If one were to put Fraport Skyliner identity figure Quantez Robertson and ex NBA player Toure Murray face to face at a table, it would be interesting to see how long it would take for the conversation to mention the word NBA. The NBA was never a reality for freak athlete Robertson who would have made it had offense been omitted from the game and defense been the only option while Murray made it to the big show playing parts of four seasons in the G-League and 53 games for the New York Knicks and Washington Bullets. There could be other topics like where the United States will go with Donald Trump, if the Houston Astros can repeat as World Series Champions as Murray hails from that city or if the Cincinnati Bengals where Robertson is from will ever win a Superbowl. But would the conversation ever get to the topic of which team´s start into the current EasyCredit BBL season was more surprising? It probably wouldn´t as American players are always joking and talking about home and other comical things, but in basketball Germany, this is a topic that has left many bewildered. No disrespect to Alba Berlin who have made a great comeback and start to this season after underachieving last season, but what ratiopharm Ulm and the Fraport Skyliners have produced in the early going have been the biggest surprises in the league so far. In a way the Fraport Skyliners and ratiopharm have traded roles if one remembered how they started last year. Fraport Skyliner Mike Morrison if confronted with this reference would just smile gently and with his pleasant Floridian tone reply with a funny and witty gesture concerning the undeniable strong team basketball that his club is displaying.
If you had been in a closet or taken a month vacation to the outback and been offline and returned back to Germany and checked the BBL standings and seen the 0-5 Ulm record most wouldn´t have believed it. How can such a deep and talented roster with so many scoring options not be 5-0 or at least 4-1? There are some reasons why the club has played under expectations.
The club lost 6 players and that has affected the immaculate team chemistry from last season Last season the club had an offensive arsenal that the BBL hadn´t seen in a while except from Brose Bamberg and owned a ball movement that Gregg Popovich would have lauded. The club has little height and aren´t deep at the center position. The loss of Tim Ohlbrecht has been very tough and that has affected the rebounding as after 7 games the team is 18th in the league with 26 per game. But their biggest thorn in their side is their weak defense. This has been a work in progress for years. The club will always put up points, but when your averaging scoring 80 points and allowing 81 points per game then you will more likely have many nights when you are fighting for the win in the fourth quarter instead of being able to relax with the 10-15 point lead in crunch-time. Head coach Leibenath hasn´t been able to find a harmony and consistent effort from his players. The club got a new 203cm forward with Jerrelle Benimon who played NBA summer league with ex Fraport Skyliner Danilo Barthel in 2014 and should be in the NBA, but will make his debut in Europe. He will give stability inside, but the question is how quickly can he get adjusted to the new BBL style? The club has been playing more spirited basketball in the last weeks as currently it has won three of their last four games. Their offense continues to be potent and experiencing little letdowns averaging 86 points per game in that span while on defense they have corrected little details and cut down on their point given up averaging only 79 points per game. They beat three lesser teams, but gave up 94 points to playoff candidate EWE Baskets Oldenburg a team that they could meet in May and then can´t afford regular shoot outs. Ratiopharm Is experiencing some untypical growing pains, but will come together and reach the playoffs and then anything is possible in May.
In the last years the Fraport Skyliners have been used to getting out of the gate on the wrong foot and reeling to get over 500 back on track. In two of the last three seasons they made the playoffs except for last season as a few close losses cost them the ticket to the post season. Even if they have started off slowly on many occasions in the last years, they have regrouped and had good second halves being able to use most of their potential. So this quick and energetic 6-2 start has been more than surprising, but also very refreshing as one has to wonder just how much potential the Fraport Skyliners have and just how scary they will be in May 2018 when it´s time for the chase of the BBL title. What makes the current success most surprising is that the club has been able to be so successful on a seven man rotation. The less players have to be productive and consistent, but at times that can be an advantage. “Having a slim rotation isn´t always bad for a team. The guys then know what their role is and won´t be worried about coming out after one or two mistakes”, stressed German agent Patrick King. The players know what´s at stake and simply have produced consistently on both ends of the court. When reaching Fraport Skyliner head coach Gordon Herbert on a Tuesday afternoon one had to start the conversation with some brief small talk about his ex player Jordan Theodore who recently got some company in the back court from experienced veteran Curtis Jerrells wondering if it was a slap in the face for the ex Seton Hall star. “No it isn´t. It is common in the Euroleague to have many guards. It is common to have sometimes two or even three point guards on the floor in the fourth quarter of a game”, stressed Gordon Herbert. When asked about the current success of his team, the Canadian couldn´t get around team chemistry and answered in his typical quaint, but logical style. “I think that we have good team chemistry. Guys are working hard and playing together. We have a seven man rotation, but our play shows that players care and want to be successful. We are playing simple basketball with good concepts. We are going in the right direction, but still have a long way to go. I have told the guys to forget about our record, It´s all about getting better”, warned head coach Gordon Herbert. Guys like Quantez Robertson, Mike Morrison and Shawn Huff are a year older and experienced and their knowledge of the Herbert system is priceless and their play and leadership has rubbed off on the others like Tai Webster, Isaac Bonga and even a Philip Scrubb who is going down the road to BBL stardom as he is second in the league in scoring at the moment.
