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A sportswriter from Helsinki, Finland, who follows Petteri Koponen closely and is also a reader here sent me an article today with permission to re-print.  It updates the progress of Petteri Koponen and the doings in Finland, including the advent of Scottie Pippen up north.

FINLAND UPDATE Nov 28th 2007
  1. Team Lappeenranta advances in FIBA EuroCup
  2. Petteri Koponen getting his groove back
  3. Finnish quartet impressing in the NCAA
  4. What's going on with Finnish league
  5. Bringing in Pippen
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1. Team Lappeenranta advances in FIBA EuroCup

It is very well known that Finnish teams haven't had much success in European basketball leagues. In 1997/1998, ToPo created a small buzz proceeding to Eurocup Sweet Sixteen, drawing nearly 10 000 people to Hartwall Areena before falling to Russian powerhouse Samara. In 2005/2006, reigning Finnish champion Team Lappeenranta proceeded to semi-finals of FIBA Challenge Cup, but otherwise it has been extremely quiet. Some teams have tried to participate in competitions such as FIBA European League and Korac Cup, but have withdrawn mostly because of financial difficulties.

Team Lappeenranta, Finnish champion of '05 and '06 and Finnish Cup champion of '06 and '07 entered the basketball map of Europe in the FIBA EuroCup elimination round 2. This tuesday, Lappeenranta lost the deciding game in Nicosia (Cyprus) against Keravnos 95-86, but advanced because of 87-71 home victory the week before. Lappeenranta entered the FIBA EuroCup Sweet Sixteen 173-164.

Keravnos entered the elimination round as a strong favorite, sporting ex-NBA players such as Cedric Henderson and Aleksandar Radojevic and experienced professionals like Panagiotis Trisokkas and Bryant Smith in its roster. Lappeenranta opened the first game nervously in front of a sold-out home crowd, losing the first quarter 17-23. After that, Lappeenranta grabbed the lead and never looked back, surfing to 16-point home victory. A total of four players scored 17 points in the opener: Finnish national team combo guard Petri Virtanen, experienced Finnish small forward Pasi Riihelä and team's American players Adrian Henning and Ivan Harris. Henning also ripped down 14 rebounds while Virtanen dished five assists. Another Finnish national team player, point guard Juha Sten also played well, scoring 11 points and giving four assists.

Keravnos entered the second game determined but turned out to be shorthanded, when Lappeenranta nailed beyond the arc with an amazing accuracy (8/13). Lappeenranta were leading by two points in halftime, but Keravnos were able to crawl back and extend their lead to ten points in the final quarter of the deciding game. Lappeenranta were able to maintain the lead under ten in the closing minutes even through foul trouble. The best performer of the night was once again Finnish sharpshooter Petri Virtanen, who nailed 25 points (3pt 6/13). Last year's Ohio State starter Ivan Harris also brought his A game, scoring 18 points (Fg 7/10). Adrian Henning towered 12 points and 7 rebounds, while young Estonian forward Reinar Hallik surprised Cypriot crowd with a 12-point, 7-rebound night, respectively.

The defeat hasn't been taken lightly in Cyprus. Some webpages are wondering how "players such as Lee, Radojevic, Trisokkas and Anastasiadis are not being able to beat and qualify players such as Adrian Henning who played in the Norwegian league." Keravnos' disqualification is being called as one of the worst setbacks in Cypriot basketball and it seems that representatives of Keravnos have even had some difficulties paying their respect for the "unknown Finnish team" that managed to beat them. Anyway, Team Lappeenranta is now concentrating on celebration while head coach Mika Turunen waits for this thursday, when Lappeenranta's qualifying round opponents are being selected in Munich, Germany.

The teams that were able to crack into FIBA EuroCup Sweet Sixteen were Team Lappeenranta (Finland), Khimik (Ukraine), Barons LMT (Latvia), Dexia Mons-Hainaut (Belgium), Proteas EKA AEL (Cyprus), CSK-VVS Samara (Russia), Banvit BC (Turkey), Olympia (Greece), BK Prostejov (Czech Republic), PAOK BC (Greece), Cholet Basket (France), KK Zagreb (Croatia), Cherkaski Mavpy (Ukraine), Ural Great (Russia), Spartak St. Petersburg (Russia) and Lokomotiv Rostov (Russia).

