Double-round week served up comebacks, streaks, and a shake-up in the standings. It also highlighted an uptick in isolation plays for one-on-one scores like Mike James and Wade Baldwin.
Round 9 was one of the best the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague has to offer on paper this season and delivered with a string of comebacks while Round 10 served up one of this season's more chaotic finishes. For all the exciting moments last week, CSKA Moscow's back-to-back single-digit road wins over Zalgiris Kaunas and FC Bayern Munich stand out as perhaps the double-round's most consequential effort. Out-executing an efficient Zalgiris team in Zalgirio Arena and pounding the glass to survive a poor shooting night in the Audi Dome, CSKA grinded out two quality wins – the team's fourth and fifth in a row.
Nikola Milutinov's efficiency and impact on the boards plus the shooting of Darrun Hilliard were a factor in that success, but the play of Mike James was likely the difference between heading into yet another key matchup versus Real Madrid in Round 11 a win away from the top of the standings or entering this week looking to climb out of a crowded group of teams that will be jockeying for position all year. Though he is just seven seasons removed from a season in the Italian third division, there may be no more established x-factor in the EuroLeague than James at this stage. Pouring in 52 points over 42 possessions in CSKA's pair of wins, James got to his spots in the pick-and-roll, but in classic fashion, also drilled 5 of the 6 three-pointers he attempted in isolation as his unwavering confidence and ability to make tough shots kept CSKA out of trouble in the waning moments of both games.
Hero Ball in the EuroLeague
The shots players like Mike James can make going at a defender one-on-one are, at times, nothing short of spectacular, but the EuroLeague has a very mixed relationship with iso-ball. One-on-one play has declined steadily over the last decade, giving way to ball screen-heavy offenses, but isolation offense has made a bit of a comeback this season. The average EuroLeague possessions has been converted for 0.98 points per possession over the last two years, but last season, the average isolation possession was worth a mere 0.83 points per possession. This year, that number has risen to 0.88, while isos have accounted for 6% of all possessions – up from 5% last season.
Neither of those jumps may seem significant, but this is as relevant and efficient as isolation-play has been in recent EuroLeague history – including the 2017-18 season when the league-wide average for efficiency rose above the golden 1.00 points per possession mark. Most of that improvement can be traced to players looking to create contact more so than create shots. Isolation possessions are resulting in noticeably more free throw attempts this year than they have in recent seasons. It may not be much, but it is nothing to scoff at either.
While isos may not fill a prominent place in EuroLeague offenses, there's plenty to be said for a player who can simply go make something out of nothing on the offensive end. This season, the three players listed above have separated themselves from the rest of the field in that regard.
Shane Larkin has only three games under his belt, but warrants mention here for his productivity in limited action. The clearest Most Valuable Player candidate of the incompleted 2020-21 campaign, the only thing limiting Larkin's one-on-one production is just how good he is in the pick-and-roll and when sliding off the ball.
Mike James led the EuroLeague in isolation scoring last year, averaging the same the same 4.1 points per game he is scoring this season. However, he has scored 1.37 points per possession in isolation this season with CSKA, dwarfing the 1.07 points he averaged in such plays last season. Both of those numbers are staggering, but his efficiency this season is predicated on what he did during last week's double-round, when he poured in 23 points over 11 iso possessions. When James is on his game, he is as dynamic a one-on-one scorer as any player in EuroLeague history.
Even with that being the case, he faces a new challenger for the isolation scoring crown this season, 24-year old Bayern newcomer Wade Baldwin, a very different type of guard than Larkin and James. He has great size and length for the position and regularly uses that to his advantage both attacking the rim to score or using the threat of his drive to dribble into pull-ups in the midrange. Drawing contact consistently, Baldwin has scored an impressive 1.00 points per isolation possession this season despite leaning heavily on midrange shots.
Looking Ahead to Round 11
After the grueling road games it weathered in the double-round, CSKA Moscow hosts Real Madrid in another major test in Round 11. Both teams will step into Megasport Arena on five-game winning streaks in a contest that has clear implications towards the top of the EuroLeague standings.