ELA Guide to the 2017–18 EuroLeague Season: Team Rankings, Top Storylines and Players to Watch
Nearly five months after a wild Final 4 in Istanbul, EuroLeague basketball returns today with the first official games of the 2017–18 season. This is the 2nd year of EuroLeague’s new format, which features 16 teams playing 30 games each.
Regular season: Oct. 12-April 6
Playoffs: April 17–31
Final 4: May 18–20 in one of the most basketball-crazy cities in the world: Belgrade, Serbia
As always, the league is overflowing with great players and intriguing storylines. The EuroLeague Adventures crew — Rob Scott, George Rowland and Austin Green — are here to help you process it all.
EuroLeague Team Tiers
Let’s start with the team rankings. We put the 16 teams into tiers and loosely ranked them within each tier.
Tier 1: Sure-fire Championship Contenders
Fenerbahce, CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos and Real Madrid (Rob is slightly lower on Madrid)
Fenerbahce: The reigning champions lost Ekpe Udoh and Bogdan Bogdanovic — two of the top five players in Europe last season — to the NBA. But they built a deeper roster and still added star power with Brad Wanamaker and Nicolo Melli. — Austin
CSKA: Rooting for CSKA is a little bit like rooting for the Empire in Star Wars, but nonetheless, they will yet again prove to be one of Europe’s most entertaining teams. Out of the door goes Milos Teodosic, but replacing him is the other doyenne of the no-look pass in Europe, Sergio Rodriguez. The front court has strengthened significantly too, they’ve added Othello Hunter and Will Clyburn to add some nasty and some athleticism respectively, all to go along with an already outstanding array of domestic role players. — George
Olympiacos: The runners up from last season got deeper and more balanced, which should be worrying for any opponent who thought that Vassilis Spanoulis might be winding down in the autumn of his career. Sorry, CSKA, it’s not happening. Nikola Milutinov could be an All-EuroLeague centre, Brian Roberts teams up with Vangelis Mantzaris to form one of the toughest defensive backcourts and while Kostas Papanikolaou and Georgios Printezis are together it’s tough to see them falling out of a homecourt advantage position in the playoffs. — Rob
Real Madrid: The most questionable of the four after Sergio Llull tore his ACL during a national team exhibition game. This means a much larger role for likely top 5 pick Luka Doncic and new signings Fabien Causeur and Facundo Campazzo. On the positive side, all three of them play up-tempo, creative and fun basketball.
On the negative side, Real Madrid are missing their leader who bailed them out of tough situations. While Doncic was getting locked up by Nikola Kalinic in last year’s Final 4, it was Llull who ran wild, scoring 19 points in the first half and prompting one of the best in-game quotes ever from Ekpe Udoh. — Austin
Tier 2: Final 4 Contenders
Valencia and Barcelona
Valencia: I’m all-in on this team of rugged, savvy, clever warriors, and think they have a real shot at a surprise Final Four trip. They won the ACB title last season and have all the ingredients to carry that momentum into this campaign. The frontline is powerful and skilled, with Bojan Dubljevic a tough cover from the block out to the arc, Will Thomas’ constant motor and soft shooting touch and newcomer Tibor Pleiss ready to swat weak stuff to the stands. Joan Sastre is the embodiment of confident hustle and now Erick Green is there to go one-on-one when need be. This team wears you down with its relentless competence and rarely suffers a defensive breakdown. They’re damn hard to beat and that should add up to a playoff spot as an absolute minimum. — Rob
Barcelona: They’re trying to return to their glory days after several disappointing seasons. They’ve improved at every position and are playing with more energy and hunger than last season. Adam Hanga might be the best 2-way wing in Europe, their point guard rotation is fun, their big guys are solid and we’re expecting a great season from young forward Aleksandar Vezenkov. — Austin
Tier 3: Definite Playoff Contenders
Unicaja, Baskonia, Khimki and Panathinaikos
These are the teams we expect to battle at the edge of the playoff picture. We have them ranked 7th-10th.
