Cedevita Zagreb plays in the Arena Drazen Petrovic. It was sold out for the visit of Laboral Kutxa Baskonia on Friday night. The team that bears the name of its Vitamin-drink sponsor may be nouveau riche but what could be more iconic in Euroleague than a big crowd in a barn named after one of basketball’s most iconic legends? Even better, the home team grabbed its third win on the bounce in the race for the Top 16, to move to 3-2 and joint second place in Group B.
In Munich the night before, Crvena Zvezda Belgrade ran away with a convincing 90-79 road win to stay alive at 2-3.It was a virtual home crowd as the red and white Serbian fans outnumbered and definitely outsang their Bavarian hosts. Stevan Jovic racked up 19 assists, a Euroleague record. A big week for Balkan club hoops, as the region’s basketball family tries to work out what place might be left for it in the brave new world..
There may or may not be a spot for the Adriatic League champions in Jordi Bertomeu and IMG’s new Euroleague. But it says a lot that the continent’s most fertile soil for hoops talent and the home of some of its most ardent and devoted fans has no automatic seat at the table. It speaks volumes about the direction the sport’s money-men and marketers want to take it.
In the here and now, there is plenty to celebrate in both teams. Both wins were thoroughly deserved and all the more important as they came against opponents who are likely to be fighting for the same Top 16 berths.
Cedevita Tasting Sweeter
Cedevita has momentum and is beginning to look like a team that can make the Top 16. They have a lot of components that you would think would combine to form a pretty good team, and… hey, look at that, they do.
In Jacob Pullen they have a guy who can go toe-to-toe with anyone in Europe - more than a high volume random-points-generator (copyright Zach Lowe) he can actually attack and turn the corner even against a set defense. Pullen was buried as a two-to-five minute occasional impact guy on a deep Barcelona squad, then got caught up in the Rothpocalypse at Sevilla before making the playoffs in Italy with Enel Brindisi.
Pullen has a crossover straight from the nastiest playground and a burst of speed that puts him in the top tier of scoring guards in Europe. He’s asked to do a lot and he doesn’t seem flustered by clutch situations - see his pull-up threes to bury Efes in Week Three. Those tools are hard to come by and it looks like Cedevita played it well by buying low in the summer.
So he’s back at the Euroleague level and fourth in scoring (17.8 PPG) shooting at a league-leading 34% usage amongst players with 20 minutes per game or more. Sure, he has 15 turnovers and 14 assists but that’s something you can certainly live with when putting together a team to compete in Euroleague with this budget level.
The other mitigating factor is Nemanja Gordic. He’s not the flashiest or most highlight-generating point guard but there’s a beauty to the simplicity of his game. Put him in a pick and roll and he’ll make the textbook correct decision time after time. He also has a pretty good old-school guard post game, which he used to take Darius Adams to school a couple of times last week.
Upfront, one of the most old-school operators in Europe is a delight to watch. Miro Bilan has been dicing up post defenders like this for a few years now, and it’s nice to see him doing it on a team that’s winning Euroleague games. He’s not athletic, he’s a subpar defender, but watch him catch, fake, pivot and flick the ball in off the glass with either hand.
Luka Babic is really intriguing. He’s a long collection of limbs, one of those skinny Balkan players who plays with the urgency of someone who has had an angry coach yelling at him since he was 10. He plays the three but can comfortably handle the ball and can spray passes around in the halfcourt or transition. He’s one of those players who just makes good stuff happen, like stuffing Dario Saric at the rim then rebounding his own miss for a layup and the foul in the final minute in Istanbul. It’s just a shame he can’t really shoot, but his passing ability means he can still punish a sagging defense from the weakside.
I haven’t even mentioned James White, mainly because I’ve never seen a player so utterly convinced he’s never committed a foul in his career. He molested Bourousis on a double-team last week, and when the inevitable whistle came he reacted like a guy who’d been given a million dollar parking ticket. But there’s no doubt his power game has been pretty damn useful for Cedevita, and he’s a tough cover in the post and driving from the wing.
This is a team that’s been a lot of fun to watch, and given Milano’s utter abdication of responsibility (Ladies and Gentlemen, your deserved A-License recipient!) and Limoges’ up-and-down form, you’d have to say they have a great chance of making it to the Top 16. Hopefully it isn’t their last chance.
Crvena Zvezda At Home on the Road
It’s been a hard season for Crvena Zvezda up til now, and it’s become pretty obvious they made some mistakes in recruitment in the summer. Big Sofo didn’t last long, and Ryan Thompson and Gal Mekel have been terrible. The seeds for their surprise win at Bayern arguably began at tail end of their defeat at home to Fenerbahçe in the previous week. They have the same Adriatic League record as Cedevita, 7-3 and tied for second, but they really needed this win to keep their Euroleague season going.
Mekel made sense on paper as a volume scorer but he’s been a disaster so far in four Euroleague games, failing to score in double figures, shooting 6-of-26 from the field. Towards the end of a limp performance in Week Four, Dejan Radonijic turned to his young Serbian talents like Nikola Rebic (2013 Soccerdome NIJT stand up!) and Stevan Jovic. Stepping into Mekel’s spot in the starting lineup in Munich was…. Jovic, who proceeded to break the single-game Euroleague assist record.
A word about the 19-assist game: Look at the video above, and it’s clear that some of these weren’t assists, by the historically accepted European definition (or any definition for the first one…) Most would be NBA kosher, but I always understood that if the scorer catches a pass, takes a dribble, gathers and finishes, the assist column stays empty. You can argue that the European rule has always been unfair - why shouldn’t a player get credit for a well-timed pass right where it should be, the gives a teammate the chance to catch on the move and finish?
But historical comparisons matter to some people and if they mean anything they have to be like-for-like. I’m not really that bothered how Jovic’s impeccable display of pinpoint playmaking compares to a game from twenty years ago. Much like Thomas Heurtel’s 15-dime game at Limoges from Week One, just enjoy it for what it is. Just realise that there’s no longer much difference in scorekeeping between Europe and the NBA and interpret the stats accordingly.
There were some other tentatively promising signs on show at the Audi Dome, the biggest being Quincy Miller. A learning curves go for a first-timer in Europe, being parachuted into Belgrade at the beginning of a crisis was virtually perpendicular. Miller’s first two games didn’t offer many signs that he was able to scale it, but something clicked on Thursday night. He’s still a black hole on offense - if he catches the ball, it’s going up at some point - but he’s a hell of an athlete and used that and his physical strength to bully his way to 22 points. There are still teething issues - he dived on a loose ball and tried to call timeout - but he plays really hard and clearly gives a crap. As long as the pull-up threes and jerky drives keep working he could become a fan favourite. Stuff like this will help:
Jovic should clearly remain as the starting playmaker, and it was awesome to see him find Rebic in the corner for a trio of threes at vital times in the game. Nemanja Dangubic should be back soon. Maik Zirbes and Vlad Stimac are a two-headed, thick-bodied, constantly moving paint-filling monster, and that recipe of mostly Serbian guys who will play their asses off combined with Miller’s power game and Marko Simonovic hulking around the weakside dropping in threes could be enough to keep them in the hunt through the next five weeks. Thompson is too talented to not regain some of his moxie, and if he can just fill in the gaps in the offense that would be a huge help.
Could we get Luka Mitrovic back in time for the Top 16? It’s not likely, and Miller was signed as his replacement, but they could find room for both. Could this most fanatical corner of European hoops get a guaranteed representative at the level it deserves? Maybe I ask for too much. But as the festive season approaches, it’s time that Jordi Bertomeu took a look at granting some deserved wishes.