September 27th, 2013 | by MIKE ACKER News | Posted In: From the Elbow

From the Elbow #18: The (European) Champ Is Here

How Nicolas Batum spent his summer vacation: Helping France win its first EuroBasket Championship.

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Instagram has been the best place to catch up on what the Blazers have been up to in these last few weeks before the start of training camp and the launch of the 2013-14 NBA season.

Damian Lillard has been hosting a weekly rap battle of sorts. Wesley Matthews has posted photos of his recent basketball camp for kids, along with the obligatory workout photo or two. Speaking of workout photos, the Blazers’ official feed  has been a regular wellspring of action shots featuring Thomas Robinson, Will Barton and Meyers Leonard at practice.

Take a look at Nicolas Batum’s feed, though,  and you’ll see something a little different: a shiny gold medal. Unlike his teammates, who have spent the summer in training but away from competitive basketball, Batum, like he has done every summer, crossed the pond to play with the French national team. And this summer, for the first time ever, France took home the gold in the EuroBasket tournament.

For those who don’t follow international basketball, and that’s most NBA fans EuroBasket is the biennial summer tournament that pits the best national teams from the Euro zone against each other. 

EuroBasket has been staged since 1935, and serves as a qualifying tournament for both the Summer Olympics and the FIBA Basketball World Cup in alternating iterations—though unlike the World Cup or the Olympics, the United States does not get to participate. 

The days of NBA players suiting up for international tournaments and pancaking a bunch of players who are just happy to share the court with their idols are over. The NBA is an international league, the NBA’s official count of international players on last season’s Opening Night rosters was a record-tying 84, so almost every prominent national team features a few stateside pros. Though not up to NBA standards by any stretch, the international has improved by leaps and bounds since the Dream Team steamrolled the Barcelona Olympics.

Even with all the progress made in Europe, however, the United States is and always will be the favorite in every international tournament. Team USA has lost only a single game since Mike Krzyzewski took over head-coaching duties in 2005. The next time America loses in competitive play, it will be arguably the biggest upset in basketball.

Without the specter of Team USA hovering over the tournament, EuroBasket is usually full of intrigue and narrative. This year was no different. 

Over the course of the multiple-stage tournament, there were the minor stories on Twitter, such as how to properly pronounce the last names of spindly French center Alexis Ajinca or fleet-footed Spanish back-up point guard Sergio Llull, there were the major stories on the international broadcasts. For instance: Would Spain be able to win its third straight EuroBasket without the help of international veterans Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro? And then there was the local story or two—specifically, whether or not Sergio Rodriguez would still be in Portland if, back in 2009, he had chosen to rock the full beard he currently favors.

And speaking of local stories, the Blazers, a team that has been on the vanguard of the search for NBA talent overseas from the very beginning, were well represented in EuroBasket 2013. 

The best game of the tournament, an overtime nail-biter between France and Spain in the semi finals, featured Blazers both current and former. Rudy Fernandez and the aforementioned Sergio Rodriquez, teammates once again in Madrid, showed plenty of the chemistry against France that the twosome demonstrated in 2008-09, Rudy’s first and best year as a Blazer and Sergio’s last and probably also best year as a Blazer, that earned them the unfortunate nickname “the Spanish Armada.” 

Victor Claver, the only second-year Blazer who skipped pre-camp team workouts, started the semifinal game and showed a lot of the same promise on the court that Blazer fans saw in fits and starts in his rookie season. 

And, of course, there was Nicolas Batum. A fixture with the French squad since 2009, Batum finished EuroBasket 2013 as France’s second-best player, second only to tournament MVP and future NBA Hall of Famer Tony Parker. Batum was instrumental in helping Le Bleus overcome their nemesis in the semi final, and played an equally important role in France's blowout win in the championship game against Lithuania (a more traditional European basketball power, led by Linas Klieza, who was selected 27th overall by the Blazers in the 2005 NBA Draft).

It was France’s victory over Spain that very well might be the Blazer highlight of the summer. France, the up and coming team in Western Europe, had been knocked out of two straight international tournaments by Spain, the best team in the world other than the USA. Nicolas Batum made headlines around the world for taking a crotch shot at Juan Carlos Navarro the last time the Spanish team eliminated France from international competition. 

EuroBasket 2013 was payback from the 2012 Olympics and for EuroBasket 2011 for France, and it was redemption for Batum, who made an embarrassment of himself last summer in London.

The upcoming season will hopefully be one of growth for the Blazers, and coming into training camp with an international champion as one of the team’s leaders could provide just the kind of boost this young team needs. 

If asked, Batum will no doubt say beating Spain in Lithuania would be near the top of his list of professional basketball achievements. Blazer fans are hoping he can top it in Portland.


Follow Mike Acker on Twitter: @mikeacker
 
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