The CSKA Temptation

Mikhail Prokhorov knows international players, as does Andrei Vatunin, the president of CSKA Moscow who's rumored to be joining the Nets. It should come as no surprise that they see European players as a rich vein of basketball talent that's been under-prospected, under-mined. After all, Prokhorov spent a lot of money stocking the CSKA Moscow roster with mostly European talent during the decade he owned the club. And he has made it clear he's buying the Nets in part to improve the quality of Russian basketball. One way to do that is to bring Russian players to the NBA.

CSKA had the Euroleague’s highest payroll before Prokhorov sold out in 2008, around $55 million annually. That’s just below what the Nets’ roster was paid this past season.  That's low by NBA standards, but in the Euroleague, it's an astronomical figure. Of the 20 highest paid European players in 2008-09, eight were on CSKA’s roster, including three of the top six and five of the top ten.

Considering Prokhorov’s history, we thought we'd take a look at the CSKA roster the last few years to see if any of them might be tempted to join their old boss when he finally gets control of the Nets...and who might be valuable pieces for the Nets. Those still with CSKA might very well be tempted to move. The team’s new owners have cut expenditures by 30%.

As his old coach, Ettore Messina, noted last year, Prokhorov almost always left basketball decisions at CSKA to his basketball people and didn’t let his own biases play into roster decisions. He’s no Mark Cuban. Still, why not take a look at the possibilities, those players who were either developed or brought in on his watch. After all, these are the players he knows best. We broke them down into three categories: draft prospects, young prospects and NBA-ready (including three who have played in the NBA previously) plus one big wild card.

The Draft Prospects:

This group is the most promising, in part because they are legitimate prospects but also because draft projections put them near where the Nets will pick this June and in 2011.

Alexey Shved, Russian, currently "on loan" to Moscow Dynamo after rising through the CSKA system. 6’7" combo guard. 21  years old. Shved is projected as a mid second round pick.  Described by Draft Express as "extremely fluid, skilled and athletic", Shved has an ability to create his own shot and has a high BBIQ, although he can sometimes be a bit wild. "In terms of pure talent, there are few guards in the NCAA that would rank ahead of him," according to DX. Nicknamed "The Russian Rubio". His contract runs through 2013. No information on whether he has any NBA opt-outs or buy-outs.

Artem Zabelin, Russian, currently plays for CSKA. 7’1" center. 22 years old. Zabelin was projected as a late second rounder earlier in the season, but has dropped.  He’s a typical European big man, meaning highly skilled with a nice stroke...and suspect NBA athleticism. That athleticism is made even more suspect by a torn ACL he suffered in the 2008 European Under-20 Championship. Still, he was intriguing enough in 2007 that the Nets brought him for a pre-draft workout. Ed Stefanski said of him then, "Much better shooter that you would think for that size, good skills. The kid looked pretty good for a 7’1" guy with mobility. Needs a body."  Played mostly for CSKA's youth team this season, getting little time with the big club.

Semen Shashkov, Russian, formerly played for CSKA’s youth team, now with Ural Ekaterinburg, a Russian Superleague team. 6’8" swingman. 20 years old. Shashkov is projected as a late second rounder in 2011, when the Nets have two picks in the second round. Called a "waste of great talent" in his most recent DX profile, Shashkov is seen as "impressive from a physical standpoint" but lacking in aggressiveness and toughness. Once scored 49 points in Russia's junior league. Still, DX had him being drafted.

Young Prospects:

Can you say "fallen angel"? Both of these players were developed in CSKA’s youth program and were once seen as surefire NBA prospects. One was taken in the lottery, the other never taken, but both are still very young.

