me the opportunity to come to the club earlier this season, and then sticking with me, I greatly appreciate it.”

Sheridan Hoops: How would you compare some of the rivalries in the Big 5 to some of the rivalries you have in the Euroleague?

“It’s a little bit different because in the Big 5, especially being from Philly, those matchups are always in your face year round. During the season, you look at your schedule and you know you’re going to have to play those guys.  In the offseason, you’re working out with those guys. You see the same teams and the same guys all year round.

“As far as Euroleague goes, you might get matched up with a team you haven’t played in a few years, so it’s a little bit different. The closest thing I could compare rivalry-wise would be our playoff series against Maccabi Tel-Aviv. That was a back and forth nail biter, and that pretty much is how Big 5 games were when I was there, and still are. In the Big 5, there is always history between the two teams, and I would compare it to the series against Maccabi because there has been some history between the clubs in the past few years, especially after playing each other in last season’s Euroleague championship.”

Sheridan Hoops: Panathinaikos is known for having some of the most passionate fans in European basketball. How would you describe the atmosphere at your home games?

Steven Smith: “Passionate is an understatement boy! You see so many things you never think you’ll see within a fan setting. We’ve had bonfires, smoke bombs, sparklers and fireworks. Especially with the big games, you have people not even sitting in seats, all the seats are gone and you have people standing in the aisle.

“We play in the Olympic stadium and it’s filled all the way to the top. The singing, the chanting, just the overall spirit of competition is just crazy. I don’t think there’s a group of fans anywhere else, besides Olympiacos, obviously, where the fans behave the way they do. Sometimes, it may get a little too much, with one or two knuckleheads acting up, but for the most part, they try to keep under control.

“Stuff they do here, you would never see in the States, it’s just indescribable. To come to an arena, 25,000 people, smoke everywhere, fires everywhere, nobody shuts up, they’re singing the whole game. It’s a great environment, a great experience and it definitely makes you feel appreciated to have that type of support with the work that we put in.”

Sheridan Hoops: Dimitris Diamantidis is considered to be among the best point guards in Europe. Can you describe his style of play, and how he compares to some of the top NBA point guards?

Steven Smith: “He’s just a smart player, with a lot of natural talent, and he also works hard. Adding that to his basketball IQ makes him a phenomenal player. Obviously, he has had a lot of success – MVP of Euroleague, multiple championships in Euroleague and in the Greek League. He knows how to control the team, he’s vocal and he leads by example. He can defend the ball and he has size.

“He’s just a great player to watch, especially being on the team with him, I get to see it more and more. In years past, I didn’t pay too much attention to him. I knew about him, but actually witnessing it every day and getting the chance to work with him, he just is one of the best guards in Europe, if not the best.

“He definitely is a player that I’m surprised never jumped to the NBA. I know he could have, but for whatever reason, he stuck with Greece.

“That’s not any slight on his game whatsoever. He definitely has the ability, and I would compare him almost to a Manu Ginobili type player. Lefty, plays defense, can shoot the ball, excellent in the pick and roll and just crafty. Having the opportunity to play with a player like that just makes things a lot easier. He’s a hard worker, a good guy, down to earth and very humble, one of the most humble guys I’ve ever met, and it’s been a pleasure to play with him.”

Sheridan Hoops: How would you compare the level of talent and competition in the Euroleague to the NBA?

Steven Smith: “I would say it’s almost the same. The NBA obviously plays more games, since here in Euroleague we only play one game a week, not counting each team’s domestic games. When those games come around, they are very important and there are no nights off. The level of competition is equal.

“The NBA obviously has more athletic people from top to bottom overall, but the Euroleague is not far behind. There are plenty of Euroleague players who have played in the NBA before and every year, players from the Euroleague are getting picked up by NBA teams. There is a great mix of talent in the Euroleague, so the competition and talent, in my opinion, is equal. The rules are a little bit different, but the level of focus and effort you have to put forth every night is exactly the same.”

Sheridan Hoops: What advice would you give to an American player coming out of college contemplating a career overseas?

Steven Smith: “You’ve got to be patient. Not everyone comes overseas and jumps right to a big team. You might have to go to smaller teams, or you might make it to a big league and play for a small team in that league.

