Basketball Champions League: Intriguing title contenders and most interesting players to watch

2021-10-05 07:00
Orazio Cauchi and Giorgos Kyriakidis, Staff Writers
Credit: AFP, USA TODAY Sports - Scanpix / | BasketNews illustration/E.Alšauskas
Credit AFP, USA TODAY Sports - Scanpix / | BasketNews illustration/E.Alšauskas

After the start of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, the FIBA Basketball Champions League is also underway, and it’s time to look at the most interesting players to watch in the competition.

For the upcoming Champions League season, BasketNews' Orazio Cauchi and Giorgos Kyriakidis prepared the list of the most exciting players to watch and teams that will be the main contenders and fight for the title.

As always, the one that follows it’s a list of the most exciting players to watch and not necessarily ‘the best in the competition, and they’re in no particular order.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (SF/PF, Besiktas)

One of the most recent additions to the Basketball Champions League pool of players is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The former Brooklyn Nets forward is a name that came out as a surprise when Besiktas announced him.

A very capable defensive-minded wing, Hollis-Jefferson also has the potential to become a very effective player in Europe.

He’s not a superb scoring option, that’s not his style, but he can provide in many different ways: he’s a good slasher, he can set very solid screens for his teammates, and he can make the occasional three-pointer.

But defense is the thing that separates him from the rest of the pack. He can switch on every player, he has quick feet and good physicality.

In the past two seasons in the NBA, he didn’t find much space, mostly because he’s not a very reliable three-point shooter, so this move to Europe could help him improve his chances of finding a way back to the USA.

His best season with the Nets was in 2017-2018 when he averaged 14 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game during the regular season.

Sean Kilpatrick (PG/SG, Hapoel Jerusalem)

After a season spent between Turkey and Spain, Sean Kilpatrick was among the additions made by Hapoel Jerusalem in an impressive spending spree that brought to the team also Thon Maker and Jalen Adams.

Kilpatrick is a player that can dominate in the Champions League, he has always been a reliable option in the backcourt, showing great scoring skills.

Kilpatrick has both NBA (he played with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in Brooklyn) and Euroleague experience, so his addition to the BCL is kind of a luxury move. Expect him to be among the best scorers of the competition. 

Bonzie Colson (SF, Pinar Karsiyaka)

The reigning MVP of the Champions League is still here, and this was probably one of the biggest surprises of the summer.

After his fantastic season with Strasbourg, I was sure that Bonzie Colson was going to get a contract in the EuroLeague, but that didn’t happen.

He also received interest from the NBA, but in the end, he signed for Pinar in Turkey and will be one of the main forces of the Champions League.

He’s one of the best shooting wings in Europe and has solid rebounding skills too. On the defensive side, he definitely has room to improve.

With Pinar, he has already shown some of his qualities in the Turkish League, scoring 41 points against Bahcesehir. 

Melo Trimble (PG, Galatasaray)

After a strong season in Spain with Fuenlabrada, point guard Melo Trimble has joined Galatasaray this summer.

The Maryland alumn is in his second season in Europe after spending a couple of years between Australia and Puerto Rico. Primarily a scoring point guard, Trimble is very effective as a scorer.

He has improved constantly in the past few seasons and hasn’t suffered the move from ‘minor leagues’ to the bigger ones in Europe.

Trimble is definitely going to be among the best scorers of the competition, and in the first few games in the Turkish League has already averaged some pretty good numbers.

James Blackmon (SG, Pinar Karsiyaka)

Another talented scoring guard who’ll probably be among the best scorers of the competition.

James Blackmon signed with Pinar Karsiyaka over the summer after spending last season with Besiktas. Blackmon is an excellent three-point shooter and can score in many different ways, both in spot-up situations and off the dribble.

He’s able to create separation from his defender often and can go all the way to the basket.

Defensively he’s not a superb player, but with the amount of offensive talent that he has, it’s hard not to be interested in a player like him. With Colson on the same roster, they might become one of the most difficult backcourts to handle for the Champions League’s opponents. 

Jalen Adams (SG, Hapoel Jerusalem)

Jalen Adams is another very talented scoring guard that we’ll be able to watch in this year’s edition of the Basketball Champions League. He briefly played in France last season, averaging more than 20 points per game, before moving back to the USA to play in the G League.

Adams is a really dangerous offensive weapon, he can score in many different ways, he’s a good slasher and also has a nice athleticism.

Hapoel Jerusalem is a team filled with individual talent, and finding the right chemistry between all these guys won’t be easy, but Adams will definitely be one of the players you should keep an eye on. 

