By: Nick Gibson and Sam Meyerkopf / @euro_adventures
Leaders come in all forms. Loud, silent, short, tall, skinny, fat—shout out to Pero Cameron—young, old, über talented or just iconic figure heads whose presence is far more inspirational than their actual on-court contributions. So with no specific criteria in mind, here’s who ELA fancies as EuroBasket’s most qualified leaders.
Whatever that means.
1. Goran Dragic | PG | Slovenia
Goran did not earn this leadership status as conventionally as others. He didn’t pry it away from one of the incumbents like Bostjan Nachbar or Jaka Lakovic, and he certainly didn’t bust open the locker room doors last summer with his nose in the air simply because he scored a few buckets in the 2010 NBA Playoffs. Instead, he kept his mouth shut while his contemporaries opened theirs wide enough for their feet to waltz right in. While Goran gushed about Slovenia’s incredible fans and how honored he was to wear the green and white, Sasha Vujacic let personal beefs—between he and Goran, he and the basketball federation—slide between him and his country, and Beno Udrih quit the team because he failed to supplant Jaka Lakovic from the starting gig (as Bostjan Nachbar told ELA) during the run-up to last summer’s World Championships. And though his game is loud and vibrant, the rest of Goran is solemn, focused and clearheaded. And for the Central European country of only three million people, that has to be about refreshing as it gets.
Watching David Blatt steer Russia to within a game of the medal rounds in Istanbul last summer, one couldn’t help but be impressed. Anton Ponkrashov cranked up the RPM on offense and arms waved wildly as feet shuffled quickly on defense. Timofey Mozgov and Sasha Kaun made the rim seem a foot taller and half as wide as they patrolled the paint on one end and finished everything on the other. But something was missing. Or maybe it was someone. Watching them warm up this summer, now I understand: Andrei Kirilenko was that something, or that someone. Much like Hedo Turkoglu led Turkey to a silver last season despite a diminished arsenal of individual attacks, AK47′s mere presence should inspire a movement around him, even though he’s not the same do-it-all megastar who averaged 18 ppg and took home tourney MVP honors as he led Russia to the gold at the 2007 European Championships. He’s lost the spiked dome, added some dragon ink and is poised to lead a charge.
3. Dirk Nowitzki | PF | Germany
Don’t know if y’all heard, but Dirk had an OK year. He picked up an NBA Championship, silenced the oft-referenced haters, launched his own basketball academy and even came under consideration as being the best European basketball player since Europe was invented. SPOILER ALERT: I put Dirk in the number two spot after Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis. But not without a clause in the contract which offered him amnesty. If he goes and leads Germany to a medal this summer, I’d give him the top slot. He’s healthy, he’s training, and the effect he will have on that team’s psyche and that fan base’s interest level are undeniably massive. Dirk means more to his nation’s basketball culture than almost anyone outside of Yao Ming, and it’s time for some of these young guns to elevate their games and quit dragging their feet. Yes you, Elias Harris.
4. Tony Parker, France | PG | France
Even with the recent hand injury to Ronny Turiaf, there’s no dearth of NBA talent on Vincent Collet’s roster. Watch them play a half of basketball, though, and you’ll start to wonder if they’ve ever met one another. Out of synch, out of control and in serious trouble at most points of the game, they keep things close only based on a traditional gap in athleticism, which is getting narrower each summer. That means it’s time to start winning the strategic battle as well, and there aren’t many floor generals more capable than Parker.
5. Juan Carlos Navarro | SG | Spain
NBA Champion, All-Star, this, that and the other thing. Impressive, no doubt. But you know what they say about snoozing, and what Pau Gasol has lost was his hold on this team. Once a shared belt with fellow Golden Generation member, Juan Carlos, Pau’s absence last summer sunk Spain to a disappointing sixth place finish in Istanbul, and left JCN as the team’s undisputed heavyweight veteran leader (that’s right; I’m counting neither Garbajaosa nor Mumbru). The offense will work inside-out this summer, to be sure, but Navarro commands more attention than any player in Europe today, always a viable threat to rise up from an awkward angle or lean off the wrong foot and nonchalantly toss a rainbow at the rim. There aren’t any hard feelings between Gasol and the Spanish faithful after taking a summer off, but Navarro’s loyalty won’t go unrewarded.
