Countdown: In postseason hoops, Euroleague Final Four trumps all
Ricky Rubio's marked improvement with Barcelona has boosted his NBA value
NBA scouts say ex-Hawk Josh Childress is a better shooter, decision-maker
Other topics: Joakim Noah's mouth, Lakers criticism, Dwyane Wade's future
5 Things worth knowing about Europe
While the NBA is beginning its postseason, the Euroleague is culminating its tournament in what has been an eventful year.
Ricky Rubio improves. Instead of sharing the Timberwolves' backcourt with fellow rookie point guard Jonny Flynn, Rubio famously decided to remain in Europe for two more seasons. Not only was he able to remain in his hometown by transferring to Barcelona, the favorite to win the Euroleague championship at the Final Four from May 7-9 in Paris, but he also has emerged as a better NBA candidate than ever.
"I think he has improved in two things," said coach Ettore Messina of Real Madrid, which lost to Spanish rival Barcelona in the Euroleague quarterfinals. "His three-point shooting is much better. He has improved his follow-through and his extension of the arm, so that I think he will have no problem adjusting to the length of the three-point shot in the NBA."
The more significant upgrade has been Rubio's floor leadership. Last season with Joventut Badalona -- a smaller Spanish club also based in Barcelona -- he had pushed the tempo ceaselessly, but that recklessness wouldn't do for the championship team he now leads. He has become a more disciplined point guard for Barcelona.
"Sometimes he was not taking into account the value of the ball and knowing the moment of the game," Messina said of Rubio's former style. "Now in the Euroleague, he knows when is the moment to try something and also when it is better to be safe and control the situation -- and he has done this without losing his killer instinct."
The discipline of contending for the biggest championship outside the NBA has toughened Rubio. In the Euroleague's best-of-five quarterfinals, Barcelona surrendered home-court advantage with a Game 2 loss to Real Madrid.
"[Rubio] was not a factor in the first two games," said Messina, who then watched Rubio respond by leading Barcelona to victories in Games 3 and 4 at Madrid. "He was the key. He was able to handle the pressure and he showed he has the patience to know when to step up."
American executives will continue to debate whether Rubio has enough athleticism to star in the NBA. While the 19-year-old has become a household name for European hoops, the hype does not dwarf the substance. What can no longer be doubted is his leadership and resolve to win -- a drive that was responsible for Rubio's decision to remain in Europe. Messina believes Rubio was not turned off by the wintry climate of Minnesota so much as he was concerned with the Timberwolves' long-term plan to rebuild, with several losing seasons likely to come.
"I understand how it is for the best players here in Europe," Messina said. "After playing so many years to win games, it is difficult for them to go to [an NBA] team and think maybe I will lose 45 games out of 82 and I will never have a chance to win. It is very difficult for them to think maybe in four years we will have a shot. Even for myself as an observer, I see the New York [Knicks'] situation where for two years they cleaned house and made space under the cap -- and I don't know how they can handle that. For me, it takes inhuman patience to do that. I respect it is part of your mentality, your world, but over here people could not do that -- not coaches, not players, not fans."
Josh Childress, Season II. Childress has come to accept the pressure of European basketball to win every game. In his second year with the Greek club Olympiakos, the former sixth man of the Atlanta Hawks has helped lead his team to the Final Four while emerging as arguably the second-most-important player in Europe behind Rubio.
"I read an interesting quote by his coach [Panagiotis Giannakis], who pointed out how Josh managed to understand the pace of his game depending on the situation -- when to go slow, when to go fast," Messina said. "When he arrived in Europe last season, he could only play one speed. Now he reads the game much better. He is much more a complete player. He has been a tremendous piece for Olympiakos. He has always played with a very good attitude, always been open to the mentality and culture of Europe, to understand Europe and how we live sport."
Childress had a frustrating "rookie" season in Greece after leaving the Hawks in 2008 to sign a three-year, $20 million contract. He averaged a disappointing 8.8 Euroleague points last year, and then, to his credit, appraised himself with painful honesty.
"I wasn't really the focus of their plans last year," he said. "I was kind of an additional piece, and they wanted me to learn and to grow into the system. It's different in the NBA when you're the highest-paid player -- whether it's LeBron or whoever it is -- you're going to get a bulk of the minutes, the touches, all of those things. That wasn't the case last year, but in all honesty that helped me mentally. I went through a lot -- I was frustrated, angry, whatever -- but I think I grew from that. I learned I have to be more patient, smarter. I have to think the game."
Expatriate American players often play with one foot in Europe and one foot in the NBA -- they think of Europe as a penance to be paid before they can return home. This season Childress stopped thinking about how things used to be for him in the NBA, and he clearly devoted himself to the European style. The result has been a 15.1 points Euroleague average and a more dynamic role in the offense.
"It's a common misconception that people think the basketball is weaker over here, that it's the J.V. league," he said. "That's definitely not the case. I did have to prepare for it physically by getting stronger, and also with my game, by working on more specific things tailored for the European game.
"After the season I watched some film and broke down parts of my game that I felt I could work on. One of them was my shooting. One was also being able to make a move on a second defender -- I didn't have any issues getting by one guy, but it was the second guy coming over and being able to make a pass or a move on that guy. And also the pick-and-roll and being able to read those better, because that's pretty much all we run."
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