Teamcheck: Telekom Baskets Bonn
Bonn supporters had been enjoying a lot of sweet victories over the years. And they had, as a four times German vice-champion, witnessed bitter losses. Still, when the last remaining seconds on the clock ticked away in BBL Finals Game 5 on 25th of July and EWE Arena erupted in joy after a furious Oldenburg comeback, back from three down and Bonn playmaker EJ Rowland at the free throw line with 23 seconds to go, it was harder than ever for Bonn fans to swallow (video Game 5). After all, it was the first time they had actually believed that the championship could be theirs.
Under the guidance of Croatian Bruno Soce and Bosnian Predrag Krunic – the one that led Oldenburg to their first championship, quite ironically – as Soce’s successor, Bonn had been playing entertaining, high-level basketball for several years, however, their rosters were mentally fragile at times and never seemed to make a serious push towards a league championship. The big crash came in 2004/2005, when an extremely talented but unbalanced roster missed the playoffs for the first [and so far last] time in club history. Krunic was fired, yet Bonn decided to continue their philosophy and engaged Danijel Jusup, a Croat who had been coaching almost exclusively in his home country. Jusup put together a questionable roster, and it is safe to say that his way of handling players – a young rookie coming right of college, Jason Conley, in particular – did not make him a lot of friends. Things were heading into the wrong direction, and Bonn corrected their offseason mistake by releasing Jusup and trusting his assistant, Michael Koch, one of the most successful German basketball players of all times, with the headcoach duties. Koch, a rookie head coach, quickly installed a winning mentality. Moving Michael Meeks proved as crucial as the acquisition of Terry Black, who added some much needed athleticism to the roster. Koch managed to reach the playoffs with a roster he would never have had put together himself and his team put up a huge fight – literally – in the postseason versus champions Bamberg.
The 2005/2006 season was followed by two years that can be described as experimental. However, as different as the rosters were, they had one thing in common: success. With the budget cut down significantly, Koch put together a technically limited but incredibly tough group with outstanding character, which was led by point guard Jason Gardner. With hustle, slow tempo and a defensive minded approach to the game, they fought their path into the playoffs and were one game away from eliminating later champions Bamberg. Koch turned to more athleticism and one-on-one scoring talent for his second full season. Based on aggressive switching defense and versatile offense, Bonn ran all the way to the BBL Finals, where they fell to ALBA Berlin in four games. Koch took this philosophy to the extremes in 2008/2009, adding athletic point guard EJ Rowland as well as shot-blocking presence Ken Johnson when starting center John Bowler went down with a long-term injury. Bonn clinched home court advantage for the first time since 2004, eliminated an old nemesis, ALBA Berlin, in the semis and was only a couple of made foul shots away from finally winning the title.
“We are going to play a more mature style next season – more of a passing game than a dribbling game.”
Now, three and a half years in, the next step: More maturity, more experience, more finesse. Away from the full court press, towards conservative half court defense and more control on the boards. Away from lurking for the shot block and gambling in the passing lanes, towards more honest positional defense. Away from a one and one dominated offense, towards the pick and roll as the most powerful weapon. The reason for Koch’s change in basketball philosophy is hardly a sudden change in mood, but rather the result of sober, critical evaluation of the last two seasons:
“The energy we spent on our full court press in the last couple of seasons did not stand in a healthy relation to the results – like steals – in order to continue utilising it.”
A second reason is the guaranteed participation in the high level EuroCup competition. Bonn had no chance with their style in games against two EuroCup level teams last season, Virtus Bologna and Panellinios Athens, basically because the superiority in one on one skill is quite simply not there for them on such a level, as isn’t the possibility to motor a transition offense on the basis of steals and blocks – those teams know how to take care of the basketball and are smart and experienced enough to play against good shot blockers. With a more experienced roster and a more mature playing style, Koch is aiming to actually compete in the EuroCup, instead of taking it lightly and getting humiliated, as is the case so often with German teams in European competition. Still, one has to be realistic enough to understand that reaching the second group phase in the EuroCup would be a huge surprise. Hence the domestic league still has priority.
Regarding the new roster, continuousness is the keyword. Koch signed only four new players for the upcoming season, while six players are continuing – eight, if you count in youngsters Thülig and Wohlfarth-Bottermann. Three – Bowler, Flomo and Kolodziejski – have been part of the club since Koch brought them to Bonn in 2006. Another one [Strasser] joined in 2007, Yarbrough and King were added in 2008. The continuing trust in players he has been working with is not just a footnote – it is a characteristic players and agents take notice of while evaluating Bonn as a potential new destination:
They are trying to re-sign players they worked with in previous years, and those players want to come back. That says something about the type of organisation that exists in Bonn.
