Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Disastrous Turkoglu Tourney


I'm going to be subtle when I say this... Hedo was bad in Slovenia last week. I'm holding back on that vanilla statement. Those who watched had to endure through 2 of the most gruesome performances that can't be erased from memory. Turkey lost all 3 of those matches Hedo was on the court. Remember, I had this team winning a medal so it's not all on Hedo. Bogdan Tanjevic should be canned. So the fact that Turkey got eliminated in the first round robin stage doesn't fall entirely on Hedo. How bad was it witnessing Hedo struggle? Turkey didn't even let the 34-year-old play in the final two matches of their dismal Group D debacle. At least they won one contest with Hedo benched.



Those Finland and Greece matches were terrifying if you're a Hedo supporter. For what very well may be Hedo's final national team assignment, in almost two decades worth of service, Turkoglu's statistical averages are somehow better than how he really performed on the court:


Hedo couldn't even get it done at the free throw line. And oh goodness that 17.9 FG%. Turkoglu has never been one to lose confidence during a bad shooting stretch. But after that second defeat to Italy, Hedo was demoralized damn near close to depression levels. In hindsight, Hedo would have been better off just chucking up 3-pointers.

Sidenote: Props to Finland for taking second in Group D and to Italy for sitting on top. No one could envision those scenarios playing out before September. So surprised am I that my Greeks will have to catch fire if they wish to reach the knockout stage. Getting back on topic...


Now comes the fun waiting game. Do we see Hedo at Orlando Magic Media Day on September 30th? Will Rob Hennigan have bought Turk out before then? I'll tell you now, there's no way anything positive can be taken out of Hedo's performance except maybe that Hedo can still provide some solid passing. That's clearly not enough to warrant being on any NBA roster. Not when defense (which was always mediocre) and now shooting have fallen by the way side. For Turkoglu's sake, I hope none of those Turkish team offers have been rescinded. He's still a man beloved by his country and holds that experience that can mentor talented youth. It's impossible not to love the guy and what he's done through his solid international and NBA career, but Hedo's days of balling on American soil are over. Not unless there's a franchise that needs extra assistance in tanking.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Nicholson and Canada - Podium Dreaming in Venezuela


SHOOT THE 3, 'DREW! SHOOT IT! Magic big man Andrew Nicholson has not only survived his first week ever as a member of the senior Canadian national team, but thrived. So have his teammates as Head Coach Jay Triano's squad finished in second place of the FIBA Americas Championships. I thought Canada would finish 3rd in Group A out of the five nations placed there. Well, they beat my prediction by one spot and are definitely in the correct position to finish top 4 in the competition and earn that trip to Spain for next year's FIBA World Cup.


Canada very well could have finished undefeated had Nicholson not fouled out on Day 2 against a Puerto Rican team that finished atop the group at 4-0. Former Magic point guard Carlos Arroyo went berserk from the perimeter, and Renaldo Balkman showed up once Andrew was stifled by foul trouble. It's a shame because Nicholson in 22 minutes posted 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting and went 6-for-6 from the stripe that included Triano picking 'Drew to knock down technical free throws. Best of all? Andrew had his best rebounding output (grabbing 7 boards) of his first round by far against a Puerto Rico squad that I still envision winning the entire tournament. Not bad considering Andrew's debut so-so showing versus Jamaica, which Canada had to win to get off on the right foot.


The really 'AHA!' identity moment for Canada definitely came against Brazil. Follow up a deflating defeat with an unexpected bounce back blowout of Brazil officially announced to the other FIBA Americas opponents that Canada is for real. Canada went from a respectable 10-point halftime lead to DOUBLING UP Brazil in both the 3rd quarter and the 4th quarter. It was the Cory Joseph, Andy Rautins, and Jermaine Anderson show. Although Nicholson didn't post overwhelming numbers (13 points in 17 minutes), he and Tristan Thompson took a lot of Brazil's defensive focus more towards the interior. That opened up driving lanes and the jump shots for their shorter teammates to capitalize.

