October 23, 2021
Have WNBA imports outperformed Europe-based players in the early EuroLeague season?
We play a game to answer that question, share top performances from EuroLeague Week 3 and look forward to Week 4
A week ago, I decided to go the safe route to kick off my EuroLeague coverage here at The Next. What safer way than highlighting Alina Iagupova’s exploits in Week 1, given her track record in European competition? And it was not unreasonable: Iagupova put up a 29-point, 11-assist, five-rebound, two-steal performance against Turkish rival Galatasaray in what was arguably the best individual performance of the inaugural slate of EL games.
But, after that, she put up back-to-back duds that were as monumental as her back-to-back MVP trophies, making me look bad. The fact that Iagupova went from that double-double performance to a couple of 11-point games topping out at seven rebounds and six assists (mind you, she played 35 and 40 minutes in those two matches, so it’s not that she didn’t have enough time to put up numbers) put me onto something.
If you remember, a photo of Natasha Howard led last week’s column, which was reasonable considering 1) she was an unstoppable force in Week 1 and Week 2, and 2) we’re covering overseas basketball from a WNBA perspective. Being the best American import on European soil is good, fantastic even! But then Week 3 happened, games took place this past Wednesday and Thursday, and I found myself applauding Howard’s Dynamo Kursk teammate Eva Lisec. Lisec had a great 18-point, nine-rebound, five-steal outing in Kursk’s defeat against French side Basket Landes.
This got me thinking about who has been a steady top-tier player in the small-yet-illuminating sample of three games of EuroLeague competition. But instead of looking at this in terms of individual players, I thought it would be more interesting to check on WNBA imports in comparison to players who are not linked to any WNBA franchise (those who did not play there in 2021 or who don’t have a contract with an American team).
I call this fun, understandable, very simple game Partners in Crime. Let’s get it going.
Partners in Crime: America vs. Europe
As many as 11 of the 16 teams in this season’s EuroLeague have at least one WNBA import. That’s fantastic because the more teams meet that criteria, the better this game is. The idea here is simple: Who have been the best two players on each of those squads—one being a WNBA import and the other one not—and which of the two has been the very best? The winner will receive one point, and the group with the most points will be declared the winner.
Baretta Schio: Charli Collier (DAL) vs. Sandrine Gruda
Definitely not a great start for the imports, I’m afraid. In fact, this is one of the biggest no-contest calls of this whole thing. Schio only has Dallas Wings rookie Charli Collier in its squad when it comes to imports, and she hasn’t been close to reaching the levels of play of some of her teammates. Collier isn’t doing poorly for what she is at this point in her career (8.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 8.5 EFF per game), but that’s all she’s bringing to Baretta’s table so far.
On the other hand, Sandrine Gruda and Kitija Laksa have been melting volcanoes. The former is way more dangerous and keeps spitting the hottest basketball lava. Gruda, born in France, played in the WNBA on multiple teams (Connecticut Sun and Los Angeles Sparks) and won a championship with the Sparks in 2016. Gruda seemed to be on the downslope of her career, but all she’s done in 2021-22 is bounce back: 12.3 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game is her line through three game days. MVP contender.
Winner: Europe. Score: WNBA Imports 0-1 Europe-Based Players
Dynamo Kursk: Natasha Howard (NYL) vs. Eva Lisec
This is as tough as it will get. Dynamo Kursk has three WNBA players on its team, but Howard is the standout so far. Epiphanny Prince debuted last week, and Arike Ogunbowale did so this past Wednesday (and, of course, she already attempted 10 3-pointers … hitting just one). Howard, in her three games played, is averaging 17.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game in just 25.7 minutes a night. That’s ridiculous, and something only Howard and Tina Krajisnik (from Galatasaray) are doing among players with at least two games played—and Krajisnik is needing 34.7 minutes to do it.
