Amidst all the talk of drafting and acquiring point guards we get this update from our sportswriter friend in Finland about the point guard the Blazers currently have stashed in Europe: Petteri Koponen.
Petteri Koponen watch: What's next?
Finland national team point guard and Blazers draftee Petteri Koponen (6-4, 1988) ended his first professional season about a month ago. Koponen's team, Virtus Bologna, lost in the first round of Italian Serie A playoffs in a tough five-game series against Benetton Treviso.
It was a fitting end to a month full of turbulence; after winning the FIBA EuroChallenge Cup championship in April, Virtus ended the Serie A regular season with five losses in a row. After game three of the first round series, Virtus team president Claudio Sabatini took center stage and blamed Virtus' starting point guard Earl Boykins for all the losses. Once the playoffs were over and Benetton Treviso sent Virtus fishing, the dust barely had time to settle before Sabatini fired Virtus' coach Matteo Bonicinolli and general manager Andrea Luchi. Right now it seems that only Koponen, Alex Righetti and Keith Langford are the players who Sabatini wishes to have back next season.
Statistically speaking, Koponen didn't do much in his first pro season. He started 17 out of 29 Virtus Bologna games and ended up with 3,0 points, 1,2 rebounds, 0,9 assists, 0,7 steals and 1,0 turnovers in 15 minutes a game with poor shooting percentages of 36,2% (2pt) and 24,4% (3pt). In 15 FIBA EuroChallenge cup games, Koponen did slightly better, averaging 5,8 points, 1,9 rebounds, 1,0 assists, 0,7 steals and 0,9 turnovers in 18,1 minutes a game while shooting pretty well (2pt 56,7%, 3pt 39,4%), Ft 87,5%).
While it looks like Portland Trailblazers don't have the intention to bring Koponen over in the near future, it might be wise to look beyond the numbers and sum up the pros and cons of the 2008/2009 season. Because I have only had the chance to watch three of Koponen's games with Virtus Bologna, I asked some help from my friend Dario Marra at http://www.basketcentral.it, the best Italian basketball website available. Enjoy.
Read the rest after the jump.
(Note that to save eye strain I am not using the gray quote box around the rest of this post. It's all a direct quote.)
Two years ago, when Blazers acquired the rights for Petteri in the 2007 NBA Draft, Petteri looked like a normal 19-year old Scandinavian kid with his skinny frame. These two years have done wonders with him. Even though Koponen still doesn't look like the Incredible Hulk, he is physically a very capable player and tremendously stronger than two years ago. In this past season, Koponen became Virtus' number one backcourt defender, always given the task to play defence on opponent's best scoring guard. The best example was the FIBA EuroChallenge Cup final: With Koponen guarding him, Cholet's leading scorer Nando de Colo was only able to score five points in 14 minutes. After Koponen headed to the bench, de Colo scored eight quick points in a row and brought Cholet from down 11 to down 1. Even though Koponen probably couldn't hang with Chris Pauls and Deron Williamses just yet, he no longer loses 1-on-1 situations against the better guards in Europe.
Winning two championships and an MVP trophy in Finland was nice and all, but even though Petteri was only a teenager, nothing else would've been expected from an NBA draft pick. While the level of play in Finnish League is better than most people expect, this past season Koponen had the chance to face off against guys like Reece Gaines, Oscar Torres, Jermaine Jackson, Travis Best, Allan Ray, Ibrahim Jaaber, DJ Strawberry, Marque Perry, Horace Jenkins, Harold Jamison, Romain Sato, Terrell McIntyre and Joseph Forte, to name a few. While none of those guys have never tore up the NBA courts, all of them are steady professionals who would probably fit into some NBA rosters.
One thing casual NBA fans possibly don't understand is that 20-year olds never play big minutes in Serie A. Ricky Rubio probably would, but he's probably the most talented kid in the world right now. Surefire NBA lottery pick Brandon Jennings played 17 minutes a game, Koponen 15 minutes a game. While Koponen's shooting percentages were low, Jennings wasn't exactly resembling Jeff Hornacek himself (2pt 47,9%, 3pt 20,7%, Ft 64,5%). Jennings stole the ball spectacular 2,1 times a game, but then again Jennings was dropped out of playoff roster of Lottomatica Roma because he didn't focus on team defence the way Koponen did - Jennings had a lot of steals basically because he gambled a lot, trying to intercept every single pass.
