Players to watch at the Euroleague Final Four

Three players, at three different stages of their careers, come together in Madrid this weekend, all with the NBA looming large on their horizons.

The question for Tiago Splitter, David Andersen and Omri Casspi is, what effect will this weekend's Euroleague Final Four have on their careers on the other side of the Atlantic?

The culmination of the European season arrives at the Community of Madrid Sports Palace, starting Friday, when Splitter's Spanish team Tau Ceramica take on favorites CSKA Moscow, featuring Andersen, in the second semifinal.

Before that, Casspi's Maccabi Tel Aviv and Italy's Montepaschi Siena face off for the right to play in Sunday's final and as is by now customary, every NBA team will have one, and possibly up to half a dozen, personnel on hand to witness the highest level of club basketball outside North America.

This is not an occasion for weak hearts. Reputations, careers even, have been made or lost at Final Fours where the fervent, passionate, soccer-style crowds test even the strongest nerves.

Last season, some experts believed Splitter looked overwhelmed as Tau lost to hosts Panathinaikos in the semifinal yet, of the "NBA three" in action this weekend, his future appears the most clear-cut.

The San Antonio Spurs still took Splitter 28th in last year's draft, a decision that appears to have been more than justified by his form in helping Tau return to a fourth consecutive Final Four this weekend.

Splitter, as he told ESPN.com before the Euroleague season even started, fully intends to be at the Spurs camp later this year and no evidence from either Tau, Texas or Tiago himself, has emerged to contradict that analysis.

"The NBA is something I have in my mind," Splitter says. "I want to finish the season here then we will see better. But, for sure, it would be the best way to go over to the NBA, winning the Euroleague, proving you are a great player and earning the respect of the NBA."

Splitter's coach, the highly-regarded Croatian Neven Spahija is, coincidentally, a friend of Spurs general manager RC Buford.

"It will be a very interesting conversation with RC," Spahija said while laughing. "When anything bad happens with players I recommend, it's my fault; whenever the players are good, it is because RC is a great scout!

"But Tiago has had his best ever season and I really appreciate the job he has done for us. He has taken the next step in his career, but is he ready for the NBA? It is difficult to say, you never know how players will adjust."

Whatever the outcome with Splitter, however, the Spurs have an embarrassment of Euro riches waiting in the wings, along with the 6'11", 23-year-old forward/center from Brazil.

Frenchman Ian Mahimni is an almost identical build to Splitter (same height, six pounds lighter at 230) and is coming off an exceptional year in the NBA Development League with the Austin Toros, having averaged 17.1 points and 8.2 rebounds a game.

Iowa Energy coach Nick Nurse, who spent much of his career in Europe and is currently an assistant with the Great Britain national team has seen Mahimni 10 times this season. "He's got all the talent in the world," Nurse says.

"He's extremely talented, athletic, shoots it facing up and he has some good fight in his game. At the end of the season he was banged up and wasn't 100 percent, but he was still right in there, battling.

"Of course, being ready for the NBA and being ready to make it onto the Spurs are two different things and he needs more experience and to get more physical. But he showed some flashes of sheer brilliance this season."

To further cloud the issue, 28-year-old Lithuanian Robertas Javtokas, having been buried deep on the bench at Panathinaikos last season, is coming off an exceptional season with Russian team Dynamo Moscow.

"Javtokas should have been in the NBA two years ago," says one European scout. "But he took the decision for his family to take the money at Panathinaikos and that held back his opportunities. Now, he's one of the better bigs available over here."

For the Spurs -- a club not known to shy away from international players -- this summer could be a particularly interesting one.

"International guys all develop in different ways," Buford says. "We have seen that happen here at the Spurs with Manu (Ginobili), (Luis) Scola, (Gordan) Giricek and Tony (Parker). All came to the NBA by different routes.

"There is not a formula that is perfect, that works for every individual. But we like all three of these guys and we think they can all be productive players in the NBA."

The case of CSKA's 6'11" forward/center David Andersen is less clear cut. Drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Hawks six years ago, his talks with the NBA team have never progressed because of their unwillingness to match anywhere near the money the Australian-Dane has been able to command over nine years in Europe ... five in Italy and the last four in Moscow.

"Last year, David was coming off a major injury," says CSKA coach Ettore Messina of Andersen. He was 27 and suffered an appalling broken leg, dislocated ankle and ruptured ligaments that cost him most of the 2005-06 season.

"It was very difficult for him but this year he has moved back to the position he likes best [center] which is a position he interprets in a very personal way. He is a center who can shoot from outside, he has a lot of versatility, shooting from outside and posting up his man.

"This was probably his best season at CSKA. But he will be out of contract and, as for the NBA, why not, if he plays for a team that needs his special ability? He's not a 'muscle' player, he's more a finesse player who can spread the floor with his jump shot and can get points inside."

"I haven't really made a decision (on the NBA). I'm pretty open to things at the moment," Andersen says. "I'm exploring my options, my agent is talking to people, but like any player, you dream of playing at the highest level."

Casspi, at 19, is the youngest of the trio and, given his undrafted status, will be the most interest to NBA scouts in Madrid. Although he was limited to 11 minutes a game in Euroleague, his playing time increased after Zvi Sherf took over coaching duties in January and his 4.6 points and 23 rebounds a game were of higher quality than the basic numbers suggest.

Sources say that Casspi has let it be known that if the signs are pointing that he will be a first-round pick, his name will remain in the 2008 draft. Some observers believe he is worth a lower first-round pick and a strong showing this weekend could cement that view.

"I'm not thinking about it at all, tomorrow is the biggest game of my career," Casspi says.
"But my contract is finished at the end of the season and everything is open. For now, I just don't think about it, I think about the next game."

The teenager, who turns 20 in June, was already on NBA radar after a strong showing on the World Select team that was outclassed by a strong U.S. national junior team, featuring college stand-outs Michael Beasley, Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo at the Nike Hoop Summit in Memphis 13 months ago.

"Omri is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense type of player who could be an excellent role player in the NBA," says former Australian national teams coach Rob Beveridge who coached Casspi that week. "He can knock down the three and is good in the open court and in his finishing. But I think his biggest strength is his mental toughness and his desire to win."

In short, Casspi, Splitter, Andersen and all other Final Four combatants will need these type of qualities this weekend.

Ian Whittell covers basketball for The Times of London.