At Virginia Tech, Malcolm Delaney was a star. In Europe, no matter what jersey he wears, Malcolm Delaney just can’t stop being a champion
Back at the Euroleague Final Four, it all seemed like a gag. Sitting in a bar after the semi-finals, with a few beers imbibed, the rest of the season for the losing semi-finalists came to mind. Everybody assumed CSKA would win the title, including me, but I had to say it. “Loko are winning the VTB, they’ve got Malcolm Delaney.” Euroleague’s Frankie Sachs was perplexed. “He just wins championships.”
At the time, Loko were facing down a series against a Khimki team that had home-court advantage and fresh off winning Eurocup, never mind the beast in the distance. Ahead of tip-off in Krasnodar last night Delaney’s history making run looked a lot more plausible.
There are three main types of players who play for four teams in four different countries across four seasons.
1. Journeymen who are good enough to get a contract but not good enough to keep it
2. Diamonds in the rough who get plucked from an obscure league before hitting the fast track mid-career
3. Malcolm Delaney
At Virginia Tech Delaney was good, really good, but not NBA good in the eyes of scouts. Having initially declared early, Delaney came back for his senior season averaging 18.7 ppg, 4 apg, 3.5 rpg, and 1.7 spg in his senior season. Not once in his four years at Blacksburg did Delaney make it to the big dance, having to settle for the NIT every time. He didn’t cut down any nets, be it for the ACC regular season or conference tournament.
Delaney was good but he wasn’t used to winning. At 6’3″ (1.91m) and 190lbs (86kg) he fit the mould of plenty of guards who made the jump from NCAA ball to Europe. He was used to a 35 second clock, he was used to the same old zone defences, and the transition was supposed to be tough. Only superstars settle in quickly, only players too good for the teams they are on make the kind of impact Delaney did. All the Baltimore man has done since coming to this continent is unleash the fury. The pro clock has never been a problem nor have more inventive defences. From day one, he has been a difference maker on this continent.
Théo Souman, a journalist with France 3 Bourgogne, covered Delaney’s first year in Europe extensively. The Hokie joined Élan Chalon of LNB Pro A, the top flight in France. Founded in 1955, the club had won its first major honour the season before Delaney joined by lifting the French Cup. Despite covering Élan Chalon extensively, Souman admits Delaney was a mystery to him at first.
“I didn’t know anything about Delaney before he played with Chalon,” Souman told BallinEurope. “We all saw quickly that he was a very good player, with a nice shot, and a great confidence. That season, he was behind Blake Schilb, who had played at a top level. He was MVP of the French league, and the real star of Chalon. People didn’t talk so much of Delaney but month after month, he became more and more important for the team.”
Schilb was the regular season and finals MVP for Chalon that season but Delaney averaged 15 ppg, 3.3 apg, 3.1 rpg, and 1.2 spg in a season where the provincial club won everything in France.
“This 2011/2012 season was incredible for Chalon, a small city in France. They won the three titles on offer in France (French Cup, Semaine des As and French championship) and lost the EuroChallenge final against Besiktas. It was during the final of Semaine des As, in Roanne, against Gravelines-Dunkerque, that Malcolm Delaney had a big impact for the first time. He made incredible shots (only 12pts, but a great game),” said Souman.
“He was a very consistent player, he never missed a big game. This was player who was very strong mentally, with a killer instinct. He loved to take the big shots at the end of the games. He made a big impact in the playoffs and, again, in the final against Le Mans for the French Title.”
Blake Schilb was so good that he was named MVP of all, but without Delaney, Chalon would never have won three titles this season, I’m convinced of that.
Having won everything available bar EuroChallenge with Chalon, Delaney could have played Euroleague with the club the following season. Not for the last time, it was time for the guard to hit the road to pastures new.
“That was a big loss for Chalon but Delaney had big problems with Steed Tchicamboud, the historical point guard of the team. I think that was a big problem for him to go on with Chalon, despite the prospect of Euroleague. Chalon re-signed Schilb, but let Delaney go and I think the club would have needed the both in order to reach the Top 16.
From France it was on to Ukraine to sign up with Budivielnyk Kiev. Having made a breakthrough in the Ukrainian league while Delaney was in his senior year with the Hokies, the Kiev club had taken a step back in 2011/12 and hopes weren’t exactly high for the year ahead.
“Budivelnyk wasn’t even considered as title contender before that season,” Alexander Proshuta, editor-in-chief at basket-planet.com, told BallinEurope. The arrival of Delaney in Kiev had zero impact on expectations prior to the seasons commencing.
“Personally I knew he played in Élan Chalon and won the French championship with decent stats. I’m not big fan of Pro A, so that was all my knowledge on Malcolm Delaney before the 7th August 2012, when the first reports about his signing with Budivelnyk came through,” said Proshuta.
“My first impression was that Delaney was a quality guy but nothing extra. The Superleague in 2012/13 was packed with such PGs as Lynn Greer, Ramel Curry and Randy Culpepper, so Delaney was a bit behind them. Besides, Leo Lyons seemed to be the first star of Budivelnyk.”