Jennings will most likely be an NBA All Star one day, but I just want to put things to perspective and let you know that Serie A is definitely more challenging league that NCAA would have been. If Koponen would've gone to the NCAA, he'd definitely have more of an impact. Instead, he wanted to play against grown men and believe all his struggles would make him stronger. Just look at another Blazers draft pick Joel Freeland - in his first season with Spanish ABC, he barely played. In his second year, he's among the league leaders in PER. In NCAA, Jennings would've been one of the brighest stars of March Madness.
Earl Boykins is a phenomenal scorer. He was probably the best 1-on-1 finisher in Serie A this past season. Playing alongside Boykins forced Koponen to play more without the ball, which has been his biggest challenge. Koponen has never been really effective off the ball, but this season forced him how to play as an off-guard. Besides that, Koponen had the task to organize team offence when Boykins has his off days. Quoting my friend Dario: "Boykins isn't a true point guard. Virtus has benefited from having a true point guard like Koponen in the 2 position. Koponen can control the ball and organize team offence, and that makes the team more stabile."
- SELF CONFIDENCE
During his last season and a half in Finland, Koponen was always the most confident player on the court. You could see that in Vegas summer league 2008; even though his shot wasn't always falling, he wanted to take the big shot time after time. Playing out of position in Italy has been hurting Koponen's scoring quite a bit. It is obvious that Koponen isn't the team's main option when he's playing alongside veterans like Boykins, Sharrod Ford and Keith Langford, but occasionally he seemed to struggle even when he had green light to shoot. Playing off the ball has been one reason, because Koponen has never been a pick-and-pop shooter; in Finland, he had the opportunity to create his own shots and shoot a lot off the dribble. Next season will be crucial for Koponen. While Koponen has faced the challenges succesfully in the earlier stages of his career, his scoring could (and should) improve in 2009/2010.
- FUTURE UNCERTAINTY
European professional basketball is just as absurd as the NBA. One day you are the hero, the other day you are the villain. While Virtus president Sabatini wanted Koponen to surpass Earl Boykins in Virtus starting five, European club executives aren't exactly known to be willing to develop project point guards. The rumors are bringing in American point guards to Virtus for 2009/2010, which means that Koponen would have to settle for mediocre minutes next season. These years will be crucial for Koponen's development. If he won't be able to convince Virtus coaching staff, making it to the NBA would be harder each year.
This is pretty much linked to the part above, but what if Koponen will have to play out of position for another season? For a 21-year old, two seasons is a lifetime. Koponen is at his best when organizing team offence, sharing the ball and setting the tempo, but teams such as Virtus Bologna face huge expectations from their fans and sponsors. While no one denies that Koponen has the talent to be the starting point guard of a professional team, hiring a 27-year old American instead of a 21-year old Finn seems like a sure-fire option when everyone is expecting your team to finish within the top three. Koponen would definitely struggle in his first games as the starting PG, but playing out of position would hurt him even more. Is there a coach willing to give him a chance?
What's going on now?
Koponen arrived at Finland just two weeks ago. Finnish national team begins training for Eurobasket Qualifications at the end of June. Koponen has the chance to participate in the 2009 Las Vegas Summer League, but right now he seems determined to concentrate on national team challenges. Finland will face Italy (Bargnani) and France (Parker, Diaw, Pietrus, Noah etc.) in the qualification games and everyone in Finland is expecting to see Koponen-Tony Parker matchup. While team success is the most important thing for everyone, playing well against Parker would definitely give Koponen's stock a boost.
According to Portland Tribune, Blazers' GM Kevin Pritchard isn't willing to give up Koponen's rights despite the fact that Blazers is having a logjam at the PG position. While the strongest Koponen hype in Portland seems to be over, Blazers fans should have their eyes on their European prospects. It's always possible that rights to Koponen would be included in some draft day trades, but Pritchard seems like a patient man willing to wait for his long term projects to blossom.
Here's a couple of pics for you, courtesy of www.virtus.it.