Fran Fraschilla ranks world’s top basketball leagues outside NBA

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Editor’s note: Fran Fraschilla, a former head coach at Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico, is a college basketball analyst and international draft expert for ESPN.

Yes, the basketball world continues to grow closer. Hundreds of Americans are playing all over the globe and last season the NBA had 113 players born outside the United States on opening night rosters.

And, while the NBA remains the best basketball league in the world by a good distance, the gap between Adam Silver’s league and professional leagues around the world grows smaller.

Great American teachers of the game of basketball such as Dr. Jack Ramsay, Hubie Brown, Chuck Daly and many others imparted their basketball knowledge to international coaches eager to learn. Today, the NBA and NCAA basketball have been influenced by team-oriented styles we have become accustomed to seeing in international basketball.

The globe has shrunk and basketball has come full circle. And, while we gear up for NBA games this week in Mexico City, I offer my latest list of the best basketball leagues around the world outside the NBA. I expect there to be disagreement among hoop heads who follow the game from Shanghai to Chicago to Belgrade.

1. EuroLeague

The EuroLeague has long established itself as the benchmark for basketball outside the NBA. Rebranded in 2000, it is the top professional club competition in Europe with growing attendance and college basketball-like atmospheres, with increased sponsorship and television revenues. Made up of 16 teams, the league is so financially stable that approximately 100 players are making as much or more money than the bottom 100 players in the NBA.

And the talent in the league is commensurate with the level of salaries. Fenerbahce lost two of its EuroLeague Championship players to the NBA, EuroLeague Final Four MVP Ekpe Udoh (Utah Jazz) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (Sacramento Kings). Some of last season’s other EuroLeague stars, such as Milos Teodosic (LA Clippers), Shane Larkin (Boston Celtics) and Cedi Osman (Cleveland Cavaliers) also have joined NBA teams.

EuroLeague teams (along with EuroCup and FIBA Basketball Champions League teams) also compete in domestic competition each week during the season, so the schedule starts in October and often ends in June, with grueling travel across the continent.

Predicted Final Four Champion: CSKA Moscow

Fast Fact: Luka Doncic, the 18-year old Slovenian phenom playing for Real Madrid, should be the EuroLeague’s next NBA star. In fact, he could be the first player to win the EuroLeague’s MVP and its Rising Star award in the same year. He is projected to be a top-five pick in June’s 2018 NBA draft.

2. EuroCup

The feeder league into the EuroLeague, EuroCup teams are the “next best” clubs in Europe. Many of these teams have multimillion-dollar budgets and often bounce between the EuroLeague and EuroCup depending upon their success the previous season. For example, the winner of last year’s EuroCup, Malaga, and the runner-up, Khimki, have qualified for this season’s EuroLeague.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: PBC Lokomotiv Kuban (Russia)

Fast Fact: Framingham, Massachusetts, native and former Princeton point guard David Blatt is in his second year of coaching Darussafaka Istanbul. In his season-and-a-half as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Blatt won 68 percent of his games.

3. Spain’s Liga ACB

The Spanish first division has suffered in recent years from the country’s financial crisis, so it is not as strong as it was 10 years ago. However, the league still maintains its place at the top of all domestic leagues in Europe.

The ACB currently has five clubs competing in the EuroLeague, three in the EuroCup and four in the FIBA Basketball Champions League. This is an indication of the depth of competitive clubs, often with much smaller budgets than elite clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona. Valencia and Baskonia, for example, have won the ACB title in recent years.

Many current and former NBA players from Spain have made the transition from the ACB to the NBA. Interestingly, it is a league in which individual players rarely stand out statistically because of the depth of each team’s roster and the unselfish style of play that ACB coaches preach.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: Real Madrid

Fast Fact: Omar Cook, who played at St. John’s, was once thought to be the next great guard out of New York City. Although he was an NBA flameout, Cook has developed a great career in Europe. At 35, he is currently playing for Movistar Estudiantes, his fourth ACB club.

4. Turkish Basketball Super League (BSL)

Home to the defending EuroLeague Champions, Fenerbahce, the league is on solid financial footing. In fact, salaries in the Turkish first division have exploded in recent years, which has led to a surge in success from Turkish teams in the EuroLeague, EuroCup and the FIBA Basketball Champions League.

