Last week, the most star-studded basketball teams in Europe came together to compete in the EuroLeague, and EuroCup quarterfinals. With matches of both tournaments broadcast for free over YouTube, it was a great chance to take a look at some of the top talent from the WNBA and beyond playing extended minutes in games with real ramifications. Here are four players who stepped up when the stakes were highest, and used the bright lights of tournament basketball to show off their games.
Gabby Williams dominated with the basketball in her hands
Up against French club Lyon in the EuroLeague quarterfinals, Gabby Williams stepped up into a starring offensive role in Game 1 for her Hungarian squad, Sopron Basket. Notching 24 points on spooky accurate 10 of 16 shooting, Williams had a unique opportunity to show just how dangerous she can be when she’s allowed to operate with the ball in her hand.
Though she’s often called on to play in the forward spots, both for Sopron and for the Chicago Sky, she looks like a bonafide guard when scoring on-ball. Just take a look at this play from the fourth quarter, where Williams crosses up Lyon defender Michelle Plouffe before driving on the baseline to get two points off the strong lay-up.
With her size and handles, Gabby thrives at taking defenders off the dribble and getting her points. Gabby kept her foot on the gas pedal, and the ball in her hands, throughout the game, down to the last possession. Despite being up almost 30, ‘Point Gabby’ took the ball coast to coast before driving hard to the rack to make an off-balance fader at the buzzer despite a ton of contact.
Williams’ 24 points helped Sopron take the win over Lyon, both in Game 1 and in the series. One of the EuroLeague quarterfinal’s top performers, she was able to remind everyone just how good her handles and finishing are. ‘Spooky G’ has really shown exactly how scary she can be.
Mercedes Russell looks locked in on both ends
Although I’ve written previously about Mercedes Russell’s play for her club Galatasaray, I wanted to be sure to key into Russel’s performance in Game 2 of the EuroLeague quarterfinals. In the win against fellow Turkish club Fenerbahce, Russell filled up the stat sheet, posting 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting to go along with 14 boards, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. It was a career game for the 25-year-old center, who showed just how effective she can be as a starting center on both ends of the floor.
It was particularly exciting to see how much confidence Russell was playing with on offense, typically an area where she’s known to struggle. She ranked towards the bottom of the league in overall half-court scoring last season with the Seattle Storm, ranking in the 30th percentile with just .771 points per possession. Russell has looked improved on the offensive end with Galatasaray in EuroLeague play, averaging 14.6 points per game on 61% shooting, but this game feels like a statement game.
Looking at the ways Russell got her points, too, there’s a new found fierceness and confidence in her offence–along with a few new tricks in her bag. Take a look at this play, where she takes Alina Iagupova off the dribble out of a brief post up, then hits her with a crossover to lay it in. There’s a swagger on display in this play that’s really exciting to see out of Russell on the offensive end.
Russell looked just as elite on the defensive end in this outing, stymying Fenerbahce’s offense and tallying 3 steals and 2 blocks in the process. Take a look at this possession from the game’s fourth quarter, where she locks down the paint and buffs the opposing offense not once, but twice.
With the shot clock winding down, Russell establishes firm position on the low block, but remains mobile enough to close out on Kiah Stokes in the corner when she gets the pass from Iagupova. When Stokes passes back to Jasmine Thomas, Russell’s attention snaps to her, and you can almost hear a voice saying “target acquired”. She shuttles over to prevent Jasmine Thomas’ drive to the bucket, and emphatically blocks her attempted fader. One of Russell’s best qualities as a center is her ability to read and react to opposing offenses, and that defensive instinct looked sharper than ever in this deciding match of the quarterfinals.
Although Russell’s play on both ends of the floor helped Galatasaray seal the win in Game 2, it wasn’t enough to lift the team over Fenerbahce, who won the cumulative points battle 152-145, advancing to the semifinals. Regardless, if I’m a Seattle Storm fan, this game makes me very excited at the prospect of what Mercedes Russell can do as a starting center.
Alina Iagupova is the WNBA’s missing superstar
Speaking of Fenerbahce, it’s no wonder that they’re finding success in the EuroLeague playoffs with how stacked their team is. While to American fans, Fenerbahce is usually associated with familiar WNBA names like Jasmine Thomas, Kayla McBride, and Satou Sabally, the star that drove the squad’s success in these quarterfinals has never played a minute of WNBA basketball. Alina Iagupova, small forward for Fener and captain of Ukraine’s national team, played on another level in this quarterfinals against Galatasaray, looking consistently like the best player on the floor throughout both matches.
