Astana has already matched its club record for wins in the League with 13 and has six more games to make history. The team has been ranked in the League’s top five most of the season and even has a chance to finish in 3rd place with a strong finish. We identify the key factors in the Kazakh club’s success.
Without question, Astana’s biggest breakthrough was inking Emil Rajkovic as head coach. He’d enjoyed success in Macedonia and Poland despite limited budgets. Now he’s showing he can thrive on a bigger stage. Astana does not have any superstar-type players this season, but that hasn’t prevented them from holding their own against the League’s biggest clubs. The Yellow and Blue have nearly clinched a playoff spot and are unlikely to settle for a quick exit.
For mid-market teams, picking the right players in the offseason is often the determining factor in the season. It’s almost impossible to get every signing right. But Astana’s scouts delivered this summer, bringing in six foreign players that fit perfectly with Rajkovic’s style of play.
It’s no secret that Astana is almost exclusively dependent on its foreign players. So far this season, the team’s five foreigners (O’Brien, Horton, Grosselle, Jenkins, Holt) and naturalized Kazakh citizen Clemmons are all playing at a high level. In fact, all six are averaging more than 10 points per game, making Astana the only VTB League with more than four players in double digits.
In fact, five Astana players are ranked in the top 20 in the League in scoring. Perhaps even more impressively, the Kazakh club boasts four players in the top 12 for efficiency rating.
While the depth of talent and point distribution is impressive, there’s no question Anthony Clemmons is the leader on this team. He’s seen as a top candidate to win the MVP and already picked up one MVP award in December.
Considering Astana’s limited rotation, injuries can have a devastating effect on the club. Losing even one key player can break the system. So far, the Yellow and Blue have been extremely lucky. Three foreign players (O’Brien, Horton, Grosselle) and Alexander Zhigulin have played in all 20 games. Anthony Clemmons has only missed one game. Michael Jenkins also has 19 appearances, but he was only added to the roster after season opener vs. CSKA. The team’s latest signing, Stephen Holt, has played in every game since joining the club. He arrived in December and has made 12 appearances.
Astana ranks among the top five scoring teams in the League, joined by Kalev and Avtodor. It may not sound like elite company, but this level of offense is unheard of in Kazakhstan.
In its entire history in the VTB League, Astana has only averaged more than 80 points once per season. The 2013-14 roster featured Jerry Johnson, Brion Rush and Janis Blums with support from Shane Lawal and Pat Calathes and had no trouble scoring points. But this year’s version is on pace to smash the previous record of 83.2 points per game.
Astana’s versatility on offense is remarkable. The team has a delicate balance between outside shots and getting the big men involved. Players know how to score in transition, take advantage of iso’s and break down defenses with the pick-and-roll.
Even with several explosive guards, the ball regularly goes inside, where O’Brien, Horton and Grosselle know how to score.
There are two key characteristics of the team’s offense. The Yellow and Blue are excellent at drawing fouls (21.6 per game), which gives them the opportunity to shoot a lot of free throws (23.7, 2nd in the League). The small number of turnovers (12.5, 3rd in the League) is also noteworthy. Taking care of the ball increases Astana’s efficiency on offense and makes the defense more reliable.
Only two teams in the League rank in the top five in scoring and fewest points allowed, Astana and the reigning champions CSKA. The Kazakh club is not always perfect on defense under Rajkovic. But the players get the job done, considering their limited resources. When the team wins, it’s because of both the offense and defense.
Success against the League’s top teams
Astana’s greatest achievement, perhaps, has been its level of comfort against elite competition. Those results are the best evidence that the Kazakh club belongs in the top five. Astana is currently 3-3 against top-six competition, which puts them ahead of big-name clubs like Zenit and Loko.
Astana has an intense finish to the season. The Yellow and Blues will be playing exclusively Russian competition, from the unpredictable PARMA and hard-nosed Enisey to the daunting quartet of CSKA, Khimki, Loko and Zenit. It’s not the easiest slate, but considering how the rest of the season has played out, Astana will likely hold its own.