2. Petteri Koponen getting his groove back

Spring and summer of 2006 was a great time for young Finn Petteri Koponen. The 6-4, 19-year old point guard from Helsinki first showcased his talents in the Nike Hoop Summit in Memphis, Tennessee, scoring 7 points and dishing out six assists as the captain of World select team against American guard phenoms Derrick Rose and OJ Mayo. After the Hoop Summit, Koponen returned to Finland where he won the Finnish championship with his team, the Espoo Honka Playboys.

Koponen entered the NBA Draft in June 2007 after participating in practices of a dozen NBA teams and he was selected, somewhat surprisingly, as the 30th pick of the Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. Just a few moments after the selection, Koponen was traded to the Portland Trailblazers. Koponen participated in the NBA Las Vegas Summer League, playing sparingly but showing signs of promise, improving in every single game and even hitting the highlight reels.

Koponen returned to Finland in July and helped Finnish National Team climb from European basketball basemement, Divison B, to the division A. Finland crushed Romania 111-61 September 15th in front of 2760 loud and proud spectators and enjoying every moment of it.

But the end of September and the whole October was indeed very difficult for young Koponen. After Trailblazers' head coach Nate McMillan announced that he wanted Koponen to stay in Europe and develop for another year, Koponen announced he would be back in Finnish league for another year. The announced was received with huge criticism by the local sports media, that had hyped Koponen's draft night just a couple of weeks earlier. When the Finnish league regular season tipped off, Koponen announced he would also enter Finnish Defence Forces in a special programme built for professional athletes.

Koponen struggled mightily in the first games of Finnish league, battling against fatigue, turning the ball over constantly, bricking open shots and having problems in finding rhythm. Fans of the opposing teams were delighted to see the young NBA prospect struggle after witnessing all the hype around him in summer season. The eight-week military recruit training is notoriously known to be physically and mentally challenging and the results were visible on the court.

In November, Koponen has stormed the Finnish league courts better than ever before. Notably more determined than ever, Koponen has lead the Honka Playboys to 6-0-record despite the injuries of team captain Jukka Matinen and experienced American players Monte Cummings and Timothy Kisner. Koponen has averaged 19,7 points, 4,2 assists (with 3,0 turnovers), 4,0 rebounds and 2,3 steals a game while draining .549 of his two-point shots, .464 of his treys and .818 of his free throws. Currently, Koponen is one of two leading candidates of Finnish league player of the month award.

Trailblazers fans might also be anxious to know that Koponen has improved a lot in the defensive end as well. Last year he was in trouble trying to guard stronger, quicker point guards of opposing American teams, but right now he stands tall among the league's elite. Even though Finnish league isn't among the best of Europe, there is quite enough competition for young Koponen and it seems shockingly possible that he might hit the NBA courts as early as 2008/2009.

Koponen is also going through a fitness routine built entirely for one single purpose: Getting Koponen to NBA shape. Honka Playboys' strenght and conditioning coach Tero Kuivalainen has stated: "We don't want Petteri to get any bigger than he is. Right now we want him to become quicker and stronger. We want him to know how to use his body the best way possible."

Playboys' head coach, Mr. Mihajlo Pavicevic, stated a week ago: "We all knew that the beginning of the season would be hard for Petteri. Even though he has improved, he is still a couple of months away from his top shape. He hasn't been able to practice the way we would like him to because of the first weeks of the military training, but from what I've heard, after the first seven or eight weeks he will have the possibility to participate in training normally."

3. Finnish quartet impressing in the NCAA

The American college leagues aren't exactly flooded with Finnish players, but there are a handful players that are playing in key roles of their teams. Four out of total seven Finnish male NCAA players are creating some buzz during the first month of the short NCAA season. The players deserving to be mentioned are athletic Helsinki-born swingman Shawn Huff, sharp-shooting forward Samuel Haanpää from Kerava, small town big man Gerald Lee Jr. of Uusikaupunki and long range bombing shooting guard Mikko Koivisto of the suburbs of Vantaa, just outside Helsinki.

