Breaking Down Astana’s Surprising Start

Breaking Down Astana’s Surprising Start

Astana Kazakhstan is one of the VTB League’s old guard. This is the club’s 8th season in the competition, and while the Yellow and Blue have traditionally been a threat to make the postseason, they have never been among the top-seeded teams. 

Early in the 2018-19 campaign, however, Astana is trying to crash the party at the top of the standings. The Yellow and Blue already have two wins over Top-5 teams: Zenit and Lokomotiv-Kuban. And the team has also taken care of business against lower-ranked opponents. Astana’s 5-3 record has lifted them into 4th place and underscores the ambitions in the Kazakh capital. Could 2019 be the year the Kazakh champions finally make a serious playoff run? 

There are several factors to Astana’s early success.

Success based on maximizing potential, rather than relying on stars

Astana has tried at times to attract big-name European stars. But in recent years, the team’s approach has evolved. Last season, the team still had Justin Carter, but now there are no big-name players left on the roster. 

The squad still has plenty of potential, however, and new head coach Emil Rajkovic has been charged with maximizing it. So far, the Macedonian boss has done his job well. One way to judge is by looking at the progress from guys who played here last season–Alexander Zhigulin and Anthony Clemmons are the two best examples.

Astana’s previous coaches didn’t have much faith in Zhigulin. But Rajkovic has found ways to utilize his strengths (high-percentage shooting and an ability to play with his back to the basket). For the first time in Zhigulin’s career, he has become an important part of the Astana rotation. 

Alexander Zhigulin’s careers stats in the VTB United League

Clemmons has also played a bigger role. He spent much of last season in Justin Carter’s shadow. But now the guard is showing he can play at even higher level than his former teammate. Within Rajkovic’s system, the combo guard is getting more playing time, more touches and more control over the team. Clemmons has thrived as a leader, as evidenced by the team’s success.

Smart free-agent acquisitions

Astana deserves credit for an excellent offseason. J.J. O’Brien, Ken Horton and Geoffrey Grosselle have created an imposing frontcourt. The three big men all rank in the top 20 in the League in rebounding and efficiency rating. Together with the improved Zhigulin, these three foreigners give Astana an advantage on the glass in almost every game. 

The backcourt dynamics are a bit shakier. Michael Jenkins and Anthony Clemmons are the leaders and capable playmakers. But until recently, they didn’t have a reliable back-up. That should change with the arrival of another foreign player, Stephen Holt. The American has decent weapons on offense and already played under Emil Rajkovic. He should adapt quickly to Astana’s system and be ready to contribute in the near future. 

Astana breaks stereotypes, finds success on the road

Over eight seasons in the League, Astana has earned a reputation for playing well at home, even pulling the occasional upset. The stats back it up: 68% of Astana’s wins (42 of 62) over the past seven seasons have come at home.

loko_astana_ubl_vtb_ (28)

But this season is different. Astana has only won one of four contests at home (largely due to stiff competition: CSKA, Zenit, Khimki, Nizhny Novgorod). On the road, however, the Yellow and Blue are a stunning 4-0, with victories over other playoff hopefuls (Tsmoki-Minsk, Zielona Gora, VEF) and a wildly talented Lokomotiv-Kuban. 

Defense makes the difference

One of the biggest factors in Astana’s success has been the team’s defense. The Kazakhs concede 81.5 points per game, which ranks 5th in the League behind only CSKA, Khimki, UNICS and Loko. 

Astana may have room to improve on defense, too. Rajkovic’s men are capable of more, as evidenced by Astana’s two most recent games: VEF and Loko each scored only 71 points on the Yellow and Blue defense.

Pick-and-rolls and points in the paint lead the way on offense

Astana is also a dangerous team on offense. The Yellow and Blue average 83.9 points per outing, ranking 6th in the League. 

The head coach’s influence can be clearly seen on offense. The foundation of Astana’s offense is the pick-and-roll. The Yellow and Blue use this combination on most possessions, though it is deployed in different ways. 

American guards Clemmons and Jenkins are the most likely to take a jump shot. Both players are happy to attack after coming off a screen. As the recent game with Loko showed, this option can be very effective. 

The Yellow and Blue can also run a more traditional pick-and-roll with a pass inside. Geoffrey Grosselle is usually on the receiving end. The American center does a good job rolling to the basket and finishes with a high percentage. 

Pick-and-pops are also in the Astana arsenal. This play works best with Alexander Zhigulin, who’s stroking the ball from beyond the arc this season.

As a whole, Astana does an excellent job of using screens to get open. 

Rajkovic’s Yugoslavian style can also be seen in the team’s aggressive approach in the paint, in addition to pick-and-rolls. Post-ups, cuts to the rim and put-backs on offensive rebounds are all regularly employed on offense. 

In Astana’s wins over Zielona Gora and VEF, the outstanding play of the big men in the lane was the key to victory. 

Astana’s frontcourt shot chart in the win over Zielona Gora

The team’s large number of Americans also play a role in Astana’s offensive identity. Not surprisingly, the Yellow and Blue can score in iso’s and push the pace early in possessions. Clemmons and Jenkins usually lead the charge. At the same time, it’s worth noting that this style of play has been most evident in defeats, at least to this point. 

The Yellow and Blue pushed the tempo against Khimki.

And several iso plays worked against Nizhny Novgorod. 

Astana has been the biggest surprise of the season. No one predicted the Kazakh club would be in 4th place this far into the the schedule. The Yellow and Blue could do even more damage in the weeks ahead as they host Kalev and Avtodor before the New Year. Don’t be surprised if Astana improves on its 1-3 home record and further secures a spot in the Top-5. 

Konstantin Kucher