“A lot of things that don’t even have to do with basketball might affect you. You may come to a good team, but the city is not so nice or not something you’re used to, and it can be a real culture shock. You just need to forget all that and stay focused on basketball, because if that’s what you really want to do, and you really want to make it to the highest level that you can, at least in my experience, those are the types of things you need to be able to swallow and just deal with. If you’re not patient and you get frustrated easily, then you’re starting off on the wrong foot.”

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. Follow him on Twitter.

Gibson: Kirilenko should NOT be Euroleague MVP; It should be Spanoulis

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ISTANBUL —When the NBA locked out its stars last offseason, Andrei Kirilenko rode into Russia on his wild horse to exorcise the memories of CSKA Moscow’s atrocious 2010-11 Euroleague season, in which they failed to make it to the Top 16 after a record eight straight Final Four appearances.

Kirilenko’s debut was something straight out of 2005: 17 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in a 74-87 road win against Sonny Weems’ overmatched Zalgiris squad.

His casual dominance landed him the Week One MVP, and the former Utah Jazz forward followed it up with four more stat-stuffed beauties before a bloody fall in the Russian League sidelined AK for CSKA’s next five Euroleague bouts with a concussion, a broken nose and a bum shoulder.

When Kirilenko returned for the Top 16, he was the same old Andrei.  The silent killer that everyone heard.

If a whistle blew off the ball, it was Kirilenko stepping to the free throw line. If a lightning quick touch pass led to an easy lay-in, odds are it was AK notching the dime. If a red blur flew in from the weak side to swat a lay-up into the stands, the camera would inevitably settle on Kirilenko’s razor-sharp jawline as he glared at the mess he’d made.

Night after night, Andrei Kirilenko was the answer if the question was “Who was that?”

What the former NBA All-Star has done in his first year back with CSKA Moscow—Kirilenko played three seasons for the Russian giants between 1998 and 2001—is nothing short of historic.  His 24.1 player index rating (Or PIR, PER’s simpler cousin) is more than three points better than any other Euroleaguer’s this season and the highest since Anthony Parker averaged 24.9 in 2004-05 en route to his first of two MVP trophies with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

It’s true: Andrei Kirilenko has been the best player in Europe this season. He is not, however, the Euroleague’s most valuable player.

That would be Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos.  Like Kirilenko, the bearded two guard will play in the Euroleague Final Four here in Istanbul on May 10.  But unlike Kirilenko, Spanoulis’ team wouldn’t have made it nearly this far without him.

Long thought to have a crippling addiction to the sound of his own dribble, even diehard Olympiacos fans wondered if Spanoulis could lead the Reds beyond the Top 16 after the front office stripped the roster down to its skivvies and auctioned off the parts.

Ioannis Bourousis to Milano. Theo Papaloukas to Maccabi.  Milos Teodosic—the 2010 Euroleague MVP—joined forces with Kirilenko in Moscow.  Rasho Nesterovic retired, starting big man Loukas Mavrokefalidis went to St. Petersburg and Jamon Lucas signed with the Turkish club, Galatasaray, where he would lead the EL in steals.

Spanoulis was the last starter standing, and the last big fish flapping its fins in a Piraeus pond drained of its stars.  Operating under a leaner budget, Olympiacos brought in names that were little more than shrugworthy.

Martynas Gecevicius was flown in from Lithuania as little more than a stand-still shooter who kept mistakes at a minimum.  A well-aged Lazarous Papadopoulos offered experience more than explosiveness.  Pero Antic capitalized on Macedonia’s unlikely fourth place EuroBasket finish in the form of a contract with the Reds, for whom his shot selection has been as questionable as his facial hair is carefully manicured.

Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas and Butler’s Matt Howard arrived from the college ranks, but left midway through the year as further proof  that finding EL success without low-level European seasoning is about as common as a baseball player getting burn in the majors without paying his minor league dues.

Kalin was no Koufax, Howard no Horner.

Among Olympiacos’ summer signings, only Kyle Hines, a wide-bodied beast generously listed at 6-foot-5, has had a consistent impact.  Still, when your biggest addition is a power forward who doesn’t even make it into the back row on team picture day, one might fear the worst.

