A loaded Fenerbahce Ülker line-up has taken Euroleague by storm in the opening rounds. Ahead of their headline meeting with Real Madrid on Thursday, Emmet Ryan examines what makes the Turkish team tick.
Upgrading from good to elite
It’s still the ‘don’t mess up’ stage of Euroleague but so far the 2012/13 edition of Fenerbahce Ülker is as advertised. A horde of new additions, providing upgrades at almost every position, has turned the Istanbul club from a predictable Top 16 outfit into legitimate contenders for the Final Four. Mike Batiste and Romain Sato, who between them won 4 Euroleague titles with Panathinaikos, and J.R. Bremer, a veteran with NBA experience. would have been significant additons in their own right. They are the side dish however to the trio of talent imported from Montepaschi Siena. Coach Simone Piangini brought two of his top assets across the Mediterranean in the form of Bo McCalebb and David Andersen.
McCalebb is unquestionably the star of the show and has been paired with the best supporting cast of his career in Europe to date. Batiste is far from a conventional centre, proving a solid threat from outside the arc, while Fener’s existing assets are benefitting greatly from the upgrade. Bojan Bogdanovic, a 2011 draft pick by the Miami Heat, has the perfect complement in McCalebb to suit his competitive streak. Omer Onan, a 34 year-old lifer in Istanbul, is playing with the energy of a man 10 years younger, while Emir Preldzic and Baris Ermis are significant threats off the bench. Critically the Fener two-deep is loaded with starter-quality players. The Istanbul club may only be comparable to its rivals in the starting five but crucially they have the bench to hurt teams over 40 minutes.
The script through two games has been the same. Play an up-tempo game from the start that wears out opponents. Khimki Moscow Region and Union Olimpija have lived with Fener early but foul trouble and fatigue eventually caught up with both. McCalebb and Preldzic ensure the pace of the game leaves no room for rest. Having been a miracle man for Siena and Macedonia (despite being from New Orleans), McCalebb is now in an environment where his skills are well-complemented by those around him. Speed is McCalebb’s greatest asset, as three fantastic steals in the third quarter against Union Olimpija showed, but this season he’s having to learn to temper it. Playing with a deeper outfit than he is used to McCalebb can put the ball in his team-mates’ hands and trust them to push the pace.
An ankle injury knocked McCalebb out of the fourth quarter in Slovenia on Friday but Baris stepped up with a huge final frame. The American is questionable for Thursday’s home date with Real Madrid but there’s a lesson here for the Fener brain trust. Vital as McCalebb is to the long-term goal this season, they don’t need to risk him right now. Despite failing to make the Quarter-Final playoffs since 2008, Fenerbahce should cruise into the Top 16 phase without leaning heavily on McCalebb. The temptation in October is to send a message early to the rest of Europe, much as they did with an exhibition win over the Boston Celtics. With back-to-back home games against Real and Panathinaikos, Fenerbahce could announce its presence as a contender for this season. Having moved into their new Ülker Sport Arena this year, there is a big incentive to rouse home fans with big displays against a pair of Euroleague giants.
London a must
Piangiani however knows satiating the masses in Istanbul in autumn will be worthless if it hurts them in spring. Fener entered this season on the back of a dire season by their lofty standards. Failure to land the Turkish Cup or make the finals of the Turkish Basketball League, titles seen as de facto property of the club in recent seasons, precipitated the summer overhaul. Piangiani replaced Neven Spahija with pressure to bring the club to new heights. Failure to make the Final Four in London, irrespective of any domestic glory, and the season will have been for nought. If McCalebb isn’t fit Thursday, Piangiani would be mad to risk his future presence for a regular season win.
With or without Bo, the Real game should tell us plenty about the progress being made in Istanbul. Like Fener, Real’s line-up is deep and has some big names. Rudy Fernandez, a NBA veteran and arguably the most talented player in Europe, leads a line-up that features fellow Spanish Olympians Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez. Talented as Fenerbahce is, this team hasn’t been together long so Thursday’s game should prove an ample test of how much this team has gelled early. With a Panathinaikos team that has undergone radical roster change, with Dimitris Diamantidis the only holdover from last year, coming to town in Round 4 the eyes of Euroleague will be on Istanbul for the next week. The important thing is to ensure they are back gazing as the Bosphorus in March.
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