Star-Studded League Provides Plenty Of Surprises

With 121 of 240 games complete, the season has reached the midway point, making this the perfect time to look back and reflect on the first half.

There aren't many surprises in the standings. Zenit's fast start has fizzled out, dropping St. Petersburg to 4th, though Lokomotiv (and perhaps another club) will have a difficult time dislodging them. Even so, those battles will not grab headlines. No one appears to be a credible threat at the top, not with CSKA currently riding a 13-game winning streak!  The Army Men are well on their way to finishing 1st and securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Does that mean it's been a boring year for the league? Absolutely not! There may not be any new superteams, but we have plenty of new superstars. Some, of course, have been around for a while, but this season they've reached a new level. With so many terrific performances and breakout players, I'd like to run down my top 5 biggest stars from the first half of the 2015-16 VTB United League regular season.

1. Keith Langford (UNICS)

There's nothing more boring than putting the league's top scorer at the top of the list. But Langford deserves an exception! If UNICS was in 10th place right now, I'd agree with you. You'd say he was just a big fish in a small pond and I'd be forced to agree. But 2nd-place UNICS has far exceeded expectations and much of the credit goes to Langford's resurgence on the court! I'll be honest, entering this season, I thought his career was beginning an inevitable downward spiral. Instead, the 32-year-old American guard has played some of the best basketball of his career, reminding fans of his glory days with Khimki and Maccabi.

2. Alexey Shved (Khimki)

He may end up burning even brighter than Langford, but he had to spend the first half of the season trying to adjust to playing alongside his teammates (fellow stars like Rice, Koponen, etc.) and adjusting to life outside the NBA.

It was evident immediately that Shved's time in America had made him into an elite European shooter. But he needs to do more than shoot the ball! Ever since joining Khimki, Shved has been working to earn the role of primary playmaker. It appears he's done it, for which he deserves hearty applause.

Incidentally, his career path reminds me of another famous European guard who had some NBA experience: the bearded Greek. I must say, I would be very pleased indeed if Russia had its own Spanoulis in a few years time.

3. Nando De Colo (CSKA)

It would seem to be poor form to put the Euroleague's top player (according to the stats) 3rd in the VTB United League. But like I tried to explain above, I'm judging more on excitement and novelty than pure performance. De Colo, after all, has been with CSKA for two seasons, though this year has proven much different than the first. A year ago, there was considerable debate over who meant more to CSKA: De Colo or Teodosic. In fact, Teodosic probably would have been slightly favored. Not anymore. The #1 player at CSKA (and the French national team, and in Europe, depending on who you ask) is unquestionably Nando De Colo. At times, his game reminds me of the brilliant Papaloukas during the mid-2000's. If he were more consistent, I'm confident CSKA would win it all this spring, but for now I can only comment on how successful CSKA has been pairing De Colo and Teodosic. In fact, the duo has much in common with Khimki's Shved - Rice combo.

4. Georgios Bartzokas (Lokomotiv-Kuban)

Prior to this season, we didn't take this coach very seriously in Russia. For one, we thought that the credit for Olympiacos's success, including the Euroleague win vs. CSKA, belonged primarily to his "coach on the court", Vassilis Spanoulis.

But Loko's results since his arrival have been so interesting and unusual, that you'd have to be blind to miss them. Yes, Krasnodar has issues on offense, but the defense is rightly considered the most reliable and fearsome on the continent. And Bartzokas is the one who put it together from the very beginning. Lokomotiv's top competition on defense, ironically, would probably be Olympiacos.

5. Dontaye Draper (Lokomotiv-Kuban)

In theory, I'm not supposed to do this. Two straight from Loko, currently 5th in the VTB League? Why not Kurbanov (who is playing extremely well) or, perhaps, Kurbanov's coach: Dimitris Itoudis? For that matter, why not Loko teammate Malcolm Delaney, who's won all sorts of awards in Europe over the last two months? But you know what? This list is subjective. If you don't like it, you don't have to keep reading. That said, I'll try to provide some reasons for my inclusion of Draper on this list.

I've known about him for a long time, since his stints in Yugoslavia, where he even joined the Croatian national team. He was quick. You couldn't stop him: driving, shooting or passing. I'm not sure who I would have compared him to then. He was kind of a mix between Holden and McCalebb, if you know what I mean. But something started to change. Draper joined star-studded Real Madrid and his game began to sour. Thanks to injuries, he lost most of his eye-popping speed and quickness...

You can see the impact of those injuries on his game today. Certainly those who remember what Draper was like before will remember. But he's managed to reinvent himself and find a new specialty: bulldog defense and forcing turnovers. No one else in Europe is better at picking pockets than Draper. Reacting to a ball near at hand is one thing. But it's much more difficult to anticipate a pass and come flying out of nowhere to pick it off. Draper reads combinations and tears them apart, over and over again. At a certain point, there's nothing the opposition can do.

The man has had a very unusual fate and career. It would be fascinating to see how today's defense-minded Draper would match up against his former offense-driven self...