The problem here is that Lisec has gone berserk for Dynamo. The Slovenian center is averaging 32.7 minutes per game, which is helping her reach beastly numbers: 20.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and (somehow) 4.7 steals per game. She is shooting worse than Howard on the same number of field goals attempted per game (14.3) … but Lisec (again, a 6-4 center) is attempting 5.3 3-pointers per game and hitting them at a 34.2 percent clip. It’s not the easiest of picks, but it’s a point to Lisec.
Winner: Europe. Score: WNBA Imports 0-2 Europe-Based Players
Fenerbahçe: Elizabeth Williams (ATL) vs. Alina Iagupova
If you read the intro to this column, you know where this is headed. Betting against Iagupova, the reigning back-to-back EuroLeague MVP, would be stupid. Her bounceback is inevitable. And are you going to tell me Iagupova has been bad after averaging 17.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists to this point? Her efficiency is obviously low because of her sky-high 3.3 turnovers per game, but Iagupova is attempting almost 20 (!) shots per game. She won’t need much more to bulldoze her way toward MVP contention again this season.
But there’s also Elizabeth Williams. All of the drama the Atlanta Dream has gone (and is still going) through these days can get even higher as Williams is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Her game is just otherworldly. Playing overseas, she’s logging 37.3 minutes per game and putting up a double-double of 13.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Williams is one of only five players averaging a double-double, and she is in a league of her own in swatting 3.7 (!!!) shots per game, with Maria Vadeeva coming in second at just two blocks per game. Williams takes the win here—and so would two other American imports on the team, Kayla McBride and Amanda Zahui B.
Winner: America. Score: WNBA Imports 1-2 Europe-Based Players
Galatasaray: Chelsea Dungee (DAL) vs. Tina Krajisnik
It’s hard for rookie Chelsea Dungee to defeat a veteran like Tina Krajisnik at this game. Dungee is coming off a 64-minute season for the Wings—not the largest of playing samples, nor one to really build experience against the best basketball players in the world. Dungee was joined by the Las Vegas Aces’ Riquna Williams in time for Galatasaray’s Week 3 game, and the latter really helped the Turkish side get its first win of the season with 16 points and two rebounds in 35 minutes. But neither Dungee or Williams meets Krajisnik’s bar three weeks into this campaign.
Krajisnik is a 30-year-old Serbian power forward who has been around pretty much forever. She’s debuting with Galatasaray this season. She’s also coming off a phenomenal summer in which she became a gold medalist and champion with her national team after winning EuroBasket. She hasn’t slowed down to start the 2022 EuroLeague season and is even looking like the best addition to a Euro squad so far thanks to her 21.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. I believe in Dungee’s slow-but-steady improvement and Williams’ skill, but this match-up has a clear winner, and she comes from Europe.
Winner: Europe. Score: WNBA Imports 1-3 Europe-Based Players
Perfumerias Avenida: Katie Lou Samuelson (SEA) vs. Leonor Rodriguez
This feels like cheating, but it’s not. Katie Lou Samuelson arrived in Spain earlier this week, as I reported in advance, and debuted for Perfumerias Avenida on Wednesday. One game in, things can’t be going better for her. The younger of the Samuelsons in Spain (sister Karlie is also playing for Avenida) put up a 16-point, five-rebound, two-assist performance in Week 3 in only 20 minutes. If you don’t look at the sample size, Samuelson’s efficiency mark of 15 is the best of the squad, so there’s that. Karlie Samuelson has been bad and Bella Alarie, while solid, has only had one good game to go with two middling ones.
For the European player, you can truly choose your fighter here. Leonor Rodriguez has the highest efficiency (14), but she’s been a little bit shaky week-to-week. Über-veteran Silvia Rodriguez is averaging 6.7 points and 7.0 assists (tied for second in the league) against just 1.0 turnovers per outing. The Dutch Emese Hof has been really steady through three games, too. Maria Fasoula is thriving on low playing time (14 efficiency in just 13.7 minutes per game). Regardless, Katie Lou Samuelson’s 20 minutes of basketball were too good for me not to pick her, and she should be the go-to and best player for Avenida as the season continues.
