Guest post from Os Davis, site manager of ESPN TrueHoop's Ball In Europe basketball blog...
It must have seemed like a logical plan, similar fashion as had been done dozens of times before: The Heat had taken a flier on talented-enough seven-footer Justin Hamilton, who in turn decided he'd take his game to Europe. Hamilton doubtlessly figured to improve certain aspects of his game (i.e. increasing the range of his jumpshot and, well, nearly everything not involving post play) to prepare for a real opportunity in the NBA. Heck, his mother is a native of Croatia and Hamilton even spent his first year in elementary school in the country.
And so it was: Hamilton reportedly eschewed offers from club or clubs in Spain's ACB - essentially universally agreed to be Europe's second highest quality league after the Euroleague - to play for Cibona Zagreb, the Croatian powerhouse based in Hamilton's one-time hometown. He told media there that Heat management was "happy about his choice" to play there and, thanks to his new passport, even spoke of one day possibly competing in international play with Team Croatia.
Surely the former LSU Tiger would have an educational year in Europe, and so it was. Though perhaps not quite in the ways Hamilton had figured or wanted.
Unfortunately for Hamilton and a few former/prospective NBA names (more on this momentarily), the financial difficulties that the club has faced for four seasons now reared up again. By January, Cibona was near the bottom of the table in the Adriatic League at 6-12; the club's head coach in addition to its sports director resigned at this point and a mass exodus of players began: Rookie/University of Georgia alum Dustin Ware, Smush Parker, Tomislav Zubčić (interestingly enough, taken at #56 by the Toronto Raptors in the 2012 draft, 11 spots after Hamilton) as well as Hamilton himself.
The reason? Cibona had stopped paying player salaries, an unfortunate tactic in European basketball recently. While Hamilton claimed that the club owed him up to three months of back pay (so essentially the entire regular season's worth at that point), management countered that it was just one month behind, ultimately attempting to keep Hamilton citing his one-year contract and the arrangement of his new Croatian citizenship.
Hamilton jumped ship nevertheless, likely waiving at least part of his back-due money to head to Bulgaria and get with VEF Riga, the perpetual champions there as well as a competitor in Eurocup and VTB United leagues.
A fresh start? Well, things looked good early. Hamilton was immediately given quality court time upon joining Riga in January; in his second game with the club, he contributed a career game of 35 points and 11 rebounds - albeit against lowly seventh-place Jelgava.
Hamilton continued to average right around 20-22 minutes per game in all leagues for some time - decent playing time for a team stacked with big men - but his development was again derailed by unfortunate circumstances. Hamilton ultimately played just nine games for Riga in Latvian league and VTB United play; his last appearance was on April 6 and thereafter he essentially disappeared from the lineup altogether. Hamilton reportedly unofficially left this club in early May, before the VTB playoffs (capping an unexpectedly successful season for Riga there) and the Latvian season-ending tournament. Rumors buzzed that Hamilton had been injured, but no such official report along these lines was released. By the time the VTB quarterfinals rolled around, the league reported simply that Hamilton would be "unavailable" for the series against BC Khimki. Once this series ended, VEF Riga management made Hamilton's departure official.
So what can Heat backers and Hamilton watchers take away from a frustrating 2012-13? Unfortunately not much. Saddled with three different coaches in two disparate systems, Hamilton may be considered to have taken a step back in a couple areas - though perhaps this may be blamed on his environment(s).
On the plus side, Hamilton's spotty shooting in college (about 50% on twos in his junior year with LSU) improved nicely to a 62.1% mark with Cibona Zagreb and his shot selection improved as he was called upon much more frequently inside. Unfortunately, playing on a team of square pegs did little for Hamilton's ball-handling skills or defensive court awareness. In the Adriatic, Hamilton totaled as many turnovers as combined blocks and steals (18) and committed more personal fouls than he drew (41-38). And speaking of fouls, his free-throw shooting decreased to mundane sub-60% levels after hitting nearly 80% from the line in college ball.
Getting just 16 minutes per game for the Croatian side and typically entering only in the second quarter, some of Hamilton's bumpy play can certainly be attributed to lack of time - this is a guy who transferred out of Iowa State after too much bench-riding - but his contributions to Riga were hardly outstanding, his early 35-point game notwithstanding. In fact, by April, Hamilton seemed to be "getting it", going for consecutive double-doubles before mysteriously disappearing from the Riga rolls.
Optimists might prefer to look upon his 25 appearances as a makeup for his redshirt turn with LSU, a down season in which his natural talent remained in evidence. On the dark side of the spectrum, the man will be 23½ heading into 2013-14 and some element of "he is what he is" certainly must be considered.
Though he's been ruled out of Summer League play due to injury (in yet another setback), hope still exists. Perhaps Hamilton should look into those Spanish offers again. A solid season in Europe with a stable team could well restore Hamilton's dreams of one day performing effectively in the NBA - if the reality of playing ball on The Continent haven't completely turned him off...
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