|16 October 2013|
|Linas Kleiza is just one of the big signings moving to Fenerbahce this season|
The Regular Season of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague tips off this week and sees a galaxy of players who took part at EuroBasket or in the youth European Championships this summer return to action.
In the first part of our preview we take a look at the teams and the European stars that will compete in Group A and Group B of the Euroleague's first phase, starting from Wednesday.
Spanish Liga Endesa runners-up FC Barcelona as well as Russian and VTB United League champions CSKA Moscow are among those clubs for whom reaching the Euroleague Final Four, as a minimum, is only part of their ambitious season targets year in, year out.
As is customary, Spanish legend Juan Carlos Navarro, fresh off his first summer of rest in 14 years, will lead Barcelona's efforts with plenty of support from Croatian center Ante Tomic, Pole Maciej Lampe, Greek two-time Euroleague champion Kostas Papanikolaou and the Slovenian duo of Erazem Lorbek and Bostjan Nachbar.
Youngsters Alejandro Abrines of Spain, Marko Todorovic of Montenegro and 18-year-old sensation Mario Hezonja of Croatia will also log valuable minutes at the highest level this season.
Point guard Milos Teodosic, who missed out at EuroBasket 2013 due to injury is back in action and will try to lead CSKA to glory this year, backed by Serbian national team captain Nenad Krstic and fellow Serbian Vladimir Micov.
The Moscow powehourse also counts on a host of Russian internationals, such as versatile forward Victor Khryapa, sharp-shooter Vitaly Fridzon, center Sasha Kaun, power forward Andrey Vorontsevich as well as the up-and-coming Alexander Gudumak.
Alongside the well-established duo of title contenders from Barcelona and Moscow is a club that has never even been in a European final, but has stolen the spotlight well before the first game of the season has tipped-off.
Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul brought in Euroleague's record-winning coach Zeljko Obradovic in the summer, in an effort to reach the promised land of a Final Four after several years of failed attempts.
The Τurkish giants already had charismatic Croatian scorer Bojan Bogdanovic on their roster and the Serbian tactician recruited another player who made the EuroBasket 2013 All-Tournament Team last September, Lithuanian forward Linas Kleiza.
Kleiza returns to Europe after a two-year stint at the Toronto Raptors and apart from Bogdanovic, he will team up in Istanbul with Turkish internationals Emir Preldzic, Oguz Savas and Omer Onan, Serbian forward Nemanja Bjelica, Croatian big man Luka Zoric, Slovenian Gasper Vidmar and Bo McCalebb of F.Y.R. Of Macedonia.
Meanwhile two talented youngsters, U18 European Championship MVP Kenan Sipahi and his teammate on that team, Metecan Birsen, are expected to make their Euroleague debut under Obradovic.
There is no shortage of talent on the other three teams in Group A and Partizan Belgrade, as per tradition, will be a side that will feature some of the most exciting young players in the competition.
French center Joffrey Lauvergne returns for his second season in Belgrade but this time with a EuroBasket gold medal in his trophy case. He is joined by two other promising French players, guards Leo Westermann and Boris Dallo.
Partizan can also count on 21-year-old winger Bogdan Bogdanovic, one of the players who shone bright for Serbia at the recent EuroBasket, and his teammate on the national team, center Djordje Gagic.
Nikola Milutinov, who was instrumental in Serbia's glorious run at the U19 World Championship last summer headlines a group of exciting Partizan players under the 20 years of age, which includes Djoko Salic and Mihajlo Andric.
Meanwhile young Latvian international Davis Bertans, who was unfortunate to miss out at EuroBasket due to an ACL injury, will return to the court and could play a protagonist role for the Serbian champions and coach Dusko Vujosevic.
Nanterre surprised everyone by winning the league title in France last June and will play in the Euroleague for the first time in their history.
They have an interesting mix of youth and experience inside, with former French international Ali Traore joined in the froncourt by young star Mouhammadou Jaiteh, who will make his first appearance at this level.
The French champions have also secured the services of Sergii Gladyr, the leader of the Ukrainian national team, which clinched a surprise sixth place at EuroBasket 2013.
Through Nanterre, Portugal could become one more country with representation in the Euroleague if 20-year-old Miguel Cardoso gets playing time with the senior team of the French champions this year.
Budivelnik Kiev conquered the Ukrainian Superleague last season and on Thursday will become the first ever club from the country to play in the Euroleague Regular Season.
