WNBA stars make their mark as EuroLeague season heats up

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With two-thirds of the EuroLeague season in the books, four teams have separated themselves from the pack, each led by multiple WNBA powerhouse players. Minnesota’s Kayla McBride and Connecticut’s Brionna Jones have brought extra fire to their European squads this season and are both high on the list of EuroLeague MVP candidates.

Before we take a closer look at each of the four frontrunner teams and their potential paths to the championship, let’s review how things work in the land of overseas basketball.

EuroLeague 101

There are 16 EuroLeague teams from countries across the continent that are divided into Group A and Group B. During the regular season, all eight Group A teams play each other twice (home and away) and all eight Group B teams do the same. There are no regular-season crossover games between the two groups.

The top four teams from each group qualify for the playoffs, where the first-place team from Group A plays the fourth-place team from Group in a best-of-three quarterfinal series, and so on. The four victors from the quarterfinals then enter a single-elimination Final Four structure for the championship. Because Groups A and B are merged into a single bracket for the first round, the following rounds can pit teams from the same group against each other (important to note since three of the top four teams currently are all from Group A).

Other essential facts for your EuroLeague 101 lesson fall under the category “Regulations or Lack Thereof.” EuroLeague teams are not organized under a unifying governing body, meaning that each of the 16 squads are club teams or national teams sponsored and governed by entities in their respective countries. So while there is a 20-page booklet of regulations teams must follow to be eligible for EuroLeague competition, the most glaring omission is anything resembling a salary cap or other budget parity measures. Thus, the financial disparity between teams, and the players they can afford to include on their rosters, is substantial.

One stipulation the booklet does include is the rule that each team can have only two players who are not European citizens, plus one player who gained EU citizenship after age 16. Here’s some trivia to test your WNBA player knowledge: Identify up to two non-EU card carrying reps on each EuroLeague team. Pro-tip: Don’t start with UMMC Ekaterinburg. (EuroLeague rosters list players’ nationalities.)

UMMC Ekaterinburg (Russia)

Group A
Record: 11-0
Notable WNBA players: Jonquel Jones (CON), Brittney Griner (PHX), Courtney Vandersloot (CHI), Allie Quigley (CHI), Emma Meesseman (WAS)

Yes, UMMC is beyond stacked with WNBA superstars and has been for many years, having won four of the last five EuroLeague Championships. They’ve got the money to afford the talent, and they use it. Breanna Stewart was also supposed to suit up for UMMC again this year, but surgery on her left Achilles after the WNBA season ended has kept her stateside so far. Stewart was the EuroLeague Final Four MVP last season; in her absence, the team has been spreading the wealth, with seven players averaging double-figure scoring, including Jonquel Jones, Allie Quigley, Emma Meesseman and Brittney Griner.

Jones, the reigning WNBA MVP, is leading the charge for UMMC’s imported talent, averaging 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds in 23.3 minutes per game with an average efficiency of 21.8.* In last week’s 90-77 victory over second-ranked Praha (Czech Republic) Jones filled the stat sheet with 20 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, four steals and four blocks.

While Jones is clearly in a league of her own, we’ve got to give props to 23-year-old Russian Maria Vadeeva, who is nearly level with Jones on key stats. If you take out her less than three-minute appearance against Praha, Vadeeva is averaging 14.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in 24 minutes per game with an overall efficiency of 20. After playing both 2018 and 2019 with the Los Angeles Sparks, she could ride this strong 2021 EuroLeague campaign into a new opportunity in the WNBA.

Griner, who arrived late, has played only four games in what had been limited minutes until the game against Praha, when she dropped 25 points on 12-for-15 shooting. Vandersloot made her own season debut in the game, notching 10 points and six assists. It’s not unusual for WNBA players to negotiate a delayed arrival with their overseas teams as they attempt to balance their physical and mental health, personal lives and financial gains within the world of year-round professional basketball.

UMMC, undefeated and 2-0 against the second-ranked team in their group, has previously had close games with Praha (who was without Alyssa Thomas last week) and 2021 finals opponent Avenida (Spain). But a simple scan of the names and numbers on their box scores makes it seem foolish to bet against them come playoff time.

