By: Sam Meyerkopf /@euro_adventures

The Euroleague is starting.  Maybe my favorite four words in sports.  Yes this isn’t exactly the regular season opener, but two of these teams will be helping to tip that off in just a couple weeks.  For now, we must enjoy some loosely practiced, heavily changed, and hopeful squads as they take aim at a treasured qualifying spot in the Euroleague for this season.  Here are predictions for the teams that will be joining us in the EL and 5 of the most important players sliding around the court this weekend.

Last year Spirou Basket and BC Khimki won these qualifying rounds but neither team advanced past the Euroleague Regular Season.

Most Important Players in the Qualifying Round

1. Jonas Valanciunas, Lietuvos Rytas

Could the hype train be any bigger at this point? Frankly, yes, yes it could.  Jonas has done nothing but go above and beyond expectations this past year.  Lets look through his accomplishments in these last 12 months:

  • Highest per minute rebounding rate in the Euroleague.
  • 2011 FIBA U-19 World Championship MVP and Gold Medalist.  Side Note: Only player ever to win MVP and gold medal in every FIBA youth tournament.
  • Became best interior presence for Lithuania at Eurobasket 2011.

Not too bad of a resume at 19 years old.  The task this week, make the Euroleague.  Rytas is playing at home for a chance to play in Europe’s best league, and Jonas will be the largest reason they do or don’t make it.  He has the ability to attack the paint with strong drives and 2nd chance effort rebounds, but will he be ready?  He didn’t play in one, but two large international competitions this summer.  His legs may be a tired and his mind could use some rest, but the one thing young Jonas has going for him is his enthusiasm.  If he brings that same fire, passion, and hard-nosed play that earned him praise all summer, Rytas will be a contender to play in Group C this year.  If he doesn’t bring those Jonas type elements from being a little too worn our, Rytas will have to scramble to make a lot of changes in just a few days.

2. Mickael Gelabale, Spirou Basket

We are yet to know which Gelabale is going to show up for 3 days in Charleroi.  The absolute beast on the wings we’ve seen in the French League in the past or the one that couldn’t move well enough at the end of EuroBasket to be effective?  If healthy, Gelabale could be the extra topping that pushes the home squad into the threshold of the great Euroleague.  Going up against potentially Alba Berlin in the semis and Khimki in the finals means Spirou is going to have to bring a whole lot of scoring.  We already know team veterans Demont Mallet and Andre Riddick can step up to the challenge, but a Gelabale full of vitamins and rest can carry the extra scoring load needed to hang with those two foes.  The teams that bring back most of their rotation players from last year will have the biggest impact.  With these games being so early in the season, teams have had few chances to establish chemistry among the new and returning players.  Spirou brings back a lot of good parts, they just need that new turbo installed named Gelabale to kick the team into a different gear.

3. Pape Sy, BCM Gravelines

Is Pape Sy good at basketball?  Is he a lefty or a righty?  Shooter or slasher?  Ball handler or prefers to come off of picks?  These are things we’ll find out this Thursday when Pape Sy takes the court for his new team, BCM Gravelines.  After spending a season giving dap to Josh Smith, learning English swear words, and helping Larry Drew understand what an offensive set is, Sy needs to get a little more exposure actually playing basketball.  Playing 3 years already in the French League is a plus, but Pape didn’t get off the bench a whole lot.  He ran a little bit in the D-League, but I ran some pickup basketball last year too and I didn’t get a whole lot better.  Sy’s an NBA draft pick who we’ve only seen glimpses of, but never consistent action.  He’s the ultimate wild card here and someone that could swing the whole qualification tournament for Gravelines.

4. Keith Langford, BC Khimki

Most underappreciated scorer in Europe?  Checked, circled, highlighted, underlined, bolded, and the coolest damn font any Microsoft Word program could find.  Langford is the real deal and was having an All-Euroleague type regular season before Khimki was unable to qualify for the Top 16.  With Timofey Mozgov back on board after tearing down every American rim and the core of the Khimki team back, they have a really strong chance to advance.  Langford should be highly motivated, as another really successful Euroleague campaign should get him any contract he wants next summer.

5. Sandis Valters, VEF Riga

The wily veteran and homegrown product will be thirsty as ever for a change to put Riga in the Euroleague for the first time.  Long has Latvia been the stepchild to neighbor and perennial basketball power Lithuania.  If Rytas loses in it’s qualifying round, and Riga wins out, Lithuania and Latvia will have the same amount of teams in the Euroleague.  Who would of thunk it?

Valters has won 7 Latvian League titles and been a staple in Latvian basketball for a while.  He’s the guy the young players on the team are going to look to when their lead starts to slip or when a big shot is needed late in the game.  Stand up for not only yourself, not only your team, but for your country Sandis.  It’s a shame they didn’t keep you close to home in the Vilnius bracket for a potential Rytas vs. Riga Qualifying Final.  I guess a man can only dream so much.