Winner: America. Score: WNBA Imports 2-3 Europe-Based Players
Spar Girona: Kennedy Burke (SEA) vs. Rebekah Gardner
You asked for a tight battle, and you received the tightest battle. Kennedy Burke, Spar Girona’s lone WNBA import, has an average efficiency mark of 20.3 through Week 3. Her teammate Rebekah Gardner, not a WNBA import, has an average efficiency mark of 20.3 through Week 3. These two are playing 32 and 30 minutes per game, respectively. Burke has the edge in scoring (20.7 points per game to Gardner’s 14.7), but Gardner is handing out more dimes (4.3 assists per game to Burke’s 0.7). Both are stealing two balls per game and pulling down virtually the same amount of rebounds (6.7 and 6.3, respectively) per game.
However, Gardner has been steadier on a weekly basis, and her contributions to the team have had a greater positive impact (she’s got a 39 plus/minus compared to Burke’s 10). I would understand if you picked Burke as the winner here, but Gardner gets the win by the thinnest of margins in my eyes.
Winner: Europe. Score: WNBA Imports 2-4 Europe-Based Players
Umana Reyer: Kayla Thornton (DAL) vs. Yvonne Anderson
By now, you may have realized that Dallas has more than a few players balling overseas this season. Kayla Thornton, who just wrapped up her sixth WNBA season, went to Italy to play for Umana Reyer, and she’s sustained her level of play on the other side of the pond—in fact, she’s raised the bar a bit, scoring 11.7 points per game compared to 7.5 in the WNBA. Thornton has scored at least 10 points and grabbed at least four rebounds in each game she’s played overseas this season.
Playing next to her is often American-born, Serbian-nationalized point guard Yvonne Anderson. Anderson has been a walking chainsaw through Week 3, averaging 17.3 points on just 11.7 field goal attempts per game and hitting shots at a 54.3 percent clip. Math 101 tells me that she is one of the most efficient scorers in the entire EuroLeague. Oh, and she is also averaging three boards per game to go with 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals. Anderson wins this battle.
Winner: Europe. Score: WNBA Imports 2-5 Europe-Based Players
UMMC Ekaterinburg: Jonquel Jones (CON) vs. Alba Torrens
I already picked one-game-played Katie Lou Samuelson as the WNBA representative from Perfumerias Avenida, so doing so with Jonquel Jones was pretty much a no-brainer. Jones just arrived in Russia this week—same as Samuelson in Spain—after her semifinals exit from the WNBA playoffs late last month. But the short training time didn’t keep her from excelling in her debut for UMMC on Wednesday: 19 points, nine rebounds, a couple of steals and two blocks in just 22 minutes. Of course, Jones is playing next to mighty Vadeeva and talented Emma Meesseman, but neither of those two played WNBA ball this season, so that gave me a solid reason to go with Jones here.
Like with the WNBA-linked players on the squad, it was difficult to pick the best player without a current WNBA connection. I ultimately passed over former Las Vegas Aces guard Alex Bentley in favor of Spaniard Alba Torrens. Torrens, who is running the point for UMMC, is averaging 12.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game for the Russian powerhouse. Torrens has a EuroLeague-leading 59 plus/minus, already 11 points above Meesseman, who is in second place with 48. Jones will end up edging everybody in town (other than Brittney Griner, maybe?) but this is Torrens’ team for now.
Winner: Europe. Score: WNBA Imports 2-6 Europe-Based Players
Arka Gdynia: Megan Gustafson (WAS) vs. Alice Kunek
If you start listing Megan Gustafson’s accolades, you might never end. Gustafson, just 24 years old, has already played for two WNBA franchises in Dallas and Washington since she became a second-round draft pick in 2019. She won pretty much every award up for grabs in her NCAA days, and she looks determined to do the same overseas. To wit: Gustafson is playing a monstrous 37.5 minutes per game and scoring 26 (!) points per game to go with 6.5 rebounds and a block per outing. She’s made 70 percent of her shots on 15 field goal attempts per game, and she’s getting to the free-throw line seven times a game.
