Serbia and Turkey dominate 2009 Eurobasket qualifying
European nations just ended an intense three weeks of qualifying for Eurobasket 2009 with Serbia and Turkey dominating the usual powerful Italian and French squads, writes Ian Whittell.
International basketball and NBA players were not limited to the Beijing Olympics this summer.
European nations have just ended an intense three weeks of group play that determined places for the European finals of Eurobasket, which takes place in Poland in September 2009.
With eight nations -- participants from Beijing, plus host Poland -- already guaranteed places, 17 countries played for seven spots, with one place available next summer in a last-chance play-in.
And, while Beijing's basketball tournament might ultimately have been fairly predictable (U.S. won the gold, reigning world champion Spain won silver), the same could not be said of Eurobasket qualifying.
Luol Deng's Great Britain, a national team formed in only 2006 following London's successful 2012 Olympic bid, was the first team through after clinching Group D on Wednesday.
Latvia, featuring Andris Biedrins, was among a number of unlikely countries to advance, including Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Meanwhile, traditional Euro powerhouses France and Italy surprisingly missed out on automatic qualification and must get through next summer's play-in tournament to advance, with one certain to miss out.
And, in the new global basketball marketplace, every group thrust forward story lines with NBA significance.
The one group containing five teams was always likely to contain more twists and turns than the other, four-team groups.
As expected, Serbia dominated, and Italy's slump opened the door for another unexpected qualifier, Bulgaria, and saw newly promoted Finland advance to next summer's play-in event.
Nenad Krstic, Serbia: Krstic suffered through a 2007-08 season to forget with injuries and a loss in confidence and form, forcing him to admit in his own blog that he had let down his employers, the New Jersey Nets.
The consolation for the 7-footer came when he signed a two-year, $18 million contract with wealthy Russian club Triumph Lyubertsy this summer. His resurgence continued as he led the Serbs to Eurobasket.
On a balanced roster (the Serbs used 14 players, 10 of whom logged at least 100 minutes over the eight games), Krstic led the team in scoring (13.7 ppg) and rebounds (5.7 rpg).
Petteri Koponen, Finland: During the past two years, the 2007 NBA draft pick (traded from the 76ers to the Trail Blazers) has been the key component in Finland's promotion to the A Division in Europe and fourth-place finish in Group A.
The Finnisher impressed the Blazers in the NBA summer league and carried that form into Eurobasket, to the tune of 12.8 points and 2.9 assists a game. The 20-year-old point guard, who plays for Virtus Bologna in Italy, is another exciting young prospect for the Blazers' fans to look forward to.
Milenko Tepic, Serbia: A 6-foot-8 shooting guard, the 21-year-old Tepic continues to mature and feature in mock drafts for next summer.
Tepic led the Serbs' deep roster in minutes (23.8), shooting 60 percent (15-for-25) from the field and 40 percent (6-for-15) from 3-point range.
On a team with such a well-oiled, effective system in place, it is difficult for young individuals to stand out, but Tepic did and remains an exciting prospect with a solid jumper and decent defense.
Latvia and Macedonia might not feature high, or often, in discussions about world basketball powers, but the pair were comfortable, and often impressive, qualifiers.
NBA big man Andris Biedrins made a compelling case for the tournament's MVP, averaging 65.3 percent from the field and shooting 36-for-56 from the free-throw line.
Meanwhile, the Macedonians showed the incredible depth in talent that exists in the former Yugoslavian corner of Europe with five of their players averaging double figures.
Andris Biedrins, Latvia: Golden State Warriors center Biedrins is known for his rebounding in the NBA, averaging 9.8 a game last season, but is he a scoring machine too?
The 6-foot-11 Latvian certainly was this summer, averaging 22.3 points a game, a stark contrast to his four-year NBA career numbers of 7.6 ppg.
That offensive production didn't shortchange Biedrins' rebounding prowess, as he grabbed 13.6 a game for Latvia. Admittedly, international centers might lack some of the bulk and height commonplace in the NBA, but Biedrins' summer was still impressive.
Predrag Samardziski, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: He's not exactly a Eurobasket "sleeper," as the 22-year-old, 7-foot-1 center has declared for every NBA draft since 2004 only to withdraw from the first three and go unselected in 2008.
The youngster remains raw at the international level and was limited to 3.5 points and 3.7 boards in 11.5 minutes a game, seeing limited time even in blowouts.
Ernests Kalve, Latvia: In a pool containing two of Division A's traditionally weaker nations, Portugal and Estonia, Group B was hardly packed with draft prospects.
