Monday September 21st, 2015

The 2015 EuroBasket tournament saw an old master keep promising apprentices at bay, and a traditional power retake its place at the top of European basketball after a brief absence.

Pau Gasol led Spain to EuroBasket gold in Lille, France, on Sunday, defeating Lithuania 80–63 in the championship game three days after keying a dramatic comeback victory over France in the semifinals. In so doing, the 35-year-old Gasol, who claimed tournament MVP honors, settled two very important pieces of business: Spain avenged its loss to rival France at EuroBasket 2013 and, more importantly, earned a guaranteed spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics. There, Gasol will chase the 10th medal of his distinguished international career and shoot for his first Olympic gold, after losing to the United States in the finals at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London games.

In a competition that featured more than a dozen current NBA players, Gasol was absolutely peerless. He needed to be—Spain was without his brother, Marc Gasol, and other NBA talent including Serge Ibaka and Ricky Rubio. The result of that talent deficit was an uneven showing and weak defensive results in group play, and a number of nail-biters once the tournament entered the knockout phase. Gasol provided answer after answer, scoring 30 points (including six three-pointers) against Poland, 27 points in a one-possession win over Greece in the quarterfinals, 40 points in an overtime victory over France, and 25 points in the championship game against Lithuania. Over nine games, the Bulls center averaged a tournament-best 25.6 points (on 57.5% shooting) and 8.8 rebounds, which ranked fourth overall. 

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While age-induced cracks were clearly visible for two other 30-plus European legends—France’s Tony Parker and Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki—Gasol overwhelmed and frustrated the younger competition. Facing a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter against France, Gasol scored 10 of Spain’s final 14 points in regulation to force overtime, where he scored Spain’s final eight points to seal the win. The points often came in majestic fashion, as he mixed in sweeping sky hooks, precise turnaround jumpers, and dunks set up by well-timed cuts.

Beset by foul trouble down the stretch, France’s promising 23-year-old center Rudy Gobert could only vent on Twitter afterward. “Hard to play when somebody can touch you but you can't touch him,” Gobert said. “Tough loss. … I’m taking nothing away from them. Pau is a great player. … I won't forget this day.”

It was more of the same in Sunday’s title game: Gasol scored eight quick first-quarter points to put Spain up 19–6 early over Lithuania. Jonas Valanciunas, another promising 23-year-old center, was never able to mount a response and reverse the momentum. Gasol’s refined craftiness helped him draw 10 fouls in the final, and he led the tournament in free throw makes and attempts.  

"To be able to play at this level at this point in my career, after all I've accomplished and this team has accomplished, it's something I'll always be proud of,” Gasol told reporters after the final

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Watch: Pau Gasol puts down nasty dunk as Spain qualifies for Olympics

Indeed, Gasol felt a full career’s pride on Sunday: he had just schooled two NBA-quality starting centers who were both younger than 10 years old when Gasol won his first medal with Spain at EuroBasket 2001. Gobert returns to the Jazz with dreams of winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. Valanciunas goes back to the Raptors with hopes of continuing his development as one of the NBA’s most reliable low-post scoring threats. Both head back to the states with nightmares of Gasol whirling through the paint for easy looks, knocking down soft-touch jumpers, and hitting cutters with pinpoint passes from the high post. Their day is surely coming, but not until after Gasol gets through turning back the clock.

Here’s a rundown of how 10 other notable NBA players fared during EuroBasket:

Nikola Mirotic, Spain

Gasol logged plenty of minutes alongside Nikola Mirotic, his Chicago teammate, throughout the tournament given the absences of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Mirotic averaged 12.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in a complementary offensive role; his most important work came in the quarterfinals, when he scored 18 points, including a poster dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo, in a narrow 73–71 victory over Greece. The Gasol/Mirotic frontcourt pairing creates loads of space on offense, but Gasol’s waning abilities as an interior defender require compromising on the other end. Bulls fans who have been clamoring for Mirotic to earn more time under new coach Fred Hoiberg can point to EuroBasket as further evidence of his ability to fit comfortably and make meaningful contributions while playing alongside ball-dominant scoring options.   

Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania

Jonas Valanciunas joined Gasol as an All-Tournament team selection, and rightfully so. His EuroBasket saw both highs and lows, but there were more highs than lows, and the highs were really high. Most impressive: a 26/15 outing in a double-digit win over Italy in the quarterfinals in which he punished Andrea Bargnani and whoever else tried to stand in his way. Although Valanciunas’s reputation as an inattentive defender did prove warranted at various times, including the title game, he made Serbia’s Miroslav Raduljica work in the semifinals. Valanciunas averaged 16 points (on 59.1% shooting), 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks—all team-leading marks—and led Lithuania to the silver medal and a guaranteed spot at the Rio Olympics next summer.

GOLLIVER: Raptors smart to give Valanciunas $64 million extension now

Tony Parker, France

Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Tony Parker did nothing at EuroBasket to assuage concerns that he has lost a step, or two. The 33-year-old point guard averaged a modest 12 points and 4.2 assists while committing 2.3 turnovers per game and shooting just 34.3% from the field. He struggled to break down defenses off the dribble, regularly settled for jumpers that he wasn’t hitting, and looked totally “out of it” compared to the decisive NBA MVP-caliber play he demonstrated as recently as 2012–13. Against Spain, Parker shot an eye-popping 4 for 17 and managed just two points in the fourth quarter and overtime as a win slipped away in front of the home crowd.

Although France claimed bronze, Parker was correctly left off the All-Tournament team in favor of countryman Nando de Colo. San Antonio’s six-time All-Star goes down as perhaps the biggest disappointment of the tournament, and it’s now fair to wonder whether Parker is the weakest link in the Spurs’ 2015–16 starting lineup. Even if such a declaration winds up looking premature, Parker is undoubtedly one of the biggest X-factors given how much talent there is at his position among the ranks of contenders (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, etc.).  

FANSIDED: Why it’s time for the Spurs to look for Parker’s successor

Rudy Gobert, France

There wasn’t enough room to fit Gobert onto the official All-Tournament team, but his play certainly warranted an honorable mention. To no one’s great surprise, Gobert was unmatched when it came to generating highlight plays. The ultra-long Gobert ravaged the rim on offense, with numerous YouTube-worthy dunks, while also stifling a long list of opponents, including NBAers Mirotic and Marcin Gortat, with his patented fearless rim-protection ability. The fluidity and comfort of Gobert’s movement when he strayed outside the paint seemed to improve, and he finished off France’s 8–1 showing with a 15/14 night against Serbia in the bronze medal game.

If not for Gobert’s foul trouble and Gasol’s subsequent late-game rally in the semifinals, it’s quite possible that France defends its EuroBasket 2013 title and Gobert gets most of the headlines, as he averaged 10.4 points, 8.1 rebounds (sixth-most in EuroBasket) and two blocks (second-most). Even if his offensive game isn’t yet diverse enough to make him a lead weapon, Gobert’s contributions as a lob target and his steady work defensively make him a quality centerpiece for future French national teams.

Nicolas Batum, France

Add Nicolas Batum’s name next to Parker’s on the list of EuroBasket disappointments. After a confounding season in Portland, the 26-year-old Batum was traded to Charlotte, where he will look to make the most of a fresh start as he enters a contract year. EuroBasket didn’t offer a ton in the way of immediate hope for Hornets fans: Batum averaged 9.1 points (on 35.3% shooting) and 3.6 rebounds, he registered nearly as many turnovers as assists, and he hit just six of his 35 three-point attempts. His most memorable failing, going 0 for 3 from the free-throw line with a chance to tie Spain late in overtime, underscored ongoing concerns about the mental state of his game. Charlotte coach Steve Clifford is counting on Batum to space the court with his shooting, make plays off the dribble, and remain engaged on both ends throughout games. At EuroBasket, Batum graded out as “needs improvement” in all three categories.   