Troy Caupain (PG, Darussafaka)

After an outstanding rookie season in Europe with Udine in the Italian second division, Caupain went to the NBA to sign a two-way contract with the Orlando Magic.

After that experience, he couldn’t find more opportunities in the League and went back to Europe. Last season he played in Germany with Ratiopharm Ulm, averaging 14 points, 4.3 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting 43% from three-point.

Caupain has a solid frame for his size and can strongly finish around the rim.

He has a good basketball IQ and solid passing skills. After proving his value in Germany, it is now clear that Caupain is a player that can be trusted with responsibilities and pressure. 

Thon Maker (C, Hapoel Jerusalem)

Here we are again talking about another player that was part of the Hapoel Jerusalem recruiting process this summer.

Coming out of high school, Maker had a lot of hype around him. His physical tools and verticality made him an exciting prospect for the NBA teams.

He was selected by the Bucks with the 10th pick overall in the 2016 NBA draft but failed to live up to the expectations.

Having skipped college, Maker arrived in the NBA as a very raw prospect and never really improved during his tenure with the Bucks. He spent another couple of seasons in the League between Detroit and Cleveland, but the situation didn’t change much.

Maker is still only 24-year-old, and an experience in Europe might prove useful for his game.

People around Hapoel haven’t been particularly impressed by Maker so far, and there have been rumblings about a potential early departure of the player from the team, sources told Basketnews.

Despite these issues, it’ll remain interesting to watch a player like Maker making his European debut in the Champions League.

Tyson Carter (PG, Lavrio)

Carter was one of the biggest surprises of last season. With Greek side Lavrio, he reached the finals of the Greek League and was one of the best players in the League.

A very athletic guard with a quick first step, Carter is also a relentless defensive player, he puts a lot of pressure on the ball and has quick feet to follow his opponents.

His ability to read the offense still needs some polishing, but we’re talking about an exciting prospect, even for Euroleague clubs. This season might represent his consecration at this level.

D'Angelo Harrison (SG, Prometey)

After a spectacular season in Italy with Happy Casa Brindisi, Harrison was attracted by a big offer from the Ukrainian side Prometey.

The team advanced to the main table of the Champions League through the qualification rounds, and during those three games, Harrison was already a decisive factor. He averaged 23 points per game while shooting 45% from three-point.

He was unstoppable offensively, just like he was in most of last season with Brindisi.

The Ukrainian team seems very ambitious and made some other intriguing additions like Miro Bilan, who also played in Italy last season. Keep his name among the list of the candidates for the scoring title of the competition.

Possible contenders for the BCL trophy

The sixth version of the FIBA Basketball Champions League looks like one of the strongest ever, with many teams vying for the Final Four and the title.

This season’s favorites range from traditional powerhouses (Tenerife, Hapoel Jerusalem) to late bloomers (Karsiyaka) and competition newcomers (Prometey).

All of them are stacked in terms of roster and quality, but do they have what it takes to go all the way? Let’s find out!

Pinar Karsiayaka (Turkey)

Credit FIBA Media

Karsiyaka finished runners-up last season and are viewed as one of the title contenders for the current campaign.

The Turkish club made a splash in the offseason by signing Bonzie Colson from SIG Strasbourg, who was last season’s MVP and leading scorer.

No matter how early it is, the former Milwaukee Bucks forward has already shown spurts of his great scoring ability.

The club also brought in James Blackmon, Akil Mitchell, and most recently, Michael Roll. The experienced guard-forward, who last played for Armani Milan, is coming off a summer where he won a gold medal with Tunisia at the FIBA AfroBasket 2021.

The team from Smyrna added significant rotation pieces in domestic players such as Can Korkmaz and Berkan Durmaz while keeping Tony Taylor and Amath M’Baye. On the other hand, Raymar Morgan, DJ Kennedy, and Sek Henry are gone.

Ufuk Sarica will be running the show once more as the most successful coach in the club’s history, the one who led it to the Turkish League title in 2015.

Back then, Karsiyaka had to beat the likes of Anadolu Efes and Fenerbahce to get to the top. Now, having last years’ experience, the task looks more than feasible.

Their group is as hard as it gets, including Hapoel Jerusalem, Manresa, and Stal Ostrow Wielkopolski, but the 2021 finalists start on the pole in this year’s race.

Hapoel Jerusalem (Israel)

Credit FIBA Media

A perennial title contender, Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem knows how to attract some of the best talents in the BCL every year.

However, underperforming has become second nature to them in recent years. Every season they have produced a team capable of winning the title, but something’s always missing down the stretch.

