Teamcheck: Ratiopharm Ulm

It is just like former german national player Denis Wucherer once said: “Everybody likes Ulm.”ulm

And it really is so easy to like ratiopharm Ulm as they always appear to the common german basketball fan as the typical underdogs, which still can compete with the best teams in BBL.

Even though the club has to work with a comparatively rather low budget Ulm had not to fear deregulation for the third straight season.

Last season they even finished the season ahead of established teams like Frankfurt, Bamberg or Artland Dragons Quakenbrück and made it to the play-offs for the first time in 10 years.

No other player could have personified this David-role more than American Jeff Gibbs. With just 188cm he is often called “the smallest center in the world” though Gibbs plays most of the time as a power forward. The 28-year old had a serious impact on Ulm’s return to the first division in 2006 and – surprisingly to many experts – turned out to be one of the best BBL players in the last years. He led the league in efficency per game in the last two seasons and now decided to leave the Sparrows and test his value on the market.

With the departure of Jeff Gibbs the end of an era has come for ratiopharm Ulm.

On a symbolic view the loss of Gibbs as the team’s face is quite as big as it was when Konrad Wysocki decided to leave Ulm in 2008. Headcoach Mike Taylor knows that they are not in a position to keep key players for an extended period of time and sees this as a big challenge of his job:

“Losing key guys is the biggest challenge of all! It is very difficult, but we must understand our identity. We have had a 1.5million euro budget last season and less the season before. We are not a big budget team that can go buy the best players on the market and reload year by year. What we have done with our money over the last several seasons has been outstanding and we have far overachieved with our development. We must find players with potential and work to develop them. When we are successful at this, these players become valuable to other teams and often make the next step. Someday, my dream is that we have a bigger more competitive budget so that we can hold our established players like Konrad Wysocki or Jeff Gibbs. People know Ulm is a great place to play for many reasons. Right now we are missing a bigger budget and the new arena but when these two things are in place (and they go hand in hand), ratiopharm Ulm basketball can make the next step to keep some of our key players for an extended amount of time.”

This summer also five other important players left the club and needed to be replaced. Former LeBron James highschool teammates Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis (signed with rival Tübingen), defensive stopper Keith Tripplet and big man Sean Finn will not return to Ulm. Their departure leaves a big gap on Ulm’s rotation and with Lee Humphrey only one starter of last season remained with the club.

On the point guard position Ulm decided to place confidence in talented german Per Günther. The 21-year old had a very promising rookie season and finished his first BBL season with 4.6 points and 1.4 assists in 15 minutes per game. He showed that he has a deep knowledge of the game and his quickness helped him to compensate his lack of size and strength.

In the americanised BBL it is quite unique that a team relies on a young german point guard to take the starter spot. With Pascal Roller (Frankfurt) and Steffen Hamann (Berlin) there will probably be just two other germans in the league to start at the point guard position – and both are established players. The only other exception in this league was Heiko Schaffartzik, who started for Gießen last season and now decided to join Braunschweig for the 2009/2010 campaign (where he could be a sixth man coming from the bench). Besides Schaffartzik no other young player got the opportunity to start at the point in recent years. And one should not forget that it took some years and teams for Schaffartzik to find the right spot.

But Günther seemed to justify that confidence even during the off-season as he was nominated to the german national team. And according to head coach Dirk Bauermann his chances of making it to the final roster for the European championship look hopeful.

Next to Konrad Wysocki Per Günther could become the second german player that develops into a national player under the guidance of Mike Taylor.

On the one hand it would be a great experience for Günther to make it to the 12-man roster and become a teammate of Dirk Nowitzki, but this would also mean that he will miss the majority of Ulm’s preseason. On the backup point guard position Ulm has signed a player with even less experience than sophomore Günther. American Kevin Kanaskie, who spent his college days with Middle Tennessee, could benefit from that scenario and become a starter for the preseason. Mike Taylor is aware of that situation and seems to rely on both players whatever situation may appear:

“When Per makes the German National team, that will be a fantastic achievement for him and excellent experience for a young player. We will all be very proud of him. Of course he will miss a majority of our preseason, but we will make a positive out of the situation. While Per is in Poland, we would use the opportunity to help Kevin Kanaskie get experience with our system in Ulm. Per is planned as our starter and Kevin as our combo guard behind Per and Lee Humphrey. I am very excited to work with both of these good young players and focused to handle whatever scenario comes our way in the preseason by being productive with our team.”