Now to more negative analysis. The 23-year-old Andrew also managed only block of Week 1 against Puerto Rico, a total that I'm begging to see rise. Nicholson fouled out against Puerto Rico because he picked up a few dumb fouls that included his fifth and final personal foul rather early in the final ten-minute period while reacting out of frustration to JJ Barea stripping the ball from him. 'Drew is still slow on the help defense and is still struggling stopping anyone with a respectable offensive arsenal from scoring. Nicholson's quickness and reaction time does appear better than it did back in July, but Andrew needs to make a larger leap in the athleticism department for anyone monitoring his development to be impressed.


So looking at Canada's fourth and final contest in Group A play, the red-and-white had long secured progression into the second round robin stage. That didn't prevent Canada from absolutely annihilating a Uruguay team that won 2 games more than anyone initially would have fathomed. Andrew led all scorers with 18 points in just 17 minutes of rested play that would surely keep ones confidence up as the quality of opponent rises.


With that said, Magic fans should be thrilled with Nicholson's progress since a 'meh' Summer League. Andrew has added an efficient 3-point shot (5-of-10 from downtown), shown off some pump fakes to his paint game, has unveiled a running floater from the top of the key, and is efficiently making his banking running righty hook. Jacque Vaughn and staff should be quite pleased. Uncle 'Drew was able to lead his nation in scoring in 2 of the four contests - Puerto Rico and Jamaica - and Nicholson looks prime to get tested going up against Luis Scola's Argentina (September 8th) and former Magic man Gustavo Ayon's Mexico (September 5th). If Cory Joseph isn't scoring, it'll be up to Nicholson to grow his team second-best 14.8 points per contest average. Jay Triano won't hesitate to feed the St. Bonaventure's product when you see Andrew's 57.7 FG% from inside the 3-point line in comparison to the Cavs' Tristan Thompson only managing a paltry 38.9 FG%.


So here comes the second and final round robin round before the Semifinals. It's oddly been named 'Group X'. Insert your own jokes. If you recall, again, the top four teams reach the knockout stage...and will have all punched their tickets for Spain. Canada is already overachieving, but now they face tougher opposition. There's Ayon's Mexico that comes first and I now have them replacing the disappointing Brazil (bye bye) as the country that finishes top 4 now. 'Goose' is averaging 17.8 ppg - WHERE THE HELL WAS THIS IN O-TOWN?! -  on 63% field goal shooting.

The hosts Venezuela have 2 victories because of what little home fan advantage they have over their opposition. Seriously, Caracas has been a pitiful host even by FIBA Americas standards. Canada needs to win that. Then comes the toss-up against the Dominican Republic. Beat the D.R. and I don't think the final matchup against Argentina matters when it comes to getting into the Semis. It'll be all about seed positioning, which can lead to odd player rotations and accused tanking.

I think your top 4 will end up being (in order) Puerto Rico, Argentina, Canada, and Mexico. So that means Puerto Rico v. Mexico and Argentina v. Canada are your knockout matchups. Winners in bold. I'll then take Puerto Rico beating Argentina in the gold medal match and Canada over Mexico for bronze. Our northern neighbors would go maple crazy if they came away from Caracas with a medal. It's feasible for certain. For that to happen, it means Nicholson needs to keep posing as a massive offensive threat while not being a defensive liability. So far so good.



Monday, September 2, 2013

Nikola Vucevic - EuroBasket Montenegro Preview


For your casual basketball viewer, the season ends in mid-June and doesn't start up again until October. I'll kindly disagree with that mentality. You have the NBA Draft, then July is all about Summer League. August is really truly the only typically 'quiet' time (and Dwight has crushed that theory the past two offseasons), and even then international friendlies take over whether it's in preparation for the Olympics, the FIBA World Championships (now referred to as the 'World Cup'...ugh), EuroBasket, and the FIBA Americas Championship. August 30th we're back on the 2-year cycle of the FIBA Americas tournament hosted in Venezuela this campaign, and on the 2-year cycle of EuroBasket hosted in Slovenia beginning September 4th. The end goal of participating in EuroBasket and the FIBA Americas is to qualify into the Olympics and FIBA World Cup. However, there's tremendous prestige in winning these 'qualifying' tournaments. Don't tell that to USA basketball who very rarely participates in the FIBA Americas Championship simply because they typically dominate and win gold at the Olympics and FIBA World Cup and have the options to elect not to send a team to the FIBA Americas tourney.