This time around, the roster is as good as ever. After bringing in the 2020 BCL Coach of the Year Oren Amiel, they recruited 24-year-old seven-footer Thon Maker, who spent five seasons in the NBA with the Bucks, the Pistons, and the Cavaliers.

The NBA talent in Jerusalem doesn’t stop here. Former No.1 draft pick Anthony Bennett also came along, even if no one can be quite sure of how long he’s going to be around.

Sean Kilpatrick brings experience and scoring from both sides of the ocean, having been acclimated to the European basketball setting.

The list of new signings includes Jalen Adams, Retin Obasohan, who reunites with Amiel, Willy Workman, and Kaiser Gates - a player who excelled in the G League as a dunker and sharpshooter.

It is almost certainly the most stacked roster in the BCL this season. Even if everything falls apart (again), they still look like the most fun team to watch.

Lenovo Tenerife (Spain)

Credit FIBA Media

In contrast to the Hapoel Jerusalem fanfare, Tenerife has always been a dead-serious squad. With coach Txus Vidorreta at the helm, they have got a rock-solid foundation from last year.

The last season’s core is joined by Canadian scoring machine Kyle Wiltjer who will most definitely be happy to play the pick-and-pop with Marcelinho Huertas.

Spanish national team wing Joan Sastre is also coming in, and Swedish marksman Tobias Borg, back for another stint.

Sean Smith, son of the legendary former Real Madrid forward Mike Smith, came in from Leb Oro and could be one of the most intriguing signings of the BCL season.

The question that Vidorreta, arguably the best coach of the first five BCL seasons, has to solve is how the experience of Shermadini and Huertas will not look outdated.

For starters, the big man from Georgia is out six weeks with a back injury, so Tenerife signed another quality big man, Julian Gamble, to fill in. Gamble left Italy with a championship trophy, and he will certainly want to leave a similar legacy in the Canary Islands.

San Pablo Burgos (Spain)

Credit FIBA Media

Last season, they became the first team to win back-to-back titles in the BCL. Now, they will be gunning for the third straight trophy with new faces both on and off the court.

Zan Tabak will make his debut as the head coach since Joan Penarroya has left the club. Tabak, 51, has won both the NBA League with the Houston Rockets and the European Cup with Jugoplastika Split as a player and arrived at the defending champions after two coaching seasons with Stelmet Zielona Gora.

Burgos only has six returning players from last season (Alex Renfroe, Vitor Benite, Xavi Rabaseda, Dejan Kravic, Maksim Salash, and Kareem Queeley). However, they signed multiple players who will be key contributors this season.

Those newcomers include Kristian Kullamae, Aleksej Nikolic, Tyrus McGee, Dani Diez, Marc Garcia, Steve Zack, and Suleiman Braimoh.

So far, Burgos’s start in the season has been full of ups and downs: a 1-2 record in Spain, plus a very tough win against Besiktas Istanbul on the BCL opening night.

Their incredible fan following is a solid weapon to be reckoned with when titles or qualifications will be at stake, but winning the trophy for a third time on the trot requires more than that.

Despite McGee and Braimoh being exceptional players and scorers for this level, other newcomers must step up big-time when the time comes for things to fall into place.

Prometey (Ukraine)

Credit FIBA Media

If Hapoel Jerusalem was the first team to watch on our list, the Ukrainian newcomers Prometey seem to be promising a lot of action.

To begin with, not even in their wildest predictions could Prometey fans have expected their club to put together a free agency like this.

It started with recruiting Ronen Ginzburg, the coach responsible for laying the foundations underneath the success of Nymburk and the Czech national team.

Then followed the first wave of summer signings. D’Angelo Harrison looked set for a chance at an NBA training camp, and then all of a sudden, he was joining DJ Stephens, Sean Evans, Chris Dowe, and Oleksandr Lypovyy to power Prometey through the BCL Qualifiers held in Sofia, Bulgaria.

As soon as the access to the group phase was secured, the Ukrainian side laid all the cards on the table, going for the likes of Miro Bilan, DJ Kennedy, and Ukraine national team point guard Olexandr Mishula.

Overall, they look like the strongest squad ever seen on a BCL rookie team. In Brindisi last season, Harrison was given the keys to the offense by Frank Vitucci, and it paid off. If the American scorer manages to repeat last season, expect Prometey to do wonders.

Fans will enjoy DJ Stephens’s dunk sessions, as the former NBA player has already shown some flashes of his athletic ability.

Their BCL group also includes Lenovo Tenerife, Banco di Sardegna Sassari, and MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg, but only three of those four should be in the Round of 16.

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