Lee Humphrey is the only starter of last season’s team who will return to Ulm. Most basketball fans are familiar with his name and can easily remember him as the sharpshooter of the legendary Florida Gators team that won the NCAA championship twice. But while his former teammates made it to the NBA, Humphrey was not drafted and had a difficult start in his pro career. Labelled as a pure shooter (who sometimes even rips the net) in the player’s book of many coaches and managers, Humphrey has found a nice spot in Ulm to develop. Still he needs to improve on other aspects of the game, but his shot from downtown is reliable and in the first place that is what Ulm needs him to do.

What a shooter like Humphrey needs next to him is a player, who gives him the space for open shots. Last season it was the lowpost presence of Jeff Gibbs and Sean Finn and the penetration moves of Romeo Travis that gave Humphrey the opportunity to benefit from double-teams and free spots on the court. Now he will play on the wing with one of the most exciting players of last season. It was the first major transfer this off-season and many were surprised to see a team like Ulm get one of the hottest free agents of the summer.

American Rocky Trice signed with the Sparrows and should play a big role for them. With his athleticism, his excellent perimeter defense, his fast hands (he led the league in steals last season) and his great one-on-one abilities Trice looks like a perfect compliment to Humphrey. The 25-year old Trice was able to make the switch from ProA (second division) to BBL easily. He had a fantastic year in Cuxhaven in 2007/08 and it was clear that he should turn out to be a good player in BBL as well. Rocky Trice is not only a very spectacular player (video), but he also understands the game and is a commited teamplayer. No wonder he got named the BBL Newcomer of the year. Mike Taylor is enthusiastic about this signing:

“We have been interested in Rocky Trice for several seasons and fortunately things worked out this year. Rocky had a great year in Goettingen and he was a big part of their success. We are very excited to add him to our team and we do believe he compliments Lee Humphrey perfectly. We feel Rocky upgrades our perimeter defense and transition play, will boost our rebounding and gives our team a new dimension with his athleticism. Our plan is to play Lee Humphrey and Rocky Trice as our starting wings and I believe they will do very well together. Rocky will have the chance to establish himself as a top Bundesliga player by playing a major role with our team and I am very excited to see that work out!”

The first backup for Humphrey and Trice will be 24-year old Sebastian Betz. The german wingman was able to get more and more minutes in the course of last season. He really justified this playing time with some very good games where he showed his scoring potential. There should be plenty of more minutes for Betz behind the two americans to develop into a nice rotation player. New signing Jerome Bridgewater should get some minutes now and then, but don’t expect him to earn a lot of quality minutes this season.

With Günther, Humphrey and Betz a solid basis of backcourt players had returned to Ulm, but there is a whole new frontcourt squad arriving.

Especially the departure of Gibbs leaves a big gap on the rotation. American Christian Burns, who impressed both coach Mike Taylor and manager Thomas Stoll during the Michael Hart camp in LasVegas, is a different kind of player. With 109 kilos and a size of 203 cm Burns has the strength to compete under the baskets. But he is also known as a very mobile player that loves to run the fastbreak. One would also not expect a player of his figure to have such a reliable shot. The 23-year old American has had a great season in Portugal where he averaged 18.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game (check out the video). In general Burns looks more versatile than Gibbs, but he still needs to prove that he can be as efficient as his predecessor. In recent years there were some players from Portugal signing with BBL clubs. While some could prove that they can be as valuable on BBL level (e.g. Tyray Pearson) others were a failure (e.g. Carlos Andrade). It will be interesting to see what Burns can do, but I think he should be a decent player, who fits the fast style of this new Ulm team.

Daniel Fitzgerald was the big man with the soft shooting touch from outside on last year’s squad. Now one of Germany’s biggest talents, Robin Benzing, will play that part. For Benzing it will be his rookie year in the first division. The 20-year old forward had an excellent 2008/09 campaign with ProA club TV Langen, where he averaged 18.3 points and 4.3 rebounds.

