By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
He chose a spot and got to it. He created plays out of nothing. Even when the defense knew he was going to drive, Nenad Miljenovic was able to get all the way to rim.
He glaringly stood out on the court. The ball was usually in his hands and he was continually trying to attack and create a play. Miljenovic was a star of the Euroleague’s NIJT tournaments when he was 16 and 17. As the starting point guard for FMP, he led them to the 2009 NIJT Championship and in 2010 FMP was runner-up. Miljenovic was picked as an All-Tournament member in 2009 and got snubbed in 2010 after averaging 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.5 steals, and unfortunately 4.0 turnovers a game. But it was his control of his team at such a young age that stood out. As I sat their in the stands in Paris, you could see the trust and responsibility Miljenovic had accepted. He wasn’t the most physically gifted guy on the court but he was always a step or two ahead of everyone else.
Last summer at the FIBA U19 World Championships, Vasilije Micic was a man among boys. He was the patient attacker. He saw the game in a way no one else at the tournament did. He stood out not necessarily athletically but his understanding of the game was at a level few others were close to. He finished on the All-Tournament team with 12.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 steals, and unfortunately 4.0 turnovers a game, leading Serbia to the Silver Medal.
Now both are having breakout seasons for a Mega Vizura team in it’s first Adriatic League (ABA) season ever as the team’s only point guards and high level shot creators. What makes them special is their age, poise, and court vision.
Micic is now 19 and Miljenovic is 20. After starting 0-3, Mega Vizura ran off three straight wins (almost four but lost 96-98 to Cibona this weekend) and is starting to look like a real league contender in the process. Micic averages 6.7 assists per game and Miljenovic averages 4.0. Combined it’s by far the best assisting tandem in the ABA.
Micic is the leader and steady hand. He’s the caretaker of both the offense and defense. You could say Micic is an old wise man with young legs. Someone that can be relied upon to carry the offense, create for others, and be a safety valve for when teammates get in trouble. His game is cerebral.
On offense Micic, besides being a great passer, distributor, and shot creator, has a bunch of others tools. He has a developing jumper that is starting to look more and more consistent. He can catch and shoot from three and is also very comfortable pulling up for a shot. As a bigger, stronger guard, Micic does a good job of stopping on a dime in the paint and creating just enough space to get a good shot off. He can also post-up too, which allows him to find a quick shot or opens the floor up for kick-out passing opportunities.
On defense Micic uses his strength to his advantage again. He can just take a ball from smaller guards who isn’t protecting his dribble and becomes deadly on the break with his distribution and pull-up abilities. Quicker guards can get around him but few can shoot over him or pass around him.
They key to Micic’s game, more than anything, is his mind. He sees the game two moves ahead of most anyone else on the court. He’s thinking about how his movements affect everyone else. By no means would I call him quick for a guard but he counters his lack of speed with no wasted movements. He plays almost the whole game and never overextends. He could use some more off-ball movement but everything is calculated. Everything is planned out. Micic is a great organizer. And once the plan is in place and the pieces start moving, he starts whipping over the head, bullet passes to cutters for easy scores. Combining his mind with a solid 6’4” frame allows Micic to see over most other point guards. And his vision with a little bit of space means a lot of dumbfounded defenders wondering how the ball got by them so quickly.
Miljenovic is the improvisation artist. The read and react player. He’s just a little bit shorter than Micic, still giving him decent height, especially for a point guard. But Nenad is slinkier and his game is slippery. With longer arms, a more slender frame, and quicker feet, he keeps the defense off-balanced. You could call him a true combo guard in the fact that he can set up the offense and be the primary shot creator. Or he can also play off the ball more and stay in attack mode on drives. Because Miljenovic comes off the bench, he provides a bridge from the first unit to the second unit. He can put Micic off the ball or come in and play off-guard next to him or sub right in for Micic and run the offense on his own. He is often the initial offensive starter even when Micic is in, giving Vasilije a chance to be a spot-up threat and get a more concentrated look at the opening passing angles.
But Miljenovic’s greatest tool is the uncertainty he brings in a positive way. You could argue he’s as good of a scorer as he is a distributor. Good at driving and cutting. He’s a disruptor on both ends of the floor. Not great at moving side to side and staying in front of a guy on defense but wonderful at jumping passing lanes and staying active for rebounds. It’s his energy, length, and hops that turn him into an active defender.