The top 6 finishers of the now expanded 24-team EuroBasket four-group format punch a ticket for Spain in next year's FIBA World Cup. If Spain finishes in the top 6 (Spoiler Alert: They will), then the team that finishes 7th also gets an automatic invitation without having to endure a crummy qualifying campaign to get into the tourney. The top 4 finishers in the 10-squad FIBA Americas two-group competition earn automatic berths for next year. Remember, the U.S. already has their invite by virtue of winning the London Olympics. Expanding from 16 to twenty-four teams for the first time ever at EuroBasket may water down the quality in the first round, but it's still known as a more entertaining tournament than the Olympics or the FIBA World's. The FIBA Americas tourney is shorter and less grueling on its competitors. But the atmosphere and passion lacks in comparison to the other tournaments discussed. Still, it's fun when your country competes or your player(s) is out there. 


So for this Magic man international preview let's check in on our favorite center, Nikola Vucevic. 'Vucci Mane' last season managed to fill the abandoned shoes of Dwight Howard well enough to where we can focus on the future instead of dwelling on the unfortunate past of the 'Superman saga'. Nik was the anchor of a Magic squad that went through a lot of changes and injuries throughout the '12-'13 campaign. Because of his steadfast nature, the starting center position is locked up in Jacque Vaughn's system and we can now see how Vucevic can fair in Montenegrin national team duty.

With Nikola Pekovic electing to sit out EuroBasket in favor of getting paid - which the Wolves did, and rightfully so - Vucevic will be thrust in a first-man role on offense and defense. The 22-year-old has come a long way in growing up on the parquet court since his debut with the Montenegrin senior squad at EuroBasket 2011. It was a ho-hum tourney for a kid just months removed from attending USC. It showed statistically with his 5.0 ppg and 3.2 rpg averages mirroring a big man not yet fulfilling his talent just yet. I'd bet a lot of money that those stats are much higher once 'Vooch' and company begin Group B play Wednesday versus FYROM

Side note: Can FIBA please not promote a fake Vucevic Twitter account?


Notice that Montenegro's average roster age is almost 4 years younger than Turkey's. 

Montenegro is led by Head Coach Luka Pavicevic who last year led his roster (that had Pekovic but not Vucevic) to qualify for this EuroBasket by dominating the qualification period and finishing with an outstanding 10-0 record. Let's see how Pavicevic handles the pressure of a bigger stage. 21-year-old Bojan Dubljevic was a revelation in that campaign. The possible problem with this is that Dubljevic and Vucevic both play center. I would hope that Pavicevic realizes that it's in his best interest to go into twin towers mode with his two best players. It's not quite Pekovic-Vucevic, but Bojan was named Eurocup Rising Star of the Year for his outstanding first season work with Spanish side Valencia. Funny enough, Bojan was drafted #59 in this summer's Draft by...yep, the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

I haven't been able to view this squad in action. No one has. All I can work off of is an occasional box score here, an update there, and some shot charts. Nik's maintaining strong rebound numbers and is shooting about 50%. It's all about efficiency of your time on the court. Whether for the benefit of keeping Vucevic fresh, Nik has rarely cracked more than 25 minutes per exhibition contest. I hope Pavicevic isn't shy to run his offense through his solid post-up players. Inside-out is your friend. 

Another 21-year-old beast in the making Marko Todorovic couldn't heal himself quick enough and will miss the tournament. That means Nik and Bojan will be looking at 26-year-old naturalized guard Tyrese Rice to step up as a third scorer. The Boston College alum is a EuroBasket newcomer and will be tasked with sticking toe-to-toe with some high-caliber competition (Bo McCalebb, naturalized Bosnian and Herzigovian Zachary Wright, Nemanja Nedovic, and Mantas Kalnietis to name a few). Other big men, Vladimir Dasic and Blagota Sekulic will be asked to scored. If you can't read between the lines, Montenegro needs immense help at forward and more depth at guard. The roster balance appears nonexistent. Marko Popovic and the Sehovic brothers must step up if this country wants a chance at winning its first ever major competition medal. Which leads to...

