An American Perspective on Europe: The Wings
Luis Fernández - Director of International Scouting
Jonathan Givony - President
June 27, 2006
In part three of our four part series we look at the wing players or wannabe wing players available in this draft. We find three age eligible 1984-born prospects, one lock first rounder, one first round hopeful, and two that could be draft and stash prospects for the second round.
Thabo Sefolosha is a long wing player who combines American athleticism with European fundamentals. Marquinhos is a rangy Brazilian with good touch from the perimeter but limited experience in competitive five on five settings despite his age. Lior Eliyahu is a prolific combo forward who is one of the most improved players in Europe over the past few years. And Panagiotis Vasilopoulos is a smart and reliable all-around player who is a key rotation piece on an excellent Euroleague squad.
Thabo Sefolosha, 6-7, SG/SF, 1984, (Switzerland), Biella
Thabo Sefolosha is a player who was considered quite an obscure prospect when he first started appearing in our weekly European roundups and 2006 mock draft well over a year ago. Many NBA scouts we spoke to in April at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament did not even know who he was when we asked about him back then. Now, after finally being able to show himself in private workouts, Sefolosha’s buzz is right around where it should be, with there even being some talk of him crashing the lottery on draft night.
He’s a unique prospect in this draft, combining your typical European fundamentals and outstanding feel for the game with the type of explosiveness that you’ll usually only find in American prospects. He is a very smooth athlete, capable of getting by his man with a nice 1st step, being highly fluid and coordinated and able to get off the ground with a solid vertical leap to finish plays around the hoop or block shots. His frame looks decent even though he might be lacking a bit of strength at the moment, particularly in the lower body where he could stand to add some more bulk.
His best attribute and what has gotten him noticed and on the floor for the past 4 years is his defensive ability, showing excellent aggressiveness and toughness, super long arms, great understanding of how to defend spaces, and the footwork, timing and hands to place himself in the right spot at the right time. He excels both in man to man and team defense, showing very good awareness and being quick to rotate and cover for his teammates. He’s an active player who plays with purpose and will come up with plenty of steals and even your occasional blocked shot. Rebounding is another big strength of his thanks to all the characteristics outlined above, even pulling down am impressive 15 boards just this past week in the Italian league.
Offensively, he is mostly a slasher, capable of using his excellent ball-handling skills, footwork and high basketball IQ to create shots for himself and his teammates. He takes the ball strong to the hoop and uses the angles presented to him well to finish or get to the line. Sefolosha was a point guard early in his career, and indeed played a bit of a point-forward role for Biella at times, bringing the ball up the floor and showing excellent court vision and passing ability finding the open man off the dribble. He likes to crash the glass and start the fast break on his own, picking his spots very well on the floor, being highly unselfish—almost to a fault at times, but usually making the right decision.
Being a player who could get to the hoop almost whenever he pleased early in his career thanks to his ball-handling skills and athletic ability, Sefolosha’s perimeter shooting is not as advanced as the rest of his game. His shot mechanics need work as his release is a bit on the slow side and he lacks range and consistency on his jump shot. His effectiveness drops off considerably when he’s asked to shoot the ball off the dribble, even from mid-range. He’s getting better in this area all the time, improving his percentages from 32% from 3-point range last year on a little over two attempts per game to a more respectable 41% this year on 2.6 attempts per game. He’s become a lot more confident in his outside shot and his offense in general this year, but still, it will take time for him to expand his range to the NBA 3-point line as well as become more than just a catch and shoot threat with his feet set.
The worst thing you could say about Sefolosha is that he is more of a role-player than he is a potential star. Teams looking to swing for the fences and find the next coming will probably want to look elsewhere. Being automatically eligible as a 1984 prospect, he won’t be projected to have the same upside that some of the underclassmen in this draft do. He has been noticeably improving in almost every facet from year to year, though, so it might be too early to say that his development process is done. Even if NBA teams aren’t sold on him being ready to play in the NBA, he is pretty versatile in the fact that a team that is short on roster spots could decide to draft him and keep him in Europe for another season—and if they do want to bring him over, he has a clear buyout clause in his contract for only $385,000, well under what NBA teams are allowed to pay. A playoff team that is looking for an extremely solid and mature all-around player to step in and do the little things for them is the type of situation where he could really thrive—Chicago for example.
Sefolosha has a chance at #10 (Seattle) and will get long hard looks at both #14 (Utah) and #15 (New Orleans). The Bulls are a perfect fit at #16, and he is very high up on Indiana’s board at #17. Even though it’s hard to see him slipping much further, this is an unpredictable draft and the Phoenix Suns would likely be doing back flips in their war room if he was still available at #21.
