If you're completely starved for basketball, you should know that the EuroBasket 2013 tournament tipped off today in Slovenia. (Actually the Americas tournament has been going on for a week, but for some reason I am more compelled by the European competition. The truth is, there are several legitimate World Cup medal contenders in the Americas at this point, especially as Canada continues to develop and adds Andrew Wiggins into the fold, but I remain somewhat Euro-centric in my international hoops preferences.)
If you decide to watch (the games are all online on ESPN3) you may be disappointed in who is NOT playing. Among the major NBA players from Europe who decided to sit out this tournament are Dirk Nowitzki of Germany, Andrei Kirilenko or Russia, Pau Gasol of Spain, Joakim Noah (and a host of other NBA bigs) of France, Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari (who is hurt) from Italy, Luol Deng of Great Britain, Nikola Pekovic of Macedonia and Enes Kanter of Turkey. There are still plenty of recognizable players, but only two NBA All Stars -- Marc Gasol or Spain and Tony Parker of France.
If you were going to handicap the tournament by NBA experience, you would definitely favor Spain and France, with Turkey getting some consideration as well. But these tournaments are unpredictable, and NBA experience is not necessarily a free pass -- as Hedu Turkoglu, Omer Asik and Ersan Ilyasova of Turkey found out in their opening round loss to Finland, a team featuring one player with NBA experience, the 36 year old Hanno Mottola who has been out of the league for over a decade.
Spain, the reigning European champs, feature just four current NBA players (Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and Victor Claver) though Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriquez both played in the NBA and Sergio Llull was a second round pick in 2009. France features Parker and his Spurs teammates Boris Diaw and Nando de Colo as well as Nicolas Batum and three former NBA players, Johan Petro, Alexis Ajinca and Mickael Gelabale.
There are intriguing NBA names sprinkled elsewhere throughout the tournament. Suns mainstays Marcin Gortat and Goran Dragic are representing Poland and host Slovenia respectively; the Russians are without Kirilenko, but still feature the likes of Minnesota's Alexi Shved and Cavs first round pick Sergey Karasev; Montenegro still have Nikola Vucevic of the Magic even if they were denied their twin towers of Vucevic and Pekovic; Marco Belinelli of the Spurs is representing Italy; and I'll be watching Jonas Valenciunas of the Raptors with particular interest after watching him dominate in the Las Vegas Summer League this year.
A trend we noticed two years ago at the last EuroBasket has continued -- US-born players, naturalized as citizens, representing European countries. By my count there are 11 US born players playing at EuroBasket 2013 -- most with few or no real ties to the country they are representing. Most of these are point guards. In addition to Bo McCalebb, the New Orleans product who was a breakout star of the last EuroBasket playing for Macedonia, there are six other US-born point guards representing in Slovenia today.
|Travis Diener||Italy||Fond du Lac, WI, 1982||6'1||Marquette|
|Dontaye Draper||Croatia||Baltimore, MD, 1984||5'11
|Ricky Hickman||Georgia||Winston-Salem, NC, 1985||6'2||UNC Greensboro|
|Pooh Jeter||Ukraine||Los Angeles, CA, 1983||5'11||Portland|
|Bo McCalebb||Macedonia||New Orleans, LA, 1985||6'0||New Orleans|
|Tyrese Rice||Montenegro||Richmond, VA, 1987||6'1||Boston College|
|Zackary Wright||Bosnia||Austin, TX, 1985||6'2||Central Missouri|
I pointed out last year that FIBA rules allow one naturalized citizen to compete for a team, and they don't really stick their noses into the naturalization process. If a country wants to add a player, and the player is interested, then it's up to them to decide if they want to give that player a passport.
What's fascinating is the prevalence of US-born point guards in this tournament. Of 11 US-born players, seven of them are point guards, most of them starters for their adoptive lands. My own theory on that is that the culture of the US places basketball very high, particularly among urban and african-american populations (six of the seven players above are black). A super-athletic kid of more or less average height growing up in Europe is more likely to wind up playing soccer or tennis or running track long before they wind up on the basketball court. The tall Euros -- sure, their coaches push them towards hoops because it's an obvious choice. But quick, savvy floor generals are in short supply in Europe -- which would explain the single short black man among a bunch of tall white guys on so many rosters at EuroBasket.
These are good players -- Diener was a college teammate of Dwyane Wade and played in the NBA for five seasons, Jeter
almost made the Kings roster a couple seasons ago, McCalebb showed what he could do two years ago and then again in London last summer. But they're mostly undersized for the NBA and for the most part can't get much of a look from NBA teams because of it. They've all found homes in the European leagues however, and a showcase like EuroBasket can only help enhance their stature overseas which is why they sign on to play for countries where they don't even speak the language.
Interestingly, in one of the most exciting games of the first day, Macedonia saw the strategy they had so much success with two years ago work against them. Facing Montenegro, it was former Boston College Eagle Tyrese Rice who was the hero, scoring the final four points of the game from the free throw line, including the game winners with 10 seconds remaining, as Montenegro prevailed 81-80. McCalebb, the star of 2011, led all scorers with 23 for Macedonia, but Rice countered with 16 including the crucial points at the end.
EuroBasket will continue until the Gold Medal game on September 22. This week's first round pool play will pare the field from 24 teams to 12, the second round will produce a final eight, and then it finally gets serious with the knock round beginning two weeks from today. If you need your basketball, it's the best thing going for now.