PRO TEAM: Honka Espoo Playboys
VITALS: 6'4", 195 lbs.
YEAR DRAFTED: 2007 by Philadelphia (Round 1, Pick 30)
RIGHTS HELD BY: Dallas Mavericks
The FIBA World Cup is over after the United States' resounding win over Serbia in the finals. It was an anticlimactic end to an otherwise entertaining tournament. Nevertheless, I still have several more players to go here at Draft Rights Retained that played in the competition to profile. I'll keep this train moving with a player from the first team the champions beat. That player is Finland's Petteri Koponen.
When one thinks of Finland, a few things come to mind. Hockey, fish, and the one of the freest presses in the world spring first. One of the last things would be professional basketball. That fact made it even more shocking when the 76ers spent the last pick of the 2007 NBA Draft's first round on a point guard playing for the Honka Espoo Playboys.
Yup, you heard that right. Finnish point guard Petteri Koponen is the first featured player here on DRR that was selected in the first round. (Frederic Weis doesn't count because he was part of the introduction, not an actual profile.) It was the last pick of the first round but there was definitely some shock value around it; for me at least. 2007 (or the Oden over Durant draft) was one of the first few drafts in which teams were drafting and stashing overseas talent in the first round. That practice was generally suited for the second round (and beyond in the 80's). The Magic had their hands tied with Fran Vazquez in 2005 and Joel Freeland was stashed as the 30th overall selection by Portland in 2006. Vazquez was a highly touted prospect in Spain and Freeland was a Kurt Warner-esque story, who just so happened to be pushing seven feet, also playing in Spain. Nobody saw a rail thin point guard from a basketball wasteland such as Finland being the next in line.
I shouldn't besmirch Koponen's talents. He came to Honka as a 16 year old in 2004 and saw action in 32 games. His numbers could not even be described as pedestrian (1.1 PPG, 19.4% FG) but the equivalent of a sophomore in high school getting run in a European top division isn't anything to balk at. His production and efficiency drastically improved in his second season and by year three in Honka he was the main man for the Playboys. He averaged 12.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.9 steals per game en route to a Finnish Korisliiga title. The 3.7 assists for a well regarded point guard may seem low, but take into account FIBA's more stringent awarding of assists and the fact that the league leader only averaged 5 a contest and it looks damn good. His resume was enough for selection to the World Team at the Nike Hoop Summit.
The Hoop Summit has been the launching pad for several future NBA superstars who played overseas. Dirk Nowitzki had 33 and 14 in a World victory in 1998. Andrew Wiggins was the World's top scorer in a win in 2012. Tony Parker's side didn't win in 2000 but without his 20 points and 7 assists wouldn't have lost by just one. Koponen had the unenviable task of going toe to toe with future number one pick and MVP Derrick Rose. The Finn held his own against the future Memphis Tiger and Chicago Bull as Rose only scored 8 points and dished out 3 assists. Koponen scored 7 points and dished out 6 assists in a World Team loss. According to scouting reports from nbadraft.net, Petteri and Nicolas Batum were the best prospects on the World roster.
After being drafted by Philadelphia, Koponen's draft rights were traded to Portland for Vanderbilt forward (and 42nd overall selection) Derrick Byars and cash. He would not sign with the Blazers or play in the Summer League but instead return home to Finland to finish out his contract. That year was a taxing one for the then 19 year old as he had to balance trying to repeat as Korisliiga champions with the Playboys, mandatory military service (even if it was a cushy gig for professional athletes only), and his starting role with the Finnish National Team. He persevered through and won MVP honors for the repeat champions with 18.4 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game. For his efforts, the Blazers would call him stateside to play alongside 2008 first rounder Jerryd Bayless in the Summer League. His stint in Blazers colors would only last that summer however as he'd return to Europe. He would not be rejoining the Playboys in Finland though, he'd be off to Italy to play for Virtus Bologna. Virtus Bologna may sound familiar to you loyal DRR readers as it was the lifelong club of DRR profile #7 Augusto Binelli.
Koponen was a oft-neglected reserve in his first season in Bologna but it wasn't too long before he worked his way into a featured role. He averaged 12 points and 3 assists a game his next three seasons for the fabled club and brought them their only piece of silverware since their glory days. The EuroChallenge is the third tier European basketball competition below the Euroleague and Eurocup tournaments. Bologna defeated French side Cholet Basketball, featuring future NBA guard Roddy Beaubois, in a thrilling final. During his final season in Italy, Koponen's draft rights were traded once again. This time Dallas acquired his services for the 57th pick in the draft, Tanguy Ngombo. Ngombo would have his age questioned by NBA officials and one trade later the Qatari international would have his rights renounced by Minnesota. Dallas had no such renouncement plans for Koponen, but they weren't keen on bringing him over just yet.
Petteri's new team would be Khimki in Russia. His time in Moscow would start off rocky but as always, you guessed it, he'd work his way to the starting lineup. He plays with some names you may recognize in former Michigan State center Paul Davis as well as former Blazer Sergei Monia. The sixth man for Khimki is actually the player that will be profiled next, French big man Joffrey Lauvergne. Koponen would continue excelling in the meantime with the Finnish National Team. They would qualify for the 2014 edition of the FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Finland were a wild card selection for the tournament and got a pretty crummy draw with Group C. They would have to contend with Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, New Zealand, and most unfortunately the United States. The Americans laid the wood to the Finns in their opener but Koponen was a glimmer of hope in a hopeless affair. He scored a team high twelve points all the while holding USA sharpshooter Stephen Curry to just 4 points on 1-of-6 shooting, including 0-for-5 from three point range. He wasn't as effective defensively against Ukraine's Pooh Jeter, but Koponen led Finland to their only win of the competition with 14 points and 9 assists. While only playing a meager five games, Koponen led the tournament in assists per game at 5.8. He also averaged 15.8 points and 3 rebounds a game. Finland may have bowed out in the group stage but this isn't the last you'll see of their point guard. Koponen's contract expires at the end of the 2014-15 season and has every intention to come to the NBA for Dallas. The Mavs are all set at the position right now but would you blame Mark Cuban if he tried out a grinder like Koponen at the position instead of on the decline duds like Raymond Felton, Jameer Nelson, and Devin Harris? Petteri won't be a baby by NBA standards at 27 if he finally enters the fray but after seeing him play in Spain, he is a much more intriguing option than the three players I listed a sentence prior.
Thanks for reading the twentieth installment of Draft Rights Retained right here on Bleeding Your Colors! I hope you enjoyed it and look forward to bringing you more wacky stories of players who the NBA has long since forgotten, but not their draft rights. Stay locked for a new profile until the list is exhausted. For more of me, check out my Twitter @TREVORutley and the official Bleeding Your Colors Twitter @B3WHYC3. For less of me, give your computer to the Stewmaker from the Blacklist.
Image Credits: Koponen profile (basket.fi), Petteri and Tony (deceptivelyquick.blogspot.com)