Many lower level Turkish first division teams have bigger budgets than some of the top teams in Spain, not including Real Madrid and Barcelona. That is why Fenerbahce has the financial resources to reload quickly and compete for more titles. They currently boast former Pitt point guard Bradley Wanamaker, who, in the right situation, could play in the NBA.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: Fenerbahce (Istanbul)

Fast Fact: Errick McCollum, the older brother of 2015-16 NBA Most Improved Player CJ McCollum, is back for his second full season in Turkey. He once led the Chinese Basketball Association in scoring, averaging 39.6 points a game.

5. Russia’s VTB United League

This 13-team league serves as both Russia’s top domestic league and a united league with teams from Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The league has been dominated by one of Europe’s power clubs, CSKA Moscow, which since its inception in 2009-2010 has won every championship but one.

While some clubs in the VTB United League are run more professionally than others and the weather in this part of Europe can be harsh during the basketball season, salaries relative to the rest of Europe are on the high end. The top clubs pay a “premium” to acquire top talent that could otherwise spend their winters in Spain, Greece, Italy and France. In fact, there were about 20 former NBA players in the league to start this season.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: CSKA Moscow

Fast Fact: Americans litter one of Europe’s strongest rosters. Former UNC-Greensboro star Kyle Hines is in his 10th season in Europe and fifth at CSKA Moscow. While he’s not a household name in the United States, the New Jersey native is one of the most respected players in Europe. Former Colorado and Iowa State stars Corey Higgins and Will Clyburn also are key players.

Kyle Hines has plenty of name recognition on the international basketball scene despite being less known in the U.S. Mikhail JaparidzeTASS via Getty Images

6. Italy’s Lega Basket Serie A (LBA)

This is another league that has taken a hit financially in recent years because of its country’s economic turmoil. The Italian league, which can have up to seven non-Italian players per team, has dipped in quality in the number of foreign players. Why? There is, as much as ever, a lack of trust between players and owners with regard to players being paid in a timely fashion. (Yes, this has always been a dreaded issue in some parts of Europe.) Only one Italian club, Olimpia Milano, is competing in the EuroLeague.

Still, because the country is a great destination for foreign players and has a proud basketball tradition and teams with rabid fan bases, it still produces relatively high-level basketball.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: EA7 Emporio Armani Milano (Olimpia Milano)

Fast Fact: The San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginobili and former New York Knicks standout Bill Bradley are the only two players in history to win an Olympic gold medal, an NBA championship and a European title. Ginobili won his European championship with Virtus Bologna and Bradley won his with Olimpia Milano.

7. France’s LNB Pro A

While not the best domestic league in Europe, this league has produced many quality NBA players over the past 15 seasons, including potential Hall of Fame point guard Tony Parker. Boris Diaw, Evan Fournier and Ian Mahinmi have all had various levels of NBA success and the Rudy Gobert is on the verge of NBA stardom with the Utah Jazz. And, despite a major turnover in talent in the country, there is a coming surge of young players who will soon make their mark in the NBA and in Europe.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne

Fast Fact: Remember the name Sekou Doumbouya, a 6-foot-9 forward (he turns 17 on Dec. 23) with great physical gifts and excellent feel for the game. He is currently competing in Pro B, France’s second division. Born in Guinea, he’s now a French citizen and should see his name called early in the 2019 NBA draft.

8. The Greek Basket League

The term “top heavy” would be an understatement as two traditional European powers, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, have won 24 of the 25 domestic titles since 1992. Because of that dominance, the league has consistently ranked among the top five in Europe.

Because of the continuing dominance of the league’s top two teams, it has spawned one of the great rivalries in all of basketball and the nickname, “The Derby of the Eternal Adversaries.”

Predicted Regular Season Champion: Olympiacos

Fast Fact: Last season’s Greek League championship game between Olympiacos and Panathinaikos was finished in Olympiacos’ empty arena. With the home team trailing big late in the game, home fans shot off flares and fireworks, prompting riot police to be called in. Once order was restored, the game finished minus fans.

