If you’re looking for somewhere to watch NBA players during the lockout, you may want to check out the 2011 EuroBasket competition, which begins on August 31 in Lithuania. Sure, you can go on YouTube and check out Kevin Durant dropping 66 points in some street game at Rucker Park, but if you want real games where the final score matters and the teams play defense, EuroBasket is for you. The tournament will also be a great chance to get a look at some of the league’s newest players (three of the top six players in the 2011 draft were from Europe, along with three others in the top 31 selections).
While it may come as a surprise to U.S.-based fans, EuroBasket has a long and storied history, as the bi-annual tournament began all the way back in 1935. Since then, 36 tournaments have been played, with Spain defeating Serbia in the most recent tournament, held in Poland in 2009. Spain was led in that championship game by a pair of NBA veterans, as tournament MVP Pau Gasol tallied a game-high 18 points and 11 rebounds on 8-for-13 shooting, while Mavericks swingman Rudy Fernandez added 13 points and five rebounds.
Spain will likely enter as tournament favorites this year, but there are several other squads worth a look, including hosts Lithuania and 2010 world championship silver medalists Turkey. Here’s a look at some of the teams and players you should be watching for from now until the title game on September 18 (games will air on ESPN3.com).
NBA Players: Rudy Fernandez (Mavericks), Ricky Rubio (Timberwolves), Marc Gasol (Grizzlies), Pau Gasol (Lakers), Jose Calderon (Raptors), Serge Ibaka (Thunder)
Why you should watch them: Spain was already loaded heading into the tournament, having reached the finals in the past two EuroBaskets to go with a silver-medal performance at the 2008 Olympics. But now that they have added Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, who was granted Spanish citizenship in July, they will be the clear cut favorites in the tournament. A few interesting subplots on the Spanish team: -How will Pau Gasol rebound from his miserable playoff performance? The seven-footer was a shadow of himself this spring, averaging just 13 points and 8 boards a game as the Lakers were swept in the second round by the Mavericks. Gasol was tournament MVP at the last EuroBasket, and Lakers fans will be eager to see if he can regain his confidence and repeat the feat this year. -How will Ricky Rubio fare? Rubio hasn't been too impressive in the Spanish league over the past few seasons, yet he finally committed to the Timberwolves and will debut for them when (if) the season starts. Rubio is no stranger to the international spotlight, having starred for Spain at the '08 Olympics at age 18. How he plays here will be a good indicator of how he's progressing. -Who will Spain go to in crunch time at the point, Rubio or Jose Calderon? While I would assume that Calderon would see the more important minutes as he has more international experience and is the more polished player, Rubio has the higher upside. Still, Rubio is very raw and is a poor shooter, while the 29-year-old Calderon knows how to manage the team and can always be counted on to hit a clutch free throw (career 87% FT in the NBA, including NBA-record 98% in 2008-09).
NBA Players: Joakim Noah (Bulls), Boris Diaw (Bobcats), Nicolas Batum (Trail Blazers), Tony Parker (Spurs), Kevin Seraphin (Wizards)
Why you should watch them: Even though France will be without NBA players Ronny Turiaf, Roddy Beaubois and Mickael Pietrus, they still figure to have a very strong team led by Tony Parker, and, in his international debut, Joakim Noah. Parker is a fearless leader at the point and can always get to the rim, while Noah figures to anchor the defense in much the same way that he did last season with the Bulls. While not as talented as Spain, France have a bunch of guys that have won games at the NBA level and should figure to contend for a medal.
NBA Players: Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks), Chris Kaman (Clippers)
Why you should watch them: Dirk hasn't suited up for team Germany in a EuroBasket competition since 2007, and to be frank, Germany's simply not very good without the big man from Wurzburg in the lineup. But they ended up 5th in 2007 and 2nd in 2005 on the strength of Nowitzki's performances, and with Dirk playing some of the best ball of his life in 2011, you can't count them out. His supporting cast isn't nearly as good (even accounting for the scaled-back competition level of Eurobasket), but if Dirk ends up on with one of those 12-for-15 FG, 24-for-24 FT nights (his numbers from Game 1 of this year's Western Conference Finals against the Thunder), there's really not much opponents can do to stop him. Germany will go as far as Dirk can take them.
