Friday, June 20, 2014

International Report: Standouts from the Baloncesto Superior Nacional Season

Sam Young (left in white giving high-five) has found some success rekindling his professional career in Puerto Rico's BSN this season.

The Baloncesto Superior Nacional, the major basketball league in Puerto Rico, wraps up their 36-game regular season this weekend. The BSN consists of 10 teams from all over Puerto Rico, and is an official member of the FIBA Americas federation (which means they follow FIBA rules). Because it starts in March, when the regular season of the NBA and D-League is near its end, the BSN is almost like the Caribbean League for D-League stars, serving almost as an off-season place to play for players trying to hone their skills for a shot at a summer league squad in Orlando or Las Vegas.

Despite this sort of "secondary league" status, and while baseball remains the biggest and most popular team sport, the BSN and basketball in general in Puerto Rico is gaining ground and fandom on the island, especially with countrymen such as Carlos Arroyo and JJ Barea finding success in the NBA. In this post, MLH is going to highlight a few players who have really shined in the BSN during the 2014 campaign.

Sam Young, Vaqueros de Bayamon, 30 games played, 20.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 62% 2-pt FG%, 32% 3-pt FG %

Young has been one of the biggest standouts this year of the Stateside imports in the BSN. Though Bayamon hasn't been extremely impressive, the former Pitt Panther star and Memphis Grizzly and Indiana Pacer has helped keep the Vaqueros in the playoff race at 19-15, which is good for 6th place at this moment (the top-8 teams go to the postseason). Young, named the player of the week this past week, is coming off an impressive performance in his last game on June 16th as he put up 26 points and 12 rebounds in a 82-76 victory over a second-place and Al Thornton-led Guyama squad.

This past season, Young did not make a NBA roster after he played last season in Australia with the Sydney Kings where he put up an impressive campaign in 21 games, scoring 21.5 ppg and nabbing 5.5 rebounds per game. The 6'6 Washington DC product has displayed a lot of physical tools in his professional career, but he just hasn't been consistent enough to garner a permanent place on a NBA roster. While he showed signs of promise in Memphis, he eventually lost favor with head coach Lionel Hollins and was eventually traded to Philadelphia during the 2011-12 season. After a short one-year stint in Indiana, he signed with the San Antonio Spurs in 2013, only to be waived before he played a game.

It will be interesting to see if Young is able to make the journey back stateside, but he certainly isn't hurting his case by performing so well in Puerto Rico. Young is the star import of a mostly Puerto Rican-dominated squad, with Larry Ayuso being the star countryman at shooting guard. Ayuso is averaging 16.5 ppg for the Vaqueros and may be familiar to those who follow international basketball, as he was one of the starters for the Puerto Rican team that snapped the Dream Team's winning streak at the 2004 Olympic Games.

Though his outside shooting has been inconsistent (32 percent beyond the arc), Young continues to find ways to use his strength and skills inside to score and score efficiently. His 62 percent 2-point FG percentage is one of the highest marks in the league, and his 20.7 ppg average is 6th best in the BSN as well. Young has also rebounded well for his size this season (upping his rebound average by almost a rebound from his tenure with the Sydney Kings) and displayed some of the flashes of athleticism and strength that made him such an enticing player in college at Pitt, as evidenced by this fast break slam dunk below:

With the season coming to an end soon, it is safe to say Young has continued to help his stock in terms of getting a shot back in the NBA. The successful Australia and Puerto Rican campaigns show that he has the skills and ability to at least merit a roster spot on a team needing athleticism and spot scoring. It'll be interesting to see if Young can garner a Summer League roster spot (Las Vegas seems the most likely since it comes later than Orlando, which is pretty much set roster-wise) in order to improve his chances of getting back on a NBA roster next season.