Both Taylor and Jared Jordan underlined the importance of playing for a player’s coach who is respected by his roster and has a reputation of getting the best out of his players. Jordan in particular should know what that is worth. The 24-year-old playmaker played for Lietuvos Rytas in the 07/08 season under the extrovert Serbian head coach Aleksandar Trifunovic, without doubt an excellent basketball expert, but somewhat questionable in behaviour at times. Surely a shock in basketball culture [and not only that] for a guy coming out of college. Bonn looks like a more suitable place to start a career in European basketball. Which is what Jordan is indeed aiming at – not something that should be taken for granted US guys, who in many cases cannot keep their eyes off the NBA, which takes valuable years away from them before they start building a successful career in European basketball.
“For the first time in my life I really feel like I’m ready for something like this. I’m just ready to get out and go. The NBA is always the dream, but there does come a point where you have to focus on a career in Europe. You just have to find the right situation. I’ll have that in Bonn.”
Jordan is a playmaker as pure as you will find. (Check out German Hoops interview with Jordan!) The 1.88m-point guard, playing for Marist college, was an NCAA standout, leading the nation in assists for consecutive seasons and finishing his senior season with 17.2 points and 8.7 assists per contest, before getting drafted 45th overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2007. He was quickly traded to the New York Knicks, who waived him in October that year after only eight minutes of preseason floor time. As so many talented players before him, Jordan was dubbed as the small and unathletic white guy that couldn’t survive in the NBA. Vilnius, where he served as backup playmaker behind former ALBA Berlin point guard Hollis Price was next, followed by a stint with the NBDL’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who he was second in the league in assists for, at 8.8 dimes per game. At the same time, he had a season-high 21 assists in a victory over Fort Wayne in February. In three preseason games so far, Jordan has, as expected from him, catalysed Bonn’s offense with 25 assists. Jordan, who had the nickname “The Magician” in his time at college, is an absolute key player on this roster. With the one on one skills of EJ Rowland and Brandon Bowman gone, Koch is looking towards his playmaker to create a large part of the offense. Pick and roll will be key, as will be Jordan’s creativity in open court situations. Suspicions arouse defense and three point shooting, mostly based on past statistics and NBA-directed scouting reports. We all know those usually don’t translate.
Backing up Jordan at the playmaker position is Johannes Strasser, who Koch described as “the best backup playmaker in the league”. The 27-year-old possesses a smooth perimeter stroke, reads the defense well and adds a lot of energy coming off the bench. Strasser can be a game-changer on a good day, however, he is kind of inconsistent and has games when nothing seems to be going for him. Anyway you look at it: Strasser, averaging 5.2 points per game for Bonn last season, is extremely valuable leading Koch’s second unit at the point. Additionally, he can easily be utilised as a second ballhandler to play alongside Jordan whenever the situation demands it.
“If he puts together all elements, he is a dunking shooter who defends. A guy like this should help us a lot.”
Andreas Böttcher, Manager
Bryce Taylor, just as Jordan, can easily be classified as an acquisition that would not have happened had it not been for the financial crisis. Sometimes after all, doing solid work based on long-term goals rather than short-lived success is literally paying off. Taylor averaged 13.0 points per game for Montegranaro in the first Italian league, shooting 52.4 percent for two and 36.9 percent from downtown, 46.9 percent overall. Taylor had averaged over 46 percent from the field in his junior and senior seasons at Oregon as well. At only 22 years of age and in his second season in Europe, he is still lacking experience, which has shown in his inconsistent [yet extremely promising] performances in Italy. He is a deadly shooter coming off screens as well as pulling up off the dribble, but lacks aggressiveness sometimes going all the way to the basket. Lack of athleticism will never be a problem in his case – the guy is extremely quick on his feet and possesses outstanding leaping abilities. He will most likely serve as a pure shooting guard, considering rather limited ballhandling abilities. Taylor is a guy who many believe has huge potential, so Bonn, after a promising first European season in Italy, is having a fantastic opportunity to present himself as a EuroCup participant’s go to guy. Because that is exactly what his role is going to be on the 2009/2010 Bonn team.
Second shooting guard on the roster is team captain Artur Kolodziejski, a veteran player who grew up in the region, and spent some time elsewhere before re-joining Bonn in 2005. Kolodziejski is a role player with quite specific duties: three point shooting and defending. Even if he has seemingly lost a step, Kolodziejski is still able to harry his matchup by being extremely active with his long arms. Offensively, apart from his jumpshot, which is a bit streaky, he is a smart player who makes unspectacular yet useful passes against zone defenses. Clearly the shooting guard born 1979 is a weapon to use against the zone, maybe alongside the guy he is backing up, Bryce Taylor. And most probably, Kolodziejski is going to respond positively on playing more of a pass-oriented offense.
“Vince Yarbrough is an extremely important piece in our puzzle. He helps us in many different areas.”
Starting at the three spot is former Denver Nugget Vincent Yarbrough. As for pure physical condition, Yarbrough is an NBA player, but his inconsistent shooting has been pulling down his field goal percentages throughout his career. That didn’t change in Bonn, where Yarbrough averaged 35.8 percent from the field, including 29.2 percent from three point range. However only a few [rebounding, for example] of Yarbrough’s skills measure in [his own] statistics. There are several qualities he brings to the table: Firstly, he is a very good passer who can reliably execute plays as well as perform creative passes to resolve a play. Secondly, he is a defensive stopper, having long arms, excellent footwork and very good instincts. Thirdly, he is one of this team’s leader, a calm, experienced presence on and off the court.
