Theatre Of Future Stars

26 April 2014

Spanoulis (Greece)
Vassilis Spanoulis had proven himself in the 2004 FIBA Europe League season and went on to win EuroBasket gold one year later

As the 2014 edition of the EuroChallenge Final Four is in full spin in Bologna, we glance back at a long series of European superstars who used the competition as a launching pad to their career.

The EuroChallenge commenced in 2004 under the name FIBA Europe League and saw Unics Kazan take down TIM Maroussi of Greece to be crowned as the first ever champions.

The Russian side were led by the then 31-year-old Estonian star Martin Müürsepp, who was at the latter stages of his career, and another established European veteran in Lithuainian Saulius Stombergas.

But those with a keen eye for talent singled out a certain youngster by the name of Vassilis Spanoulis on the Athens team, which was coached by legend Panagiotis Yannakis.

The Greek combo guard was then 21 and averaged 6.3 points and 4.3 assists per game to help his team reach the final.

Spanoulis had proven he could hold his own on the big stage and Yannakis included him on the Greek national team that would conquer gold at EuroBasket 2005 in Serbia.

In 2005, a mighty Dynamo St Petersburg side, led by David Blatt who was coaching for the first time in Europe outside of Israel, conquered the FIBA Europe League undefeated.

The starting shooting guard of the Russian champions was Jon Stefansson, who had just returned to Europe from the USA and delivered his credentials that year as the player who would transform into the most famous figure of Icelandic basketball in the last decade.

Perhaps the most representative year in the history of the EuroChallenge as a formative competition for future stars is 2006.

An incredibly young Joventut Badalona side, where 26-year-olds Lubos Barton, Robert Archibald and Alex Mumbru were considered veterans, stormed past BC Khimki in the final and conquered a second European trophy, 12 years after being crowned Euroleague champions.

The young cubs of legendary coach Aito Garcia Reneses were headlined by future Spanish superstar Rudy Fernandez, who averaged 13.6 points and 3.1 that season, which got underway after he had just turned 20.

The Badalona roster also included then 19-year-olds Pau Ribas and Henk Norel while Reneses did not hesitate at throwing a 16-year-old by the name of Ricky Rubio into the battle of a European competition.

The teenage Spanish point guard, who would go on to become a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, not only featured in five games that season but also scored 12 points and dished out four assists.

The following year also stayed in memory as an era of Spanish prodigies.

Marc Gasol (Akasvayu Girona)
Marc Gasol cutting down the net after winning the EuroCup final with Akasvayu Girona

A 22-year-old Marc Gasol, arrived at Akasvayu Girona on loan from FC Barcelona at a time when very few people could foresee that he would develop into one of the best centers in the world.

Coach Svetislav Pesic was one of them and the middle of the Gasol brothers led the Catalonian club, which was sadly dissolved a few years later, to the title with a win over Ukrainian side Azovmash.

Fernando San Emeterio and Victor Sada, who would also go on to become senior Spanish internationals were also on that Girona side, as was future Serbian international Marko Keselj, who was 19 at the time.

In 2008, Barons LMT trusted a 22-year-old Kaspars Berzins in their frontcourt and the young Latvian proved worthy of their confidence by helping his team conquer the trophy in the final against Dexia Mons-Hainaut.

Berzins became a senior international immediately after that Final Four win and has been a linchpin of the Latvian national team ever since.

In 2009, a 22-year-old Nando De Colo carried Cholet to the Final Four and scored 24 points in the title game, but Virtus Bologna edged out the French side 77-75.

Finnish sharp-shooter Petteri Koponen was making his first steps on the big stage that year and averaged 5.8 points per game for the champions, while Kevin Seraphin and Rodrigue Beaubois, both aged 20 at the time, made significant contributions to Cholet.

In 2011, 21-year-old Zoran Dragic and 19-year-old Edo Muric shared the small forward spot on a Krka Novo Mesto that stunned all the hot favourites to conquer the EuroChallenge title.

The duo impressed the then Slovenia head coach Bozidar Maljkovic so much that they were both included a few months later in the final squad for EuroBasket 2011 and are since considered cornerstones of the future of the national team.

In 2012, a fantastic Besiktas side imposed their will and walked away with the trophy but two young players on two other Final Four participants attracted attention by holding their own against much more experienced opponents.

Joffrey Lauvergne, who would two years later help France conquer their first ever EuroBasket gold, was 21 at the time and averaged 4.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for finalists Elan Chalon.

Meanwhile Sergey Karasev, who had just turned 18 five months before the Final Four, emerged as Triumph Lyubertsy's second-leading scorer and averaged 12.5 points per game as his team finished in third place.



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