Huff, a 6-6", 1984 born senior and Haanpää, a 6-8", 1986 born sophomore have both entered the starting line-up of Valparaiso Crusaders, standing 4-1 as a write this. Huff, a Finnish national team defensive lock and fast break finisher, has never been a superstar but he has started the 2007/2008 season well showing his presence in both ends of the court. Huff has started all five games of Valpo's run, scoring 10,2 points, ripping 6,8 rebounds and dishing 2,8 assists in 31 minutes a game to go with averages 0,8 blocks and 0,6 steals. Last summer, Huff surprised national team supporters with his consistent jump shot, showing that he worked on his game a lot during the summer. After his senior season, it is clear that Huff will try to jump to European professional courts. His stunning athleticism and defensive approach have already forced the scouts to pay attention.

Haanpää started the 2006/2007 campaign from the bench but moved into Valpo's starting line-up pretty quickly, eventually finishing the season as the team's leading scorer with 12 points a game. Known as a deadly shooter who can drain from anywhere on the court, Haanpää was also noticed at Draftexpress.com. The beginning of 2007/2008 was hard for Haanpää, who had a terrible two-game span against Vanderbilt and Maryland-Eastern Shore (field goals 1-19), but he bounced back, shooting 6-9 three point shots in 61-47 victory over Austin Peay.

Relatively unknown in Finland, Haanpää has played just a handful of games in Finnish League. The current season is his third in USA, because he played his senior season of high school in Cornerstone Christian high in Texas. Haanpää hasn't had any difficulties to adjust into American playing style. His combination of shooting skills, size and strenght might even one day earn him an NBA spot, although he has a long way to go. Most of all he needs to improve in the defence, which is his weak spot. Haanpää's averages of the season are 9,6 points, 3,2 rebounds and 1,4 assists in 28,2 minutes a game.

The best Finnish performer in the NCAA so far this season has been Old Dominion Monarchs' 6-10", 1987 born Gerald Lee Jr., who has become a true low post presence after some early struggles in his freshman year. Lee has started all six of the Monarchs' games, averaging 12,2 points, 7,0 rebounds, 1,0 assist and 0,7 blocks in 31,7 minutes a game while shooting .612 field goals. Just a year ago, Lee was rail-thin and as raw as tomorrow's sushi, but during last season and the summer of 2007, Lee has clearly grown into his body and learned how to bang in the low post.

Lee had a big time performance in Old Dominion's 74-63 victory over Iona. Lee scored 19 points (Fg 9-13) and ripped down seven rebounds in the win. Just a week afterwards, Lee gathered national attention in 64-53 loss against Louisville: Lee hit 8-11 field goals and 4-5 free throws in 36 minutes, finishing with 20 points and 8 rebounds. Lee's name isn't mentioned with "NBA Draft 2010" quite yet, but Finnish junior national team coaches believe in his possibilities because of his fast and steady progress.

Last but not least, Mikko Koivisto, 6-4", 1987 born shooting guard of UNC-Greensboro, who, like Haanpää, isn't very well known even inside Finland's borders. Koivisto hasn't yet played a single game in the Finnish league and judging from his appereance in the NCAA, he won't play in Finland in a loooong time. Koivisto had some good moments in his freshman year, averaging 8,7 points a game, but this year he has bounced back stronger than ever before. Koivisto has started all four of UNC-Greensboro's games, averaging 13,0 points, 2,5 rebounds and 2,0 assists in 28,5 minutes a game, while shooting with amazing accuracy: Field goals .563, Three-pointers .550 and free throws .833.

Early this season, Koivisto guided UNC-Greensboro to 83-74 upset over Georgia Tech, nailing a big three after another, finishing with 16 points and three assists. If Koivisto finds something like this from his magic pocket next March, maybe pro scouts will find the time needed to pronounce his name correctly.