As with his time in France, it didn’t take long for Delaney to start getting serious notice from the press in Ukraine. His impact on Budivelnyk came when it mattered most.
“When it was time for the important games, in Eurocup and Superleague, Malcolm flourished. He had exceptional scoring and creative skills along with nice decision making and leadership. He fully deserved MVP title that season. In Ukraine the MVP title is awarded for both regular and playoffs part. I’m not sure he would have got it after the regular season but after the playoffs there were no doubts,” said Proshuta.
In addition to winning the Ukrainian championship and MVP award, Delaney helped the Kiev club to the semi-finals of Eurocup. “After 2012/13 season Budivelnyk was unanimously the strongest club in Ukraine and not because they won the championship in the national league, more for their big Eurocup campaign, including winning a series against Russian powerhouse Spartak. Of course, this way couldn’t have been passed without Malcolm,” said Proshuta.
Having generated interest in Kiev, it was time for Delaney to hit the road again. Proshuta wasn’t surprised to see Delaney leave after just a single season.
“The problem was in Mal’s approach. Neither him, nor his close friend Leo Lyons, both leaders of 2012/13 Budivelnyk team, wanted to stay in Ukraine more. They both wanted to play in bigger leagues with mild climate – it’s funny they both reached Russia at some time. There was a story that Mal got food poisoning after having some pizza in mid-season and since that time he decided to leave Ukraine.”
His next stop was Munich to join FC Bayern. Despite the club’s storied history in soccer, Bayern was still an emerging force in hoops. It was 49 years since the Bavarian club had won the second of its two Bundesliga titles and the club was only in its third season back in the Bundesliga, having been all the way down in the third tier while Delaney was in his freshman year at Virginia Tech.
Bayern had changed a lot since Delaney started college. The club was investing big time in hoops and it needed serious players to compete for the Bundesliga and to make and impact in Europe. Along with the addition of Deon Thompson, Bayern wanted Delaney to turn them into a team to be reckoned with at all levels but he had big shoes to fill, replacing Tyrese Rice who had left Bavaria for Tel Aviv to join Maccabi.
“The Bayern roster was talented, but they had limited on-ball talent. Delaney was clearly expected to be the main creator in their offence. I think folks questioned whether he could be a full-time point guard on this level when he came in. Then he averaged close to six assists a game during Bayern’s eight-win BBL opening run,” said Simon Jatsch, a Bonn based basketball analyst and contributor to Euroleague Adventures.
Delaney’s back to back titles in his first two seasons didn’t carry much weight when he arrived in the Bundesliga. That hot start however told observers everything they needed to know.
“Sure he had won two straight titles but they were in France and Ukraine and I imagine most people thought of it more of an anomaly than anything else,” said David Hein, of heinnews and host of the Taking the Charge podcast.
“He was seen more of a scoring point guard than a true pass-first playmaker. And Bayern seemed to have so many scoring options besides him, people wondered how he would get all of them the shots they needed/wanted/should have,” said Hein.
He saw right away that he could score – with his great motor and drive to the rim. There were not a lot of guards who could stop him. He also quickly realised that his teammates were big time scorers as well and he got them the ball.
Delaney was named Bundesliga MVP as he led Bayern to the title, beating Alba Berlin in four games in the final, and ending the four-year reign of Bavarian rivals Brose Baskets Bamberg in the process. It was Euroleague where Delaney showed that he belonged at the top level on the continent, averaging 13.9 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.4 rpg, and 1 spg. Bayern reached the Top 16 of the competition at the first attempt and narrowly missed out on the playoffs.
After his fantastic performances in the Bundesliga and Euroleague, it was always going to be a long shot for Bayern to retain Delaney’s services. The Munich club hasn’t been as sharp without him.
“[Bayern are missing] a guy who can carry their offense full-time, someone who can make difficult shots, someone who’s incredibly skilled in drawing fouls, plus a never spectacular, but methodical passer. Delaney is a talented scorer, though never the most efficient one, and he deals with on-ball pressure real well. They tried spreading playmaking responsibility on more shoulders, brought in [Vasilije] Micić and [Anton] Gavel plus a more perimeter-oriented four in [Duško] Savanović; it never clicked. Micic is creative in isolated sequences but is a work in progress in terms of initiating team offense. Gavel is not the first former leader/key player to lose his intensity in a lesser role,” said Jatsch.
Hein sees a big hole in Bayern’s defence after Delaney’s departure. “Delaney wasn’t great [on defence] but he at least worked pretty hard on the defensive end. Quick guards have killed Bayern all year but they would have been slowed quite a bit more last season with Delaney around,” he said.
“They also lost a true winner at the most important position on the court. What seemed like an anomaly at the beginning turned into the rare occurrence of three straight championships in three different European countries. And Munich – just like any team – really have missed that winner at that position.”
