EuroLeague Playoff Previews: Baskonia have improved all season, but an ill-timed injury might ruin it

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Continuing our series of EuroLeague playoff previews here at GiveMeSport.

READ:  Part 1 - CSKA Moscow are as dominant as they have ever been
READ:  Part 2 - Panathinaikos have ridden their great point guard to the playoffs
READ:  Part 3 - Zalgiris have a real chance at making their first ever Final Four
READ:  Part 4 - Facing the mighty CSKA Moscow, Khimki are really up against it
READ:  Part 5 - Even without Sergio Llull, Real Madrid sustained a high level
READ:  Part 6 - Olympiakos are looking to go one better this year
READ:  Part 7 - Fenerbahce have a chance of defending their title

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In the summer, Baskonia once again turned over pretty much their entire roster. Only four senior players remain from last year - Rodrigue Beaubois, Johannes Voightmann, and the relatively tenured pairing of Ilimane Diop and Tornike Shengelia. This means the other 14 players are all new.

Considering the high roster turnover, and the lack of domestic players (aside from Diop, whose name rather confers some Senegalese heritage yet who has lived in Spain seemingly forever), there are no Spanish players in the rotation, which features 11 different players from nine different countries. While teams such as Olympiakos and Real Madrid enjoy plenty of domestic talents, and both the stardom and continuity that comes with that, Baskonia have not had that luxury, and instead have to constantly rebuild.

To their credit, though, they are good at doing so, and they have grown throughout the year as the pieces have bedded in. At one point, Baskonia were 0-4 in EuroLeague play, and while they rebounded to get back to 6-6, they then lost five of their next seven games, and seven of eleven, to fall out of the playoff picture. But a coaching change and a timely six-game winning streak and close out strong, pushing Maccabi Tel-Aviv aside for what ultimately became the seventh seed, where once they were last.

So, do they now have any upset potential over their first round opponent, Fenerbahce?

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As seen in our preview of their playoff hopes, Fenerbahce's greatest strength is their sheer volume of outside shooting. Led by the wing quartet of James Nunnally, Gigi Datome, Marko Guduric and Kostas Sloukas, it is a constant outside barrage from the Turkish powerhouse, and it is hard to rival.

Baskonia, however, do a fairly strong line in offensive barrage themselves. While they rank only fourth in offensive rating on the season - "only" in this context is purely relative to Fenerbahce - they have a .602% true shooting percentage as a team, founded on a team three-point shooting percentage of 39.9%. Plenty of pick-and-roll sets, plus the rejuvenation of Beaubois (who gets to the rim and avoids all contact with connsummate ease, yet who will hit 40.7% of his threes if a defence would rather he did that for some reason), and flanked with shooting at every position, form the crux of an explosive offensive unit born out of the ashes of a mediocre one.

The shooting stretches to all five positions, particularly in the form of starting five man Voightmann, shooting an excellent 58.5% from outside himself in EuroLeague play. Smooth as eggs offensively, Voightmann is also an excellent passer, and while he is not an impactful player in any aspect of defence, his colleagues can pick him up there. French international centre Vincent Poirier is an old-school back to the basket big who camps in the paint and lets everyone know he is there, one of the best interior defenders in the competition, while Diop's fluid athleticsm and endless arms (I mean there has to be hands there somewhere but there's a good couple of miles or arm first) make him an excellent floor runner. There is activity, physicality and shooting at the centre spot, depending on what is needed in any particular match-up.

This front court depth is reassuring to find, as depth was considered to be a weakness of the team going into the season. To be sure, the depth at the guard spots is less secure. As well as Beaubois at off-guard, Matt Janning is a high IQ and efficient if somewhat one-dimensional shooter for whom more sets could definitely be run, while on the wing, Patricio Garino has been better of late after a poor start, playing assertive defence and getting open off cuts. At the primary playmaker role, though, options and stability have been harder to come by.

Given their true shooting percentage, Baskonia would have a higher offensive rating if only they would turn the ball over less. As it is, though, their high 15.1% turnover percentage ranked second to last in the competition (ahead of only Zalgiris, who have much the same problem with their guard depth chart), and is representative of their ball-handling limitations.

EuroLeague veteran Jayson Granger is a steady hand, in control of time and score and a pressing defender who uses guile rather than pure athleticism, yet behind him, Marcelinho Huertas has returned from the NBA as a shadow of the player he was before he left. This is not the NBA's fault - rather, it is simply ageing, as Huertas, who turns 35 next month, is winding down. The pick-and-roll vision is still there because of course it is, but as he gets increasingly less likely to get beyond the first line of the defence or stay in front of his man, Huertas's contribution gets increasingly limited. As good as Shengelia is as an inside-outside offensive player, he should not be trying to create up top. He should be the one beng created for, and that has not always been the case.

To that end, young Argentinean guard Luca Vildoza has seen a surprising amount of action as the main reserve ball handling option. This was not the plan, but aside from a high turnover rate, it has gone quite well. Shooting 40% himself from outside, Vildoza has plenty of flair and swagger to his game, which is always the best way out of being potentially over-exposed. At times, Baskonia have been lacking a playbreaker, end-of-the-shot-clock type - as steady and reliable as Granger is in the pick-and-roll, this is not what he is good at, and Beaubois can be oddly passive at times too. Vildoza though has taken up the mantle, and while he is still young and inexperienced at this level, his confidence does not display that. His mid-season growth has been pleasingly emblematic of that of the team around him.

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Defensively, without having the reputation for grit that their Greek counterparts do, Baskonia quietly put together the third best defensive rating in the competition during the regular season. Led by Poirier's rotations, strength and timing on the interior, Baskonia stay in the pocket and disciplined, and although they somewhat lack for athleticism on the wings, the frontcourt depth cures a lot of ills. Even Voightmann has his moments as a trapper on the perimeter. If that keeps up, he has NBA potential.

Firing Pablo Prigino has brought about a better offensive flow to the team. The new Baskonia embrace pace-and-space, spread the floor (a starting trio of Janis Timma, Shengelia and Voightmann was born to play spread pick-and-roll), and can score with anybody with a very well balanced attack. The ball moves more and moves faster, and everyone is now an offensive weapon. Playing a quick pace (third) without neglecting their rebounding duties (fifth in the competition in total rebound percentage) has seen a slow start become a strong finish. Baskonia have improved throughout the season, and that, really, is the point of having a regular season at all.

There is a major cause for concern, though. Granger will miss at least the first two games of the series against Fenerbahce due to an ankle injury. He is by far the best player at their weakest position and he does things they simply cannot pretend to have otherwise. Hopefully, Huertas has a couple of throwback performances in the chamber, and perhaps Beaubois can take on a more ball handling role to aid Vildoza. Yet for all their internal growth, season-long development, recent success and striking balance, Baskonia may have seen their EuroLeague season end with that news.

Which would be a sad way to end it.

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