There is a uniquely American syndrome in international sports handicapping that I like to call “counting on fingers and toes.”
“Well, funny you should ask that Ray, because I’ve got a prediction for you. Japan only has 2 Premier League players, while Qatar has 0 Premier League players in this match, so I expect the final score to be Japan 2, Qatar 0.”
I use a soccer example – not a basketball example – to illustrate the absurdity. We all know that just because footballers hail from the English Premier League doesn’t mean they’re going to beat a mean unit-of-11 from a small country’s domestic ranks. Counting-up how many “major league” athletes are suiting up for a team in any sport and making predictions solely based on that is one of the most self-defeating and stupid things any handicapper can do, especially in The Beautiful Game.
That simple maxim hasn’t sunk-in for American fans of other sports. Most online previews of the upcoming FIBA World Cup in August and September will rank teams based on the number of NBA players.
The bloggers won’t come right out and say they’re doing that, of course, but watch how the articles begin to take on a “math” quality once players from leagues other than the NBA start to creep into the scroll. “I don’t hold out much hope for Transylvania,” so-called experts will write about given random European, Asian and South American nations taking part in the World Cup. “There are only 2 NBA ballers on the roster and I hear at least 1 of them has an exposure-to-sunlight problem.”
Roundballs and hoops do not care on which continent a cager plies his professional trade – gravity remains indifferent. Counting NBA players on fingers-and-toes is what hack gamblers will do prior to the tournament. The smart shark’s mission is to beat the betting public on the basketball court.
When it comes to FIBA World Cup 2019 wagers, that process begins with a sharper view of EuroLeague.
Comparing the EuroLeague to the NBA
Since we’re getting close to Independence Day, I’ll paraphrase a line from Thomas Jefferson.
Whenever it is necessary to handicap major-league professionals against pros from rival leagues overseas, a decent respect for the opinions of bookmakers requires that one should declare her reasons for why NBA players are superior on the court. Not to simply say that the NBA talent is always better.
I recently had an amusing exchange with podcaster on YouTube who was reviewing Team Finland’s gold-medal triumph over Canada on the hockey rink in May.
Finland had beaten a medal-round murderer’s row of Sweden, Russia, and Canada, 3 rosters filled to the brink with veteran All-Stars and rookie phenoms from the NHL. More significantly, the country won a World Championship without a single active NHL player on the roster.
The podcaster acknowledged that Finland had played very well and deserved to win. However, he refused to even discuss in the comment section whether the result proved anything about the competitive skills of “B-league” athletes from Europe who do not earn or desire contracts to play in America.
“All of the NHL skaters are better,” he said dismissively. “I don’t think there’s much debate about that.”
Finland had just out-scored 3 teams of nothing but “better” players 9 to 5, giving up 0 goals to a “PlayStation” roster from Russia in the process. But he’s unfortunately right that nobody in North America is debating the point, preferring to say that the Finns “had heart” and overcome a crushing 4-deep disadvantage at every position with hard work and inspiration.
Yeah, just like how a junior municipal hockey team from Chicago beat national U20 squads from Russia and elsewhere in D2: The Mighty Ducks. Heart. It was all about heart.
(Umm, also, Iceland really just isn’t that good at hockey.)
My blinders-wearing YouTube debate partner’s mistake was the same as overconfident gamblers made on Team USA basketball headed into the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. The United States was beaten and eliminated by an Argentine squad on which only Manu Ginóbili was an established NBA commodity.
Since state-side viewers are taught to think of all non-NBA/NHL pros as “prospects” who “never made it,” too many bettors expected a rout whenever a EuroLeague cager stepped onto the court across from Carmelo Anthony and company.
Too late, they each realized that the hierarchies of talent-distribution in sports are not so simple. A 3rd-string QB from Alabama can be out-played consistently by a 1st-string QB from BYU.
And an American basketball team led by NBA superstars can get out-played by a squad largely from Europe or even the Americas. That was proven in Athens.
NBA vs EuroLeague: How the Talent Levels Actually Stand
The FIBA World Cup can be deceptive for bettors because the NBA is so dominant on the worldwide stage. The National Basketball Association, after all, is taking young players out of college at a more delicate age than ever before, giving the league the distinction of housing virtually all of the best players in North America and beyond.
Does the NFL house 99% of the best football players? Absolutely not. Maybe 85% or 90%. The rest are always playing in college, usually in the Power-5 or for a great head coach in the Group-of-5.