Despite Gustafson’s incredible numbers, teammate Alice Kunek is actually outperforming the American import. Kunek, an Australian wing playing her second season for Polish side Arka Gdynia and a former WNBL (Australian league) champion in 2011, is arguably the leading candidate for EuroLeague MVP based on her current averages. Check this out: 19.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists, and 2.0 steals per game through three weeks of play. Even lowering the threshold to a more manageable 10-7-8, no other player is putting up such numbers. Torrens and Meesseman are the closest but fall multiple assists short. As mesmerizing as Gustafson has been, Kunek has somehow found a way to play even better. See it to believe it.
Winner: Europe. Score: WNBA Imports 2-7 Europe-Based Players
USK Praha: Alyssa Thomas (CON) vs. Dragana Stankovic
The only two WNBA imports on USK Praha debuted this past Wednesday for the Czech club: Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas arrived from Connecticut after the Sun were eliminated by the eventual champ Chicago Sky in the playoffs in early October. Both were fantastic, and you can honestly go with either. Jones put up 18 points, seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and two blocks in 29 minutes. Thomas finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and five steals. Jones edged Thomas in shooting (61.5 percent on 13 attempts to Thomas’ 45.5 percent on 11 attempts), but Thomas reached her stat line in 25 minutes compared to Jones’ 29. Anyway, both excelled, and the only thing touching my heart enough to make me pick Thomas is her absolute mad year and inexplicable Achilles injury comeback way before anyone expected.
When it comes to Euros in Praha, Dragana Stankovic is the leader at this point. The name “Dragana” alone could very well be enough for her to get the crown here, but she’s also posting very solid numbers. She’s been a bit up and down, but the 14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game are looking fantastic. In fact, only three players are averaging a 14-8-3 baseline so far this season: Stankovic, Krajisnik … and Alyssa Thomas! Point America!
Winner: America. Score: WNBA Imports 3-7 Europe-Based Players
Sopron: Bernadett Hatar (IND) vs. Nevena Jovanovic
There is no way in hell I snub Bernadett Hatar for this pick after what she’s doing overseas this fall. Hatar, for now an Indiana Fever player but entering free agency this winter, has a monster 25.3 efficiency in three games played. Makes sense, considering Hatar is averaging an otherworldly 18.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 0.7 dimes, 1.7 thefts and 1.3 blocks per contest. The Hungarian center is the tallest player to log a minute in the WNBA this season, and although she doesn’t stretch the floor at all, she hits paint shots with gusto: 62.8 percent shooting on 13.7 field goal attempts a game.
Jovanovic, the best player outside of the two imports from Sopron (Hatar and Gabby Williams), has an average efficiency of 12.7 in the past three games. By that measure, Jovanovic has been half as productive as Hatar. Incredible. The Serbian guard has a bunch of international medals to her name (including two golds this summer and in 2015), but she has never stepped onto a WNBA court in her career after going undrafted in 2012. Jovanovic hasn’t been bad per se, but Hatar and Williams are the true load-bearers of this squad and the only ones really keeping hopes up around the city of Sopron.
Winner: America. Score: WNBA Imports 4-7 Europe-Based Players
That’s the first edition of Partners In Crime for you! Final score: America 4, Europe 7.
Golden nuggets from Week 3
This is a quick recap of what has happened in the last couple of game days in terms of individual performances worth highlighting, unique stat lines, efficient games, putrid outings, forgettable outcomes, and everything else my data-crunching abilities allowed me to come up with!