Two very vital players responsible for the success of the team have been Mr Canada Philip Scrubb and Jonas Wohlfarth-Bottermann. After a brilliant rookie season with the Fraport Skyliners where he was an instrumental part of winning the Fiba Europe Cup title, guard Phillip Scrubb had to sit out last season on account of a serious knee injury. He came back this season to a team that was lacking in offensive punch and he immediately came through and has been the back bone of the offense and on most occasions had an answer and carried the team this season. He also has added a new step back jumper that has been almost unstoppable. He was always a scoring ace at Carleton(CIS), but didn´t have that duty as a rookie in Frankfurt as there were simply more scoring options, but this season has been the number one scoring option and currently is having a head to head duel with German national player Robin Benzing in the scoring race. Scrubb´s IQ is amazing and even though he can live out his scoring gene this season, he still continues to be that ultimate team player and just as good a creator for his team as scorer. He has without a doubt taken over that Jordan Theodore role in the scoring and leadership department as this is the season where he will become a BBL superstar as his possible route to the top of the NBA/Euroleague will continue. The other important piece to the success has been German big man Jonas Wolhfarth-Bottermann who in six full BBL seasons with the Telekom Baskets Bonn, Alba Berlin and ratiopharm Ulm never averaged more than 5,4ppg and 3,6rpg in the German league, finally has gotten a chance this season under head coach Gordon Herbert and made his real breakthrough currently averaging 12,5ppg, 6,1rpg and 1,8 blocks per game in only 22 minutes better than average stats. He had a slow start, but in the last six games has picked up his game scoring in double figures in the last six games and had five blocks against Braunschweig. Especially on the defensive end he has been a force and anchor that has made the paint area off limits for opponents. In combination with the energizer beast Mike Morrison who EWE Baskets Oldenburg stand out guard Bryon Allen calls one of the best centers in the BBL who when he gets up to the hoop sometimes wonder if the air Morrison nickname would be appropriate, Frankfurt have a great center tandem that gives the defense a different dimension each time when they are on the floor. If Wohlfarth-Bottermann can continue to be consistent and develop further this year in a role where he has more responsibility, he could be one of the big steals of the season in the BBL for Frankfurt. Frankfurt was lacking at the center position last season, but this season they have more than made up for it and corrected the problem. “Scrubb was out for a whole season and Wohlfarth-Bottermann missed three/fourths of last season. Their play has shown just how motivated they have been coming back. We looked for guys that were hungry and had something to prove with them. Another example was Dashaun Wood who hadn´t played the season before coming to Frankfurt on account of an injury and was very hungry as well”, stressed head coach Gordon Herbert. Wood would go on to dominate the BBL, win the MVP and lead the team into the BBL semi-finals. Scrubb may not have the consistent overwhelming stats that Wood put up that season, but he sure could get close.