Players like Yao Ming who dominate in Asia or Europe should always tend to make pretty good NBA ballers. Conversely, any decent starter from the NBA should be able to go to EuroLeague and become a top scorer, though it doesn’t always work out that way because a shooter who has lost his touch is still unable to drain 3-pointers and inside jump-shots even when guarded by smaller athletes.
The question isn’t whether Finland’s triumph in ice hockey could be repeated by a World Cup basketball team with nada NBA players in 2019. That won’t happen. The question is whether a country sporting at least 4-6 excellent NBA players and a group of bench players from EuroLeague (or another league) can compete for a gold medal against teams with NBA talent in reserve roles.
It’s harder to come to the conclusion that no EuroLeague ballers could flourish as bench options in the NBA. The respected European league is something of a hybrid, a “Champions League” if you will, that extends well beyond national borders with its 16 clubs. Yet it still offers big, fast, skillful talent from across the pond the opportunity to trade a potential NBA “bubble” career for stardom at home.
That means that while the worst starter in the Association could probably take most of the stars from EuroLeague in a 1-on-1 playground scenario, the best Euro players are probably good enough to out-score the worst bench guys in the NBA in a 5-on-5 scenario.
Finally, the best up-and-coming prospects – actual prospects – in EuroLeague are often left there by NBA general managers beyond the point at which they can begin to contribute in America. The idea is that more seasons of liberal court-time against slightly less-imposing defenders in the paint is a good way for an overseas draft pick to gain experience and skills, stay healthy, and eventually arrive in the United States (or Canada) as a real asset for his NBA club.
How do the top talents in EuroLeague stack up to average North American cagers? Let’s look at a couple of case studies.
The guard from Serbia who plays for Anadolu Efes of EuroLeague is a great example to start with, not just because of his obvious talent but because of his youth. The 25-year-old cager is likely bound for the NBA at some point soon as a draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers. He has starred in the postseason in ’19.
Micic’s shooting touch could come in handy if he plays a significant role for Serbia in the World Cup. It’s definitely not a “minus” entry in your handicapping notes unless he happens to go up against a powerful starting-5 of NBA All-Stars…some of which are sitting out the tournament anyway.
But at the same time, we need to look at some veterans who have played in the NBA and now play in the modern EuroLeague. That’s the only way to get a feel for how to interpret each unfamiliar FIBA athlete’s stats headed into the showdown.
Jeffrey Taylor is an example of how a player who ought to excel against lesser competition in Europe has actually had just as much trouble scoring against the team-oriented and stubborn defenses of EuroLeague. The Vanderbilt product hails from Sweden but did not fly home immediately after graduating in Nashville, signing to play with the Charlotte Bobcats instead.
Taylor shot well and sank free throws consistently in a 77-game debut in 2012-13, but was soon relegated to full-time bench duty. Like many bench players, he was tempted to try to find a starting role for a premier club in Europe as an alternative to the ham-and-egger scenario of the NBA.
It hasn’t happened, or at least Taylor has failed to sink shots with any more regularity for Real Madrid. Coaches granted him 20+ minutes per game last season, and he responded with mediocre scoring stats and shooting %s from inside and outside of the 3-point line.
Is it starting to turn around in 2019? Taylor has honed his defensive skills in EuroLeague, a major positive. But his aggression on offense suddenly turned up a notch in the postseason this spring.
— EuroLeague (@EuroLeague) April 17, 2019
There’s an important rule of thumb when scouting players from overseas – don’t disregard their successes, but don’t assume their weaknesses will go away on a FIBA court.
Players do often buckle-down and play harder when representing their flag. But if injuries force Argentina to go deep into its reserve roster at some point during the World Cup 2019, a player like Facundo Campazzo might be that non-NBA liability who everyone looks to bet against.
It is said that Campazzo can “kill both teams on the court” with his unpredictable and streaky style. The point guard is averaging double-digit PPG for Real Madrid, but his team’s bid at the 2012 Summer Olympics fell short as the Argentines finished out of the medals. Argentina went on to go a mediocre 3-2 without his presence 4 years later.
Confidence is the most important element a EuroLeague player can bring to the bench for a championship FIBA team. To overcome the giants and speedsters of the NBA a player must first believe he can.
But as with recent FIFA competition, the Argentines are short on hope and belief in their native country these days…and the nation’s World Cup basketball title bid will hinge on its American club stars.