Playing the role of Gene Hackman opposite these replacements was Dusan Ivkovic, the 68-year-old Serbian legend who guided Olympiacos to its one and only Euroleague title back in 1997.  With a Scotch-taped roster and a challenging Group A looming, the old man drastically departed from the ancient Yugoslavian coaching creed and relinquished control to his star, his Shane Falco.

Spanoulis would not let him regret it.

According to In-The-Game, only three teams used their respective top guns more heavily than Olympiacos did Spanoulis: Caja Laboral’s Mirza Teletovic, SLUC Nancy’s Nicolas Batum and Zalgiris’ Sonny Weems.

Neither Caja Laboral nor SLUC Nancy even made it past the ten-game regular season, while Zalgiris might as well have saved airfare and stayed home; Weems’ Lithuanian side went 0-6 in the Top 16.

Yet here Spanoulis sits, weeks away from another crack at the Continental Trophy.

Whereas Kirilenko (who’s way down at 35th in usage rate per game) stabilizes CSKA Moscow’s pulse with his unassuming brilliance, Spanoulis’ unyielding aggression makes the opposition’s heart beat out of its chest.  Here’s what I mean: Vassilis Spanoulis has made more free throws (102) than anyone other than CSKA’s Nenad Krstic has even attempted.

This is not to say Kirilenko is, was or has been aloof at any point this season when he’s on the floor.  As a matter of fact, Spanoulis has had several off nights while AK has only one uncharacteristic line on his game log.  Their numbers match up like this (a bolded stat denotes a top five finish in that category):

Andrei Kirilenko: 14 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.9 blocks, 24.1 PIR in 15 games

Vassilis Spanoulis: 16.5 points, 2.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 6 fouls drawn, 16.4 PIR in 19 games

Standing back-to-back with AK in a statistical showdown usually doesn’t end well, and this MVP debate is no exception.  But note, if you will, the final number.

Those five games Kirilenko missed after that nasty fall will end up accounting for 23 percent of Moscow’s 22 Euroleague contests—they’ve played 20 thus far; two more remain in the Final Four—and exactly half of CSKA’s ten-game regular season.

With October MVP Kirilenko banged up, CSKA still cruised to five more victories to complete a 10-0 regular season as Nenad Krstic picked up the November MVP duties and legitimized himself as an All-Euroleague First Teamer.  Meanwhile in the backcourt, Aleksey Shved was growing into a top-tier European guard (‘Finally’, said everyone) as the EL assist leader Teodosic kept things clicking for the Red Army.

CSKA boss Jonas Kazlauskas would have loved to have Kirilenko, of course; but he did not need him.

Meanwhile, as Kirilenko watched from the bench, Spanny was busy fixing Olympiacos’ 1-3 start. In Week Six—AK’s first week in street clothes—Spanoulis put up his gaudiest stats of the season against Bilbao, 29 points and six assists for a 34 PIR in an 88-81 win that wound up keeping Olympiacos out of a messy three-way tiebreaker in Group A.

Two weeks later, Spanoulis’ 21 points on only 10 shots knocked off Teletovic and Caja Laboral by just a pair of points.  A week nine win against Top 16-bound Cantu and a clincher against the lowly, Batum-less SLUC Nancy squad (Spanoulis missed this one due to injury, his only DNP of the year) and the revival was complete.

From 1-3 and last place to 6-4 and second, Vassilis and the Reds were Top 16 bound.  Without their MVP candidate, they’d have been watching from Piraeus.

So while the four-game difference between our two competitors is negligible at first blush, consider this: What if Derrick Rose had missed 19 of the Bulls’ 82 games in 2011?  What if Sheridan’s Milwaukee brethren, Ryan Braun, sat for 38 of the Brewers’ 162 (let’s stow the ‘roids thing for now), or if Aaron Rodgers skipped four of 16 starts for the Packers?

Wes Unseld would still be the NBA’s youngest MVP, while Matt Kemp and Drew Brees would have new trophies to polish.  That’s what.

The Euroleague’s unique format makes it an apple among oranges, but it’s still a thought that deserves thinking.  On any platform, missing nearly a quarter of your team’s games should not be entirely excused.

