Basketball hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in years. After a busy offseason, the NBA’s preseason is slated to kick off in about three weeks. But we still have EuroBasket 2017, a continental championship held by FIBA Europe every two years that features many of the best international players.
It’s no surprise that eight of the 10 leading scorers in the tournament so far have NBA experience, including the ever-shifty Goran Dragic darting into the lane at will and a more-muscular Kristaps Porzingis looking like a demigod next to mere mortal players.
But the best reason to tune into EuroBasket may be to check out the new wave of imports set to enter the NBA. Here’s how four of the brightest are performing after almost a week of play.
Teams have struggled to show much resistance to Dragic’s unrelenting drives, but Slovenia has still given Doncic, the 18-year-old wunderkind and potential no. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, a large helping of the playmaking duties. It’s not a matter of letting a prodigy take his lumps early, either. There aren’t any caveats to apply to Doncic’s manipulation of the defense.
With a slight glance at teammate Aleksej Nikolic in the right corner, Doncic gets one Greek defender to bite right as he slings it crosscourt to (newly naturalized!) Anthony Randolph in the left corner. With it, Doncic gets the attention of four players within his vicinity. Good ol’ Randolph missed the shot, but with Doncic, you trust the process. He essentially makes the same play on the opposite side of the floor later in the game, and this time, it’s a success:
Luke Doncic is a stud. Few NBA vets can make this cross-court pass with pinpoint accuracy, yet he's only 18 and does it routinely. Amazing. pic.twitter.com/Z1ozELFLBm— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) September 4, 2017
Doncic’s role with Slovenia is a convenient peek into his likely NBA future. At 6-foot-8, he is what has become something of a new archetype in the league: a tri-positional player who functions as both a ball handler and an off-ball spacer. He can start a break on the rebound or he can leak out to the corners; he fills lanes on fast breaks and is advanced in recognizing how to play off screens with the ball in his hands. As a European scout told The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks at Las Vegas summer league, Doncic plays with the steadiness of a 26-year-old.
Teams will want to see more consistency out of his 3-pointer (34.6 percent on 6.5 attempts per game in Slovenia’s 4-0 start), but he’s been confident when shooting from a standstill and pulling up when defenders go under on screens.
On the other end, he has the size to fight over screens and puts in effort, but his ability to move laterally will be pushed to its limit against NBA athletes. There will also certainly be questions about his lack of burst on drives, and how dramatically his average athleticism will narrow his margin for error in the league.
Yet, after watching Doncic play, I have little doubt that he could slide into Joe Ingles’s spot in the Utah Jazz starting lineup right now and the team would be no worse for the exchange. And Ingles is 11 years older than Doncic.
A player with such a complete offensive repertoire at an almost disturbingly young age comes around only once or twice in a generation. Despite the hype, Doncic has remained steady as ever.
Markkanen eschewed a high-and-tight fade for a more Greco-Roman look during EuroBasket, and it’s completely changed the perception of him. He’s back to getting unnecessary comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki instead of being the whipping boy for a Bulls franchise in disarray.
The 20-year-old Finnish big man is averaging an impressive 22.5 points per game in group play, behind only Dragic and Dennis Schröder, two established starting point guards in the NBA. Markkanen has one of the heaviest burdens in the tournament, utilizing nearly 21 possessions per game for his Finnish team. He’s also been one of the most efficient players, scoring 1.18 points per possession, fifth among high-usage players (more than 14 possessions per game), according to Synergy Sports.
EuroBasket is something of a utopia for Markkanen’s talents, and a clear demonstration of what makes him so intriguing. He is a walking mismatch—a stretch-5 who is comfortable striking from deep or taking midrange jumpers out of the post over the top of smaller defenders. Markkanen’s efficacy in the tournament makes these games feel as though they were being played in 2014.
That isn’t to say he won’t be able to replicate some of his success here and port it to the NBA, but international play is still full of the 7-foot enforcers that the NBA has begun to phase out. Markkanen, meanwhile, makes those kinds of players uncomfortable through his mere presence: His deep-range accuracy and ability to take unsuspecting big men off the dribble on closeouts—something of a retro nightmare these days in the NBA—is still a headache for most of these FIBA bigs.