Yaroslav Korolev, Russian, played for Reno Bighorns in the D-League. 6’9" forward. 23 years old. A classic Euro-bust. Taken #12 by the Clippers not long after his 18th birthday, he never met expectations. He had been a star on the CSKA youth team which won the Euroleague juniors championship in 2005. After averaging 1.1 ppg and 0.5 rpg in 34 games over two years with the Clips, he was waived and returned to Russia. He has disappointed there as well. Still, we note two things: the Nets were reportedly interested in him before the 2005 draft and he chose to leave Russia for the D-League in October, not long after Prokhorov decided to buy the Nets.  He averaged 10 ppg and show better than 40% from deep.

Anton Ponkrashov, Russian, currently plays for CSKA. 6’7" point guard. 24 years old. In 2006, he was regarded as one of the best point guard prospects in Europe and a sure NBA draft pick. In one Euroleague game, as a 20-year-old, he had 17 points and 14 assists, but he never developed much consistency. Some saw Marco Jaric and Zoran Planinic in him: a big European point guard that didn't make it in the NBA. He was never drafted. Now beyond draft age, he’s seen minutes for CSKA at three positions—point guard, shooting guard and small forward although he is primarily a pass-first point guard, backing up Planinic.

NBA-Ready:

The player many see as the most NBA-ready Euro and the player many call the "Jason Kidd of Europe" head this list. Three others are former NBA players who retreated to Europe, two of whom wore Nets caps on Draft Night...and one of whom was contacted by the Nets this past season before heading to Moscow.

Ramunas Siskauskas, Lithuanian, currently plays for CSKA. 6’6" swingman. 31 years old. Siskauskas, in the words of Draft Express, is "arguably the most complete player you’ll find outside the NBA". DX further describes him as being "a phenomenal shooter, ball-handler, passer and defender, as well as one of the smartest guys you’ll find around." A veteran of international play, Siskauskas is a long time member of the Lithuanian Olympic team, averaging 11 ppg and 4 rpg in the Beijing Olympics. He was the Euroleague MVP and Russian Player of the Year in 2008 and has won national championships in Lithuania, Greece, Russia and Italy as well as two Euroleague championships. How many years does he have left? Does he even want to play in the NBA? More than anyone else on this list, he deserves the chance.

Theo Papaloukas, Greek, currently plays for Olympiacos. 6’7" point guard. 33 years old. As noted, the "Jason Kidd of Europe". He played six years with CSKA, getting to the Euroleague Final Four four times and to the Final three times. With him at the helm, CSKA won the Euroleague championship twice, in 2006 and 2008. He was named MVP of both the 2006 Euroleague Final and the 2006-07 Euroleague regular season. The leader of the Greek National Team, he has a FIBA European championship and a silver medal in the FIBA World Championships, where he decimated Team USA in the semis. Pursued at various points in his career by the Heat, the Celtics, the Lakers and Bucks. Never a big scorer, he is a pass-first point guard. Still when needed, like Kidd, he can put up big numbers. Getting up there in years but still four years younger than Kidd.

Trajan Langdon, American, currently plays for CSKA. 6’4" shooting guard. 33 years old. One of the world’s great shooters. Played three years in the NBA, three more in Italy, Turkey and Russia before joining CSKA in 2005-06 for their first championship run. Even in Cleveland, where he played three years, he could always shoot. During his college, NBA and European careers, he has never shot worse than 36.5% in any season and his career percentage at all levels is 42.6%, hitting 1,212 three's. Not known for much else other than shooting, he has won a lot of games in his career, from Duke to CSKA. Like the others, getting older, but shooters can hang in there for a while.

Viktor Khryapa, Russian, currently plays for CSKA. 6’9" power forward. 27 years old. Taken by the Nets out of CSKA with the #23 pick in the 2004 draft then immediately sold to the Blazers for $3 million…the first Bruce Ratner cost-cutting move. After three years with the Blazers and Bulls, Khryapa returned to CSKA in time to play a key role in the 2008 championship run. His best year in the NBA was 2005-06 when he played in 69 games for the Blazers, averaging 5.8 ppg and 4.4 rpg. His game is similar to that of Andrei Kirilenko in that he can fill up a stat sheet...and can play defense. In the 2007 FIBA Eurobasket Final, won by Russia over Spain, he collected seven points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a blocked shot while keeping Pau Gasol in check. This year, he was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Euroleague, First Team, All-Euroleague and MVP of the Russian Euroleague.  He led the Euroleague in steals...as a power forward!  He also averaged 4.2 apg. He's considering a return--he has an NBA "out" in his contract and could be an NBA role player.