MVP or not, history will harken back to Andrei Kirilenko’s Euroleague season as one of the finest of all-time, and the lanky Russian is deserving of both the First Team selection and Defensive Player of the Year award he will most certainly be handed come Final Four weekend.

And when the envelope flips open to reveal the league’s MVP, odds are Kirilenko will wear out that same stretch of carpet on his way to the podium.

I will applaud, knowing the best player in Europe got his paws on the continent’s top individual honor.

The best.  Just not the most valuable.

Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear weekly. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Wang Zhelin impresses at Nike Hoop Summit

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Nineteen points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

To the casual eye, that reads as a pretty nice box score. But, for Wang Zhelin and Chinese basketball as a whole, it will remain as a historic stat line stuffed with something way more important than just numbers: Potential.

By now, word of Wang’s impressive aforementioned performance has gotten around to basketball circles all around the world. In China, he’s getting some love for what is by far the best showing a Chinese player has ever thrown down in Hoop Summit history (the previous high for points was Yi Jianlian in 2004 with seven). Arguably the best player on the floor for the World team that came away with a 84-75 victory over the U.S. Select team, the seven-foot center gained attention for his size, mobility, composure and his enormous chase-down block (video below via OregonLive.com).

The other thing that has people excited: He’s is only 18 years-old. Which means there’s plenty of the p-word still to be realized.

Portland may have been his break-out party to the rest of the world, but in the PRC, Wang has been a big-time prospect with big-time expectations for a while’ so much so in fact, that he’s been receiving the all-too-obvious Yao Ming comparisons by Chinese media as early as last year. Born in 1994 in Fujian province to two tall parents who played basketball, Wang grew to 5-7 (1.7 meters) by the time he was 11 and kept growing until he reached seven feet (2.14 meters) last year. In between, he’s been coached domestically throughout has represented China internationally at several levels to develop into one of China’s top long-term prospects.

In 2010 at the FIBA U-17 World Championship in Hamburg, Wang averaged 5.8 points and 4.9 rebounds as China took home eighth place. Last summer in Latvia, he went for 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds the FIBA U-19 World Championship. He was also selected to the China Olympic National Team last summer, which is just a fancy way of saying China’s U-23 National Team. Duke fans may remember that as the team who played and hosted three exhibition games against the Blue Devils in Shanghai and Beijing in August.

But his biggest accomplishment of all came last month when Wang was selected to Bob Donewald’s 19-man Senior National Team training camp roster. It’s not so much impressive because of his age, but rather because of his experience, or lack thereof: Despite his considerable resume in international competition, Wang has yet to play a single game professionally.

Despite being meeting the Chinese Basketball Association age requirement, Wang didn’t play professionally this past season because his team, Fujian SBS, felt it would be better for his long-term future to let him develop his game and his body at the youth level for another year. Plus, as Wang has had considerable level of hype surrounding him in China for the last few years, the decision to hold him back was due also in part to take some pressure off and put him in a position down the road where he can deliver upon some of those expectations.

The decision was probably for the best: Given his National Team selection, and now his historic performance in Portland, those expectations are only going to increase. Though he’s practically a no-shot to make the final 12-man roster for this summer’s London Olympics, his inclusion in the Senior National Team setup indicates that the CBA feels he’ll be a big part of China’s basketball future.

And in the days after Portland, he may be a big part of China’s future in the NBA. Arguably more than any other prospect, he helped his NBA Draft stock the most. Even before the game, he was turning heads during practices due to his good frame and nice touch around the rim.

But where his ceiling is isn’t totally clear. Despite clocking it at close to 250 pounds with thick legs and a great motor, he lacks NBA athleticism and is equipped with short arms. Furthermore, he doesn’t run tremendously well, nor does he possess anything offensively close to the basket or facing up from midrange that truly stands out. And not to keep hating on the kid, but he put up those numbers against a U.S. team that had nobody even remotely capable of standing up to his giant 250 pound frame under the basket.

Still, players with that size don’t come that often, especially those who are 18 (if his age is indeed correct, not a given). As Tyler Ingle over at NBADraft.net writes in his World Summit recap: “If he continues to refine his scoring ability and upper body in China, then he’s a potential draftee in a few years. He’s already shown that he can bang in the post, shoot from mid-range and rebound at an effective rate. If he wasn’t on the NBA radar before this event, he definitely is now.”

