After eight days' worth of games, we now know the 16 teams going forward at EuroBasket 2017 and the eight teams going home empty-handed. It's still early to draw definitive conclusions, but there is enough to get some impressions and opinions. These are some of my notes so far in this EuroBasket 2017.
First of all, Finland. The history of the EuroBasket has a curious result: in Lithuania, 1939, Estonia defeated Finland 91-1. The only point for Finland was scored by one Marti Salminen, who is barely known even in his native country. Now, however, everyone is talking about Laurie Markkanen, the new signing of the Chicago Bulls from a trade which another NBA team, Minnesota, will probably regret. Markkanen has been described as 'the new Nowitzki' or 'the new Porzingis'. He's 2.13 meters tall but he can play both inside and outside. He's a great shooter and a solid rebounder who has made basketball a social phenomenon in Finland. I remember at the 2014 Worlds or the 2015 EuroBasket when up to 7,000 fans supported the team. They are preparing an Istanbul invasion as we speak.
The second surprise would be Slovenia, not because they made it into the eighthfinals – that was more or less expected – but because they rolled to a 5-0 record with a mature style and an effective, joyful basketball. The team features individual masters, especially with the duo of Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic.
Third in line is Hungary. The win over the Czech Republic (85-73) was the country's first in a EuroBasket after 48 years! Hungary had not even participated in the EuroBasket since 1999, losing their three group games. Their last win dated back to October 2, 1969, when they defeated Sweden, 92-76, in Caserta, Italy. Now the team is among the top 16, especially thanks to the new signing of FC Barcelona Lassa and Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Best Defender of last season, Adam Hanga. Hungary has three EuroBasket medals and all of them are more than 60 years old: gold 1955, silver 1953 and bronze 1946.
The fourth surprise is Ukraine. I cannot talk about any sensations this team provoked, but I can say it is the only team among the top 16 without any EuroLeague, EuroCup or NBA players. But they made it. They upset Lithuania on opening day, they defeated Georgia a few days later, and they also defeated a non-motivated Israel to advance.
Spain's 5-0 record is something we don't even have to talk about. It's no surprise but it is the confirmation of quality and the fact that this team deserves the title of the main favorite for now. Experience is a main factor, too, in Spain's favor. In the group phase, Pau Gasol became the highest scorer in EuroBasket history with a career total of 1,111 points.
There are no negative surprises or, at least, no big ones. Maybe Georgia, with names like Giorgi Shermadini, Toko Shengelia and Zaza Pachulia – and especially after having defeated Lithuania – looked better than where they ended up. Georgia's defeat in a direct duel against Ukraine cost them the ticket to the eighthfinals.
There are 16 teams left and eight of them come from countries that were only two until the early 1990s. Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro were part of the old Yugoslavia while Russia, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine were part of the USSR. Countries have divided and so has basketball, but quality, even if a bit lower than before, endures. Those newer countries have won five gold medals: mini-Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in 1995, 1997 and 2001; Lithuania in 2003; and Russia in 2007. To that we can add several silvers and bronzes. Croatia, for instance, has bronzes from 1993 and 1995 but now it looks better. Slovenia doesn't have medals – their best result was the semis in 2009 in Katowice – but in that country, everybody believes the time has come to step up on the podium.
There's no such title at EuroBasket, but that cannot stop us from talking about young talents. For now, two are on the front page: Laurie Markkanen, 20, of Finland and Luka Doncic, 18, of Slovenia. The Finish power forward, besides a great shot and solid rebounding, also has basketball in his DNA. His father Pekka played with Finland at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens. One of his two brothers, Eero, played football with one year in Castilla, the reserve team of Real Madrid. Doncic, the Real Madrid guard, is a creator who can do everything: he takes the ball, he organizes the offense, shoots, passes and pulls rebounds. If we push the age up to 22 we can find two more kids: Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia, already in the NBA, and Cedi Osman of Turkey, headed across the ocean this season.
EUROLEAGUE AND EUROCUP
There is quite a lot of presence of players from Euroleague Basketball competitions. Of the top 16 teams, only Ukraine does not have any players from the EuroLeague or EuroCup. If I crunched my numbers right, in Istanbul there will be more than 100 players from EuroLeague and EuroCup teams. The top spot is for Russia with 12 players from CSKA Moscow, Khimki Moscow Region or Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar; only Timofey Mozgov plays in the NBA. Greece also has 10; Serbia has 9, not counting Bogdan Bogdanovic, who won the EuroLeague with Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul last season; Montenegro, 8; Lithuania, Italy, France, Germany and Turkey, 7 each; Spain, 6; Croatia, Latvia and Slovenia, 5; Finland 2 and Hungary 1. And if we need coaches also, we have FC Bayern Munich's boss, Sasha Djordjevic, leading Serbia.
OBRADOVIC, THE IDOL
He's not a protagonist and he's not taking part in this EuroBasket, but he got the biggest ovation. When Zeljko Obradovic appeared in the arena before the game between Turkey and Serbia, he got a standing ovation, even if those Turkish fans knew that Obradovic's sympathies lie with the Serbian team. Obradovic is a huge idol in Turkey, too, especially on the Asian side of Istanbul, where Fenerbahce, born in 1907, has some impressive premises by the sea, which I could visit the other day. I also visited the football stadium, built in 2005. Its impressive museum is dominated by the football team, but the EuroLeague trophy and a poster of the team that won the title have a premium spot, too.
The Montenegro coach, Bogdan Tanjevic, holds a record that will be hard to top: he's at EuroBasket coaching his fourth different country. He started in 1981 with Yugoslavia in Prague (silver); he then coached Italy in 1999 in Paris (gold); and he also coached Turkey in several EuroBaskets, winning silver at the World Championship in 2010. He is now with Montenegro, his native country.
Igor Kokoskov, the Slovenian coach, is at EuroBasket with his second country, as before he had coached Georgia. The only coach to have won the gold with two different teams is still Svetislav Pesic (1993 with Germany and 2001 with Yugoslavia).
Of the six teams who played in Group D in Istanbul, four have coaches who boast EuroBasket experience... as players. They are Sasha Djordjevic (Serbia), Ufuk Sarica (Turkey), Sergei Bazarevich (Russia) and Ainars Bagatskis (Latvia). In other groups, the same experience is shared by Dainius Adomaitis (Lithuania) and Yevhen Murzin (Ukraine). Coincidence or not, the six of them are in the eighthfinals.