9. The Basketball Bundesliga (BBL)

Another league on the rise, the German first division arguably is the most professionally run in all of Europe. The German league boasts a high number of foreign players per team (unfortunately to the detriment of local talent, at times), excellent fan support relative to arena size, salaries that are paid on time (a big deal), quality coaching and many of the clubs playing in multiple leagues besides the BBL. A number of BBL stars, such as Dennis Schroder and Paul Zipser, have moved on to the NBA, but the country has a healthy crop of homegrown young players now playing domestically.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: FC Bayern Munich

Fast Fact: The coach of Bayern Munich, Aleksandar “Sasha” Djordjevic, is the current Serbian National Team coach but is best known as one of the top players in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s. He earned the “European Player of the Year” award twice and played for a short time with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1996.

10. FIBA’s Basketball Champions League (BCL)

In its second year of existence and launched by FIBA, this is currently the third best among Europe-wide leagues, with 32 teams from 14 countries qualifying for competition from a pool of 56 teams. FIBA’s flagship competition is trying to catch up to the EuroLeague and EuroCup and the competition is fierce. It has added numerous domestic league champions, albeit from smaller countries, to augment quality teams from more traditional basketball countries.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: Besiktas (Turkey)

Fast Fact: Former Ohio State star Aaron Craft has put medical school on hold to continue his basketball career in Europe. This season, he is playing in the French NBL as well as the FIBA Basketball Champions League.

11. Adriatic League (ABA)

The Adriatic League, made up of 10 teams from six countries, is arguably the No. 1 springboard to the NBA from Europe recently. Last season, 16 of the 59 European players that opened on NBA rosters played in the Adriatic League. The most attractive aspect of this league for young players is the opportunity for playing time and the high level of coaching. And, because the majority of NBA teams have European-based scouts in the region, no league is more heavily scouted.

Frankly, most of these young teams could not crack the top half of the top leagues in Europe. But, because individual player development has long been a tradition in this part of Europe, club owners use this development to often “buy low and sell high.” In other words, once a young player is good enough, he can be sold to a high-level European club and the ABA club turns a profit on its investment.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: KK Crvena Zvezda MTS

Fast Fact: Since 2014, KK Mega Bemax has had nine players in the NBA draft, including burgeoning Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic.

12. Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL)

The best proof of the fast rise of Australian basketball is the recent exhibition game in which Melbourne United lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 86-85. New ownership has seen a surge in money in the league with a new lucrative TV deal and flood of new corporate sponsors. A shortened season (only seven months), no language barrier, first-class professionalism and the addition of a third foreign player per club made Australia a more desirable place for many former college players and fringe NBA players. Not dissimilar to the Australian National Team with a healthy mix of NBA players and NBL stars, this league is very much on the rise.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: Perth Wildcats

Fast Fact: Former Kansas star Perry Ellis is in his first season in the NBL, playing for the Sydney Kings. He dropped 19 points on the Utah Jazz in an October exhibition game in Salt Lake City.

Former Kansas star Perry Ellis has been a force in his first season with the Sydney Kings. Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

13. Israeli Basketball Premier League

While the money in Israel is relatively low outside of the two traditional power clubs, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem, no league in the world is able to garner so many players for salaries often well beneath their market value. This is largely because Israel is an exceptionally desirable place to live for the majority of Americans and foreign players. Money is always paid on time, players are treated well by both the clubs and fans, and the quality of life in Israel is very good.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Fast Fact: Once the dominant team in Israel and one of the best teams in Europe, Maccabi Tel Aviv had fallen off in recent seasons. But the roster is restocked with players, including former Baylor star Pierre Jackson, former Ohio State Buckeye Deshaun Thomas, and two-time NBA Champion Norris Cole, who spent most of his four seasons in the NBA with the Miami Heat.

14. Chinese Basketball Association (CBA)

Although China has more than 400 million basketball fans and the Chinese Basketball Association has attracted numerous well-known NBA players and Europeans stars on occasion, the level of play in the league is not what many basketball fans would think. Fringe and former NBA players are attracted by the relatively big money and short season compared to European basketball.

Unfortunately, the league can too often resemble a glorified game of “hero ball” with the international players taking the largest percentage of shots at the expense of the development of the local Chinese players.

Predicted Regular Season Champion: Guangdong Southern Tigers

Fast Fact: The Shanghai Sharks’ Jimmer Fredette, former consensus All-American and NBA first-round pick, was the leading scorer in the CBA a season ago. His season high in 2016-2017 was 73 points. In July, he re-signed with the Sharks.



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