The regular season of the most competitive international league is over, and the Top 16 stage is just kicking off. Some prospects are done as far as the Euroleague goes, but others continue onto the next round. To reflect on what we've learned since the beginning of the season, we look at 15 players who have seen their stock rise, drop or remain steady, continuing with those who remained neutral.
Nicolas Batum 6-8, 1988, SF/SG, Le Mans
13 mpg, 4.3 ppg, 50% FG, 1.3 rpg
The prospect enjoying the best physical tools among all of the Euroleague youngsters, Nicolas Batum, has the most intriguing and natural characteristics that make the word "potential" sound more real than any other rookie from this season, besides maybe only Ricky Rubio.
Batum is big, strong and athletic, with an impressive wingspan, great footwork and a natural NBA body already. He has already added some weight since the season started and everything is starting to come easier for him. He's begun to hit his open shots on a regular basis, and is moving comfortably more without the ball, even if he is still anxious and uncomfortable with the ball in his hands and often just tries to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Defensively, he is already there. Maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but he already seems as a defensive specialist for Le Mans, with all his amazing tools and excellent body use, being eager to help his team and only rarely getting outmuscled by opponents.
Of course, Nicolas was never as an important piece for his team in his first Euroleague season. Besides some good all-around performances and a huge, 15-point game versus Olympiacos, when he made some important shots, Nicolas was a bench player who's job was to add versatility and defense while spelling his team's starters. He may have "stolen" some more minutes with a couple of active offensive games, but nobody really expected him to be more of a contributor this early. Nicolas didn't receive more playing time and probably didn't deserve to see more minutes, because he wasn't ready and his team is slowly developing him to become more of a contributor during the next couple of years, if he's to stick around.
However, the best is yet to come and we may see a more improved version of Batum during the coming season in the French league, as long as his team decides to get him more involved in their offensive game and he decides to start slashing more and take better advantage of his explosiveness and physical superiority on the offensive end. Numerous sources have told DraftExpress this year to expect to see Batum's name in the draft when the early-entry list is released. Whether he stays in could depend heavily on how he closes out the season.
Sehim Erden, 7-1, 1986, Center, Fenerbahce Ulker
14 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 52.1% FG, 69.2% FT, 3.1 rpg
If at some point of the regular season we thought that watching Semih Erden on court was going to be a rare privilege, frontcourt injuries for Fenerbahce Ulker and his own nice displays brought playing time for the promising Turkish center, a player that was already featured on the National Team in the World Championships last summer.
Erden is a very intriguing guy, not only a legit seven footer, but already a fairly strong and decently athletic center with an excellent frame and wingspan who can produce in the paint against veteran competition. Still, inconsistency has been the predominant chord in his game. He shows decent moves in the low post, but has a hard time putting the ball in the net unless he dunks it (he can consistently play above the rim). He also displays promising form on his shot, but still enjoys poor accuracy. He can even put the ball on the floor with surprising ease, although again he suffers to get the job done. Probably his highlight in this edition of the Euroleague was a slashing move he performed against F.C.Barcelona, driving with his right hand, then faking a pass to his left, followed by a lay-up, always with his right hand (quite Jason Williams-esqe). Certainly something you don’t usually see coming from this type of player.
His defensive and rebounding potential is remarkable, given his body and mobility. He still lacks some reactiveness, but nothing to feel worried about for the future. However, his defensive commitment is not always equally strong. Erden lacks consistency in his effort and intensity, and sometimes just doesn’t seem to be focused on what’s happening on court. Still, with experience and maturity, he should emerge into a very valuable big man, perhaps first-round material down the road if he works hard. He's a type of player who usually impresses in every game, but only in very small doses.
Milenko Tepic, 6-8, PG/SG/SF, Partizan, 1987
20.0mpg 4.5ppg 2.5rpg 1.4apg 1.9tpg 31.7% FG
Milenko Tepic has been inconsistent in his rookie season at the Euroleague level so far, showing glimses of potential, but also going through rough periods, especially with his shot. Overall, Tepic has been slightly disappointing in his effort contributing less than anticipated, but he was still able to get quality minutes. Tepic is a very versatile player, being able to play and defend any of the perimeter positions. Coach Dusko Vujosevic used him primarly as a Point Guard this season, where Tepic showed good passing ability and distribution skills keeping the offense in motion and making solid decisons with the ball. However, his NBA future is on the wing where he could develop into some kind of a Point Forward keeping in mind his pass-first mentallity.
Tepic's impact on the game is often not showed in the boxscore. He is a very team oriented player, really unselfish and a very decent defender with excellent potential on that end of the floor. The fact that he plays point guard at 6-8 tells you a bit about his very good lateral movement, Milenko is a good athlete possesing nice quickness and a long wingspan. He is a very intelligent player who has an excellent understanding of the game, seeing the court well and possessing good ballhandling ability. His biggest struggles come in putting the ball to the basket. Milenko has unorthodox and poor shooting mechanics and hasn't been able to achieve any kind of consistency this season. Tepic also has a tendency to became too passive on the offensive end of the floor during some stretches where he doesn't really create opportunities in a way a guard should.
