Zielona Gora Poland enjoyed a convincing win in their VTB United League debut, taking down Tsmoki-Minsk Belarus. The outcome, not to mention the margin of victory (+17, 88-71), demonstrated the team’s serious approach to League competition. The Polish newcomers have big ambitions, which include making the postseason next spring.
What will be the keys to Zielona Gora’s success? The season opener gave us a taste of what to expect from the Poles in the coming months.
Zielona Gora’s offense is almost completely predicated on screens and pick-and-rolls. The Poles use them on nearly every possession. Even the “3” uses screens to keep things moving. With this type of approach, the point guard position is especially important and Zielona Gora is no exception.
The key to the Green offense is the veteran Lukasz Koszarek. He’s the brains of the team, using pick-and-rolls with expert precision, shifting the angle of attack depending on how the defense reacts.
Koszarek sometimes uses a classic pick-and-roll, dishing to the big man on his way to the basket.
Sometimes he moves the ball along the perimeter.
Occasionally, he forces the issue himself. Koszarek has a very respectable jumper.
Against Tsmoki, the experienced point guard didn’t finish with crazy numbers: nine points and six assists. But the stats do not paint a full picture. Koszarek was the engine driving Zielona Gora’s offense. Tsmoki-Minsk, surprisingly, gave the most dangerous player on the opposing team too much space. Instead of aggressively pressuring Koszarek, the Belarusians sometimes barely guarded him.
As an example, see the Poles’ final possession of the 3rd quarter. The home team decided not to actively pressure Koszarek and gave him a chance to pass. As a result, Zielona Gora converted a 3-pointer.
Feeding the big man under the basket
Setting up the big man in the paint with a back-to-the-basket opportunity should become another option in the Zielona Gora attack. The Poles have hefty power forwards and centers, who can back down the defense.
To be fair, the tactic did not work well against Tsmoki. Hrycaniuk missed a lot of shots, while Savovic preferred to shoot more from outside. Sakic was the only one who had much luck under the basket.
But the potential to play through the big men is there. Not every future opponent will have as big of a frontcourt as Minsk (Sarikopulos, Shelton). Plus, Darko Planinic’s return from injury should add even more size to the Green frontcourt.
Zielona Gora attacked early and often from distance in the season opener. It proved an effective weapon. The Poles made 11 of 23 triples (48%), highlighted by the 3rd quarter, when Zielona Gora drained six from beyond the arc and seized control of the contest.
Zielona Gora’s shot chart in the 3rd quarter
Expect Zielona Gora to continue to rely on the 3-point shot as one option for extending the pick-and-roll. Without a perimeter threat, the two-man game is not as effective. That’s one of the canons of modern basketball, which the Poles once again demonstrated with their win in Minsk.
Yes, the visitors also attacked from outside in other situations, including early in possessions and on second-chance opportunities. But the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop gave the Poles the most open looks from the perimeter, and the highest conversion rate.
Zielona Gora prefers a steady, moderate tempo. But even so, the team does not shy away from brief bursts of activity. The Americans are in charge of this aspect of the game: Markel Starks and Gabe DeBoe. After rebounds and steals, the duo looked for chances to catch Zielona Gora’s defenders napping.
It’s tough to say if the Poles will take proper advantage of their explosive Americans. But in order to find success throughout the season, Zielona Gora’s coaching staff needs to make sure the foreigners are actively included in the game plan. Other opponents will figure out Zielona Gora’s pick-and-rolls and put more pressure on Koszarek. That’s when Starks’ ability to shoot the ball, for instance, will be in high demand.
The Poles have five players over the age of 30 (Sakic, Savovic, Hrycaniuk, Zamojski, Koszarek). It’s an important nuance for the season ahead. Experience worked in Zielona Gora’s favor in Minsk. Savovic, Koszarek and Zamojski hit big shots in the 3rd quarter to shift the momentum, while Savovic and Koszarek were clearly the best players on the team throughout the game.
But over the long haul, age could have an opposite effect. After all, veterans will have a tougher time staying in peak condition during the season’s long grind. The team has 56 games on the calendar (including the Polish league), which means few opportunities for rest. Traveling to far-flung arenas in Krasnoyarsk, Astana, Perm and Krasnodar is certain to take a toll on this veteran team.
At the same time, those concerns are a few months down the road. For now, the Poles look like real contenders for a playoff spot. Among the teams outside of the Big 5 (CSKA, Khimki, Zenit, UNICS, Loko), only Kalev and Zielona Gora stood out. And if the Estonians relied on athleticism, then the League newcomers impressed with a fluid, organized approach on the court.