4. What's going on in Finnish league?

Finnish semi-professional league, Korisliiga, is well underway. Currently, two teams are leading the race well above others. The biggest surprise so far is ToPo of Helsinki, which has cruised to an 11-1 start despite injuries. ToPo's experienced, 11-deep roster has created major match-up problems for the opponents while ToPo has pleased home audience with some entertaining team play reminiscing the spectators from team's glory days and three consecutive championships in the 1990s.

ToPo is lead by massive, 6-8" power forward Jerald Fields, who played in the New Orleans Hornets summer league team just a few months ago. Fields is averaging 15,5 points, 10,8 rebounds, 2,6 assists, 1,9 steals and 1,8 blocks a game while draining .708 of his 2pt attempts. Behind Fields, ToPo goes with versatile Joshua Gonner (15,6 pts, 3,6 rebs, 2,6 ast, 1,9 stl), tiny floor general Tyson Patterson (15,7 pts, 5,2 ast, 4,7 rebs, 2,3 steals), former Finnish national team star and Bundesleague shooting guard Maurizio Pratesi (15,0 pts) and the surprising presence of 26-year old, 6-6" small forward Timo Heinonen (15,1 pts, 4,8 rebs, 1,2 ast, 1,1 steals). 6-2", 1990 born point guard Roope Ahonen is showing signs of promise in limited minutes, averaging 4,1 pts, 1,3 rebs, 0,8 assists and 0,7 steals in 10 minutes a game.

Just slightly below ToPo is Petteri Koponen's Honka Playboys, the reigning champion. Despite several injuries for the key players and a very narrow bench, Honka has won 10 out of 12 games, with one of those losses being to ToPo after a hard-fought overtime battle.

Honka brings in probably the best starting line-up in the league. Finnish national team player and German champion Jukka Matinen has been the teams' MVP with 20,9-point, 5,3-rebound averages to go with .444 3pt accuracy. Besides Matinen and Koponen, another national team player, versatile forward Kimmo Muurinen has stepped up with 17,3 points and 7,5 rebs a game with steady .609 2pt-average. American guard/forward Monte Cummings (17,6 pts, 6,2 rebs, 2 ast, 1,5 steals) and American point guard Tim Kisner (10,3 pts, 4,2 ast, 3,6 rebs, 2,4 steals) are both out for a month because of injuries. Finnish junior national team players Juho Nenonen, Petri Heinonen and Anselmi Vanjoki have pleased coaches and fans with their appereances so far, but the biggest feel-good story of the season so far has been the rise of 6-1", 16-year old guard Sasu Salin, who - despite his boy-band appereance - has shown no fear, scoring in double figures twice in 11 games and picking up Honka Playboys' demanding playbook in no time.

ToPo and Honka are followed by Finnish Cup finalists Team Lappeenranta (FIBA EuroCup participant) and Kouvolan Kouvot. Lappeenranta's number one weapon has been American forward Adrian Henning (21,8 pts, 8,0 rebs, 2,3 steals, 1,8 assists and 1,7 steals a game) while national team guards Petri Virtanen (16,3 pts, 3,7 assists, 2,9 steals) and Juha Sten (10,6 pts, 4,8 ast, 3,7 steals) have been stable as well. Kouvot is a "worhorse-team" which consists of 24-27-year old blue collar workers that are trying to upset bigger teams with hard defence and grind-and-gear offence. The biggest name of Kouvot so far has been American 6-5" forward Corey Smith (19 pts, 8,2 rebs, 2,5 steals, 2,3 ast a game).

Last year's silver medal team Namika Lahti is currently fifth in the league. The team is lead by effective cast of Finnish players, while their two Americans and one Gambian player try to fit in as role players. Lahti's national team candidates, 6-5", 22-year old guard/forward Ville Mäkäläinen (14,8 pts, 5,1 rebs, 3,4 ast, 1,8 steals) and hard-nosed 6-0", 21-year old point guard Ilkka Vuori (15,5 pts, 3,6 ast, 2,7 rebs, 2,0 steals) have carried Lahti this year.

