Another update from our Finnish sportswriter-friend on Petteri Koponen. Enjoy!
The 180-day army stint of Portland Trail Blazers' Finnish point guard Petteri Koponen is over this Friday. Private Koponen has completed his service in the Finnish Defence Forces in Lahti Military Academy for a special program designed for local top athletes.
The Finnish League regular season is over as well. Koponen's team, Honka Playboys, won 28 our of 42 games but had one victory taken away by the Basketball Assocation because of drug rule violations by team's starting forward, Monte Cummings. After the victory was taken away, Honka finished fourth with 27 victories and played their last game last Saturday against league leader, Team Lappeenranta. Honka lost the lackluster game 79-104 (37-52). Honka managed to hold the lead for about ten minutes, but after Koponen had to go to the bench with his third foul, Lappeenranta answered with a quick run which extended their lead to over ten points.
Here's a look at Koponen's stats:
Games started 38
Personal fouls 2,6
2-point field goals .564%
3-point field goals .426%
Free throws .783%
A brief analysis:
In 2007/2008, Koponen transformed from a pure point guard to a scoring guard. In a recent survey among league captains, Koponen was voted the fourth best player in the league despite being just 19 years old. Guards of the opposing teams noted that Koponen has become extremely difficult to stop and it is clear that he has become an offensive multi-tool with a steady jumper, a good ability to drive the lane and draw fouls. (There is no actual stat available, but I'm pretty sure he's the leader of and-ones in the league).
Last summer, when Koponen was drafted, one of the main reasons for him being taken is the first round was his distributing skills. Koponen has been the main ballhandler for Honka this season as well, but Honka was forced to use Koponen pretty much as a scorer because of an injury plague among the team's key players in November and December. When Koponen proved he can handle the scoring duties, he has sometimes been even the No. 1 scoring option in Honka's super-steady offence which features three American players and two Finnish national teamers alongside Koponen.
The role of distributor has mostly been reserved for American PG Tim Kisner who left Finland in early February to join the Polish Euroleague team Prokom Trefl. The backcourt of Kisner and Koponen was arguably the best in country. When Kisner took the distributing role, it took a lot of pressure off Koponen and gave him the opportunity to display his offensive arsenal. During the last nine games Koponen has once again forced to be the point guard. Kisner's replacement, 6-0" sparkplug Akeem Scott is a freak athlete and a good scorer, but he can't set the pace of the game the way Kisner could. When Koponen has been in foul trouble, Honka's half court offense has been struggling and now that the playoffs are approaching, the opponents do know that getting Koponen out of rhythm would be the key to defeat Honka.
In 2006/2007, most of Honka's offensive plays were called by coach Mihailo Pavicevic, with Koponen being a "messenger". This year, Koponen has been a whole lot more independent with his playmaking and he hasn't been criticized nearly as much by the coach as last year. But when comparing Koponen's half court play-making to Kisner's, there is a difference: Almost every other Honka offence ends with Koponen trying to draw the defence and find the open man or take his own shot that way. Kisner, who's ten years older than Koponen, has more experienced eye and he could see a lot of situations before they happened, with taking just a couple of shots a game himself. Koponen reads the game extraordinaly well for his age but it is obvious he needs some seasoning. In better leagues, Koponen wouldn't be able to handle the ball nearly as long as he does in Finland: He sometimes bounces the ball for over than 15 seconds without anything (visibly) happening.
When directing the offence, Koponen is at his best in fast break situations, where he rarely makes a mistake. Koponen has also been a whole lot steadier than last year, when a turnover or a miscommunication with his team members made him hang his head. Koponen has been more and more vocal while the season has progressed and he has played his best games when his team has needed him the most.
Defensively, Koponen has become better. He isn't the most physical player in the league but he can already keep opposing American point guards in check - something he couldn't do a year ago. He still plays with his hands a lot which sometimes leads to foul troubles and if he gets too excited, he might try to snatch the ball away from the opponent when there is not a clear threat of turnover for the opponent. He also "falls asleep" a couple of times during games but that mostly happen in the first quarter, when he tries to figure out the opposing player and his offensive plays.
Before the season began, Koponen's goal was to develop himself into NBA shape. Even though there is a big difference from last season, he still would be an NBA featherweight player. Then again we have to remember that the program wasn't designed so that Koponen could become the Finnish version of The Incredible Hulk. Instead, the program's purpose has been to make Koponen able to handle all the contact which is inevitable in the big league as well as to make him quicker and increase his upper body strenght.
It is clear that Koponen will play in Las Vegas Summer League this year. He probably even has a chance to make it to an actual NBA roster next year, but he still is considered a project. The natural talent, the skills and the will to work hard are all there and he has been proving people wrong time and time again. But even though Finnish League is better than you think, it is still far away from European top leagues and Koponen might need some experience against the big dogs before trying to compete against the Chris Pauls and Deron Williamses of the NBA.
Will he play in the NBA one day? Yes, he will. Will he be there next year? There is a possibility, but it would still be a surprise. Should the Blazers fan be patient with him? I'm not an expert and guys like Rudy Fernandez are arguably better prospects, but I believe that whichever team gives him the chance to play in years to come will be happy with their decision.
Honka Playboys will face their next season's opponent, Namika Lahti, in the opening round of the playoffs. Lahti is known as a not-so-skilled but extremely physical team who have one of the league's best stoppers, 6-0" pit bull Ilkka Vuori in the point guard position. Vuori has made Koponen's life difficult previous years and now that Koponen is the only pure PG of his team, this playoff series will truly be a test for him.
The opening game will be played this Saturday in Espoo. Once the playoffs are over, I'll give one more detailed look how everything turned out.