In game 1, Iagupova put up an eye-popping 32 points to go along with 4 rebounds, 7 assists, and two steals. Iagupova looked unstoppable out there, an offensive system unto herself with her ability to make plays for her teammates, as well as score on multiple levels herself. One highlight that’s gotten a lot of play from Iagupova’s game one is this assist, and for good reason.
First of all, this is just such fun basketball. From the moment Iagupova grabs the board, she explodes towards the other end of the floor, using her speed to push the pace in the fast break. Despite dashing across the floor at breakneck pace, the Ukranian star maintains the wherewithal to pull off a slick dish to get Olcay Cakir the easy lay up. That combination of motor, basketball IQ, and great passing skills is deadly on its own. But when you add it all up with Iagupova’s shotmaking and defensive skills, you have a whole problem.
Check out this play from Game 2 of the series. Iagupova snatches an outlet pass from Mercedes Russell out of the air. Before anyone knows what’s happening (including the camera person), Iagupova has steadied herself and gotten into her shooting motion, splashing home a three. That’s the definition of killer instinct right there, acting quickly to turn defense into offense with assassin-like precision. All told, Alina Iagupova has shown just how well-rounded and dynamic a player she is throughout this EuroLeague tournament. She serves as a great reminder that not all of the top basketball talent in the world plays in the United States, and that the WNBA needs to keep pushing to attract top international players to come over. Iagupova is 29, but it looks like she still has a lot of basketball left in her. Maybe we’ll see the Sparks, who still own her draft rights from way back in 2013, bring her in at some point in the next few seasons as they look to retool. For now, though, we’ll see how far Fenerbahce can ride Iagupova in this EuroLeague tournament, coming up against superstar-laden juggernaut UMMC Ekaterinburg in the semi-finals later this April.
Betnijah Laney shows off everything she has down the stretch
I’ve covered how versatile recently signed New York Liberty guard Betnijah Laney is before, but she really stepped up to another level in the EuroCup quarterfinals for her Israeli squad Ramla. While Ramla ultimately lost the single-elimination match-up against Swiss club Fribourg Basket, Laney really did do everything in her power to try to push her club over the top. And I do mean everything in her power, recording 30 points to go with 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and four blocks.
Particularly impressive was Laney’s play in the deciding minutes of the game, going on a run on both ends of the floor that brought Ramla from 10 back to within just one point over a dominant three-minute stretch. Betnijah Laney was in her bag, managing to showcase all of the things she does best in just a few minutes. In true All-Defensive Team fashion, Laney initiated her attack on the less glamorous end of the floor, forcing a bad pass turnover using tight perimeter D before bolting to the other end to complete the transition play with a lay-up.
Turning defense into offense is the bread and butter of Betnijah Laney’s game, so it’s no surprise to see her using it as a springboard for offensive success. Laney keeps it going on Ramla’s next trip down the floor, grabbing an offensive rebound before drawing a foul off the drive, sending her to the line for two free throws, converting both.
With Laney in the zone like this, there’s just not much that Fribourg can do to stop her from driving to the bucket and either making her way to the line, or laying it up for the easy two. She is, in fact, able to get them on the drive from the left wing again just a minute later, taking her defender off the dribble and barreling into the paint for two, shrinking the lead to just 6 points.
After helping secure the stop on the other end, Laney’s right back on it on offense, showing off her elite shooting. She’s able to slice the lead in half, down now to just three points off the catch and shoot three. She makes the shot look easy, even with the defender closing out, shoving a hand in Laney’s face.
After knocking down that three, Laney turned right around and nabbed a steal by jumping a passing lane, seemingly one of her favorite things to do on the basketball court. After skillfully corralling her dribble while under pressure from a few defenders, Laney uses the bounce pass to get it to Naama Shafir for the lay-up, bringing Ramla within one point of Fribourg.
While Ramla wasn’t able to come out with the win, Laney put on a showcase of her skill set while chasing it. From her defensive disruptiveness and transition offense ability to playmaking and shooting, the full range of Betnijah Laney’s talents were on full display. To put on a clinic like this is impressive in its own right, but to do it in the deciding minutes of an elimination game is beyond impressive. With this level of talent and clutchness, there may be yet another level we’ve yet to see from this 27-year-old guard.