Another big problem last season was at the point guard position. Kwame Vaughn didn´t function last season and as a result the Fraport Skyliners didn´t reach the playoffs. Gordon Herbert has had a fine touch for bringing in the right point guards in the last years despite having a very limited budget as Dashaun Wood, Justin Cobbs and Jordan Theodore proved. Last season Gordon Herbert found Shavon Shields who had a great rookie season in the BBL and picked up three Eurobasket awards including Eurobasket.com All-German Bundesliga 2nd Team -17. Shields came out of Nebraska(NCAA) and Herbert didn´t hesitate to grab another Cornhusker from the program with Tai Webster. Shields was a huge success with Frankfurt so why not Webster? Webster may be a rookie, but has unending international experience for a 22 year having played for the New Zealand national team for years and played at the World Cup in 2014 won the gold at the FIBA Stankovic Continental Champions’ Cup in 2015 as well as a gold at the 3×3 Men Youth Olympic Games in Italy in 2011. Webster has been up and down, but has had some very solid games showing his vast potential and had his breakout last weekend against the EWE Baskets Oldenburg pouring in 31 points grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out four assists and filling up the stat sheet like a young Russell Westbrook. The season is still very young, but his presence so far and game is already a huge upgrade to Kwame Vaughn from last season. “He has been up and down. We benched him some games and gave him less minutes. I had a few conversations with him. He has practiced better in the last few weeks and been more motivated. He saw every situation on the court better against Oldenburg and had a good game. I hope that he can build on it. He is only 22 years old and has a lot of potential. He came out of a good program and has good habits. He has good size, is athletic and has the potential to be a good defensive player. He just needs to be more consistent”, stressed Gordon Herbert.
Despite the slim rotation and lack of offense weapons, the club can be very happy with how the offense has played averaging 79 points after only eight games. The defense is a lot better than what their 76 points allowed shows. In a Gordon Herbert system, defense has priority and playing transition basketball well and letting good plays at the opposite end spark their offense has been a fact for years. With the back bone of Robertson, Morrison, Huff, and Scrubb, the defense already has a solid identity now and is in place. The aggressiveness is there, the switching is on, the pick and roll defense is strengthened with the communication and getting big bodies in the paint has stifled their opponents already in the early going. The only thing left now is the fine tuning that will continue as the season goes on. With Herbert at the reigns and his players understanding his commands, this team will be under 70 points at the latest at the start of the second half of the season. Herbert is never satisfied and that is only normal as his team continues to be a work in progress, but surprisingly very far in their season development on the defensive end. “It is huge when you can keep a good core together. Robertson and Morrison know the defensive system and add Wolhfarth-Bottermann and you have a good defensive rotation. You need two good defenders on the perimeter and two good centers to be successful at this level. Morrison and Wohlfarth-Botterman brings different things to the court which strengths our defense. We are still giving up too many easy baskets, but we are going in the right direction”, warned Gordon Herbert. It continues to be amazing what Herbert can do with different lineups year in and year out and continue to get the maximum out of his more limited resources that he has. He continues to belong to the best coaches in the EasyCredit BBL.
The Fraport Skyliners are 6-2 and not even playing their best basketball in November and that´s very scary. They beat two playoff teams with medi Bayreuth and the EWE Baskets Oldenburg. They won two close games showing their grit, heart and nerves of steel in crunch time. The potential that this club possesses this season is gigantic and that has to give many teams headaches. So Frankfurt lost in Ludwigsburg and Munich, but that was expected and both teams are playing better basketball already now than they did all last season. The club has been playing with a seven man rotation and it has been working. The German kids like Isaac Bonga who has made giant leaps in the past months has served as a solid back up while Richard Freudenberg still needs time as his body just isn´t where it should be as it suffered from last season where he didn´t get minutes at St Johns and Niklas Kiel is coming back from injury. Sky is the limit for this team. The only thing that will hold back their development and success would be injuries to key players. Other than that this team is on a mission of becoming a very dangerous team and can make their first big step with a win in Bamberg Sunday something they haven´t done there since 2010. A win there is a bit unrealistic at this point, but Bamberg isn´t the team it was last year and Gordon Herbert always has a plan as his scouting is always immaculate. The Fraport Skyliners will be a very scary team in May 2018. Teams will want to avoid the team going into the playoffs. The question remains only how scary will this team be? It will be scary to play against the Fraport Skyliners and just how more scary could depend on how consistent Mike Morrison remains with his flights to the hoop and followed by angry sneers after his massive throw downs giving opposing teams added fear as Halloween could come a tad bit early in May 2018 if many things go right for the Fraport Skyliners