Tepic has almost 3 years before he becomes draft eligble, and therefore plenty of time to develop his game, particularly his scoring ability. He has the size, athleticism and versatility NBA teams look for, however he will have to improve his shooting skills in order to not to be a liability on the offensive side of the ball. If he declares for the 2007 draft Tepic would most likely be a 2nd round choice, however he has enough tools to develop into a first round pick with time.
Anton Ponkrashov, 6-7, 1986, PG/SG, CSKA
14 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.4 T/Os
In a fine rookie season so far, Ponkrashov has been exactly what everyone was expecting him to be. He is a nice contributor with a lot of room of improvement in most fields of his game. Given the limited opportunities that most Russian youngsters get (especially when it comes to playing for such a strong team as CSKA Moscow), we can easily conclude that Anton has fared pretty well during the regular season.
A team-first combo guard, with excellent size and very good use of his body, Ponkrashov has managed to play in 11 of CSKA's 14 games up to now. He played alongside both Theo Papaloukas and J.R. Holden, spending most of his time in the off-guard position, but acting like a second point guard quite often. He seems to have worked on his decision making, cutting down his turnovers in the process, and it's obvious that he has been constantly improving his all-around game, especially since he has become a key player for CSKA in the Russian Superleague games. His averages may be hiding part of the truth, as in the Euroleague games, his contribution is limited and he is taking less shots due to the opponents' higher level and his lack of importance in the team hierarchy. However, Anton is doing all the little things in the more or less 14 minutes that he stays on the court and -- most importantly -- he is doing them well.
His slashing skills seem a bit improved right now and his finishing abilities are just getting better. He moves really well without the ball and is a pretty good ball handler. He is surprisingly strong and has a fairly good first step, especially when he starts slashing from the left side, but he doesn't feel equally comfortable otherwise. Creating his own shot and finishing with his right has already been mentioned as a weakness and he needs to further work on that field of his game in order to increase his so far limited offensive varieties. He has a decent jumper and is a quick shooter behind the arc, although he is not equally efficient shooting off the dribble (something that doesn't happen so often anyway). His basketball IQ was always notable and his ability to take advantage of his teammates explain us why he is such a well regarded young perimeter player right now in the European scene. A hustler and -- once again -- a scrappy type of player, he has plenty of room to improve over the next year or two, as soon as he improves his footwork and learns how to use his hands better on defense. A lack of experience and his fairly average athletic ability may become more obvious in the next stages.
With the top-16 arriving and CSKA being in a manageable group, Ponkrashov may still see some good minutes, especially since experienced wing player David Vanterpool will be sitting out with an injury. After all, the really tough games for the Euroelague champions won't be coming before the top-8 round and -- as soon as Anton keeps improving -- it is proven that coach Etore Messina will give him the appropriate playing time.
Nikola Pekovic, 6-11, Center, Partizan, 1986
14.5mpg 5.1ppg 2.3rpg 0.4bpg
Nikola Pekovic didn't made too many strides in his game since last season, and with the way he looks on the court, it's questioable just how much upside he truly has. Pekovic is not a typical European big man, relying mostly on his physical attributes rather than on the fundamental part of the game. Pekovic is a threat only within of 12 feet from the basket, where he can use his very good size, brute strength and solid mobility to overpower opponents and gain good position on the block. That's basiclly his offense, getting position near the basket where he can recieve the ball and then going up for a strong finish. Pekovic doesn't have any problems establishing himself for a post entry pass considering that he possesses great strength, not only for a youngster. However, when it comes to catching the ball and finishing around the rim, his poor hands and lack of a soft touch are exposed.
Defensively, Pekovic once again shows his toughness by forcing contact and being physical with his opponent, but once outside of the key he suffers staying in front of his man because of poor lateral quickness. This might be a serious problem when talking about his NBA upside considering the up-tempo direction the league seems to be heading in. Pekovic doesn't show good awareness on either end of the floor, lacking some natural instincts and possessing a basketball IQ which seems way below average. His poor hands and understanding of the game are visible from the fact that he made just 2 assists in the entire competition, compared to 15 turnovers. Pekovic will occasionly pull up for a mid-range shot, but with poor results. His shooting motion should be more fluid, which hinders him from getting a consistent release point on his shot. He looks very mechanical from the free throw line, but is adequately accurate - 20/30 on the season.
From a physical point of view, Nikola has what it takes to play in the NBA, but it's rather tough seeing what "extra" he can bring to an NBA team. His closest NBA comparasion would be Mario Kasun, who didn't actually have a lot of succes in his brief stint with the Orlando Magic. With that being said, Pekovic is still only 20 years old and there is certainly hope for him to develop his skills down the road. The first round looks out of his window currently, but there is a more than good chance that someone will take a shot at him in the 2nd round and stash him in Europe.