Al Thornton, Brujos de Guayama, 25 games played, 23.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 51% 2-pt FG%, 32% 3-pt FG%

Thornton was known for his physicality as a basketball player professionally. Though he did not possess great shooting touch, especially from beyond the arc (29.3 percent 3-FG % for his career), his ability to outwork and use his athleticism to get buckets is what made him endearing as a NBA players, especially early on during his Clippers days. While his 2008-9 season, which he averaged 16.2 ppg and 5.8 rpg for the Clippers proved to be his peak season, he did manage to play six season and 296 total games in the NBA.

After his contract expired with the Warriors after the 2011 season, a majority of Thornton's professional career has come in the BSN. In 2012, as a member of Guayama, he averaged 25.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, and 2.0 apg in 28 games. In Puerto Rico, his ability to thunder down dunks, and create offense with his sheer athleticism entertained Brujos fans, as evidenced by some of his highlight reel plays in the video below:

The heralded campaign earned him a spot in the Orlando Summer league with the Brooklyn Nets. But, Thornton didn't get a contract with a NBA squad after the summer league ended and he signed with Zheijang Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association (where Stephon Marbury ended up carving a good career after he became unwanted by any NBA team). However, Thornton failed to make an impact in the CBA as an injury sidelined him for most of the season, and he was replaced mid-season by UMass product Gary Forbes.

Thornton returned to Guayama and has pretty much picked up where he left off in 2012. He is the BSN's leading scorer at 23.4 ppg and he has helped the Brujos to be within striking distance of first place Arecibo at 21-13 (though the loss to the Sam Young-led Bayamon squad didn't help). While he isn't as athletic as he was when he first entered the BSN in two seasons ago (the injury probably had something to do with that), he still has proven to be a crafty scorer that can carry a team when needed. That being said, unlike Young, Thornton plays on a Brujos squad that has more recognizable International talent. The starting center is Peter John Ramos (13.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg) who has a brief NBA career with the Washington Wizards from 2004-205 and also with the Idaho Stampede from 2006-2007. Michael Sweetney, the former Georgetown star and first round pick of the New York Knicks (who is looking a lot like the recently passed And 1 MixTape star "Escalade" Troy Jackson nowadays) is a key reserve who is averaging 6.3 ppg and 4.2 rpg. So, Thornton isn't alone in terms of star power with this Guayama team this season (hence, explaining their success this year in BSN play).

In terms of Thornton returning the league, at 30 years old and a year removed from injury, it seems unlikely. Even from the highlight and game film of him this season for Guayama, he just isn't the same player that wowed basketball fans with his athleticism and motor. He still has the motor, but it isn't as charged as it once was and he can't jump through the roof like he once could either. That was a big reason why he was so successful in the NBA and was able to overcome for a short period his shooting struggles. Nonetheless, while his NBA days look numbered, it is impressive to see Thornton still dominating the BSN like he did two seasons ago, even if it is less flashy and less like what we were used to seeing during his days with the Clippers. If he can lead Guayama to a BSN championship (and they look like they have a good shot), that certainly may be satisfying enough for Thornton at this point his professional basketball career.

Von Wafer, Indios de Mayaguez, 29 games played, 20.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 50% 2-pt FG%, 42% 3-pt FG%

Von Wafer's professional basketball career has been a series of ups and downs. In high school, he was a McDonald's All American out of Heritage Christian Academy in Dallas, Texas and on his way to play for Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. While he certainly had a lot of promise with the Seminoles, he never seemed to live up to his massive potential with FSU, as inconsistency on the court (7.9 ppg in 17.5 minutes as a frosh; 12.5 ppg as a soph) and lackluster decisions off it (missed classes and study sessions led to frequent benchings and two missed games) seemed to stunt his potential. Nonetheless, despite the unfulfilled promise, Wafer declared for the draft after his sophomore season, and ended up getting drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 39th pick in the second round.