On offense, the disruption continues. He always seems comfortable with the ball in his hands. Miljenovic is really crafty moving forward. He has a wide crossover that keeps the defense guessing. He can change directions in the blink of an eye and is a terror turning the corner on the pick and roll. But it all comes back to the improvisation. He can make a decision in an instant. Whether it be changing hands on his layup attempt or floating a pass to a big man roaming the paint or flying in for a sneaky offensive board.
On the fast break he can be a distributor or a finisher. He can start the break by bringing the ball up and looking for a passing or driving option or run the wing and try to score at the rim. The transition game is one of Nenad’s most efficient areas. When the defense is reeling, he prospers. And if things break down, he is one of the best in the Adriatic League in drawing fouls (4.5 per game).
There are a lot of things that make their combined passing ability deadly. They can both start the fast break immediately whether from a rebound or outlet pass. When the ball is rotated, there is always a new pick and roll option. If one of them runs into a busted pick and roll, they can just flip it around the perimeter and try it again. And both provide different options off of the pick and roll to keep the defense guessing. When they are both in it doesn’t matter who brings the ball up or starts the offense because the other guy is always ready as a just as good secondary option. This allows both of them to play loose and free. Neither has to always worry about being the main offensive creator because they have the other one to rely on. In 122 minutes on the court together in the ABA, the combination is a +38, outscoring opponents 264-226 or 87-74 per 40 minutes.
On Mega Vizura there aren’t a ton of other shot creating options. There are other finishers on the perimeter and in the paint but not a lot of other players who can create a shot for someone else. This means that you almost never see both of them subbed out and adds pressure, as they both always need to be focused. Not always something you would ask of players so young.
The supporting cast blends well around Micic and Miljenovic’s skills. Nemanja Dangubic is a young scorer (1993) who can sometimes be selfish but is one of the better athletes on the team. He’s the irrational confidence guy who gives Micic and Miljenovic a little bit of an offensive break when he goes and gets a shot himself. Nemanja Krstic played on the Serbian National Team with Micic this summer. He plays with veteran poise for also only being born in 1993. He mainly runs the wing but can also be seen at power forward in small lineups where all four young guards play together. Mainly known for his outside stroke (7/16 – 44% from three this year), Krstic is a solid cutter, and steady defender too. He’s the star role player or specialist of the team.
Nemanja Radovic is a stretch big who co-leads the team in scoring (15 PPG). He’s a great pick and pop option, as well as a dangerous weapon in catch and shoot situations. Marko Lukovic is a wing that plays bigger than he is. He’s mainly an off-ball player who is active on defense and flies around on offense looking for offensive rebounds and open cutting lanes. He’s another young guy, born in just 1992. The legendary Ratko Varda is the garbage man and veteran of the team. He’s the only player not born in the 1990’s (1979) and has been around the European block a few times. Mainly a dump off option on drives or a target for quick Micic darts from the perimeter, Vardo’s role is to finish plays at the rim. While I wouldn’t call him nimble, he gets the job done and provides a great target for the guards to pass to (Also gets 15 PPG). Nikola Jokic is the third best passer on the team and born in just 1995. He averages 2.8 dimes a game and had eight helpers versus MZT Skopje last week. As a high post operator, the guards can use him for hands offs, runs around him for easy looping passes to the rim, and a guy who can provide an interesting wrinkle off the pick and roll. Jokic is a big guy and is also a force on the boards, averaging 2.5 offensive rebounds a game.
Only The Beginning
Micic and Miljenovic are not perfect by any means. They looked overmatched against a more experienced but equally as young Partizan team last month and really had a hard time containing Leo Westermann. Both could improve in their on-ball defender and neither will ever be a go-to stopper on that end. They both average over two turnovers a game. Miljenovic rarely shoots outside and really needs to develop a better jump shot. Micic averages almost three fouls a game and if either one gets into foul trouble and it can have a crushing impact on the team’s rotation.
But at such young ages, these two are just dipping their toes into pro level ball. Yes Miljenovic could get stronger and Micic a little quicker but they bring enough tools and skills to the table to make up for it.
In hip-hop terms Micic is the great lyricist while Miljenovic is the quick witted freestyle artist. One was a heralded prospect in his mid-teens while the other has garnered significant buzz over the past year. Their skills compliment each other and their style of play keeps opponents guessing. Two guys that have such a feel for the game playing together is rare. And with both being so young, it’s ever more rare.