Welcome back to the Experts Round Table, where we ask a variety of the most-knowledgeable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague followers across the continent their opinions on the topics of the day. This week's panel includes Euroleague Basketball Legend Theodoros Papaloukas; Luca Chiabotti, the former basketball expert-in-residence at La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy; Patrick Reichelt, sports editor for Munchner Merkur; Alex Madrid of Eurohoops Spain; and Frank Lawlor, Editorial Director of Euroleague Basketball. Check out their opinions on three key questions this week.
Who is your choice for most-improved player in the EuroLeague this season?
"I'm going to give the credit to Lukas Lekavicius. His return to Zalgiris Kaunas with a more important role has helped him make great progress in his stats and his impact on the game. He's close to 11 points; he has the best percentages of his career in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, clearly higher than his last season in Kaunas before joining Panathinaikos OPAP Athens; and he has often functioned as a game-changer for his team."
"I like Ioannis Papapetrou's efforts to reach the top level in the league, and I believe that the Panathinaikos forward is lucky to have a coach like Rick Pitino working with him every day. Papapetrou posted his career highs this season and is improving his shooting percentages, but the very important thing is his impact on the games. Another player who is improving his game, in this case a veteran of European competition despite being only 27 years old, is Janis Timma of Khimki Moscow."
"Obviously, there are a lot of guys, who would deserve these merits. But when we talk about players who were already there, my choice is Ioannis Papapetrou. He was a good player, but this season he has become a key player in the success of Panathinaikos so far. Very present and very efficient, putting almost 70 percent of his attempts into the basket."
"There are several players – veterans, most of them – who come to my mind as performing much better compared to last season, such as Othello Hunter or Janis Timma. But being honest, nobody deserves it more than Shane Larkin. Yes, I know he is also the biggest MVP candidate, but check out his numbers and compare them with his statistics from last year: He scores almost twice as many points!"
"Although he wasn't in the EuroLeague last season, but rather two seasons ago, I have to say that Bojan Dubljevic of Valencia Basket has established himself this season as one of the competition's best centers. He and Nikola Mirotic are the only top-10 player in performance index rating, points and rebounds, but Dubljevic scored and rebounded a lot less the last time he was in the EuroLeague and his improvement has everything to do with Valencia occupying a playoff spot right now."
Which team with nine or 10 wins right now (ASVEL, Baskonia, Khimki, Zalgiris, Zvezda) do you expect to make the most noise going forward?
"It's hard to predict because the EuroLeague is so competitive, all the teams have their own virtues and, on a good night, they can beat anyone. LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne are doing excellently when we think that they returned this season after 10 years. Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade have pulled off several big wins and they're still trying to outdo themselves and go one step further. KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz have been badly hurt by injuries and is struggling. Zalgiris had a long losing streak but they've been playing very well for a while now. I think that, based on the roster and talent, Khimki Moscow Region is the only team from this group from whom I expected more wins and more consistency."
"I am a basketball romantic and I love to watch how Zalgiris grows during the season every year under the Coach Jasikevicius's fantastic work. I think that it is a mental as well as a technical question and I am betting on Zalgiris also this year. Zalgiris is coming off six victories in the last nine games and played great games on courts of Real, Panathinaikos and Efes. After the current week-loing break, Zalgiris will start with a good schedule and I think that, despite its 9-15 record, will have a good chance to reach the playoffs or fight to conquer them until the last game."
"I am still putting my money on Zalgiris Kaunas. ASVEL and Crvena Zvezda are already playing on their top level in my view and will have nothing to add. Khimki, as usual, has a lot of high-class players but does not work as a team. And in the race between Zalgiris and Baskonia, I see more talent on the Lithuanian side. And what can be an advantage: Zalgiris knows that they can make a run to the playoffs."
"After suffering nine consecutive defeats during the first half of the season, Zalgiris has found its rhythm. They have a 6-3 record since then, their home court is again fearsome. Also, they came very close to cutting Efes's streak during the double-round last week. With their experience in past years –the miraculous playoff clinching in Madrid last season – you cannot rule out Saras's team from the fight for the playoffs. Zalgiris will battle to be in the top eight."
"It's just a hunch, but if Khimki figures out how to balance its attack and buy into 40-minute defense, it will be a hard team to beat on any night at any court. Coach Kurtinaitis has been preaching balanced offense lately, and if that happens, the rest is just desire. Once Khimki establishes those two things, the sky is the limit."
What team would benefit most in the playoffs race from getting injured players back?
"The teams that would benefit the most from getting back their injured players are Khimki, who have important players that are currently out, and, of course, Baskonia, who, from the beginning of the season, have been hurt from their injuries perhaps like no other team, but who are way behind in the race for the playoffs. Like I said last time, though, I think there is very little room in the top eight for the teams that are under that threshold and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul are the ones who will probably manage to make the playoffs."
"Barcelona. Because Svetislav Pesic missed a lot of players in the same position, not only Kevin Pangos and Thomas Heurtel for a long span, but also Cory Higgins in the last games before the break. Barcelona did a fantastic job to stay at the top of the league without these players. In the last rush to the playoffs, and to prepare well for the crucial games of the season, the comeback of these players in the key position on the court will be a fantastic push for the team. If they come back, of course."
"When we talk about the teams that are fighting for the last playoff spots, then Baskonia is the choice. The injured guards coming back will boost the game of the Spanish side. Even if I think that it will be too late. Overall my choice is Barcelona. The Catalans are having a good season thanks to late imports like Malcolm Delaney. But if guys like Heurtel and Pangos come back, they would make Barca to my title favorite #1."
"Well, obviously Baskonia. They have been struggling with injuries literally since the first day of the season: Jayson Granger, Patricio Garino, Luca Vildoza, Pierria Henry… even Nik Stauskas, who just left the team. You need point guards to win games, right? If they had all their players healthy from today until the end of the regular season, I'm sure they would be in the mix for the playoffs. However, we don't expect the return from any of them soon."
"It will be fascinating to see how well Maccabi does if it can get back players such as Omri Casspi and Tarik Black, who were the stars this team was expected to follow this season. Maccabi has already done more than expected without them. With one or both of them, not to mention Yovel Zoosman and Nate Wolters, Maccabi could steal home-court advantage in the playoffs, and then would be a team to be reckoned with all the way to the end of the season."