MONTENEGRO'S CHANCES AT AN AUTOMATIC 2014 FIBA WORLD CUP INVITE:

Near impossible - and that's me being kind - unless Vucevic and three of his teammates go berserk in overachieving their expected output. If Nik somehow visibly leads his country to the knockout stage, I'll begin the hype machine to get Vucevic into his first NBA All-Star Game immediately. Sadly, realism won't allow for this pipedream to come true. In fact, I don't even see Montenegro getting to the second round robin stage of Group E. I am curious to see if Montenegro can at least hang in games with superior fitness...something Jacque Vaughn would appreciate. But, I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. Let's look at who is in the 6-team Group B along with Montenegro.


Oh boy. It sucks that Montenegro couldn't be in the extremely weak Group A. That first match on Wednesday against FYROM is a proper gauge of what to expect. If Pavicevic's squad can prevent McCalebb and Pero Antic from going off while using their size advantage, the Montenegrins may be viewing at accomplishing quite the first day upset. Day 2 pits Vucevic's side with Latvia. Davis Bertans and Andris Biedrins are missing in action for the always pesky Latvians. That's a must-win game for either country's dream of still being a factor in the competition. Same can be said for Day 3 when Montenegro matches up with Bosnia-Herzigovina. Keep an eye on one-man show Mirza Teletovic's potential sky-high point totals. Lithuania will annihilate Montenegro, especially coming off a day off. I'm mostly curious about the status of Jonas Valanciunas odd facial hair. 

The fifth and final contest for Montenegro and Serbia may mean nothing...or it may mean everything. Coached by legend Dusan Ivkovic, the 2009 EuroBasket silver medalists have underachieved in the last few competitions. For this EuroBasket, they're even weaker, missing Milos Teodosic, Milan Macvan, Dusko Savanovic, Vladimir Lucic, Zoran Erceg, Novica Velickovic, and Vladimir Micov. But I think they're still good enough to earn one of those top 3 pots in the group with Nedovic and Nenad Krstic among notable names participating. BUT if Serbia is struggling and we find that September 9th will determine who of Montenegro or Serbia stays in Slovenia or goes home, that alone would be an accomplishment for Montenegro. They'd have no pressure on them while Serbia would be clawing to avoid choking in another tournament.

I predict that Montenegro will beat Latvia and Bosnia-Herzigovina, but that a 2-3 record will only be good enough for fourth place in Group B points standings. I have Lithuania, FYROM, and Serbia in that order moving on to the second round robin stage of Group E. Even if Montenegro gets to Group E, and say they get to the knockout stage, Montenegro would be the weakest team remaining and any opponent Montenegro faces in a Quarterfinal match would be favored to beat their inexperienced foe. 

If you read my Hedo preview of Turkey, you know what 8 teams I have reaching the knockout stage, and which of those will earn an automatic qualification bid to the FIBA World Cup in Spain next year. Again, I just can't envision Montenegro even sniffing the Quarterfinals. Then again, we're witnessing Uruguay making a hell of a FIBA Americas run early when I had predicted they wouldn't even get out of Group A. So who is to say teams like Serbia or FYROM can't stumble? Look, as long as Vucevic stays healthy, Nik will be all the better for having to take a first-option scoring and defensive role. I just don't think he has a chance at helping earn Montenegro its first-ever medal. Not this year. Stats don't mean as much in national team duty as they do in the NBA, but I want to see Nik average a double-double in the 5 (or more) games he plays. If you don't have a cheering interest in EuroBasket, the nation of less than one million people needs all the support they can get.  


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hedo Turkoglu - EuroBasket Turkey Preview


For your casual basketball viewer, the season ends in mid-June and doesn't start up again until October. I'll kindly disagree with that mentality. You have the NBA Draft, then July is all about Summer League. August is really truly the only typically 'quiet' time (and Dwight has crushed that theory the past two offseasons), and even then international friendlies take over whether it's in preparation for the Olympics, the FIBA World Championships (now referred to as the 'World Cup'...ugh), EuroBasket, and the FIBA Americas Championship. August 30th we're back on the 2-year cycle of the FIBA Americas tournament hosted in Venezuela this campaign, and on the 2-year cycle of EuroBasket hosted in Slovenia beginning September 4th. The end goal of participating in EuroBasket and the FIBA Americas is to qualify into the Olympics and FIBA World Cup. However, there's tremendous prestige in winning these 'qualifying' tournaments. Don't tell that to USA basketball who very rarely participates in the FIBA Americas Championship simply because they typically dominate and win gold at the Olympics and FIBA World Cup and have the options to elect not to send a team to the FIBA Americas tourney.