Unicaja: They’ll be fun. The former A license team are back after a very successful hiatus year in Eurocup. Their roster may not look like much at first glance, but it is chock full of the bizarre, weird and lovable players that make EuroLeague so unique. Just a huge shame about the shirseys. — George
Baskonia: Rookie head coach Pablo Prigioni should keep the team afloat despite losing Hanga and Shane Larkin (Celtics). Toko Shengelia is a baller and Jordan McRae could be one of the best scorers in the league when he returns from injury in November. Perhaps most intriguingly, Ilimane Diop — a 22-year-old center who can defend guards on the perimeter, block shots and finish alley-oops — is shooting 3s now. — Austin
Khimki: Like Valencia and Unicaja, we expect these EuroLeague newcomers to be in the playoff mix. Charles Jenkins and Tyler Honeycutt are great perimeter defenders, Stefan Markovic is a steady hand at PG and they have a super athletic frontcourt. If Alexey Shved has space to operate and trigger-happy James Anderson doesn’t shoot them in the foot, Khimki will be dangerous. — Austin
Panathinaikos: After finishing the regular season in 4th place last season, we expect a big drop-off in the green half of Athens. Their owner is crazy, there has been a lot of conflict between players and management, and the pieces don’t fit particularly well on-court. They didn’t replace Mike James, Nick Calathes’ lack of shooting will clog their spacing and Chris Singleton often doesn’t try on defense. That said, there is still a lot of talent here, so if it all comes together, PAO could make the playoffs again. — Austin
Tier 4: Fringe Playoff Contenders
Zalgiris, Efes, Maccabi, Milano, Crvena Zvezda
We disagree a little about specific order, but we think these teams will finish somewhere between 11th and 15th. Maybe they hang around the playoff picture for a few months before dropping off in the winter/spring.
Zalgiris: One of last year’s surprise teams, Zalgiris hopes to build on that success (14–16, 10th place). They lost key players like Brock Motum, Leo Westermann and Lukas Lekavicius, but they have more talent coming in. Axel Toupane is a smooth, athletic wing, Brandon Davies is a very good finisher and Dee Bost (Davies’ teammate at Monaco last season) is a lightning bolt of a point guard. Sarunas Jasikevicius will have them competitive once again. — Austin
Maccabi: After a disastrous season that saw them go through four head coaches, Maccabi is hoping to return to respectability. They’re on the right path after a summer of mostly good signings, but it’s going to be at least a two-season process to return to the playoffs. — Austin
Milano: After finishing in last place, Milano was ambitious this summer. The big questions are whether Jordan Theodore and Andrew Goudelock can co-exist, and if Milano can overcome a lack of defense in the backcourt and lack of experience in the frontcourt. — Austin
Crvena Zvezda: They might not finish close to last season’s 9th spot, but Crvena Zvezda’s home games will be must-watch TV as always with that raucous and riotous home crowd. They’ve lost too many high-level talents to compete on the same level as last year, but Mathias Lessort is going to cause perforated eardrums with his dunks and blocks, and Taylor Rochestie might be able to carry the scoring load to the point where they’ll take some scalps from the bigger teams in Belgrade, which in itself will be awesome. Goosebumps? You got ‘em… — Rob
Efes: George has Efes at the top of this tier. They have a really strong front court and an athletic roster that suits Velimir Perasovic’s run-and-gun style. Rob and Austin are skeptical because the team lacks a pass-first point guard to help set guys up. Regardless of who’s right, this Efes team will be interesting to watch.
Tier 4.5–5: Last Place
Unfortunately for German hoops fans, we all agree that Bamberg is the worst team to start this season. They lost their 5 best players from last season, didn’t replace them with equal talent, and that team only went 10–20 anyway. Andrea Trinchieri is a wizard of a coach and they have a great crowd, but we think Bamberg is headed for a last-place finish. — Austin
Former NBA Players to Watch
Austin: A lot of guys are going from the NBA to EuroLeague with hopes of replicating the success of Ekpe Udoh, Shane Larkin and Darius Miller. After falling out of the NBA, those three went to Europe, improved as players, and earned themselves another NBA contract in the summer.
This season’s crop of new former NBA players includes: Kevin Seraphin (Barca), Norris Cole (Maccabi), Jason Thompson (Fenerbahce), Thomas Robinson (Khimki), Hollis Thompson (Olympiacos) and Brian Roberts (Olympiacos)
I posed this question to Rob and George: Which former NBA player are you most excited to see and why? Both of them chose to highlight Olympiacos’ signings.
