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Meet Petteri Koponen, the Mavericks' new point guard from Finland

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Dallas has owned Koponen's draft rights for years but it appears he is ready to come over. Can he help the Mavericks?

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In case you forgot -- and no one is blaming you if you did, since following international leagues isn't really a priority -- the Mavericks hold the rights to an international veteran point guard who was named to All-Eurocup First Team just a couple weeks ago after winning Eurocup championship with Russian club BC Khimki Moscow Region.

He's Finland native Petteri Koponen. He's 6'4 and 27 years old, a 2007 first round draft pick whose player rights were dealt to the Mavericks from the Portland Trail Blazers back in 2011. And according to ESPN's Marc Stein, he wants to make his debut in the NBA in 2015.

Since Finland isn't known to be a basketball hotbed and American fans don't know that much about Russian basketball, it might be helpful to take a peek at Koponen and see what he has done during these past a couple of years. Can he help the Mavericks in their current point guard turbulence?

Who was this Koponen guy again?

Back in 2011, I wrote this lengthy article about Petteri Koponen for this site. In case you are interested, you can read about his earliest professional years from there.

Obviously, quite a lot has happened in four years after that.

In 2012, Koponen signed a three year deal with Moscow-based BC Khimi - one of top three clubs in Russia and former team of guys like Alexey Shved, Timofey Mozgov, Carlos Delfino and Jorge Garbajosa.

The year of 2012-13 was a roller coaster of a season. While Koponen was named Euroleague player of the week once, he had tons of ups and downs as the rookie of Khimki's five-guard rotation under Lithuanian veteran coach Rimas Kurtinaitis.

Summer of 2013 was more successful for Koponen, who lead underdog team Finland to fantastic performance in Eurobasket 2013 in Slovenia. Finland won five out of eight games -- including victories over Turkey (Ömer Asik,  Hedo Türkoglu, Ersan Ilyasova), Sweden (Jonas Jerebko, Jeff Taylor), Russia (Alexey Shved), Greece (Vassilis Spanoulis) and Slovenia (Dragic brothers). In his best game of the tournament, Koponen destroyed Greece with 29 points. Koponen finished No. 1 in steals and No. 2 in assists in the tournament and Finland eventually was handed a wild card spot in FIBA World Cup 2014.

In 2013/14, Koponen showed tremendous improvement in club play, averaging 13,7 points, 3,5 rebounds and 3,0 assists a game while playing both guard positions in deep, deep Khimki team. Even though Khimki managed to break all time winning streak records in both Eurocup and VTB League, eventual Eurocup champion Valencia ended their season prematurely in Eurocup quarterfinals and they didn't manage to get pass VTB League quarterfinals.

Koponen led team Finland in the summer of 2014 to their first ever FIBA World Cup performance. While Finland was only able to win one out of five games, Koponen was clearly the engine as well as the most capable player in the team, finishing #1 in assists in tournament and showing his natural ability to score and create even against Team USA (in blowout loss, though).

Fast forward to season 2014/15: After Croatian point guard Marko Popovic' injury, Koponen has spent his time 50/50 shuffling between shooting guard and point guard positions in Khimki rotation. The experiment has been a success: Koponen is currently averaging 15,1 points, 3,8 assists and 2,5 rebounds a game. Khimki won the Eurocup title in impressive fashion earning a spot in Euroleague in 2015/16 while Koponen was named to All Eurocup First Team and honored as the top sixth man in VTB League.

In late March, Koponen signed a two-year contract with Khimki. His contract has a buyout section which permits him to leave Russia in summers 2015 and 2016, if he's offered an NBA contract.

Enough of this. Is he good enough to play rotation minutes in the NBA? What's more important: could he really help the Mavericks right now?

Whatever I write, take with a grain of salt: I have worked in Finnish Basketball Federation for almost a decade and followed Koponen as a beat writer from 2005 to 2008. Nevertheless, I strive to be as objective as possible in everything I write, so interpret my words through these two lenses.

While I was sure already in 2011 that Koponen could be a part of an NBA team rotation, these last two years have convinced me that he could even be a very capable second point guard for a playoff team.

Here's the deal: time and time again, Koponen proves that he will swim when thrown in the cold water.

Just three years ago in Khimki, he has been forced to develop into a shooting guard, a position he was far from comfortable with. He has responded extremely well, improving his catch-and-shoot and off-ball skills. Then again, during this season, the team needed Koponen back at a point guard and as a result, they received a career year from him.

Meanwhile, Koponen is by far the best player of Team Finland (despite Erik Murphy being probably the most recognizable for U.S. audience). Everything runs through Koponen and national team head coach Henrik Dettmann gives Koponen tons of liberties to call the offensive plays.

Team Finland needs the ball in Koponen's hands because of his world-class ability to handle the ball and create shots for himself and his teammates. And it can't be mentioned enough that every other national team knows for sure that Koponen is Team Finland's engine. Koponen is burdened with tons of pressure, he's constantly double-teamed, trapped, harassed and roughed-up, but he's always able to deliver.