Money always talks in this game and the clubs with the deepest pockets are largely in Russia. CSKA Moscow, the club with the biggest budget in Europe, didn’t come knocking but Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar did and so it was time for the former Hokie to head east. The Krasnodar club had battled Delaney twice in the Euroleague Top 16 and had first hand of experience of what he could to do an opponent. Now they wanted him to help break CSKA’s dominance in the VTB United League.
Loko have cash but wealth is relative. Nobody lives with CSKA on a straight up financial fight in Europe. The league championship was won by the Moscow club in each of Delaney’s first three seasons as a pro. Despite falling flat at the Euroleague Final Four in each of the past four seasons, CSKA haven’t lost a series in any competition since 2011. In a one and done, CSKA are beatable, but over a series their strength should prevail.
Timur Rustamov, reporter with Sport-Express, saw the arrival of Delaney as an upgrade but not enough to challenge CSKA. “Krasnodar’s point guard position didn’t look as intimidating as Moscow’s trio of Teodosic-De Colo-Jackson early in the season. Still, the acquisition of Delaney was viewed as a vast backcourt improvement as he has excelled not only in domestic competition but also shined with Bayern in Top 16. Malcolm was one of the reasons for Loko falling short of the Euroleague quarterfinals during-2012/13 as he came out strong helping to rout Kuban in Munich,” Rustamov told BallinEurope.
The Krasnodar club beat CSKA in October and then completed the season sweep in Moscow in February (that second link features the most bizarre choice of backing music by a professional league) albeit without Delaney for the latter clash. Delaney’s individual performances have been impressive, averaging 14.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.3 rpg, and 1 spg for the season. The role of Delaney through the season has been influenced heavily by changes in personnel at the Krasnodar club.
“Eventually, it came down to Delaney carrying the load that was previously shared by Mantas Kalnietis and Marcus Williams (one was injured all year, the other left prior to the season). The Lithuanian was responsible for controlling the tempo while Williams provided one on one offence. Delaney could do both and was pretty stellar at it during all year. Although it didn’t go all smooth and perfect,” said Rustamov.
“Sometimes Malcolm was a point of concern in the locker room, acting as the main man on the team which wasn’t the common belief. Even with that kind of tension rising during certain points of the season he was able to regroup for VTB playoffs and become the focal point of Lokomotiv offence, not afraid to take and make big shots against Khimki. At the same time I believe more was expected of him as a facilitator, but it was Krunoslav Simon who took that role for the team, allowing Delaney to concentrate on being a scoring threat and pushing the tempo,” he said.
“As often happens Delaney’s ability to play defence strongly correlates with his level of engagement. During the playoffs he has raised the intensity and looks quite sharp disrupting passing lanes. During the regular season he was a defensive liability every now and then, which required extra effort from his teammates. Overall he’s made a strong positive impact making the departure of Williams and maladies of Kalnietis an afterthought.”
Loko have never lifted the biggest title in Russian basketball, not during the Soviet league era, the standard Russian league phase, or the current VTB United League which consists of the best teams in Russia and a few from an assortment of European nations. On Wednesday night, in front of their home fans, they had a chance to set up a finals series with CSKA.
Facing him down, Tyrese Rice the man he replaced at Bayern who was Euroleague Final Four MVP with Maccabi Tel Aviv a year ago and Eurocup finals MVP this season with his new team Khimki. With a 2-1 lead in the series the stage was set for Delaney to take the next step in a remarkable journey.
Rice and Khimki delivered a stark reminder that sports don’t follow easily defined narratives. Rice was dominant in the opening 20 minutes, controlling the floor as Khimki went in at the break with a 22 point lead. Delaney had been a non-factor and although Loko somehow made a game of it in the final quarter, it was Derrick Brown who carried the load. Delaney wasn’t a disaster but it wasn’t the game we have come to expect from the point guard when the pressure is on. Now, it’s on his shoulders the carry the team on the road. The decisive Game 5 is at Khimki on Saturday and Loko need Delaney to deliver with their season on the line.
Saturday’s game is about more than just the W. Record keeping in European hoops is far from perfect but after a lot of digging it looks like no other player has won four championships, with four different teams, in four different leagues, in four consecutive years. The closest was Marcus Brown who won the Spanish title with Unicaja Malaga in 2007, followed by the Lithuanian championship with Zalgiris Kaunas in 2008, and the Israeli title with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2009. Incidentally, the four-four-four-four feat has never been achieved in soccer with not even Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulling it off. Delaney has matched Brown’s run but still could go out on his own with a unique place in the history books.
All he needs to do is lead Loko to victory on the road in Game 5 on the road and then an upset series win over the richest team in Europe.
If he somehow does, the question will then become where to next for Delaney? As with the end every season in his short career to date, Delaney is free agent come the end of the season and ready to roam the earth like Cain in Kung Fu. Rustamov thinks Loko have a shot at convincing Delaney to stay in Krasnodar.
“I’m quite sure Krasnodar is still the place where Malcolm can earn the biggest buck. Next season he can do it while acting on the biggest european stage in Euroleague. The market isn’t particularly scarce on point guards, but I don’t believe Loko will take a risk of letting Delaney go.”