1. Sarunas Jasikevicius | G | Lithuania
Recently in the Lithuanian dictionary the word aistra (or passion in English) has been replaced by Sarunas. So now, instead of saying someone has a deep passion for something, just say he has Sarunas. Folks will understand. Jasikevisius’s fire is undeniable and at 35, it’s still burning. Playing for the home Lietuva squad, the emotion will be pouring out of him. This is more than likely his last EuroBasket ever and probably his last ever tournament with the national team. Every sweat bead, blood drop, and giant scream will be aimed toward bringing the European Championship back to Lithuania. No one will want this championship more and no one will lead his team better. Be prepared, Saras will have this squad ready.
2. Juan Carlos Navarro | G | Spain
Juan Carlos entered into the Spanish National Team at 18 years old, and he has never left. Every single summer he has donned the España jersey and gone to work. If Sarunas means passion in Lithuanian then Juan Carlos means dedication in Spanish (sorry, esmero, you had a good run). He has entrenched himself as Spain’s 2-guard for over a decade and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. JC doesn’t always lead by fiery emotion, but he chooses to follow the actions speak louder than words method. Navarro’s ability to play for Spain at every possible moment, with undying allegiance, and produce at an alarmingly successful rate, is the best role model any young Spanish ball player can have.
3. Hedo Turkoglu | F | Turkey
The great Hidayet is the face of Turkish basketball. He cemented his legacy last summer by willing his Turkish team to a Silver Medal at home in Istanbul in the World Championships. The rise of Turkey to one of the best hoop nations in the world, from both a professional perspective and from a talent-producing standpoint, is due in no small part to Hedo. His success on an NBA and world stage has helped transform Turkey into a bubbling basketball power. At Eurobasket this summer, Hedo will be the one to lead his team into battle and control the offensive flow. With such a good showing at the Worlds, Turkoglu will be giving everything he has to put Turkey on top of Europe.
With great Greek Gods Theo Papaloukas and Dimitris Diamantidis taking the past few summers off (and now with Vassilis Spanoulis hurt) Fotsis is the elder statesman and captain of Hellas. And he isn’t taking any sympathy from anybody. With or without some of their best players, Greece is here to win EuroBasket. Quotes from Fotsis like these, should keep the Greek team pumped up: “We know what can happen. We are not here to pass the time, and we are not going to the EuroBasket just to say that we played in the tournament.” And again, when Fotsis referred to all the Greek injuries played up in the media: “But we do not listen to that, we can only change their mind on the court.” Damn straight, Antonis.
5. Novica Velickovic | F | Serbia
A leader doesn’t always have to be the guy who has played the longest on the team. This young Serbian bunch has a hulking handful of talented guys, but their truest leader hasn’t emerged yet (Nenad throwing the chair was a start). As I look upon the Belgrade horizon, I find myself seeing the shadow of a flaming Novica Velickovic, as he dares to barrel down the throat of yet another defense. His energy makes the Serbian team go. With a Silver Medal in Eurobasket 2009 and a 4th place finish at the World Championships last year (barely missing out on a Silver or Gold if not for Kerem Tunceri’s last second layup), Serbia is now primed for this EuroBasket. Milos Teodosic is the unquestioned best outside scorer and Krstic is the veteran post presence, but Nikola is the loud rumble that pushes them forward. Getting excited after and-ones, pumping up the defensive intensity, providing a breath of liveliness when he enters the game, and a relentless approach to offense; that’s what Nikola brings. That is why he will end this tournament as of one of the best leaders, not only for now but for many years to come.