Meanwhile, Wang is on the front page of Sina’s CBA page where Chinese media is churning out hype from every direction, both from the States (where they are translating almosteverything being written about Wang) and from within the Middle Kingdom itself.

How he plays in the next few seasons in China and how quickly he can climb into the Senior National team will determine exactly how high he’ll climb up scouts’ draft boards, but it’s clear that at present there is nobody in China with a brighter NBA future than young Wang. For now though, it’s probably for the best to remain patient, temper expectations, wait until he gets some professional games under his belt, and remember that there will never, ever, ever, ever be another Yao Ming.

Jon Pastuszek is founder and editor-in-chief of Niubball.com, the best English-language basketball blog focused in basketball in China. He is an occasional contributor to SheridanHoops.com.

Weijia: Marbury wins title, wants to coach Chinese National Team

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BEIJING — The championship that eluded Stephon Marbury in the United States did not elude him in China.

After scoring 41 points with seven assists, Marbury was in tears yet again Friday night with the outcome of the game still in doubt.

How many times did he cry this season? How many tears had been shed? Even Marbury couldn’t give an accurate count.

When he cried for first time Friday night, Game 5 of the CBA Finals was still going on, but Marbury had fouled out. There was still 1:21 left on the clock, and Beijing and Guangdong were tied 121-121.

Randolph Morris made two key FTs, then Chen Lei, the captain of the Beijing Ducks, made another free throw for a three-point lead. When Aaron Brooks’ 3-pointer was off-target at the buzzer, the Ducks had a 124-121 victory for the CBA championship.

Marbury donned a championship t-shirt after the game (yes, they have those in China, too), rushed into the court, and the tears was still flowing. “When I came to China for the first time, I just had a dream that I want to get the champion trophy. The dream has been realized. No one can beat us, we are the champion of CBA!”

This was Marbury’s first championship since his high school days, and Beijing’s first in 29 years.

Marbury’s grateful teammates hoisted him upon their shoulders.

“This team could win without me, but couldn’t without him,” said Min Lulei, the coach of Beijing.

In Games 4 and 5 in Beijing, all 18,000 fans were chanting “M-V-P! M-V-P!” when Marbury stepped to the free throw line.

He averaged 33.4 points in the 5-game series, but he couldn’t get the Final MVP trophy. According to CBA rules, only native Chinese players are eligible.

For me, this was hard to believe, and I called the rule into question on the front page of Titan Sports Weekly, the most popular sports newspaper in China.

“This is a league that have declared they want to be an international pro league, but the rules point in a negative direction,” I wrote.

“If there was any change, it should occur next season at least,” an officer of CBA, Bai Xilin said.

Marbury didn’t care.

“This is the league of Chinese, it was reasonable that they wanna to issue the MVP to Chinese players. I did not care for the MVP trophy, but did for the championship. That’s what I have dreamed about for years since my childhood,” the 35-year-old Marbury said.

“I was standing on the opposite side of the whole world,” Marbury said of his move to China three years ago. “There wasn’t anybody who believed in me in the U.S., they all said something just like: ‘He wouldn’t pass the ball to anyone on the court’, or ‘He wasn’t able to integrate into any team’. So I didn’t tell them that I had decided to play in China, because I know if they were informed of it, there shouldn’t be any positive report. They would say: “He just wants to sell his shoes in China.’ ”

But in China, Stephon was popular for his professional demeanor as he was for his two All-Star appearances. Said Li Ke, Marbury’s former teammate who is now a coach: “Many American players who have played in NBA were arrogant in China, they would have been absent on the training sessions for multiple reasons. But Stephon won’t, he will try his best every time.”

Marbury coined a nickname “Evil Genius” for his head coach, Min Lulei: “Because every time he said the training will last for 90 minutes, in fact it would be at least two hours.”

Marbury now has realized his dream of being a champion, but there is one more dream for him in the future: To be the head coach of the Chinese National Team.

Guan Weijia is a columnist for Titan Sports, The Beijing News, qq.com and SheridanHoops.com.