At long last, the 2017/18 EuroLeague season tipped off last Thursday, which means we can finally get to talking about what has happened, not what might happen. So many questions, and now maybe at least the suggestion of some answers.
Many teams were showing off their new signings, but three performances caught the eye. Former NBA lottery pick Thomas Robinson at Khimki Moscow, new Maccabi Tel Aviv playmaker Pierre Jackson and CSKA Moscow’s flashy new toy Will Clyburn.
Since being picked number 5 in the 2012 NBA Draft, Thomas Robinson has been passed around six NBA teams. Far from the ideal development scenario, but Robinson had gone past the point of being a diamond-in-the-rough prospect, tarnished with the often indelible label of damaged goods. Nobody with this resumé chooses to dust off their passport and head overseas, but the early signs at Khimki are all pretty promising.
Robinson is a destructive athlete for Europe, but the biggest doubt with any first-timer on the continent is whether they’ll be able to adapt in style to the rhythms and structure of the game over here, particularly on a squad with some ball dominating guards and wings in Alexey Shved, Charles Jenkins and James Anderson.
The former King/Rocket/TrailBlazer/76er/Net/Laker finished with 16 points, 6 rebounds in a shade over 15 minutes, spelling starting big Malcolm Thomas in the second quarter, returning midway through the third and finishing most of the game as Khimki came from behind to grab an impressive 75-70 win.
The first thing that was noticeable about Robinson on the offensive end was his skilled face-up game, as the first clips in the video show. Given the ball around the elbow, he showed off different ways to score, slipping a screen then elevating right at Will Thomas for the basket plus foul, and flashing a jump shot that will be difficult to block, with his 7’3″ wingspan. It should be said, he never shot very well from mid-range in the NBA, so this should be something to watch over a longer period, but the form looks good to me.
He also drew fouls on the drive and his physical power and athleticism was too much even for strong defenders like Thomas and Bojan Dubljevic. He wasn’t flawless with the ball, airballing a tough fadeaway when Dubljevic cut off his angle to the rim, and losing his handle on another drive, but overall those were shots that coach Georgios Bartzokas is going to be OK with him taking, given the results.
His quickness of movement for such a physically imposing big was evident as he darted across the lane to grab a missed free throw from the opposite side and tossed in a silky turnaround hook to finish - most players in Europe with this kind of body are slower, more ground-bound and heavy-limbed in their movement - Robinson could be a real problem with his combination of size and speed.
There were also signs that he could be even more singularly dangerous in Europe as a big running in the open floor, as he picked up a loose ball, put Aaron Doornekamp on his ass with a spin move and took off at speed. Valencia’s transition defense was solid and the possession fizzled out but the thought of Robinson grabbing-and-going at breakneck speed should be frightening for EuroLeague defenders.
Defensively the early signs are pretty cool too. He did occasionally space out on who he was supposed to pick up running back on defense and got stuck guarding nobody in particular once or twice, but overall there was more good than bad. He was on the floor as Khimki held Valencia to back to back 24 second violations at the end of the third quarter, sliding and cutting off penetration, forcing the ball around the arc to nowhere, and used his quick hands to poke the ball away from Erick Green, something a lot of guards would struggle to do.
Bartzokas leaned heavily on switching defense using versatile bigs like Anthony Randolph and Chris Singleton in his Final Four run with Lokomotiv Kuban. He followed this strategy with Malcolm Thomas when he was on the floor, but Valencia did a smooth job of finding and punishing the mismatch, particularly with Tibor Pleiss. Robinson didn’t switch out onto guards in this game, but with his quick feet and hands, and instincts for deflecting passes, you get the feeling it’s something he has in his locker.
Finally, his post defense on a relative bruiser like Dubljevic was solid in the literal sense, the burly Montengrin bouncing off him. The high-fives with Shved could do with some work, but there’s time for that…
It’s a long season and a long winter in Moscow, so it remains to be seen whether Robinson is a sure thing to succeed in the long run, but don’t forget what Bartzokas managed to do with another NBA misfit whose career was revitalised under his watch, the aforementioned Randolph, now earning millions at Real Madrid and a EuroBasket champion no less.
I’m probably guilty of underestimating Khimki, on this evidence, albeit only one game. Malcolm Thomas hit 2-of-4 three-pointers, something he only really started trying in the zero-consequence (and zero defense) laboratory of the Chinese league at a 37% clip, but if he can keep doing that and T-Rob carries this momentum, they’ll be a tough out.