Marcus Vinicius Viera de Souza (Marquinhos), 6-9, Small Forward, 1984, (Brazil)
Another product of the lately very prolific Brazilian pool, Marcus Vinicius Vieira de Souza is not your typical 22-year old player.
He first and foremost went through a very strange season for a player his age, rather than already being established with a competitive team. Marquinhos played for a very weak Brazilian team early in the season, and then devoted himself to private training to prepare for the draft. Second, you might expect a guy his age to be a bit more mature at this point, especially considering that he’s not a player who learned the game yesterday, nor any kind of newcomer.
Still, Marquinhos shows a very intriguing package. He’s a legit wing player with excellent size at 6-9. He enjoys nice athleticism, because even if he’s not a great leaper, he is a quick guy, really quick considering his size. Marquinhos is a nice shooter, being especially worthy of mentioning his ability to create his own shot, as he’s really hard to stop given his size and his ability to deliver pull-up jumpers off the dribble. On the other hand, he’s rather inconsistent, and tends to fade away on any given shot, even when firing open in catch-and-shoot mode, failing to keep steady mechanics.
This season Marquinhos looks quite improved in the ball-handling department. He looks really comfortable driving the ball, and this circumstance helps him immensely with his slashing game, where he shows a nice first step and the footwork to operate in traffic. Again there’s a downside here, as he really suffers to consistently put the ball in the net. Marquinhos lacks some ability to perform layups against any opposition, and he rarely explodes to dunk the ball in traffic. At least, he passes quite well off the dribble, looking for the open man on the perimeter. This is another area where he’s much more active now, also willing to take a few more risks.
Defensively, although he looks improved in one-on-one situations, he’s not a stopper and his team defense is still very poor. He lacks a bit of activity here, more commitment if you will. In general, he’s not a particularly aggressive player, and you can see it on both ends of the court.
All in all, Marquinhos’ current status comes down to lack of reliability and predictability. His game is not very dependable; not having any source of consistent scoring, and not exactly being an asset to his team on defense. However, he’s still a bit of an immature guy who could very well manage to polish his game and find that consistency, which would make him a valuable player. After all, the potential is there, and not every player fulfills it at the same age. Still, it might not be enough for him to crack the first round based off how much of a wildcard he is at this point and already being age-eligible.
Lior Eliyahu, 6-9, SF/PF, 1985, (Israel), Galil Elyon
A player that not many expected to keep his name in the draft, Lior Eliyahu is taking a calculated risking and betting on the fact that his outstanding combination of current production and future potential gets him drafted in the 2nd round.
Eliyahu, “the Diamond” as he’s called in Israel, is one of the most prolific International players in his age group. Despite breaking his hand midway through the season and ruining plenty of excellent momentum he had going for him, he still managed to average 16 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks in 27 minutes per game, being named to the FIBA Eurocup allstar game along the way.
Eliyahu is a mismatch anyway you slice it, slithery around the basket, crafty with his moves, quick and explosive, and extremely intelligent and confident in everything he does. He has good size at 6-9, excellent length and extremely big hands.
Eliyahu does plenty of damage around the painted area with his deadly touch at the rim, and is capable of stepping outside and knocking down a 3-pointer if he has time to set his feet. Running the floor in transition with a true point guard is where he really shines. Possibly the biggest improvement we’ve seen this past season is in his ball-handling skills—once being quite limited in the moves he could make on the perimeter to now being capable of putting the ball on the floor and making his way to the hoop fairly effectively. His passing has also improved by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by the 3.1 assists per game he averaged this past season in the Israeli league, up from 1.7 the year before.
Eliyahu has great instincts for the game and plays with the type of purpose you love to see from someone so young. He challenges players much older than him on a regular basis and has no problem stepping up to take clutch shots when the game is on the line. Seeing the improvement Eliyahu has made from being just another average Joe two-three years ago to one of the top players in the world at his age leaves some optimism about his work ethic and potential to continue to improve.
As a basketball player, there is little doubt that Eliyahu can compete with the best of them. The doubt that does exist revolves mostly around how he fits in at the NBA level, particularly in terms of his position on the floor. Eliyahu plays mostly power forward in Europe and is so effective largely because of the mismatches he creates. In the NBA he might be forced to slide down a spot and become a small forward, and this is where he will encounter some problems.
First and foremost would be defensively, where he’s already lackluster at any position and in any league he plays in. He lacks the lateral quickness to defend most of the explosive small forwards we find in the NBA, and probably isn’t strong enough to defend bigger power forwards in the post. Seeing him getting burned on a defensive rotation or picking up foolish fouls is not rare even in the Israeli league, which at times forces him to sit on the bench when his team needs him on the court.