Latvian national team head coach Ainars Bagatskis will steer the Ukrainian champions into this historical season and Latvian point guard Janis Strelnieks has been brought in to conduct the team on the floor.
Kiev's star signing, fresh off winning silver at EuroBasket 2013, is Lithuanian veteran Darjus Lavrinovic and the team can also count on one local battle-hardened veteran, former Ukrainian international Artur Drozdov.
|Alexis Ajinca had a breakthrough summer for France and will now look to carry his form back to Strabourg and the EuroLeague |
French Pro A runners-up Strasbourg have two EuroBasket 2013 gold medallists on their roster, as well as the coach that led France to the historic success in Slovenia.
Center Alexis Ajinca, now in his third year at Strasbourg, and guard Antoine Diot, who joined in the summer from Paris Levallois will continue their successful partnership with coach Vincent Collet at club level.
Meanwhile, a possible future member of the senior Les Bleus side, winger Axel Toupane, who helped the U20 French team clinch silver in the 2012 European Championship, will make his Euroleague debut this year with Strasbourg.
The roster of Liga Endesa champions Real Madrid features three EuroBasket 2013 bronze medal winners, in Spain's Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull.
Former Spanish international Felipe Reyes will provide dominance on the glass as usual and is joined in the frontcourt by Greek international Ioannis Bourousis and Nikola Mirotic, the MVP of the U20 European Championship in 2011 and two-time winner of the Euroleague Rising Star award.
Dontaye Draper, who had an excellent EuroBasket campaign with Croatia and young forward Daniel Diez, who led Spain to a podium finish at the U20 European Championship last summer and was voted on the All-Tournament Team, will provide the Spanish champions with quality minutes off the bench.
Anadolu Efes Istanbul reached the quarter-final play-offs last season and see a host of players on that side return for another campaign this year, such as the trio of Turkish internationals Semih Erden, Dogus Balbay, Kerem Gönlüm and Birkan Batuk, who all played for their nation at the recent EuroBasket.
Serbian international Dusko Savanovic and Croatian center Stanko Barac were absent from the big event in Slovenia last September but have also stayed under the orders of coach Oktay Mahmuti at the Istanbul powerhouse.
Additionally, Efes have brought in Greek sharp-shooter Kostas Vasileiadis and veteran Croatian playmaker Zoran Planinic, while Mükremin Kilicli, who has suited up for Turkey at all youth level national teams and 19-year-old Tayfun Erulku are poised to make their Euroleague debuts.
Lithuanian champions Zalgiris Kaunas see the former head coach of the Greek national team, Ilias Zouros, returning to their bench this year to replace Spanish tactician Joan Plaza.
The 37-year-old legend Sarunas Jasikevicius, a four-time Euroleague winner, and Martynas Pocius, who helped Lithuania capture silver in Slovenia last September, were the big-name signings of the Kaunas side this summer.
The duo will join in Kaunas fellow Lithuanian internationals Ksistof Lavrinovic and Robertas Javtokas, as well as Paulius Jankunas, who missed out at EuroBasket 2013 due to injury.
Zalgiris also have exciting prospects from neighbouring countries in the shape of Latvian point guard Kaspars Vecvagars, a member of the All-Tournament Team at the U20 European Championship and Estonian international Siim-Sander Vene, who helped his nation clinch a spot at EuroBasket 2015 through the 1st Qualification Round last summer.
Lithuanian point guard Vytenis Cizauskas is another young talented player who will make his debut in the Euroleague this year with Zalgiris.
The 21-year-old Alessandro Gentile was key to Italy's run into the EuroBasket quarter-finals and this year he will captain historic club EA7 Emporio Armani Milano.
Another youngster, Nicolo Melli, who was also a member of the national team at the EuroBasket will be joined in the frontcourt by veteran Angelo Gigli, one of the many players that could not reinforce Italy's campaign in the big event due to injury.
Meanwhile Estonian versatile forward Kristjan Kangur has joined the Milano side this season from Italian champions Montepaschi Siena.
German internationals Maik Zirbes and Karsten Tadda, who played in the first EuroBasket of their career last September, along with Slovakian star guard Anton Gavel are the old hands at Brose Baskets Bamberg.
The German champions have also signed former Serbian international Novica Velickovic, who is still however struggling for fitness and so have penned a three-month contract with Damir Markota, who impressed with Croatia at the recent EuroBasket.
Two members of Germany's U20 national team in recent years, big men Johannes Richter and Philipp Neumann could see their minutes increase this year at Bamberg and gain valuable experience in the Euroleague.