The Top 16 is my favorite stage of play. My reasons, twofold. Firstly, it weeds out–how do I put this nicely?–the lesser squads. Secondly, it hits the season’s “reset” button and gives everybody a fresh start. Barcelona and Maroussi. Olympiacos and Cibona. Zero wins, zero losses, and one great opportunity to take stock and formulate a game plan. The Barcelonas and Olympiacoses of the world look at their rosters, nod their heads and say, “Yup. I think we’ll be OK.” For those without that luxury, it’s time to hit the phones and land a guy that can take you to that next level. Whether teams ask them to start, fill a specialized role, or replace an injured star, all ten of the guys on the list below are expected to perform and earn their paycheck. I’ve taken into account quality of play and expectations to rank their debuts. I was not dazzled.
1. Mario Delas, Zalgiris – 20 minutes, 14 points, 3 rebounds, o turnovers (L 89-65 @ Asseco Prokom)
A little over a week ago, Mario celebrated his 20th birthday. This past Thursday, Zalgiris fans were celebrating his 3.5 year contract. From the moment his sneakers hit hardwood, Delas injected the lifeless, Travis Watson-less team with some sorely needed hustle and a willingness to get to the rim. (And the free throw line. Imagine that.) Considering Mirza Begic has set the energy bar rather low this year, Lithuanian fans should appreciate Super Mario’s assertiveness.
2. Juan Dixon, Unicaja- 31 minutes, 17 points, 2 assists, 1 steal (L 86-78 @CSKA)
From his days as a Maryland Terrapin to his career as an NBA rotation player, Juan Dixon has shown an uncanny ability to put the ball in the basket. Judging by his first 31 minutes, his career in Malaga will be no exception. If only we could force some chemistry into the would-be dynamic backcourt combo of Dixon and Cook. Sharing is caring, after all.
3. Samo Udrih, Cibona – 22 minutes, 10 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist (L 83-70 @ BC Khimki)
Beno’s brother looked a bit clumsy on the defensive end, but his feet lightened up whenever the ball came his way. Marko Tomas couldn’t care less if Udrih lets his man score 30, so long as the opposing defenses have something else to focus on.
4. Pop Mensah-Bonsu, CSKA Moscow – 7 minutes, 3 points, 1 rebound, 1 block (W 86-78 vs. Unicaja)
One thunderous dunk, a block, and suddenly I found myself loving what CSKA could become. They’ve got the shooters, the experience, the leadership, the tradition. Now add to all that: swagleticism.
5. Marcus Haislip, Panathinaikos – 14 minutes, 7 points, 2 rebounds, 2 turnovers (L 59-64 vs. Partizan)
There are very few ways to successfully replace a force like Mike Batiste. Being a jump shooter is not one of them. Yes Slavko is huge and yes, Jan Vesely was possessed by some demonic powers last week, but a player with Haislip’s credentials should be a little more comfortable attacking the paint on a regular basis. Make ’em work for it, Marcus.
6. Taquan Dean, Caja Laboral – 17 minutes, 2 points, 0/2 3pt, 4 rebounds (L 85-89 vs. Olympiacos)
There was no way Dean was breaking up the Fernando San Emeterio party (20 points in a Week MVP performance), but he may have earned some supporters on the Caja coaching staff with his perpetually overlooked defense. Tough to hit 3’s if you’re on the bench, and Taquan is laying the groundwork to make sure that doesn’t happen. His first impression was quiet, but Carl English hasn’t been making much noise either.
7. Zabian Dowdell, Unicaja – 12 minutes, 3 points, 1 assist, 1 steal (L 86-78 @CSKA)
Kind of forgot he was out there. Not in a bad way, but not in a good way either. For that, Zabian, I give you this shiny 7th place medal. Enjoy.
8. Bojan Popovic, Efes Pilsen – 20 minutes, 1 point, 2 assists, 0 steals (L 77-70 @ Real Madrid)
I know that some of you out there are worried about Efes Pilsen’s chances. We’re in the same boat, you and I. But wait! Terrific news! Here comes Bojan, our all-star lifesaver of a point guard! Well, not yet. Maybe next week. But not yet.
9. Stevan Milosevic, Partizan – 5 minutes, 0 points, 1 rebound (W 59-64 @Panathinaikos)
Partizan won. Not much else to say here.
10. Ante Tomic, Real Madrid – DNP (W 77-70 vs. Efes Pilsen)
Maybe there was a typo on the back of his jersey. Maybe Messina likes to let his youngsters rot on the bench. Only time will tell.