The road to glory in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague started in earnest on Monday as almost half of the 16 best teams in Europe started running drills, learning plays and fine-tuning the teamwork that the competition is so famous for. Behind them are holidays and medical tests, while ahead there is basketball as far as the eye can see until a Euroleague champion is crowned in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain next stpring.
As many as seven teams -- AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan, FC Bayern Munich, Anadolu Efes Istanbul, Herbalife Gran Canaria, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, Olympiacos Piraeus and Panathinaikos Athens -- are back in action, starting the process of getting physically and mentally ready on the court while bonding off the court in order to be in the best condition when the EuroLeague season starts on October 11. The rest of the teams will quickly join them and dozens of pre-season games will help all 16 squads keep improving, too.
Milan retreats to its headquarters
Milan's full team got together at Centro Sportivo Vismara on Monday for physical training without the ball, with their first true basketball practice set for Mediolanum Forum on Tuesday morning. Milan will continue practicing at its headquarters for 10 days before its first scrimmage against Assigeco Piacenza, followed by its opening pre-season game against Junior Casale Monferrato on September 1.
Baskonia set for special year
Among the teams that had the most players in town the soonest was KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz – and there is no reason to wonder why. With the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four being held in the city for the first time next spring, every player knows this will be a special year.
"It's a nice pressure to have", point guard Luca Vildoza said after arriving from his native Argentina. "We know that ahead of us we have a beautiful objective. We know that the city is going to live this season in an incredible way. It's a unique opportunity that's going to happen here and we are try to work to be among the Final Four teams."
From last season, his first in the EuroLeague, Vildoza understands completely how much work such aspirations require.
"I realized that you can't give away a single minute, let alone a whole game, " he said. "That's what's great about this league. You are competing in every moment, and that's what helps you grow so much."
Newcomers ready to play for Panathinaikos
All Panathinaikos players have arrived in the Greek capital, including its three foreign signings – Keith Langford, Stephane Lasme and DeShaun Thomas – all three bringing plenty of EuroLeague experience. Lasme and Langford were on the All-EuroLeague Team in 2014, while Thomas has joined his fifth EuroLeague team in as many seasons.
"For every player of this level, the EuroLeague Final Four is the goal – it is something I have not done, but we have to go step by step. I have a great deal to learn from this group," Langford said. "In any team, you have to adjust. I can still play one-on-one and shoot, but the teams are adjusting and I'm looking forward to fitting into Coach Pascual's system."
Lasme is back to Panathinaikos for his second stint with the club. "I have been waiting for this day since I signed up," he said. "James (Gist) and I were talking about the team all summer. I have talked to Nick (Calathes) once in the summer. I look forward to seeing what has changed in the team. It will be different from when I was here. I want to see what we can do on the court. That's what I expect. Let's get on the court!"
Thomas already worked for Coach Xavi Pascual in FC Barcelona. "It is nice to work together again, because he knows my game and what I can offer to the team," Thomas said, who can't wait for his first EuroLeague home game with Panathinaikos. "I think we are playing the first Euroleague game against Maccabi. I have come with several teams as an opponent and it has always been noisy, but I am glad to be on the right side of the home team."
Gran Canaria excited for debut
The newest EuroLeague team is Herbalife Gran Canaria of Spain, which due to its location in the Atlantic Ocean more than 1,000 kilometers southwest of the European mainland, will also face perhaps the toughest travel schedule ever in European basketball. One of the team's newcomers, D.J. Strawberry, knows all about the challenge of competing in the EuroLeague from having played the 2015-16 season with Olympiacos Piraeus, but he vowed upon arrival in Gran Canaria late last week to "show everybody that we belong."
"We have a tough season ahead of us, but it's going to be a very interesting season," Strawberry said. "We have a tough team. The schedule is going to be tough, travelling is going to be tough, but we'll be up to it. It's basketball at the end of the day."
Bayern is back with high energy
Bayern is set to return to the EuroLeague after three years competing in the 7DAYS EuroCup. The German powerhouse was one of the first teams to return to action, too, as head coach Dejan Radoncic has already had the chance to run his team's first basketball drills at its encampment in Riva del Garda, Italy.
Bayern is also working hard off the court, having held an in-house Media Day in which all four newcomers – Leon Radosevic, Maodo Lo, Petteri Koponen and Robin Amaize – took center stage. The club joked about its first game of the season on social media – a tabletop soccer showdown between some of its players.
Many new faces in Olympiacos's training camp
Olympiacos returned to action early, too, and new head coach David Blatt ran his first practice with the Reds. Coach Blatt was joined by five new players – Janis Timma, Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Leday, Axel Toupane and Sasha Vezenkov – and the rest of the team, including superstar Vassilis Spanoulis, who turned 36 earlier this month and comes off one of his best scoring seasons ever. Blatt ran a series of light practices, complemented by physical tests, in the first three days of camp and the team's first double practice on the season is scheduled for Tuesday.
"I am ready to get here and play as hard as I can for Olympiacos. I like their history, their tradition and for sure, Coach Blatt," Leday said upon arrival. "He really helped me a lot and sold me on it. He is going to help our careers a whole lot. We are going to win a whole lot of games and play hard for him and my teammates. I would say that playing for Olympiacos is a big step for anyone in his career, not just me. I just look forward to playing with legendary players and learning a lot."
Efes is back in action, too
Efes has already started to practice in his trademark practice facility inside the beer factory. General manager Alper Yilmaz gathered all player in center court to wish them a healthy and successful season as the team got back to work, led by head coach Ergin Ataman.
Efes is fully aware that, after a league-low 7-23 EuroLeague Regular Season record last season, fans will be expecting much more. The club strengthened its roster with experienced players like Rodrigue Beaubois, Adrien Moerman, Tibor Pleiss, Shane Larkin, Vasilije Micic and James Anderson. A day before the team's first practice, Efes captain Dogus Balbay shared a video on social media talking about the upcoming season. "It is not easy to be the captain of a legendary, proud team. The responsability we have is huge," Balbay said. "We have to earn the right to wear this jersey by fighting until the last possession, in good and bad days, standing up and putting Anadolu Efes first."