The top 6 finishers of the now expanded 24-team EuroBasket four-group format punch a ticket for Spain in next year's FIBA World Cup. If Spain finishes in the top 6 (Spoiler Alert: They will), then the team that finishes 7th also gets an automatic invitation without having to endure a crummy qualifying campaign to get into the tourney. The top 4 finishers in the 10-squad FIBA Americas two-group competition earn automatic berths for next year. Remember, the U.S. already has their invite by virtue of winning the London Olympics. Expanding from 16 to twenty-four teams for the first time ever at EuroBasket may water down the quality in the first round, but it's still known as a more entertaining tournament than the Olympics or the FIBA World's. The FIBA Americas tourney is shorter and less grueling on its competitors. But the atmosphere and passion lacks in comparison to the other tournaments discussed. Still, it's fun when your country competes or your player(s) is out there. 


So for this Magic man international preview let's check in on...wait...Hedo Turkoglu is still a member of the Magic? Yes, our assumptions of Turk being bought out haven't come to fruition. Yet. That'll change sooner rather than later. Hedo is fighting for a continuation of his NBA career. Otherwise, Turkoglu will have to settle for balling in Turkey. Even if Turk performs well at EuroBasket, it's still highly unlikely another NBA franchise would call up Rob Hennigan and request Hedo's services. Still, a slim chance is better than none. So it's worth keeping our eyes on Turk. If for nothing else, it's to pay our respects to an important player in - and best Orlando SF - Magic history. Remember, all EuroBasket matches can be viewed on ESPN3.  


Hedo will forever go down in Turkish history as the man who was significant in helping put his country on the map in international basketball. Hedo is entering what could be his final international tournament and will be doing so off the bench. Hedo will be playing his favorite position of 'point forward' with Kerem Tunceri out and Ender Arslan being the only true point guard - but as a 6th Man - with Emir Preldzic rightfully starting ahead of Hedo at SF. Turkoglu appeared to be in good shape during the August exhibitions and provided his usual average defense that we've become accustomed too. At the start of this Serbia friendly 4 weeks ago Turk was drilling dribble step-back jumpers with ease which is encouraging. Here's another friendly against Serbia from last week where Hedo fouled out and you can see more of a decline in his athleticism. Still, Hedo will be expected to average at least 20 minutes on the court and is an important playmaker.  

At EuroBasket 2011, which I analyzed thoroughly, Hedo was atrocious from 3-point range - 15.6% on 5-of-32 from deep to be exact - as Turkoglu mirrored the overall disappointing 11th place showing of his team. Which meant that Turkey didn't send a team for the London Olympics last year. A far cry from the silver medals Turkey earned at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in their backyard. Hedo did manage 54.2% on two-pointers 2 years ago in those eight EuroBasket contests in Lithuania which is something Turkish supporters would beg for in the coming week(s). 



A 34-year-old Turkoglu actually fits in with an aging roster whose youngest player in their finalized 12-man roster is 24 years old. Hedo is only the 3rd oldest on a squad that's average age is almost thirty. August 31st was the last warm-up contest in Turkey's preparation for its first EuroBasket match on September 4th against Finland. It also marked Hedo's 300th career game in a Turkey uniform that dates back to 1995 when Turk was participating for the youth squad. Turkey won the game 81-68 over Marcin Gortat's Poland side. Hedo posted 11 points, 4 boards in 5 assists which has actually been par for the course for Hedo during August.


Throughout his busy 13-season NBA career Hedo always found time to serve his country and that'll always earn you massive respect. Quite a remarkable run that also included a 2001 EuroBasket silver medal.


TURKEY'S CHANCES AT AN AUTOMATIC 2014 FIBA WORLD CUP INVITE:

Quite well even with no Tunceri and Enes Kanter not participating. I'll be shocked if Turkey doesn't land one of those 6 spots. Coach Bogdan Tanjevic is a great coach selection to lead this bunch. He knows that he needs to lean more on Ersan Ilyasova, Omer Asik, and Emir Preldzic with veterans like Turkoglu, Onan, and Arslan playing solid supporting roles. Coach Tanjevic believes they can win this EuroBasket. I don't, but I think they can come quite close if the Turks find their form from 3 years ago which was enough to beat everyone but the unstoppable Team USA. Weakened Spanish, French, and Russian 12-man rosters leave the door slightly open for Turkey to shock us and take the 'ship. Oh man, if Hedo can also find the Fountain of Youth then watch out. 