Will Clyburn and the Lineup of Death
No, not a rejected Harry Potter spin-off title, but a possible new role to mix things up for a team in need of a refresh after another failed Final Four run last season.
Clyburn did spend time as a small ball power forward for Darüşşafaka last season, using his speed and agility to burn slower defenders, and that was where he excelled in his first EuroLeague game with CSKA Moscow. He began on the wing with Andrey Vorontsevich alongside him at the four, began shifting up a spot in the first half and played a large chunk of the second with Sergio Rodriguez, Nando De Colo, either Leo Westermann or Nikita Kurbanov and either Kyle Hines or Othello Hunter in an undersized five-man group that could be considered, if you really wanted to, a kind of ‘Death Lineup’ of the kind pioneered in Europe and appropriated by the Golden State Warriors.
I was initially a little skeptical about Clyburn’s addition on the wing for CSKA, in a team with so many talented players I worried about his potential to be a ball-stopper and his 28.9% three-point shooting, on a Daçka team where one or two passes usually signalled time to fire up a pull up jumper or go one-on-one. He went 2-for-2 from deep against Milano, both spot up attempts, and while one game is all that is, if he can cut down on the iso pull-up threes and take advantage of the open looks that Rodriguez, Westermann and De Colo should get him, that number should rise.
Clyburn finished with 15 points on 3-of-7 inside the arc, but his biggest impact was on the defensive end. He showed how useful he could be guarding ball screens and cutting off penetration, whilst more than holding his own in the post if that’s where opponents tried to take advantage of a supposed mismatch.
In the clips above he bodies up Cory Jefferson (former NBA big man, who has 5cm on him) in the post, sticks with Jordan Theodore all the way from the arc to the rim, pokes the ball away from Vlad Micov for a fast break layup and finally works as part of CSKA’s switch everything defense and again just about covers Theodore’s drive, forcing a miss.
It’s true that Milano presented a favourable matchup against which to go small, with a combo forward in Micov on the wing and mainly Amath M’Baye at four, not the biggest opponents CSKA will face, and it helps to have Hines and Kurbanov in the defensive utility belt to deploy alongside him. I’m still not fully won over with Clyburn for CSKA as a wing - I’ve climbed this hill, I might as well stick around, if not actually die on it! But in this role, playing 37 gutsy minutes in a come-from behind road victory against an offense that was humming early on, his EuroLeague debut for CSKA could scarcely have gone much better.
I highlighted new Maccabi Tel Aviv guard Pierre Jackson in our season preview on (extra) Medium as one to watch from the G-League to EuroLeague crop, and he delivered in Round One, picking up the Weekly MVP award for his 27 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists and 41 ranking as the Israeli team shook off the horrible memories of last season with an 88-71 win on the road in Bamberg.
Jackson dropped 14 points in the final quarter, including four pull up threes, as the yellow team ran away with a game that had been close to that point, but that’s not what impressed me the most about his performance.
He had the reputation of a no-conscience gunner, capable of hitting ridiculous shots, but did he have the mentality and temperament to be the lead guard on a EuroLeague team? Heck, could he stick around longer than seven games?
It looks like this Pierre Jackson is a far more mature, accomplished basketball player than the one who flashed in and out of Fenerbahçe and Cedevita Zagreb. He passed cleverly out of high hedges and double teams, always finding the angle to set up the roll man for a finish or keep the ball moving, and penetrated with ease to drop the rock into the hands of a rolling big.
Artsiom Parakhouski and Alex Tyus are going to have so many dunks and layups in this partnership, on the evidence of this game, which bodes super well for two powerful finishers who love to hoover up scraps around the rim. Look for a bunch of ‘Kobe assists’ as Jackson draws help at the rim - even if he misses, there should be a whole load of freebies as the door is left open. It’s almost like, wait for it… this Maccabi team has been put together as a cohesive whole!
Defensively, of course there will be plenty of guard post-ups on a 1.80m guy, and Hickman got some results that way early on, but with Jackson’s ability to spread the ball around and bury shots, that’s something Maccabi will just have to live with.
Along with - most notably - all action guard John DiBartolomeo, who looks like he should be coming out of the huddle repeating “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts’ Can’t Lose!” this Maccabi team was fun to watch and looked like they enjoy playing with each other, which is already more than you could say about last year’s omnishambles. Good times ahead? We’ll see, but this was a pretty great start.