Kalve, a 21-year-old guard, has been a long-shot draft prospect for some time. This is probably because he spent time with the renowned Benetton Treviso academy in Italy. Currently with Riga in the modest Latvian league, Kalve played for a total of only 12 minutes in three games.
France collapsed at Eurobasket 2007, missing out on the 2008 Olympics in the process and sending the national team into a tailspin.
Tony Parker committed late to the team and led the tournament in scoring (26.8 ppg), pouring in an international career-high 37 points at home to Turkey on Saturday. Unfortunately, that was in an 80-78 losing effort, and coupled with a big win from Israel, left France as the group's runner-up.
But France's situation is also noteworthy for the list of NBA players or draftees who did not play for the team this summer, for a wide variety of reasons: Boris Diaw, Mickael Pietrus, Johan Petro, Joakim Noah, Ian Mahinmi, Mickael Gelabale, Nicolas Batum and Alexis Ajinca.
Hedo Turkoglu, Turkey: Turkey was the only one of the 17 teams to go through group play undefeated, and Turkoglu was a major reason.
His averages of 12.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 26.2 minutes a game do not reflect the steadying influence and experience that the 29-year-old Orlando Magic forward brought to a team that boasts some astonishing young talent. Turkoglu was even able to sit out the final group game in France on Saturday, and the Turks still won.
Ersan Ilyasova, Turkey: The 21-year-old, 6-foot-10 forward was drafted by Milwaukee in the second round (36th overall) in 2005 and spent an unremarkable 2006-07 season with the Bucks.
A move to Spain's FC Barcelona proved beneficial, however, not least of all financially, with Ilyasova reportedly making $5 million a year.
Entering his last season with Barcelona, Ilyasova, who backed up Turkoglu and led the team in scoring (13.0 ppg) and rebounding (8.5 rpg), could be considering NBA options again, one year from now.
Nando De Colo, France: France might have been the big disappointment of the Eurobasket summer, but the 21-year-old guard was a rare bright spark.
The 6-foot-5, 187-pound Frenchman certainly did his chances of appearing in the first round of the 2009 draft no harm, averaging 12.2 points in 26.8 minutes a game. While his defense needs work, teams will watch his progress in Europe this season.
Great Britain had to buy an additional $425,000 insurance premium to allow Luol Deng to play in qualifying after the NBA's insurance company declined to cover an old back injury.
That was money well spent for the Brits, who clinched first place in the group and their first ever Eurobasket berth after winning Game 5 against the Czech Republic 67-63.
Interestingly, of the 12 pool games, that was the only road win. Israel's 37-point win over the Czechs on Saturday was enough to take the Israelis through on average scoring margin, at the expense of France.
Luol Deng, Great Britain: The Chicago Bulls forward was, by far, the most dominant force in Group D.
After only two days of practice with the squad, he dropped 30 points as the Brits came within 0.5 seconds of upsetting Israel in Tel Aviv. His numbers of 24.2 points, 5.8 boards, 3.8 assists and 1.6 blocks a game reflected his value to the team.
With first place assured, Deng missed Saturday's final game in Bosnia-Herzegovina with a toe injury. But new Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro need not fear, the Brits were merely making sure their most valuable asset returned to his regular job without any serious problems.
Joel Freeland, Great Britain: Even British basketball fans were stunned when the Portland Trail Blazers made the unknown forward a first-round draft pick in 2006.
Fast-forward two years -- and an additional 25 pounds on Freeland's 6-foot-11 frame -- and it seemed the Blazers knew what they were doing.
After Freeland missed playing for the national team last year, Freeland stunned Great Britain's coaches with his improvement, a reflection of the fact that the 21-year-old took up basketball at the age of 16. Averages of 10 points and 5.6 boards in 19 minutes a game show his potential.
Nihad Dedovic, Bosnia-Herzegovina: Coming into Group D play, Israel's Omri Casspi was the hot prospect and considered a possible lottery pick in 2009. Six games later, Bosnian guard Dedovic, who turned 18 in January, was the talk of the group.
Scouts liken the 6-foot-5 Dedovic to a younger, rawer Rudy Fernandez (Portland's Spanish guard who is expected to make an impact on the NBA this season). Dedovic needs to work on his ballhandling, but 9.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 24.8 minutes a game, in a group containing a strong Great Britain and Israel, are the sort of stats that will attract interest from NBA scouts.
Ian Whittell covers basketball for The Times of London.