Pops Mensah-Bonsu, British, currently plays for CSKA, 6'9" power forward, 26 years old. After bouncing around the Euroleague and the NBA, Mensah-Bonsu finally came to rest in Moscow in January, in time to be eligible for the Euroleague tournament.  In November, Mensah-Bonsu said the Nets had contacted him.  At the time, the team had eight healthy players and were one injury away from having to petition the league to add a player beyond the 15-man limit. At the time he said he had interest from the Nets, CSKA and Toronto.  After a short stint with the Raptors, he signed with CSKA, where he backs up at both power forward and center.  Has played 54 games in the NBA after going undrafted.

Zoran Planinic, Croatian, currently plays for CSKA. 6’7" point guard. 27 years old. No introduction needed. After the 2006 Draft, when the Nets took Marcus Williams, Planinic saw diminishing prospects and signed with Tau Ceramica in Spain. When Papaloukas left CSKA for Olympiacos two years ago, Planinic was signed as his replacement. A solid European player, he has never reached the top rank in either Europe or the US. Reportedly headed for Maccabi Tel Aviv next season.

Jon Robert Holden, American-Russian, currently plays for CSKA, 6'1" point guard, 33 years old. No one wins like J.R. Holden.  After a four year career at Bucknell, he was offered a job with a Latvian team, won the Latvian national championship; moved to a Belgian team, won the Belgian national championship; moved to Greece, won the Greek national championship; before finally joining CSKA in 2002, where has won eight straight Russian national championships and two Euroleague championships. In 2007, after President Vladimir Putin had granted him Russian citizenship, he won the FIBA Eurobasket hitting a jumper with 2.1 seconds left, defeating favored Spain. Although now 33, Holden was still named honorable mention, all-Euroleague.  Never played in the NBA, his only NBA experience was in the Orlando Summer League, where he played for the Hornets. He is signed through 2011.

The Wild Card:

Only once, says Messina, did Prokhorov involve himself in a personnel decision, in the summer of 2007 when he went fo AK-47.

Andrei Kirilenko, Russian, currently plays for Utah Jazz. 6’9" combo forward. 29 years old. Prokhorov attempted to bring Kirilenko back to CSKA after the Russia had surprised Spain in the 2007 Eurobasket championship game. Prokhorov wanted to buy Kirilenko out of his NBA contract. It was emotional, patriotic...and ultimately foolhardy. Prokhorov and Kirilenko are friends and AK-47 is currently the only NBA player from Russia.  The big problem with bringing him to the Nets is the financial aspect. Kirilenko has an ugly contract the Jazz would probably be willing to dump--$17,823,000 in 2010-11, but trading for him would exhaust more than half the cap space the Nets have accumulated for the 2010 free agency. Waiting a year for him to become a free agent might work. Kirilenko has seen his productivity diminish every season since 2006, when he signed a six-year, $86.5 million deal. On occasion, though, he can still surprise, as he did on several occasions this season.  Against the Knicks, he had what was once a typical AK-47 game.  He scored 23 points, including 5-for-8 from deep, grabbed six rebounds and handed out six assists, a couple of them beauties. He is second all time in "5x5" games—five or more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He’s done it three times.

Of course, this is merely a fan's exercise, a little weekend fun. There are contracts, cultural issues, personal histories, etc. that could interfere--not to mention perceptions both here and in Russia. Is Prokhorov out to improve Russian basketball or steal from it? But if Prokhorov does buy the Nets, we wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to see one or more of these players in Brooklyn...or Newark.

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