NBA Players: Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors)
Why you should watch them: While this basketball-mad nation of 3 million always puts out a strong team (they made it to the semifinals at worlds last summer), it will be exciting to see if age-group phenom and recent Raptors draftee Valanciunas gets some serious minutes against the big boys. Valanciunas probably won't arrive in the NBA until 2012-13 anyway due to his contract with his club team in Lithuania, but he has been nothing short of superb in his international career so far. He's played in three major tournaments so far (Euro U-16, Euro U-18 and World U-19), and has three gold medals and three tournament MVP trophies. His most recent crown, the World U-19 title, was perhaps his most impressive, as he averaged 23 PPG, 13 RPG and 3.2 blocks per game in 31 minutes per game, including a 36-point outing in the gold medal game against Serbia. Valanciunas could end up being the best player in this year's draft, as he has size, can rebound and block shots, is a great FT shooter, and he's only 19, meaning that he still has time to refine his game (despite all his accolades, he is far from a finished product). Rockets draftee Donatas Motiejunas may also be in the mix for Lithuania, but it's unclear how much playing time he will receive.
NBA Players: Hedo Turkoglu (Magic), Ersan Ilyasova (Bucks), Omer Asik (Bulls), Semih Erden (Cavaliers), Enes Kanter (Jazz)
Why you should watch them: Turkey's frontcourt is stocked with NBA talent, and most of the roster returns from a team that took silver at the world championships last summer. While devoid of a true star, Turkey has shown that it has the depth to compete with anyone despite its poor history at EuroBasket (one medal in 20 appearances, and that was in 2001 when Turkey hosted the event). Kanter will be the one most fans will want to watch, as the big man has barely played since finishing a year at Stoneridge Prep (CA) in 2009-10. The number 3 pick by the Jazz in this June's draft, Kanter appears to be a legit center prospect and has thrived on the international stage, winning tournament MVP honors at the Euro U-18s in 2009 and dominating with 34 points and 13 rebounds at the 2010 Nike Hoop Summit.
NBA Players: Luol Deng (Bulls)
Why you should watch them: GB doesn't have a whole lot going for them, but it's nice that they got Deng to suit up for them as the squad prepares to play in the 2012 Olympics in London. Hopefully they'll have added Deng's former Bulls teammate Ben Gordon (born in London) by next summer to at least become respectable, because right now GB is a mess apart from Deng. That wouldn't be as big an issue if Deng were a player on the level of Nowitzki, but the two are not even close to being in the same league right now. GB's best hope is to win one game in the group stages and hope that, by adding Gordon next year, they won't be a complete joke in front of the home crowd in 2012.
NBA Players: Andrea Bargnani (Raptors), Danilo Gallinari (Nuggets), Marco Belinelli (Hornets)
Why you should watch them: Italy didn't even qualify for EuroBasket in 2009, and even by international standards, they're a fairly soft team. The three above are worth watching on the offensive end, but even though their group isn't that strong (Serbia, France, Germany, Israel, Latvia), the Italians figure to be a middle-of-the pack team at best.
NBA Players: Nikola Vucevic (76ers), Nikola Pekovic (Timberwolves)
Why you should watch them: Montenegro will be one of the tourney's weaker teams, but any Sixers fans out there might want to check out prospect Vucevic, the 7-foot, 260-lb center from USC that Philly took at number 16 in the '11 Draft. I don't have much to add, but please enjoy a couple interesting facts about Vucevic: -His father played professional basketball in Europe and was a member of the Yugoslavian national team, and because of this, the family traveled a lot. Vucevic was born Switzerland, raised in Belgium, moved to Montenegro as a teenager, and then went to USC for college. -Prior to USC, Vucevic also played a year at Stoneridge Prep, the same California prep school that Enes Kanter played for.
Other NBA players of note: Zaza Pachulia (Georgia/Hawks), Kosta Koufos (Greece/Nuggets), Andrei Kirilenko (Russia/Jazz), Timofey Mozgov (Nuggets/Russia), Goran Dragic (Slovenia/Rockets), Kyrylo Fesenko (Ukraine/Jazz)