He first had planned to play NCAA with Michigan this season. But a possible suspension for a whole season and failing the SAT made his decision to stay in Germany easy. Another season in ProA would have been useless for Benzing’s development. But the question is how competitive will his game be on BBL level. He still is too slim and will need to spend some more hours in the gym to gain some more muscles. With his size of 208 cm he should also in BBL be able to shoot the ball far above the defender’s hands. Combine that with his quick first step and his nice ball handling skills, Benzing should be able to have an impact on offense and help to stretch out the defense to gain room in the lowpost.

Taylor is convinced that Benzing is ready for BBL:

“There are different ways to be successful in basketball. Two players can play the same position but play it differently and be good. Robin is not a traditional power forward, but that is the unique talent that makes him special. He is so skilled for his size and he has tremendous potential. I see Robin developing successfully into the Bundesliga as a ‘Stretch 4’, a big forward with perimeter offensive skills helping to stretch out the defense. We have an important role planned for Robin and I believe he will develop his skills and his body in a great way with us in Ulm. I take great pride in the fact the best young German players want to come to play in Ulm because they know we will help them and give them a chance. Robin is ready for the challenge of the Bundesliga and I have 100% confidence he will make the next steps.”

On the vacant center position Ulm signed a player who is smaller than Sean Finn and whose game is very different from his predecessor’s. But certainly Coleman Collins has a bigger name! German fans will mainly know him from his first season in Germany when he played for Ludwigsburg in 2007. Collins had a rather mediocre year with Ludwigsburg back then, but one needs to remember that it was his first season overseas and that his father had died that year. Many fans and experts were not convinced that Collins can play center and thought that the american would be more of a power forward. But Ulm plans to let Collins start on the center position. Compared to Finn, who was bigger and also slower, Collins will be a mobile five for Ulm and should do well in a league, where most of the teams don’t rely on typical centers anymore. Taylor is looking forward to work with the 23-year old:

“Coleman was outstanding in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this summer playing the five. Not only has Coleman gained more experience as a basketball player over the last few years, he also has matured since his time in Ludwigsburg. Coleman will be a primary player for us and I think his maturity and role in our team will be a big factor for his improvement. For our team, Coleman Collins is a terrific post player and we have not had a player of his athleticism at his size. I am very excited to work with him this year.”

It was a very good move by Ulm to sign Collins that early, because his impressive numbers in the NBA Summer League could have made him more, maybe even too expensive.

With John Bryant Ulm signed a very physical big man, who has had not really impressing stats in mediocre leagues. But he could be more physical alternative to Collins and help the team to establish another postup option next to Christian Burns.

So it really seems like ratiopharm Ulm 2009/2010 will be a team that much more relies on a fast style than last year. New players like Rocky Trice or Coleman Collins should fit in this style very well.

Asked to compare last year’s team with the new squad Mike Taylor stressed:

“I believe we have the potential to be a more athletic team this season and a better defensive team this year. We might not have the same post up options as in the past but we will have better dribbling and passing skills in general. The exciting and fun challenge is to see how it all comes together, find a way to make the most of our parts and to see how good we can become!”

PG Per Günther/ Kevin Kanaskie/
SG Lee Humphrey/Sebastian Betz
SF Rocky Trice/Jerome Bridgewater
PF Christian Burns/Robin Benzing/ Nemanja Kekic

C Coleman Collins/John Bryant

Outlook: With so many new names and faces on the team it will be very difficult for Ulm to be as successful as they were last season. I rather tend to see Ulm in a year of transition. Still they have got the quality to make it to the play-offs if all new players fit in the Ulm system fast and well. It took three years to make Ulm a play-off team in the Jeff Gibbs era. The basis of this new team looks good and quite promising. If the core of this young squad stays together for another season, they could turn out to be a much more serious play-off team.

Until then I see ratiopharm Ulm as a nice team on top of the mid-field. Play-Offs could be possible, but there is no urgent need for that this season with a team that possibly needs to grow first.

Taylor sums this up in one sentence:

“Our primary goal is always to stay in the Bundesliga, but when things come together, I would love to develop into a playoff team.”

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