Second would be his perimeter shot. Eliyahu’s mechanics are very flawed and he lacks range, quickness and consistency on his jump-shot. He can knock down 3-pointers when he has time to set his feet, but struggles when forced to put the ball on the floor and pull-up off the dribble.
Lastly would be his shot-creating ability. Eliyahu’s ball-handling skills have improved considerably over the past year, but he will need to continue to work on his entire perimeter game to effectively make the move to small forward.
What makes Eliyahu intriguing for plenty of teams drafting in the 2nd round is the fact that he is in no position to force a guaranteed tender from them this summer, as he is still a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force. What’s even better is that he will be playing for one of the top teams in the world outside the NBA in Maccabi Tel Aviv next season, which should surely help prepare him for the league if he continues to develop. With more teams scrapping traditional positions altogether and throwing out the most talented players they have on the floor, Eliyahu could be an intriguing face-up power forward for an up-tempo team. He has the talent, physical attributes and mentality to play in the NBA, it’s his overall polish that needs plenty of work. Luckily for him and the team that drafts him, though, time is on their side.
Panagiotis Vasilopoulos , 6-8, SF/PF, 1984, (Greece), Olympiakos
The third “age eligible” 1984-born player on this list, Vasilopolous plays at the highest level of competition of anyone mentioned here so far—for Greek powerhouse and Euroleague participants Olympiakos. Vasilopolous has been through all the various national team levels over the past four years and should be a very familiar name for NBA scouts. He was on the roster, but barely played, for the Greek senior national team that won the Gold medal in last summer’s European Championships in Belgrade, and was one of the stars of the Junior Greek team that competed and won medals at the various European and World competitons. His team Olympiakos made the Top-8 stage of the Euroleague this past year where they lost to eventual Finals participants Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Vasilopolous was a key contributor on that team and averaged 20 minutes per game in 21 contests.
Beyond his high-level experience, there are a number of things to like about Vasilopolous. First would be his physical attributes, featuring good size and length for an NBA small forward, solid strength and an excellent frame. He is a good athlete with a very nice first step, and is quick off his feet with surprisingly good leaping ability.
Vasilopolous is a versatile player who does almost everything pretty well, whether it’s slashing with either hand, shooting 3’s with his feet set, passing, rebounding, blocking shots or just running the floor hard. He is a tough player who does not back down and is willing to get into a player's grill if needed, even getting a little dirty if the situation calls for it.
Being a 22 year old who gets plenty of burn for one of the top teams in Europe, he is a smart and reliable player, as you would expect, with a good feel for the game. He doesn't make many mistakes and generally plays for the team. His passing skills are particularly impressive, especially passing into the post. Vasilopolous likes to move the ball around unselfishly and regularly finds the open man with crisp passes.
Playing both forward spots in Greece and the Euroleague, he is a very solid rebounder who knows how to box out and goes hard after every ball. His hands are very good and his athleticism and instincts help him do the rest. Spotting up from the perimeter, he shows good shooting mechanics on the catch and shoot and hits his shots at an excellent clip—46% from the field and 51% from behind the arc.
In terms of weaknesses, there are questions about his NBA position, as he plays the power forward spot in Europe, but is only about 6-8. He is first and foremost not an incredible athlete, but he’s also not a bad one either. He might be missing that slight extra gear needed to create enough space to get his shot off in the NBA, and already isn’t an incredibly prolific scorer at the European level, averaging only 8 points per game. He could stand to slim down to small forward proportions for his body to truly reach its full potential as a wing.
Vasilopolous’ perimeter skills in general need to be polished. He is not a dangerous enough threat to attack matchups off the dribble, and can be a bit mechanical and predictable in his movements. As a shooter he is limited mostly to the catch and shoot, featuring a fairly slow release and not much elevation on his jump-shot.
On the other end of the floor there are questions about whether he can defend his own position in the NBA. Playing mostly power forward, he lacks real experience guarding the perimeter. He regardless does not his move feet well enough, and his lateral quickness might not be up to par.
More than anything, it sometimes appears that Vasilopolous is not 100% comfortable in his own skin. As much as he limits mistakes, he also rarely tries to do anything incredibly creative, looking like he is playing on a fairly short leash at times.
As far as NBA comparisons go, Luke Walton might be the best one. Possessing a fairly unique skill-set and plenty of high level experience, he still has upside to continue to improve. If a team drafting in the mid to late 2nd round doesn’t see anyone that they think can make their roster available, he could be an intriguing guy to draft and stash for a few seasons until his contract is up in 2008.