Because of his lack of polish, Wafer was one of the early guinea pigs of the D-League system. He spent considerable time in the D-League with the Colorado 14ers, where he was named player of the month in January of 2007. Wafer then bounced around with the Clippers, Nuggets and Blazers before he finally found a place and broke out with the Houston Rockets during the 2008-2009 season. Wafer had a career year as he averaged 9.7 ppg in 19.4 mpg, both career highs. He also shot 39 percent from beyond the arc, and somewhat gained a reputation as an off-the-bench sharpshooter. Wafer's crowning moments as a professional came in the playoffs as he helped the Rockets cruise through Portland in the first round and helped them stay competitive with the top-seed Lakers in the second. Wafer averaged 8.2 ppg and 13.9 mpg in 13 games in the playoffs and it seemed like Wafer was on the cusp of a breakout.

But alas, much like in college, inconsistency plagued Wafer throughout his professional career. After the season in Houston, he signed a contract with Olympiacos of the Greek and Euroleague, but he flamed out after one year and ended up coming back to sign with the Boston Celtics the following season. Despite showing promise in Houston though, Wafer never recovered the magic again, as he flailed in campaigns with Boston and Orlando from 2010-2012. From 2012-on, the basketball journeyman has played all over the world from the D-League (he had a brief tenure this season with the Bakersfield Jam) to China and now Puerto Rico.

And with Mayagua, the elder Wafer has started to rekindle some success. If there is any phrase to describe Wafer's game, it's "irrational confidence". He's the kind of player who takes crazy shots, looks to score at all times, and can be characterized as "selfish" and a "ball hog" by many basketball pundits. But Wafer is also the kind of player that wants the big shot and can carry a team, especially if that team is struggling or may not be the most loaded talent-wise. He can easily lose a team a game, but he can carry a team when they least expect it (though certainly not consistently).

On a primarily American-based team (all five of the starters have had experience playing in the United States in some capacity), Wafer has stood out, which hasn't been exactly easy considering the talent he is playing with (Damien Wilkins had a very good career for a short while with the Seattle Sonics). He is averaging 20.7 ppg, tied for 6th best in the league (with fellow American Sam Young) and he is among the league leaders in 3-pt percentage at 42 percent and 3-pointers made (7th most in the BSN at 64). His high moment this year came in a game against Thornton's Brujos team, as Wafer single-handedly won his Indios squad the game, coming up with a big 3-pointer to tie and a fadeaway 2-pointer to win the game in the contest's final minutes. Below is the video of the game's final possessions where Wafer just takes over.

Just Von being Von I guess. That being said, while Mayaguez looks to be good in terms of making the playoffs, his play hasn't helped the Indios into the upper echelon of the conference as they have been a pretty mediocre squad this season at 18-18 and most likely are due for an early playoff exit as the No. 7 seed. Furthermore, considering his history of jumping from team-to-team, while this BSN stint has helped rekindle some interest in him as a player on the Worldwide level, Wafer's reputation and play is simply too inconsistent, and at age 28, he isn't exactly at the point in his career where NBA coaches or GMs can be patient or tolerant of that kind of inconsistency.

But still, Von being Von. Just enjoy it for what it is. The BSN fans in Puerto Rico certainly are.

Other American Standouts Worth Mentioning:

  • Damien Wilkins, Indios de Mayaguez, 15.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg
  • Renaldo Balkman, Capitanes de Arecibo, 15.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.0 apg
  • James Ennis, Pirates de Quebradillas, 16.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg
  • Mike Rosario, Leones de Ponce, 10.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg
  • Mike Harris, Leones de Ponce, 20.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.4 apg
  • Ike Diogu, Leones de Ponce, 18.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg
  • Tu Holloway, Athleticos de San German, 20.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 7.5 apg
  • Chris Massie, Athleticos de San German, 12.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg
  • Denis Clemente, Caciques de Humacao, 14.1 ppg, 4.0 apg
  • Dexter Pittman, Caciques de Humacao, 12.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg
  • Justin Keenan, Maratonistas de Coamo, 22.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg

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