Tampereen Pyrintö is in the sixth spot, fighting for playoff spot with three impressive Americans. 6-6", 35-year old Damon Williams (21,5 pts, 12,2 rebs, 4,7 ast, 1,2 stl) returned from Italian Serie A to Finnish League to spend some more time with his family and to master the Finnish language so that he could get a citizenship and play with the National Team. Ex-NBA shooting guard, 6-3" Eric Washington (17,5 pts, 7,8 rebs, 1,9 stls) creates fear in opponents as well.

Karkkila's Team Componenta has climbed to the seventh spot, very surprisingly. Young and inexperienced Team Componenta is lead by American 6-8" power forward Nick Wallery (21,2 pts, 13,5 rebs, 1,8 ast, 1,3 stls). Finnish junior national team player and defensive specialist Jussi Eskola (7,6 pts, .431 3pt) has shown flashes of brilliance with his shot.

Last season's bronze medallist Joensuun Kataja is struggling mightily and is currently stuck in 8th place with a 4-8 record. Kataja's main man is national team power forward Sami Lehtoranta (17,6 pts, 6,3 rebs, 1,3 blocks), who is followed by on-and-off performances of Louis Hinnant (15,8 pts, 5,7 rebs, 5,3 ast, 1,3 steals).

Kauhajoen Karhu, last season's Division 1 winner wasn't shocked by an awful start. Karhu has been able to win three out of last five games and the team currently stands at 4-9, which is a better result than anyone expected by the league riser. Karhu's main weapons have been americans Cedric McGowan (19,1 pts, 7,8 rebs, 1,1 ast) and Darryl Hudson (18,2 pts, 6,6 rebs, 2,2 ast).

Porvoon Tarmo managed to climb into playoffs last year, but so far this season the ride hasn't been so smooth. Tarmo stands at 4-8 while former LIU-Brooklyn small forward Esa Mäki-Tulokas (12,3 pts, 4,9 rebs, 1,4 ast) leads the way. Tall, lanky center Mark McCarroll (18,4 pts, 12,2 rebs, 2 blocks, 1 ast, 1 stl) takes advantage of the opponents with his wingspan.

KTP Basket stormed into semifinals last year before falling to Honka Playboys in a five-game series, but this year KTP is struggling mightily. The biggest problem so far has been trying to find American players that fit the team. After 4-8 start, KTP has been finding the rhythm and it seems that the team has found the correct Americans in 6-9" center Manny Dies (19,6 pts, 11,6 rebs, 1,8 stl, 1,8 blk), 6-3" shooting guard Jermaine Spivey (18,6 pts, 5,8 rebs, 3,5 ast, 1,5 stl) and 6-2" point guard James Wright (18 pts, 3,5 ast). Experienced Finnish sharpshooter Toni Ilmonen (14,1 pts) brings consistence and teenagers Michael Pounds (5,5 pts, 1 reb, 0,6 ast in 12 min/game) and Juho Lehtoranta bring in the future.

Dead last in the league is Korihait of Uusikaupunki. Korihait is in a middle of an injury streak and has had difficulties in finding the minimum of eight players for league games (Korihait has even run practices with only six players!). Experienced Finnish workhorse Jussi Kumpulainen (13,2 pts, 8,8 rebs, 2,2 stl) and American guards Kyle Shiloh (19,3 pts, 6 rebs, 2,1 ast, 1,8 stl) and Glenn Stokes (18,2 pts, 3,3 ast, 3,2 steals, 3,1 rebs) have been steady.
5. Bringing in Pippen

The rumor of the season so far has been ToPo's acquisition of NBA legend Scottie Pippen. The newest rumors are saying that ToPo is bringing in Pippen for two games: January 4th against Porvoon Tarmo and January 5th against arch-rival Honka Playboys. Swedish league team Sundsvall Dragons has announced that Pippen will play one game with them in January 11th.

ToPo brought in Dennis Rodman in November 2005 for a league game against Honka Playboys. ToPo lost the game 74-80, while Rodman scored 17 points (5-13 three-pointers) and ripped down six rebounds. As expected, Rodman's off-court antics got a lot more attention than his performance on the court, although the game itself drew 7460 spectators to the Helsinki Icehall.

Thanks to my sportswriter friend!

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)