Quelle Surprise - Can Nanterre Keep It Going?

By: Rob Scott / @RobScott33

After dropping their first two games in a Euroleague season nobody expected them to have, Nanterre have battled back. A shocking win in Barcelona followed by an emphatic defeat of Budivelnik Kiev at home have brought the French arrivistes to a 2-2 record and a share of second place in Group A, with the same record as CSKA Moscow and Barcelona.

Those faltering starts in Moscow and Catalunya have left plenty of space behind undefeated Fenerbahçe, and while both perennial Final Four attendees are expected to pull it together, Nanterre, Partizan and even Budivelnik can realistically hope to grab fourth place. Of course you know as well as we do that four games does not provide a reliable sample size. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get excited about a low budget, low profile team making its first forage into the land of the Euroleague giants and cutting one of them off at the knees. So can Pascal Donnadue’s men from the Parisian ‘burbs avoid that post-Christmas Eurocup comedown, and stay in Europe’s premier competition in six games’ time?

The answer is, of course, it’s too early to tell, but there are both good and not-so good signs we can pick up on from the first four games, particularly their two-game win streak.

Rim attack

One thing this team does is attack the rim from the outside, from positions one through four. Trent Meacham, David Lighty, Jeremy Nzeulie, DeShaun Thomas, even Will Daniels from the power forward spot, can all get from arc to the cup and finish. They run a lot of screen and replace action at the top of the key in order to create a hole for the ball handler to attack, or a mismatch, or both. The option to kick out for a three is usually there, although it’s sometimes the last resort and leads to some errant passes. For a team that takes a lot of shots at the rim and a lot of threes, they haven’t been very efficient, putting up a 93.7 offensive rating, third lowest in the league. Although in only four games, the 73-43 horror defeat in Belgrade is skewing things slightly. It’s still also better than CSKA’s 93.3, which is only relevant if you like making fun of CSKA, which everybody does. In the big win last week over Kiev, they put up a 106.7 mark. While they are unlikely to keep that going, it shows how well this offense can click in any one game if things are working well.

Thomas and Jaiteh turning heads across the pond

If you’re a fan of checking out the latest talent to come over to the Old Continent from the NCAA ranks, then this is a team you want to see. DeShaun Thomas is in his first year out of Ohio State University, and his transition from All Big-Ten selection to Euroleague rotation player is going pretty smoothly. That will please the San Antonio Spurs, who drafted Thomas with the 58th pick of the 2013 draft.

Thomas is an all-around scorer from the power forward position who averaged 19.8 points per game in college, and he has undoubtedly benefited from continuing the high-usage role he had in college to being an impact scorer off the bench for a team that lets him shoot. He can knock down spot up threes and has fantastic speed going to the basket, much like his counterpart in the starting lineup Will Daniels. Perhaps the most important thing for a young player coming straight from NCAA to Euroleague, a journey with uncommon instant success, is he isn’t scrapping for minutes behind a veteran or only being asked to keep the ball moving for established stars. Thomas doesn’t really pass the ball at all, but in his role as a scorer his first four games could scarcely have been more impressive.

1994-born centre Mam Jaiteh may be heading the other way next summer, as his draft stock, which began to be publicly traded over a year ago, continues to be monitored. He’s at the cliched ‘still learning the game’ stage of big-man development and DraftExpress still projects him to be taken in the mid-late second round in 2014, so a couple more years of seasoning over here looks likely.

Which is great for fans of huge dunks, especially on grouchy old Lithuanian guys. Who knows, maybe if he sticks around long enough to do more things like his jam on Darius Lavrinovic last week, Euroleague will include it in the official game highlights or the week’s top 10 plays. In the absence of video, take it from me, and the 4,500 Parisians who were there in person - this jam was pure filth. It was reminiscent of Baron on AK (any excuse for that link), pausing for a millisecond at the very arc of his jump to coil up enough kinetic energy to explode on poor, poor Darius. Hopefully this grainy, Zapruder-esque screenshot will only add to the mystique:

Jaiteh Detonates on Darius

Defense and Transition

Even though they boast the fourth best defensive rating in the league, at 97.0, they didn’t deal well with Barcelona’s constant pick and roll offense, failing to make quick and accurate rotations, which led to easy buckets in the first half and missed open shots in the fourth quarter as the game fell away.

That’s not to say Nanterre weren’t busting their culs on that end of the floor, but against a team that knows how to move the ball, they over-committed on screens and couldn’t recover. Budivelnik’s offense was much more straightforward to deal with, with more simple dribble-drives and post-ups, at least in the first half. The big man rotation of Traore, Daniels, Passave, Thomas and Jaiteh was more than capable of playing one-on-one defense which also led to numerous transition opportunities, although they actually play at the second-slowest pace in the competition. It remains to be seen whether as a team they can cope with offenses which move the ball better, which would be pretty much every other team they’ll play.

Transition opportunities are created by the defense ending an offensive possession by the other team, and while Nanterre plays slow overall, they created a lot of transition opportunities in their two wins. However, this seems like as much a note of caution as a positive, as the guards gambled for steals against a particularly shaky and ineffective Budivelnik. It remains to be seen how sustainable that will be in the long run.

What next?

This Thursday they travel to Ülker Arena to take on Fenerbahçe, which is probably the most unenviable task in European basketball right now. So even if they don’t come away with a win, that doesn’t mean they can’t pick up more W’s between now and Week Ten. The problem in grabbing that fourth spot is that unless they unleash a miraculous beating on Partizan, that 30 point defeat in Week Two means they have to finish one win better than the Serbians. That could be tricky, but they already have the head start and the Halle Carpentier Arena isn’t easy, as CSKA almost found out to their cost in Week One.

It’s incredible that a team which finished 8th in the French league last season and shocked everyone by winning the playoff tournament could carry that momentum into the Euroleague and even win a couple of games, let alone beat Barcelona in their own building. Their attendances have been excellent, compared with some A-licensed teams, almost filling their cosy, old-fashioned barn, and there’s something of a mid-major NCAA Tournament team to this club.They have done it with excellent recruiting of American players and a style that relentlessly seeks to create high percentage shots, even at the cost of overall efficiency.

Looking at the games ahead, Nanterre will start all of them, except perhaps in Kiev, as underdogs, but that’s just how they came into this tournament, and probably just how they like it.