ZVVZ USK Praha (Czech Republic)

Group A
Record: 8-3
Notable WNBA players: Alyssa Thomas (CON), Brionna Jones (CON)

Currently the second-ranked team in Group A, Praha has the edge over third p-lace Avenida after stomping them 80-55 in Week 5 of EuroLeague action. In Week 4, Praha gave UMMC a run for their money, losing by one bucket to the reigning powerhouse.

Brionna Jones hasn’t missed a beat since her outstanding 2021 WNBA campaign that included Most Improved Player honors. The forward is the second-leading scorer in the league so far with 19.8 points per game on 58.1 percent shooting and is first overall in efficiency at 23.4. Add her 7.6 rebounds and two steals per game, and it’s clear why she’s high on the list of league MVP candidates. Her Connecticut Sun teammate. Alyssa Thomas, is leading the team in rebounding, grabbing 8.5 per game while averaging 13 points a game with an average efficiency of 20.3.

Praha’s last big test of the regular season comes against Avenida on Wednesday, in a matchup that will determine who earns the top seed in Group A.

Perfumerias Avenida (Spain)

Group A
Record: 7-2
Notable WNBA players: Kahleah Copper (CHI), Bella Alarie (DAL), Katie Lou Samuelson (SEA)

Avenida’s status report is short and sweet: Kahleah Copper. The 2021 WNBA Finals MVP has crossed the ocean and been as dominant as ever. After missing Avenida’s first five games with a delayed arrival in Spain, Copper has gone on a tear, notching two 30-plus point games and recording an average efficiency of 24.5. With four contests now under her belt, she’s averaging 25.8 points, five rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. While no one expects her to maintain her 61.7 shooting percentage (50 percent from 3) through the rest of the season, she’s clearly done her part to keep her stock soaring. Copper’s value hasn’t been lost on the Chicago Sky, who put the core designation on her last week with an offer of a one-year, $228,094 supermax deal.

Katie Lou Samuelson is second for Avenida in both scoring (13.6 points per game) and efficiency (12.6). Her season-high 18 points came during the most entertaining EuroLeague matchup of the season (or maybe ever), when Avenida went toe-to-toe with UMMC in early December, eventually losing 110-102. The 2021 finalists will meet again in the last game of the regular season on Feb. 1. In the meantime, when Avenida takes the floor against Praha on Wednesday, they will be out to prove that the 35-point loss from Week 5 (prior to Copper’s arrival) was a fluke.

Fenerbahce Safisport (Turkey)

Group B
Record: 7-3
Notable WNBA players: Kayla McBride (MIN), Elizabeth Williams (ATL), Amanda Zahui B. (LA), Satou Sabally (DAL), Kiah Stokes (LVA)

The lone team from Group B to crack the top four, Fenerbahce has been riding high on the efforts of Kayla McBride and Elizabeth Williams. Both arrived in time for the start of the season, and with ten games now clocked, they are each in the top five in the league for efficiency and in the top three for minutes per game.

McBride, who left Las Vegas to sign with the Lynx a season ago, is leading all scorers with 20 points per game on an impressive 55.6 percent shooting accuracy from the field and a league-leading 46.8 percent from beyond the arc. Add in her five rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, and the league MVP award appears well within her reach this year. But let’s not overlook Ukrainian point guard and reigning EuroLeague MVP Alina Iagupova, who is averaging 17.8 points and six assists per game. And with Satou Sabally now five games into her Fenerbahce season, with 16-plus points in all but one of those outings, the Turkish squad appears to be hitting its stride at the perfect time.

While several games have been postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, there is a built-in break between the regular season and the playoffs that could provide a buffer against full cancellations. Fortunately, none of the highly anticipated matchups between the top teams have been affected so far. As WNBA free agency gets underway stateside, teams will be watching to see which stars add EuroLeague hardware to their collection.

All games can be viewed online at EuroLeague Women’s YouTube channel free of charge. See the game schedule for full listings.

*Efficiency is a total performance statistic that attempts to measure a player’s performance by adding positive actions (points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks) and subtracting negative actions (missed field goals, missed free throws, and turnovers).

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.