In both national team and club play, Koponen plays against Euroleague and NBA caliber players almost weekly. Naturally, the speed and physicality of NBA play would be something that would take some time to cope with and it is true that he would struggle against enforcer type of defensive players such as Chris Paul or Patrick Beverley, but in that case, he wouldn't differ from majority of NBA point guards.

If you watched his YouTube clips, you already got a glimpse of his playing style. He is a natural scoring point guard who can both blow past his opponent and sink jumpers from all over terrific accuracy. Those YouTube clips can be deceiving, though, because in national team, he's the #1 scoring option. If he played with Mavs, his main focus would be to run the plays and distribute for guys such as Dirk and Parsons -- then again, his man couldn't let him unguarded because of his ball-handling skills, speed and shot, so he'd work well in pace and space offense.

Defensively, he'd fit in. When he first moved from Finland to Italy in 2008, he had to earn his minutes playing tough on-ball defense and he's known as a pesky guy who's strong, fast and witty enough to control opposing 1's and 2's. Naturally, no one can expect him to harness Stephen Curry or Derrick Rose, but even in Team USA's FIBA World Cup blowout victory over Team Finland, Koponen was pretty much the only Finn who was able to hang with NBA players defensively.

Here's where he still has to improve

It has been stated over and over again that his most glaring weakness is that he's uncomfortable in traffic. In national team play, it shows occasionally. He rarely gets to the paint and doesn't really draw contact -- and because he's yet to develop mid-range floater or runner.

This has mainly only been a problem at the national level, though. When he has NBA or Euroleague quality players around him, Koponen usually has more space to drive the lane.

With Mavs' offense, Koponen would have and create tons of possibilities. He could become a Swiss army knife type of guard Carlisle values -- not a reckless type of scoring guard or a virtuoso, "my way or high way" point guard, but instead an extremely coachable guy who can run the plays or create his own shot. And defensively, his ability to read, react and communicate makes him a good help-side defense player as well as on-ball defender.

Team Finland's offense relies on quick decision-making, long range shooting and transition plays. These cornerstones aren't far from Carlisle's offense. Then again, Koponen would benefit from disciplined, clear style of play in a playoff team -- he wouldn't be as effective on a losing team.

koponen

Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

Ok, I'm still not convinced. He averages 15 points a game in Russia. He hasn't more than one year in Euroleague. His national team has been at best No. 9 in Eurobasket. USA beat them by 60 points in FIBA World Cup. There have been a million international stars in Europe who haven't succeeded in the NBA. Why would he be different?

Points taken, and obviously, he has yet to play an NBA minute, so my words will never be enough to convince anyone. Personally, I think he would've been good enough to play in the NBA already four or five years ago as a diamond-in-a-rough and as a developing role player. Right now, he can step in and contribute right away. And don't engage yourself with that 15 points a game too much -- consider European style of play and check out the top scorers of Euroleague and their points per game averages, please.

Goran Dragic wasn't hailed at when he came to the NBA (remember the nickname "Tragic Goran" being thrown around?), but all it took from him was to get a decent chance. He grew into an elite guard with the right coach in the right team and he has many good years left.

People were slightly amused when Pablo Prigioni stepped into the league as a 34-year old rookie who had averaged 12.8 points a game in Spain. He has proved to be a witty, gritty, valuable backup point guard and an important veteran presence for conference finals team Houston Rockets.

Many people -- including me -- asked "who?" when Australian Matthew Dellavedova was introduced as a backup point guard of Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, he had good years in college, but Saint Mary's is no Kentucky or Duke. This spring, Dellavedova has given valuable rest minutes to Kyrie Irving, not to mention his 19-point breakthrough game in Eastern Conference semifinals not too long ago. (By the way, Koponen was better than Dellavedova AND Dante Exum in 2014's Finland-Australia national team games.)

Naturally, Patty Mills, also an Aussie, is another example of an international guard making waves in the NBA. Patty traveled to Texas through the D-League, China and Australia. Now he's a vital part of the San Antonio Spurs. With the 76ers or Magic, Mills probably wouldn't do much, but Gregg Popovich appreciates his skill set and knows how to use him.

He's a Finn? Yep. Only one season of Euroleague experience and that was two and a half years ago? Sure. Never played an NBA minute? No, he hasn't. But this goes beyond that.

There's loads of wasted talent in the NBA as well as plenty of guys who never had the possibility to show what they can do. The major question: who is able to spot that talent and willing to give it a shot?

Bringing Koponen to Dallas can't hurt the Mavericks and would give Koponen a well-deserved chance to prove himself in the NBA.

★★★

Hippo Taatila is a Finnish freelance writer and basketball enthusiast who has covered the Finnish national team basketball since 2007.