Nilsen: Backcourt Battle In Latvia

22 December 2008

Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe.


Newly appointed Latvia play-caller Kestutis Kemzura picks up the coaching reins from Nenad Trajkovic with less than nine months to prepare his team for EuroBasket 2009 in Poland.

While that might seem a relatively short amount of time to stamp his authority and personality on the team, I wouldn't expect the former BC Khimki Moscow Region coach to worry too much.

Any team with Andris Biedrins on board can always expect to be in with a golden opportunity of making a big impression. The player averaged a superb double-double during EuroBasket qualification to emerge as the number one rebounder, the best percentage inside shooter and the third top scorer.

The Golden State Warriors forward has since taken the form that saw him average 22 points and nearly 14 rebounds per game into the NBA season to secure a hugely credible 17 double-double performances to date.

Not surprisingly he continues to enhance his burgeoning reputation as one of the best and most efficient pound-for-pound players around with the general consensus appearing to be that Biedrins is still very much a project with plenty more still to come.

The Biedrins factor does however mean that it is all too easy to get caught up in the falsehood that Lativa are all about his influence and little more, something that is such a shame when there is a fascinating backcourt duel for bragging rights taking place between Janis Blums and Kristaps Valters.

In a long running battle for seniority within the National team that can be traced right back to the Latvia junior programme, both players recently made separate moves to the Spanish ACB league allowing for an even more absorbing comparison.

Having played in the Italian league last season, Blums made a strong case for more court time during the summer and Coach Trajikovic obliged with the player only too happy to prove he is not just a back-up for Valters.  Blums delivered some solid performances in qualification, averaging almost 9 points per game and consistently knocking down outside shots to help Latvia claim second place in their group.

Once a place in Poland was safely booked, Blums then headed for Spain and the Northern port of Bilbao. He arrived at a club who had enjoyed relative success during the previous campaign and had highlighted their ongoing ambition by entering Eurocup this season.

In theory it should have been reason for Blums to toast an exciting future but unfortunately for him, the success of his new team during the previous year was mainly due to the effervescent point guard Marcelinho Huertas who became a cult hero amongst the fanatical Bilbao support.

Huertas led a renaissance for Bilbao basketball but was on loan from DKV Joventut and rather than re-signing, a protracted and complicated transfer saga resulted in him quitting the ACB.

Having to fill the shoes of Huertas was therefore an unenviable task for Blums and so much so that in reality, the job has been handed to team-mate Javier Salgado.  To his credit though, Blums has still produced when called upon.

He has managed almost seven points per game in just 15 minutes and remained a perimeter threat although overall he will be hoping that 2009 proves to be even more fruitful.

For Bilbao are languishing in mid-table with a 6-7 record although this unremarkable domestic progress has been bettered in Eurocup with qualification to the next 16 assured early thanks to an impressive unbeaten record.

Blums too has prospered from the European game averaging double figures in scoring and having nailed 10 from 12 outside shots so far in the competition, something that he will be praying he can take into domestic game sooner rather than later.

Typically for Blums it seems that Valters is always that one very slight step ahead and despite signing for a team in Alta Gestion Fuenlabrada who are usually happy to merely survive a relegation battle each season, they currently sit one place above Lurbentia Bilbao.

Valters who himself had to serve a long apprenticeship with the National team before being given a real opportunity has also shaded it when it comes to having made the biggest impact in Spain - or at least so far.

After a quiet start to life in Madrid he has really begun to prosper meaning he can maybe finally begin to get over his disappointment at not following team-mate Biedrins into the NBA.

Always viewed as a great hope for Latvia basketball as a junior, Valters never quite made the cut to make it across the pond but was recently handed a starting role for Latvia during qualification and is now establishing himself as a quality starter in a league that most consider to be the best in Europe.

He has also shown that he is maturing rapidly as a player with each month that passes by and adding some impressive decision making to his natural quickness and shooting skills.

Having averaged 4.5 assists per game during the summer, the third best of the qualifying tournament, Valters is averaging closer to five assists so far in the ACB and sits in fourth place in the individual categories.

Delighted to be competing on a big European stage and leading Fuenla to an outside shot of a place in the prestigious Copa Del Rey in February, Valters can dare to dream again of one day making it to the NBA and playing in the same league as his idol Steve Nash.

Whether the in-form Valters or a resurgent Blums emerge on top at the end of the season shouldn't really matter to fans of Latvia - only that the classy back-court pair keep making progress.

With that in mind, I wouldn't be surprised to see the new head coach spending his first weekend of 2009 in Madrid when a certain couple of familiar faces go up against each other on the same floor.

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