There are no new strengths or weaknesses to disclose here. He is still an all-world shooter currently operating on 56-50-88 splits, and he’s still an upright runner who lacks a significant degree of defensive talent. The biggest shift Markkanen has experienced over the past week is that of perception. (The last time we’d seen him in action before EuroBasket was a disappointing Sweet 16 performance—nine points on nine field goal attempts in 40 minutes—against Xavier, where he was completely ignored by his teammates in the game’s pivotal final minutes.)
Questions still remain about his ability to adapt to an NBA game that’s shrinking and speeding up, but Markkanen has left no doubt that he is already going to be a devastating mismatch in certain situations. Group play has re-instilled the optimism in Markkanen’s game that maybe should never have left in the first place.
Vlade Divac, the Sacramento Kings’ vice president of basketball operations, called Bogdanovic “definitely the no. 1 player in Europe” last year. Then he paid him accordingly, with a three-year, $27 million deal—the richest rookie contract in NBA history. Has he played like the best player in EuroBasket? Not quite. But he did drop 30 (and a 3 right in Porzingis’s face) in the opening game.
Bogdan has cooled off since, but he’s still one of the most efficient high-usage players in the tournament, scoring 21 points per game on 46 percent shooting (1.12 points per possession, according to Synergy). He’s somehow managed that while struggling to find his touch from distance. Bogdanovic is currently shooting 30.6 percent from 3 (11-of-36) over the first four games. For Kings fans worrying about Bogdanovic’s slump, it’s probably nothing: He shot 39 percent on 827 attempts from behind the arc over his last 177 league games. His shooting is legit.
It wouldn’t be difficult to envision Bogdanovic playing a Jodie Meeks–esque role on the Kings, freeing himself with sharp off-ball cuts and firing with a quick trigger. Sacramento is probably hoping for more than that—a J.J. Redick with long-ass arms, perhaps. While most would probably slot him in as a spot-up shooter, but he has some potential as a secondary or tertiary playmaker. He’s made strides in improving his vision, and his reach allows him to make plays like this:
Bogdan was the best scorer on a dominant Fenerbahce team last season, but creating shots will be a completely different challenge in the NBA. He’s confident with the ball in his hands in the pick-and-roll and has a fairly tight handle, but there is no blow-by ability in his first step. Instead, separation is created with slight hesitations and throwing defenders off balance on wrong-footed running shots. His lack of athleticism limits his scoring upside, but an offense that involves De’Aaron Fox bulleting passes to either Buddy Hield or Bogdanovic is a Vlade fever dream that’s about to come true in just over a month.
In July, when Osman officially agreed to come to the NBA, the no. 31 overall pick in 2015 was the only real 3-and-D-wing type added to a Cleveland Cavaliers team in desperate need of more of them. Luckily, expectations for the rookie have dropped considerably with the arrival of Jae Crowder in the Kyrie Irving trade. Now it’s easier to appreciate the potential, which was apparent on this huge chase-down block against Serbia a few days ago:
At 6-foot-8 with a strong frame and base, Osman has the build of a 3 and the size, strength, and quickness to theoretically shift up or down a position at a moment’s notice—invaluable against teams like the Warriors and Celtics. There is also a relentlessness to Osman’s play, a type of frenzied activity on both offense and defense that is reminiscent of Corey Brewer’s best and worst moments. Here, Osman does his best impression of Brewer’s drunken dribbling, only to be bailed out by a Timofey Mozgov foul:
The Cavs won’t indulge Osman’s baser instincts, but in this environment, those one-speed dives to the rim serve a purpose. While he’s shooting just 36 percent from the floor, the 22-year-old draws a ton of attention on his wild drives, and a fair amount of his misses have turned into Kobe assists.
When he isn’t diving into the paint with abandon, he’s playing smart, sound basketball. He’s comfortable setting back screens down in the paint to open up teammates. He’s quick to recognize mismatches and has the touch to make the simple pass to capitalize. He’s a capable shooter from 3, with a 38 percent average over the past two years in Turkish league play.
Osman—who is currently leading Turkey in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game—was going to be an important new addition in Cleveland even if it didn’t make the Kyrie Irving trade. While he functions ostensibly as the star of the Turkish team, he’s also flashed the role-player potential that, for LeBron’s sake, would be smart to foster as soon as possible.