Welcome to the Experts Round Table, where we ask a variety of the most knowledgeable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague followers across the continent their opinions on the topics of the day. This week's panel includes: Juan Antonio Casanova, former long-time EuroLeague writer for La Vanguardia in Spain; Ramunas Siskauskas, two-time EuroLeague champion and Euroleague Basketball Legend; Djordje Matic of Serbian newspaper Novosti; Antonis Stroggylakis, Global Version Editor, Eurohoops.net; and Igor Petronovic of Euroleague.net. Check out their opinions on three key questions heading into the second month of the competition.
1. Which team had the most important Round 5 victory?
Juan Antonio Casanova
FC Barcelona Lassa's win against Olympiacos Piraeus, for two reasons. First, Barcelona was not in a crisis yet, but had a worrying dynamic. After winning its first five games in the EuroLeague and the Spanish League combined, it had five consecutive losses. Barcelona is a big club that must win and cannot afford three consecutive disappointing seasons. Second, with this victory, there are no undefeated teams left in the EuroLeague. That strengthens the feeling of a balanced league at the highest level, which the EuroLeague is. CSKA did not lose until Round 7 last season.
For me, the most important Round 5 victory belonged to Baskonia. The first victory is always very important, first of all psychologically! They are a good team, but the beginning was not what they expected. After some losses, you start to feel pressure. Now, the team will feel more confident. From this moment, I think they will play better and better and will be a very strong opponent for every team.
There were three very interesting games and all were played in Spain: Madrid-Khimki, Barcelona-Olympiacos and Baskonia-Panathinaikos. Nevertheless, without much thinking, the most important win belonged to Baskonia. The team from Vitoria was not only fighting against Panathinaikos, but also against the burden of bad results, not only in the EuroLeague, but in the domestic championship, too. Especially the final minutes, when most of the people in the arena saw a new defeat coming, were tough. However, the team of Pedro Martinez succeeded in rising up and recording their first win in the EuroLeague this season.
Last season's demons were beginning to make an appearance at Palau Blaugrana prior to Barcelona playing against Olympiacos last Friday. Coach Sito Alonso and his players entered this battle carrying enormous "must-do" pressure and the burden of three straight EuroLeague defeats on their backs. Yet they managed to let off an equally large amount of steam by not only beating, but ultimately routing, the only unscathed squad in the league. It was a major psychological uplift and possibly the beginning of a complete turnaround for a team with Final Four aspirations.
I feel as though Brose Bamberg was the big winner of the previous round. That is not only because it is hard to win in Belgrade, but that after losing the first two games of the season by double digits, this victory capped Bamberg's early-season turnaround. Bamberg controlled the tempo of that game against Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade to their liking and got a victory that gives them at 3-2 record. That win boosted the morale and confidence of the players and took off any pressure ahead of two tough home games, against the defending champs, Fenerbahce, and Barcelona.
2. Who is your favorite EuroLeague rookie after five games?
Juan Antonio Casanova
Thomas Robinson. After five rounds, with have three big, classic teams in European basketball topping the standings... plus Khimki Moscow Region. Shved is Khimki's leader, that's true, but the team also features Robinson who, in his first season in Europe, at times remembers that physical freak that was chosen at number five in the 2012 NBA Draft - and for some, he could have been number one. He averages 13.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and a PIR of 16.2 in just 18 minutes per game. His next challenge is being able to improve his number with a more consistent presence on the court.
He only played 7 games before in the EuroLeague, many years ago, so I consider Kevin Seraphin of Barcelona as a EuroLeague rookie, and I like him best so far. He was the top scorer in both of their wins, leads the team with 14.5 points per game. And he's only playing 19 minutes a game now, so those numbers could go higher. But what I like most is his enthusiasm. You can tell it means a lot to him to try to help Barcelona get back to its elite status this season.
Maybe it is strange to say of a 32-year-old player that he is a rookie, and this one has played just the last two games, but I really like Dorell Wright from Bamberg. I was fortunate to watch him at the start of the season while he was playing for Igokea. Live, his game looks even more convincing. The easiness with which he plays, it almost convinces you that you can take the ball and go out on the court, too!
I've always been fascinated by former NBAers who perform with a veteran's know-how in a challenging first-time EuroLeague venture. Such is the case with Khimki Moscow big man Thomas Robinson. It's not only about his numbers (13.8 points via 60.4% shooting, 6.8 rebounds, 1 block per game) which make a convincing argument of his slick adjustment on their own. What makes him a favorite rookie is that he displays a strong winning mentality and a team-oriented mindset. All this while Khimki is off to a fine 4-1 start, including a huge road win over Real Madrid.
There are some great newcomers early this season who are making an even bigger impact, and might even continue to do so, but I really like what Kaleb Tarczewski of AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan is doing. And I love the fact that coach Simone Pianigiani has given him the opportunity, and likes to go to him early in the games, to get his offense going. Tarczewski is big, looks tough and does the blue-collar type of work, but also seems fearless and makes highlight plays. I believe he will get only better.
3. Who is the most surprising EuroLeague veteran so far?
Juan Antonio Casanova
Will Clyburn. He was key for CSKA Moscow in its win against Zalgiris Kaunas, scoring his team's last eight points by hitting 8-of-8 free throws. The American forward was expected to make the Russian team stronger due to his versatility, but nobody expected, now that he is playing in a team with a lot more stars, that he could improve the numbers he had with Darussafaka last season in absolutely all aspects of the game. Nobody expected him to rank second in PIR, third in rebounds and fifth in scoring in the EuroLeague after five games.
Rodrigue Beaubois has always been good, but he is looking even better this season. Of course, he saved Baskonia's first win last week with some huge plays. But he's been sharp almost every game and he has 76% two-point shooting so far. That's impressive!
Crvena Zvezda has entered the season with a young team and three veterans. Taylor Rochestie plays great, which was expected of him. Pero Antic's stats do not show the significant positive influence he has on Zvezda's game and its young players. Anyhow, I would pick Milko Bjelica. At 33, he is not only playing his best season, but also showing why it's no accident that he has been in the EuroLeague for almost a decade. But most important, he is making the team better with his individual characteristics. He is a surprise only for those who did not watch him more carefully in the past.
To ask if Milko Bjelica playing the best basketball of his career would be a rhetorical question. He's dropping buckets (16.6 ppg.) as a threat from the low post and is a true danger from beyond the arc. But the surprising element in his performances is that he excels beautifully in the newfound role of being a true leader on the floor. The many young Crvena Zvezda players can look up to him while he's also delivering plenty enough for his team to beat powerhouses such as Barcelona or Maccabi.
I have to go here with Zvezda's Milko Bjelica. He is in his ninth EuroLeague season, 33 years old, yet posting numbers he has not done before in his career. Not only is he tied for fifth in scoring with 16.6 points per game, having posted double digits in each game this season, but he is being aggressive, attacking the rim, taking initiative. It is really great to see him do it. And that's on top of being clutch and setting career-highs from the three-point distance.