Turkey is in Group D with a dilapidated Russian side, Finland, Greece, Italy, and Sweden. All Sweden has is Jeff Taylor and Jonas Jerebko. Finland have an aging team that's improving surprisingly as their cast of Koponen, Gerald Lee, Kotti, and Shawn Huff are never easy to dispatch. The Italians don't have Bargnani or Gallinari and will depend on Marco Belinelli, Luigi Datome, Alessandro Gentile, and (FORMER MAGIC MAN ALERT) Travis Diener. That's right, Diener nation still lives and it has prospered with Sassari over the past few years. The 31-year-old guard has played so well - and married an Italian - that Italy naturalized him and will be a critical part of whether Italy progresses or not. 

5 matches in six days are played beginning Wednesday. Top 3 from the group move on. Turkey's matches in order: Finland, Italy, Greece, Sweden, and Russia. I have Turkey finishing first, Greece 2nd, and a crumbling Russia 3rd with Italy nabbing that last spot should Russia be an even extra mess. Russia lost their first pick Head Coach, don't have Kirilenko, Khryapa, Mozgov, Sasha Kaun, and Vorontsevich. Still, Russia has a young Sergey Karasev, Shved, Fridzon, and Sergey Monya. That's a decent core of talent and experience for the 2007 EuroBasket champs. I have Turkey running the table and not dropping a match in Group D. 

The game they could lose would be against Greece. However, I don't trust their new coach Andrea Trinchieri and my Greek boys are missing some needed depth with no Nick Calathes or Kostas Koufos participating. Also, Turkey's day off comes on September 6th before their 3rd game (as does Greece and the rest of the group) against Greece which leaves time for rest and extra preparation and a potentially heated match and definitely the most hyped meeting of the group. Both squads are more even than either side wishes to admit.

So okay, barring some unforeseen choking, Turkey will have made it into the second round robin that is named 'Group F' where the top 3 teams from Group D (I predicted Turkey, Greece, Russia) would meet the top 3 teams from Group C (I say Spain, Slovenia, and Croatia in that order with Poland having an outside chance to overtake Croatia's spot if Marcin Gortat beasts). So those teams carry over their results from the previous round with the results from the teams already eliminated disappearing from the points table. Teams face opponents they didn't already play in the first round robin group stage. Got it? If you're confused, this illustration greatly helps. So I have Turkey dropping a few matches to superior Spaniard and French squads. The top 4 teams from groups E and F each move on to the Quarterfinal knockout stage. 

Here are my Quarterfinal matchup predictions that I'll probably punch myself over later: Spain v. Serbia; Turkey v. FYROM, Greece v. Lithuania, and hosts Slovenia v. France. Winners I have in bold. So my predicted Semifinal matchups then become: Spain v. Turkey and Greece v. France. Not freaking bad and both are games that I implore any basketball fan to watch for a plethora of current and historical matchup reasons. 

From there, I have Spain beating Turkey and France beating Greece (Yes, I anticipate Tony Parker getting his EuroBasket 2005 revenge) to set up a possibly epic Spain-France gold medal match and a tension-filled Turkey-Greece battle for a bronze finish. Still, that means all 4 of these teams will be in Spain next year for the FIBA World Cup (I also have Serbia, Slovenia, and Lithuania joining them to round up all 7 automatic qualifications). 

I have Turkey beating Greece in the 3rd place match that would land Turkey on the podium for bronze medals. That would be quite the last hurrah potentially for Hedo and a few other team members. Ah who am I kidding, if this were to happen then you know Hedo is coming back next year to fulfill another summer of NT duty. 

So individually what would be a successful EuroBasket for Hedo? Shoot over 40% from 3-point range, shoot over 50% overall. Point totals don't matter but filling the rest of his stat sheet would be great. 5+ assists and 5+ rebounds per contest would be outstanding and signs of a man not ready to relinquish the NBA dream. I hope Hedo plays well, I just don't want Turkey beating Greece. Sounds like a fair compromise to me.