MAHONEY: Southeast division grades: Judging the Hornets’ off-season

Nemanja Bjelica, Serbia

If the old stereotype is true, that American basketball fans don’t pay attention to international players until they are NBA-bound, then Nemanja Bjelica made an excellent first impression. The 6'10" Serbian forward opened EuroBasket play with 24/10 in an opening win over Spain and 12 points, including the game-winning runner, against Germany. Not bad for a 2010 second-round pick who is just now getting around to signing with the Timberwolves. (He did win Euroleague MVP honors while playing in Turkey last year.) Bjelica, 27, averaged team-highs with 13.9 points and 6.6 rebounds, and he guided Serbia to a 7–2 record and placement in the bronze medal game. The talented stretch forward, who is comfortable handling the ball and shooting the three-pointer, looks ready to contribute for an up-and-coming Minnesota team that will welcome No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and the return of injured point guard Ricky Rubio next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece

The potential continues to ooze out of Antetokounmpo, who averaged 9.8 points and 6.9 rebounds in helping Greece to a 7–1 record. His best showing probably came in the lone loss, as he scored 12 points and grabbed 17 rebounds (!) against Spain in the quarterfinals. While he’s still looking to master how best to change pace, Antetokounmpo does seem to have warp speed down pretty well, especially in transition. Still, there were plenty of times when the 20-year-old prodigy looked his age: the referees dinged him for “happy feet” on his full-speed drives to the basket on multiple occasions and he dealt with foul trouble at various points in the tournament as well.

Bucks fans and coaches will hope that his credible three-point shooting—he hit 10 for 26 on the tournament for 38.5%—is evidence of real progress with his shot, and not just a product of a small sample size or the international game’s shorter three-point line. Establishing that type of range consistently would blow the roof off of Antetokounmpo’s already sky-high ceiling.

MAHONEY: Bucks’ promise | DEITSCH: Gus Johnson to call Bucks games

Danilo Gallinari, Italy

Boris Streubel/Bongarts via Getty Images

In contrast to fellow small forward Batum, who failed to offer shreds of hope after an inconsistent season, Danilo Gallinari played well enough to raise his individual expectations heading into the 2015–16 season. The 27-year-old Italian forward has missed loads of time over the last three seasons with various injuries, but he built on a strong close to the 2014–15 season by averaging 17.9 points and 6.9 rebounds and leading Italy to a respectable 5–3 record. His highlights included pouring in 29 points in a win over Spain and 33 points in an opening loss to Turkey, and he finished the tournament ranking among the leaders in points and fouls drawn. Gallinari’s offensive assertiveness and one-on-one production should help ease concerns that the Nuggets acted too quickly in signing him to a two-year, $34 million extension this summer.

Dennis Schröder, Germany

Germany went home early, thanks to a 2–3 record in group play, but Dennis Schröder acquitted himself nicely before exiting stage left. Atlanta’s backup guard posted three straight stat-stuffing lines—24/5/6 against Turkey, 29/4/7 against Italy, and 26/6/7 against Spain—en route to finishing as EuroBasket’s second-leading scorer. Schröder played with great freedom and confidence, attacking off the dribble in hopes of collapsing opposing defenses and drawing fouls, but that default attack-mode style also saw him lead EuroBasket in turnovers per game. 

WATCH: Nowitzki gets standing ovation at final game for Germany

Mario Hezonja, Croatia

Croatia’s Mario Hezonja, selected by the Magic with the fifth overall pick, will enter the NBA with a cult following. His brash style, pure talent, and quick-trigger make him a tantalizing addition to a young Orlando roster that could use some pop. That said, EuroBasket wasn’t a complete coming-out party: Hezonja averaged just 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds as Croatia finished an underwhelming 3–3. Along the way, the 20-year-old wing struggled with his shot (41.2% overall and 27.3% from deep) and managed to commit 10 turnovers while tallying seven total assists in 129 minutes of action. Those numbers suggest that Scott Skiles, Orlando’s new taskmaster coach, will ultimately give Hezonja the “work in progress” treatment when it comes to playing time.

 

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