Alex King serves as pure backup for Yarbrough at the three. King had a difficult time in his last seasons in Frankfurt under Murat Didin, a coach who likes to adjust starting fives and playing time on a weekly basis, which tends to irritate the younger guys in particular. But is all fine as long as the success is there, don’t get me wrong. Anyway, King needed a fresh start and Bonn was the perfect place for that. The 23-year-old didn’t disappoint, providing rebounding, defense, and a bit of inside scoring in 12 minutes in average. The small forward moves up one spot from eleventh to tenth guy on the roster, but since the roster shape has changed completely this offseason, it remains to be seen whether or not he will gain in playing time.
Up to power forward, and here’s by far the riskiest decision by Koch in his whole coaching career up to this point: 1988 born prospect Tim Ohlbrecht, who averaged 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per contest for Bamberg last season, is going to start at the four. There is a lot that has been said and written about Ohlbrecht this offseason. I will stay with the obvious this time. Obvious is: Firstly, he has yet to prove that he is a starting five calibre player in this league. His most productive season came in 2007/2008, when he averaged 3.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Secondly, he has yet to find a position. He has been playing at center in Bamberg and is currently doing the same for the German national team in Poland. Lowpost game is non-existent, what he can do is A) score off offensive putbacks, B) roll towards the basket and finish above ring level in pick and roll play, and C) make the occasional midrange or three point jumpshot. Ohlbrecht is going to have to define a playing style soon: Either develop serious back to the basket skills, or improve his faceup game, meaning jumpshooting and ballhandling in particular. Clearly, on this newly-shaped roster Ohlbrecht won’t be asked to reproduce his predecessor Brandon Bowman’s numbers, but as a starter on a title contender, he will be asked to limit mistakes on both ends of the floor significantly. Unfortunately for both Bonn and Ohlbrecht, the young big man is currently on national team duties and hence not available for training camp participation, which would so much have helped him in terms of preparing for the season from a basketball standpoint, as well as adjusting to his new teammates from a chemistry standpoint.
Ohlbrecht’s performance will determine which role Patrick Flomo is going to play next season. If Ohlbrecht doesn’t fit in, it might as well be Flomo’s job to play the majority of minutes on the four. After starting slowly, the 29-year-old had a superb second half of the 2008/2009 season, finished off with a 18 point, 10 rebound performance in Finals Game 5, which would have established him as a Bonn legend, had it not been for his teammates’ errors in the closing seconds. Flomo lost a bit of his freakish athleticism during a knee injury, but as smart players do, he made the necessary adjustments, improving his passing skills and understanding of the game in the process. Still, his shotblocking is on elite level in this league, and it will complement the rather unathletic defensive duo on the center spot nicely.
Workhorse, lockerroom clown, lowpost presence John Bowler had excellent playoffs as well, averaging 9.5 points in 13 postseason games. Bowler is currently fulfilling power forward duties in Ohlbrecht’s preseason absence, but he is going to move back to the five primarily. There he is facing new competition in new acquisition Chris Ensminger, but Bowler has never been one for big minutes anyway: Bowler has averaged only a little more than 21 per game in his three years in Bonn, and it can be expected that the center tandem is going to share minutes more or less faire and square.
“You can count on one hundred percent Chris Ensminger.”
Chris Ensminger has not exactly been a Bonn crowd favourite over the years, but from a sober basketball standpoint, he is what he is: A hard worker, physical and dirty if needed, a solid lowpost scorer, fantastic rebounder and outstanding teammate – extremely valuable on both ends of the floor. There is little to zero reason to believe that Ensminger, with all the hustle he brings on the court, isn’t going to be a favourite among Bonn supporters soon. As guys close to the team are stating, Ensminger is causing Bowler quite a lot of trouble in practice games. His experience will help everywhere in the playoffs, and as team doctors are reporting, the guy – despite his age – is in excellent shape, hence surviving the season until late spring/early summer shouldn’t be a problem. Ensminger averaged 11.1 points and 9.0 rebounds in the past season for Paderborn Baskets. It has yet to be determined who of the two is going to start.
“Chris Ensminger’s measured stamina data is where some young players’ data should be.”
Promising youngsters Fabian Thülig and Jonas Wohlfahrt-Bottermann will practice with the first team at time but will mainly play for third division side SOBA Dragons Rhöndorf in order to gain senior team experience through playing time.
Time will tell how this new look Bonn roster is going to pan out. Preparation games have been solid so far, and the player material clearly justifies setting the fourth spot once again as the primary regular season goal. Suspicions currently arouse defense, which this roster’s predecessors had been extremely strong at.
PG Jared Jordan / Johannes Strasser
SG Bryce Taylor /Artur Kolodziejski
SF Vincent Yarbrough /Alex King
PF Tim Ohlbrecht / Patrick Flomo
C Chris Ensminger / John Bowler
New players bold