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It’s time for us in America to appreciate women’s professional basketball abroad more

Following professional basketball abroad is a great way to follow WNBA players in the fall and winter when they’re often forgotten.

emma meesseman belgium
Emma Meesseman and the Belgium national team’s surprising bronze medal finish in EuroBasket Women 2017 was one of Europe’s and the world’s biggest women’s basketball stories. But it wasn’t much more than a footnote in the USA.

In July 2017, I wrote a piece entitled “The WNBA needs to be a better partner with FIBA — here’s how to make it happen” on Bullets Forever. At the time, I was quite frustrated that the Mystics had no representation in the game because Elena Delle Donne couldn’t play due to injury even though she was initially voted in as a starter.

Emma Meesseman, Washington’s other star forward, missed most of the pre All-Star Game schedule because of EuroBasket Women 2017 for the Belgian national team. While she was there, Belgium won the bronze medal, their highest finish ever, qualified for the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the first time, and Meesseman was named an All-Star for the tournament. If Meesseman played for the Mystics instead, or if Belgium didn’t make EuroBasket Women 2017, she probably would have been at least an WNBA All-Star reserve. But I digress.

Meesseman and the Belgian team’s success was one of the biggest women’s basketball stories in Europe and quite frankly, the world. One of the reasons why was because they had a ten-year EuroBasket Women drought until last year. But here in the United States, not many seemed to know or even care that it happened, which prompted me to think of ways to make the WNBA more welcoming to non-Americans so they have a better chance to get recognized in the league.

In that piece, wrote a list of suggestions for the WNBA and FIBA to collaborate together. They included pausing all professional seasons for continental tournaments, but also prohibiting all national teams from training together except during specified times. I even proposed a Women’s Basketball Club World Cup so fans from all over the world can see the best clubs from various countries play each other.

Fast forward into January of this year, we learned that Meesseman will miss the season for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. Though Meesseman was a second round pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft, her absence still leads me to believe that WNBA teams can’t build around non-American players, no matter how good they really are. That’s a shame, because the NBA seems to get more non-American talent every year. And several of them are All-Stars, most notably Greek forward Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.

And now, the WNBA Draft happened last Thursday. A’ja Wilson, as expected, went to the Las Vegas Aces, and she’ll be great.

But Russian center Maria Vadeeva was only picked 11th to the Los Angeles Sparks though she could, or should have been higher. In ESPN’s coverage on Thursday night, analyst Rebecca Lobo admitted not knowing much about her at all.

Perhaps watching that struck a nerve with Paul Nilsen, a British basketball writer for FIBA and Bluestar Media. On Friday, he wrote a column criticizing the American perspective of women’s basketball toward other parts of the world among analysts and WNBA team front offices. Nilsen was particularly critical of Lobo:

I was even more shocked that ESPN had not told [Lobo] to grab a coffee and sit down to click on something called YouTube – with I am guessing 1,000 hours plus of Vadeeva kicking the butt of senior pro’s and international players. Indeed some WNBA players.

Nilsen was also critical of ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel who apparently did not “check the FIBA calendar to see that Russia have no international senior commitments this summer – and about their struggles at the Europe and and World level.”

After reading Nilsen’s column, I agree with many of his points, even if he was very harsh at times.

In the United States, WNBA fans, followers, and even analysts alike tend to fall into the all-too-convenient scenario of following only women’s college basketball for their women’s basketball fix once the fall and winter months come along. To be clear, following women’s college basketball should continue. It must! After all, it’s still the major source of professional basketball talent here in the United States.

However, many WNBA players play during the fall and winter in the same European leagues that these “unknown prospects” are in. Because the WNBA offseason is most of the calendar year, it lowers players’ profiles considerably after their rookie seasons.

There is a perception that some teams outside of the European power clubs in the Russian PBL like UMMC Ekaterinburg where Maya Moore and Brittney Griner play are just “easy teams” or that coaches abroad let the WNBA players freelance and “do what they want.” That can’t be farther from the truth.

The fall and winter in Europe could be a springboard for some WNBA players before they head back to the States in the summer.

The Turkish KBSL is probably the most competitive European league from top to bottom. One of their mid-table teams, Mersin Buyuksehir Belediye, has two WNBA starters on their team, namely New York Liberty point guard Bria Hartley and Washington Mystics center Krystal Thomas.

This season, Mersin is currently seventh in the KBSL with a 14-11 record and play tough games practically every week because of parity. But they had more success in continental play. Mersin advanced to the EuroCup Women quarterfinals before losing to Italian club Reyer Venezia Mestre on aggregate.

Hartley is Mersin’s leading scorer where she averaged 19.7 points and 4.7 assists in the KBSL while she averaged 17.6 points and 4 assists in EuroCup Women. Below, you can see a strong performance she had in KBSL play against Fenerbahçe:

Thomas is Mersin’s defensive anchor where she averages over 16 points and 10 rebounds a game in both KBSL and EuroCup Women play. Here are highlights of a 19 point, 16 rebound, 5 assist performance she had in January against OGM Orman, which has Connecticut Sun All-Star guard Jasmine Thomas and Dream guard Brittney Sykes.

Both Hartley and Thomas are coming off strong seasons in New York and Washington respectively where they gained starting spots midseason and never looked back.

Given how well Hartley is scoring overall and from three (about 36 percent in both KBSL and EuroCup Women), it will give her momentum heading into training camp where she is on a roster full of scoring guards. And for Thomas, her strong performance on Mersin should also give her more confidence scoring around the basket for the Mystics.

Hartley and Thomas are just two of the many WNBA players who are overseas. But it’s not like the players are just toiling around. They are continuously working on their craft, and it’s something that WNBA fans should do in the fall and winter. Doing so will give us more appreciation for the game and players abroad, and it helps give them some more exposure when college basketball and the NBA are also going on at the same time.

Watching international women’s professional basketball isn’t terribly difficult, especially for EuroLeague Women and EuroCup Women games. The FIBA YouTube channel streams these games live. In addition, you can also watch the current FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019 qualfiers on YouTube.

For more reading on how the European women’s basketball system works, I actually did a three part Q&A with Nilsen last November. It’s worth a read, and great way to introduce you to the way European professional basketball’s competitive system works, and why it is worth your time during a long WNBA offseason:

In addition to the Q&A and Nilsen’s women’s basketball column at FIBA, Mystics forward Monique Currie runs Women’s Basketball 24/7 which publishes regular recaps of games in many European and Asian leagues, as well as the EuroLeague Women and EuroCup competitions for the best teams in Europe.