Rob: For me it’s got to be Hollis Thompson. I have a kind of affection for guys who toiled through the Apocalypse Now era of The Process, and it seemed like Hollis was a fan favourite in Philly, a rare bright spot in some dark times. It would give me a warm fuzzy feeling if he turns into a cult hero for Olympiacos. Luckily, the most important skillset for a wing on a Vassilis Spanoulis team is: shoot 40% from three and use your athleticism on defense, which is exactly what I expect the former Hoya to do. Trust the Piraeus!
George: Brian Roberts is a veteran in both Europe (most notably Bamberg) and the NBA, and will be coming into an Olympiacos team set and ready to play his role. He’s a great three point shooter and defensive player so should be another asset in a Olympiacos team that is high on floor spacing and perimeter defence.
Former G-League Players to Watch
There’s also been an influx of talent from the NBA G-League (formerly known as the NBA Development League). This year’s group of G-League to EuroLeague guys includes: Pierre Jackson (Maccabi), Jordan McRae (Baskonia), Phil Pressey (Barca), Ray McCallum (Unicaja), Stefan Jankovic (Red Star) and Nikola Jovanovic (Red Star).
So, who are you most excited to see and why?
Rob: I’m actually intrigued by Pierre Jackson at Maccabi Tel Aviv. He’s a twitchy, bouncy scorer with a tight handle, and could be the kind of guard that Artsiom Parakhouski thrives with in pick-and-rolls or gobbling up put-backs. It would be cool for him to stick around somewhere in Europe for the whole season — his current record is seven games, with Fenerbahce in 2013-14 and with Cedevita Zagreb in 2016-17. Jackson is 26 now, and it feels like it’s time for him to forget the G-League and be a star in Europe. It’s not too late for the NBA, and nobody should give up on their dream. But if he fully commits he could make some really nice cheese and have a career, starting now on this Maccabi team that desperately needs to right the wrongs of last season. Time to put both feet in.
George: Ray McCallum is coming across for his first season in Europe, and will be taking the reins at the point for Unicaja. A dynamic scorer and athlete, McCallum should be at home in Joan Plaza’s offence, and will form a fearsome athletic pairing with Nemanja Nedovic. McCallum has the potential to be this year’s Shane Larkin, who took just the solitary year in Baskonia last season to reboot his career the other side of the Atlantic.
Cool Euro vets
Austin: The new influx of talent is great, but what really makes EuroLeague special European veterans who have been around the block a few times. Which EL vets are you guys most excited to watch this season?
Rob: Is Nemanja Nedovic a veteran yet? He’s 26 years old and this is his fourth EuroLeague campaign so I’m counting it. If he can move his three-point percentage more towards the 42% mark from last season in ACB play, from his 24% in EuroCup, he could move into the top tier of guards, with his power and athleticism on the defensive end and in transition. If he can shoot it off the dribble, forget about it, it’s done, he’ll be there.
George: Sticking with Unicaja, Carlos Suarez is Unicaja’s Swiss army knife. He started his career as a combo swingman and has gradually migrated to playing at 4. He can even fill in defensively as a centre (see last year’s Eurocup final). Unicaja’s captain is one of those esoteric European players, a consummate team player who manages to be successful through a combination of guile, intelligence and gutsiness despite a lack of athleticism.
At the other end of the spectrum from Suarez is Alexey Shved, an unpredictable maestro, who can elicit consternation from both his own and the opposing head coach. Shved showed how far he can carry a team of role players in Eurobasket, where he carried Russia through the toughest Group into 4th place in the tournament. He won’t play defence, but Shved’s scoring ability will make Khimki a danger to beat any team in Euroleague.
Rob: A few thoughts on cool Spanish guys. Pau Ribas is the proverbial “like a new signing” for Barcelona as he returns from serious injury, looking quicker, more focused and more like the effortlessly smooth operator they thought they were getting at the time. His resurgence could come to embody a new Barca, in what could be an emotionally charged season in the Catalan capital.
Fernando San Emeterio was on both the Baskonia and Valencia teams that bookended a run of six ACB titles between Barcelona and Real Madrid, which tells you a lot about how much of a fixture he’s been in Spain over the past decade. Now sporting a huntsman’s beard to go with his piercing glare and rough-hewn, no-nonsense game on the wing, he and Joan Sastre symbolise the fight that Valencia will bring to the party this season. Never forget that this hombre went coast to coast, crossed up his man and got the canasta y falta to win the ACB championship in 2010, hitting the game-winning free throw with 0.5 seconds on the clock. He’s pretty much the same dude now, seven years later. Cojones!
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