By: Sam Meyerkopf / @euro_adventures
These Euroleague first timers have low expectations and a ton of youth. This should enable them to play a more free flowing and loose style. They’ll lose some games by 30 points some weeks, but could bring some European powers down to the wire in others. They’ve won big games before (as this the Croatian League Champion), but it looks like Zagreb is in for a very up and down season.
The pessimist would point to their youth as a bad thing, but if you add up all their youngsters, there’s enough talent here to make advancing a possibility.
It all starts with Krunslav Simon, the team captain and 26-year-old veteran who’s played all of his professional games with KK Zagreb, who will need him to lead this team offensively and be a mentor for the talented young prospects on the team. The most notable greenhorns are Dario Saric and Mario Herzonja, both former FIBA U-16 MVPs. Still under 18, it remains to be seen if Herzonja will even play in Euroleague games, but he’s an immensely talented guard that Zagreb would love to utilize if at all possible.
Saric is the more highly touted of the prospects and does more of his work in the paint. At 6’8” he has played more of a power forward role in the past, but as his perimeter game develops his future lies as a stretch four or a small forward. As the season goes on, Saric will get more and more playing time until he becomes a reliable contributor, most likely more useful on the offensive end of the court.
In the backcourt they will rely on Euroleague vets Petar Babic and Saso Ozbolt to bring consistent minutes. Babic will be more of a force on defense, while Ozbolt will bring his streaky offense to the squad. The most intriguing part of the backcourt will be how European basketball rookie Diante Garrett fits in. Coming off a really solid senior year at Iowa State University, Garrett went undrafted but still finds himself on a Euroleague squad. He averaged 17 points and 6 assists last year in NCAA play, but with this being his first European action I see him having trouble adjusting to more half court sets and well-coached defenses. It’ll be harder to for Diante to get a handle on the offense immediately, so expect to look for his shot when in doubt.
Zagreb’s depth isn’t great, but their strengths lie in the frontcourt. We already mentioned the contributions Simon and Saric will make, now let’s take a closer look at the real bangers. Mario Kasun, Josh Heyvelt, and Sean May will be the three headed monster of sorts in the paint. All three have offensive talent, with Kasun’s overly-tattooed muscles acting as the building blocks for Zagreb’s post defense. This will be May’s second Euroleague season (with Fenerbahçe Ülker last year), so the wide-bodied former Tar Heel will look to be much more assertive this time around. Heyvelt has an inside-out game that was rather unimpressive at times last year in Roma, so he’ll need to straighten out that jumper and continue working on the boards with Kasun and May. If Zagreb can push teams around in the interior, go after second chance rebounds with a vengeance, and keep pounding the ball inside on offense, they could hang with some of the better, more experienced clubs.
In Group B, Brose Baskets, Unicaja, and Zalgiris all stand in their path of advancement. It will be really hard to pass any of these teams as on paper, as they’re all slightly or a lot more talented than Zagreb. Weeks five and six find them hosting Zalgiris and Brose, and it could mean the difference between playing in the Euroleague in January or not.
Biggest Acquisition: Sean May. The big guy already had 21 points in Zagreb’s latest Adriatic League win and he will be one of the horses Zagreb rides in the post offensively. His defense is not impressive, but when given one-on-one coverage in the paint, he can push you to most any spot he wants to. May will have some off games where a bigger, more athletic man is covering him, but if more often than not he can be Zagreb’s leading post scorer, it will change this team. Last year he got his Euroleague legs under him with Fenerbahçe Ülker, and now he is expected to produce at a much higher rate. The more easy buckets May scores in the paint, the more this Zagreb teams transfers to a heavier front court approach and starts wearing teams down. If Zagreb can become a tough interior force, teams will not want to bang with them and it could give a team without many advantages a big one.
Biggest Loss: Luka Zoric. The Croatian League MVP moves on to fellow Euroleaguers, Unicaja Malaga, this season. His play will be sorely missed back in Zagreb where he took a giant step forward last season as the team’s star player. Zoric had to go get that elusive paycheck, but it’s a shame that the guy that was maybe the biggest reason for Zagreb getting into the Euroleague, won’t guide them on their maiden voyage.
Swingman: Mario Kasun. Mr. Badass came home to Zagreb last season to try and get the Croatians to the Euroleague. Mission: accomplished. His play in the paint is mean and inspiring and his presence adds a veteran winner to a team with that sorely needs one. Early in the season Kasun will be looked on to carry a bigger load, then once the young pups get more comfortable he’ll be asked to be a defensive monster and a put back machine. If he can keep his head on straight all season and play with real force game in and game out, it could change the whole demeanor of this Zagreb team.
Best Drinking Buddy: Mario Kasun. He once called himself “not too stable in the head” and has over 30 tattoos. Sounds like a guy that could definitely tell me some stories.
Drink of Choice: I’m thinking he takes down straight Absinthe.
Most Likely To Be Caught Sneaking Massive Amounts of Drugs Over European Borders: We already know Heytvelt likes to dabble in some psychedelics, and I wouldn’t put it past Kasun to join him.
Prediction: In the end they don’t advance past the Regular Season. A couple emotional home wins in the new Zagreb Arena is what we can hope for.