- The efficiency leaders of the week seemed to be settled by the end of Wednesday’s slate of games … but then Hatar happened on Thursday. Hatar’s 30 efficiency ranked third among all players in this week’s games, and she reached that mark thanks to a performance in which she got 25 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and two blocks without a single personal foul in 33 minutes of play.
- The actual best player of Game Day 3 was Burke, Spar Girona’s and Seattle Storm’s second-year guard (33 EFF). Burke did not attempt a single shot in Seattle’s elimination game against Phoenix in the WNBA postseason, but she proved her scoring prowess last Wednesday, scoring 28 points in 34 minutes to go with seven rebounds, a couple of dimes and three thefts. Burke has arguably been the best player for Girona through three games this season.
- Shout-outs to all of the imports balling overseas because this week was the first one in which they clearly dominated in the EuroLeague: Of the top 14 performers in terms of efficiency (all at 20-plus efficiency marks) this past week, eight of them have strong links to the WNBA: Burke, Hatar, Elizabeth Williams, Gustafson, Brionna Jones, Jonquel Jones, Meesseman and Thomas.
- We didn’t see a single double-double on points and assists this week. Only Iagupova, Kunek and Pelin Bilgic achieved the feat in the first (Iagupova) and second (Kunek and Bilgic) weeks of play.
- On the other hand, eight players had double-doubles on points and rebounds, led by Hatar’s 25-12 (with two steals and two blocks) and Gustafson’s 26-10 (with an assist).
- Olcay Cakir was totally off her game last Wednesday. Spar Girona drove the point guard crazy, and in 32 minutes all Cakir could do was turn the ball over eight (!!!) times, commit five personal fouls and finish with a rather horrific two-point, six-rebound, four-assist, one-steal line.
- Two players from USK Praha trailed the whole EuroLeague in plus/minus: Zala Friskovec’s -26 is understandable given her 30 minutes of play, but Reka Balint’s -24 mark was ridiculous considering she only played 19 minutes.
- It was a day to forget for Iagupova: a week-leading 26 field goals attempted … of which she only hit four, a measly 14.3 percent. Yikes.
- A lot of newcomers debuted for their EuroLeague teams this week, and most of them were productive in limited playing time. Jonquel Jones, Thomas, Katie Lou Samuelson and Ogunbowale all played between 20 and 25 minutes, yet all finished with efficiency marks of 15 or higher except Ogunbowale (10).
- Don’t get that last bullet point wrong, though: Ogunbowale still scored 17 points to go with two rebounds and two steals in her first game for Dynamo Kursk this season.
- We had a “fake” debut this week: Kiah Stokes played her first game for Fenerbahçe, if you can even say that. She was on the court for the last 35 seconds of the third quarter and never came back in the game. She had just arrived and her team got run off the court, so it wasn’t that surprising.
The EuroLeague is moving its whole Week 4 slate of games to Wednesday, Oct. 27, instead of splitting them into two days as has been the case for the first three weeks. We’ll have plenty of hoops to watch next Wednesday starting at 10 a.m. EST (UMMC vs. Praha) and ending (tip-off time) at 2:30 p.m. EST (Avenida vs. BLMA). Not a bad day full of basketball.
What might be more important, though, is the arrival of (at least) some of the remaining WNBA players with contracts linking them to overseas clubs. It’s been nearly a week since the Chicago Sky lifted the WNBA championship trophy after defeating the Phoenix Mercury, so it’d make sense to have some of those involved landing overseas this week. All of Kahleah Copper, Astou Ndour-Fall, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley (from Chicago) and Sophie Cunningham, Bria Hartley and Brittney Griner (from Phoenix) are expected to play overseas this winter, so we’ll keep an eye on that.
Breanna Stewart (SEA) underwent surgery and won’t be flying across the pond any time soon, while WNBA Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere (NYL) is recovering from her own surgical procedure. Both Satou Sabally (DAL) and Briann January (CON) should be close to their debuts, too, perhaps doing so this upcoming week.