By Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
As everyone knows there is still a serious economic situation in Euro Ball. Teams and Leagues just don’t have the same kind of budgets and salaries they did before. Top Euroleague teams still have fairly big budgets like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Olympiacos, EA7 Milano, Maccabi Tel Aviv and an on-coming team like Bayern Munich but really almost all the money is in Turkey and Russia.
Leagues like Greece, Italy, and Belgium have teams with pretty low budgets and what would probably be considered some second division budgets in the high time of the 2000’s. So teams are forced to be more creative and take risks. Scouting and building a roster that fits together is more important than ever. Finding players with high ceilings but having some sort of issue (big injury, character issues, got cut somewhere…) is paramount. Experience and production cost money, taking chances on players that have some sort of issue, many times come in at a below market rate.
Pistoia has a lower budget than they even had last season. Two years ago they had a very surprising run into the Playoffs led by Brad Wanamaker and JaJuan Johnson. They pushed Milano to five games in the First Round. Last year the team was still solid, in Playoff contention till the end, finishing 9th. This season Pistoia’s budget is even lower than before, forcing them to go younger and be even more creative with their signings. So I picked them as a team to dive into and see where it brought them. This will not be a series but I was pursuing teams and Pistoia seemed like an interesting one to break down for this topic.
Breaking Down Pistoia’s Imports (Team Roster)
I will be breaking down the five import signings Pistoia made but also on the roster are Italian players: Ariel Filloy, Luca Severini, Eric Lombardi, Michele Antonutti, and Martino Mastellari.
Ronald Moore (1988), Passing PG
Moore knows the league after finishing last season with Caserta. He’s a very strong drive and dish player and just overall does a good job distributing. He, along with Filloy and Knowles, at times will be counted on to run the offense. For a Playoff level Italian team, Moore is not a top option because of his lack of scoring. Italy is a very technical league and if a defender goes under a ball screen, you have to kill him with your shot. Moore can’t always do that. But for Pistoia his ability to move the ball and create good shots for others will be of value.
Preston Knowles (1989), Scoring/Defensive Combo G
With Filloy and Moore on the team he will probably be more of a combo scorer than a facilitator. Knowles had a good couple seasons in Israel recently and comes in as the most experienced import along with Moore but he’s played on a higher level. He’s a gritty guard, very tough and strong. He adds an edge to the team and can really defend on the ball. He can be a bit wild on offense and takes some bad shots. But he does play with an aggressive nature and that type of play really helps on a team trying to make up a talent gap. In a role on and off the ball, with less running the offense, responsibility and more freedom, Knowles could fit even better than he did in Israel.
Wayne Blackshear (1992), Defensive/Athletic SF
One of two rookies with Thornton. Probably underachieved a little in college based on his High School All-American status but still has a lot to grow and had injuries he had to fight through at Louisville. A 3-and-D small forward. Blackshear is a strong and real physical defender. He’s a versatile defender too and can probably defend 2-3-4 in Italy. He’s quite strong for a wing (215 lbs) and really long (6’10” wingspan), so his physical ability is quite good. He’s a capable long range shooter and has good playmakers around him to find him open shots. Blackshear played next to maybe the two biggest shot-hogging guards in all of college basketball the last couple seasons so we probably haven’t seen everything he is capable of offensively. As far as moving the ball, attacking closeouts, and consistently finding ways to space the floor, it will be a learning curve in Italy for Blackshear but he’s in a position where he is not asked to carry any offense and that should help him out.
Marcus Thornton (1992), Mid-Range/Versatile PF/C
Very interesting player, somewhat risky but with potential. Thornton moves extremely well for his size. He runs quick up and down the floor. Thornton is versatile and has the ability to dribble drive, shoot with range, and bang down low. He has intriguing defensive tools, being able to alter shots inside and stay with 4’s on the perimeter. Effort wise he hasn’t found a groove, sometimes floating through a game and sometimes charging down the floor. But he has serious potential on both sides of the ball and is a modern combo big man which is very much in vogue.
Alex Kirk (1991), Inside C
A kind of slow white guy, can it work? Kirk has a very unique physical build with broad shoulders and long arms. It allows him to have a pretty versatile skill set. Because of length and base strength he’s able to establish deep post position and has a reliable jump hook off either shoulder. Has a very high release on his shot and is able to get it off in most situations. Can shoot accurately form the short corners and elbows but starts to get inconsistent when stretched to deep two range and three-point territory. He’s pretty active on tip-ins and offensive rebounds.
Kirk has good defensive tools and instincts which allows him to challenge a lot of shots. But can he can be slow and unable to react quick enough at times. He is almost 7-feet and can protect the rim.
Roster Construction and Fit
When building on a budget and still having Playoff aspirations (Italy is so wide open after the first couple teams, why not), you need to take a certain amount of risk in your roster. Pistoia signed two rookies, one D-Leaguer, and two players with European experience and no player is born before 1988.
The roster is pretty versatile from a talent and positional standpoint. There are basically three players who can play point guard and Pistoia can play a lot of two-PG lineups. There was a rumor Matt Bouldin was going to sign with Pistoia but it’s not going to happen because you can only have five imports. He would have added an interesting size element in the backcourt. The only problem with Filloy-Moore-Knowles is they are fairly small (Filloy has some height but is skinny), even though Knowles with his toughness can play taller than he is. So three guard lineups are possible but the match-up has to be right.
Blackshear fits in well next to all the playmakers. He’s best either spotting up or attacking the rim and needs space and shots created for him. And he has the ability to move to the 4, similar to what Cameron Clark did for Cremona last season (even though Clark ended up playing mainly the 4). It may be too small but a lineup like Moore-Filloy-Knowles-Blackshear-Thornton gives you serious mobility and scoring ability. A very good transition lineup.
Thornton is the biggest x-factor in the lineup. He’s more suited to split time between the 4 and 5 now but could gradually spend more time at the 5 if that is what Pistoia needs. Thornton is very talented with a diverse skill set but he hasn’t quite figured out his ‘go-to skills’ yet or what his role is. He can hit a mid-range shot, dribble drive from inside the three-line, and play some garbage man. He also is very mobile for the strength and length he possess and can be quite an inside-out defensive weapon. With so much opportunity to play, produce, and be deployed in different roles on this team, he has the most to gain.
Kirk probably has the biggest spectrum as far as what people think about his game. He’s funky, a white guy with a bulky frame but is still long and protects the rim. Personally I think he is a steal because his mid-range game is only growing and he fits the European style game better. A northern European league may fit his game even better but he can still have success in Italy.
With the imports earning roughly 60-80K (possibly a little more for Knowles), Pistoia did a good job finding the right risks to take. They found offensive weapons and also some solid defensive options. In the end, quite possibly how well this team can play defense together may determine how far they go.
The roster isn’t perfect and there could be many hiccups along the way because of the lack of Serie A experience. Building with risk means the roster can end up going in many different ways. Not having a true 2-guard import could be an issue too but with Blackshear and Knowles being able to slide into that spot there are possibilities.
Overall the parts fit well and the talent and versatility will be very interesting to see play out on the court. The Italians on the roster have a little bit of potential and mixing in with the Americans will be very important. This is probably a fringe Playoff contender, looking at around 10th or 11th place but with a breakout year from Thornton (or another import) could squeeze into the Playoffs.