Dmitry Gerchikov gives his take on the VTB United League offseason, offering an unconventional view of the summer’s free-agent activity. These signings may not have made the most noise, but are fascinating upon closer inspection.
Somewhat unfairly, Daniel Hackett has been cast as a role player in Moscow, expected to chip in when Nando De Colo and Sergio Rodriguez need a break, whether driving the lane and stirring up the offense or providing fresh legs on defense. Hackett’s potential, however, is great enough that he could ultimately eclipse both Clyburn and Higgins in productivity.
Standing 198 cm tall, Hackett is perfectly comfortable at three positions on the perimeter and can split roles as playmaker, sniper and wing when CSKA goes small. At the same time, Hackett is hard-working and stubborn on defense, which many forget based on the past two seasons. There’s an easy explanation for his subpar efficiency ratings and defensive positioning–Hackett has struggled to fully recover from a nasty injury. Moscow’s medical staff should get him back to 100% in no time and in doing so restore CSKA’s reputation for aggressive, physical perimeter defense. Hackett–not the more celebrated Bolomboy–should adapt more quickly to Dimitris Itoudis’s system and provide the Greek boss with yet another versatile, imposing guard.
Brandon Jennings has promised to put on a show for Zenit fans every time he’s on the court, eliciting memories of his 55-point outburst as an NBA rookie and regular 40-point eruptions in the Chinese league.
But modern European basketball contains a bit more nuance than the Chinese game, not to mention a much greater emphasis on defense and deliberate playmaking than the NBA of a decade ago. Which is why Jennings’ archaic iso moves are unlikely to take the VTB United League by storm. After all, the competition has seen it before from Andrew Goudelock. Jenings has also become known for somewhat shaky discipline on the court and could give the Zenit coaching staff an extra headache. For a team which has struggled in recent years due to injuries to key players, Jennings is not necessarily the most reliable option. And there’s no guarantee Vasily Karasev will be able to rein him in. But if Karasev and Jennings can find common ground and bring out his best on offense and defense, the Russian boss should be a shoe-in for 2018-19 Coach of the Year.
You’d need a microscope to take anything of substance away from Pierria Henry’s stint with Vita. The level of talent at the club was astonishingly sparse and the communication from the bench left much to desire. As a result, Henry did what anyone else in his position would do and focused on padding his stats. He parlayed his season with Vita into a contract at Ulm in the German league and a nice pay raise. But his production suffered with the jump in competition. Despite helping the club reach the German league finals, he was not offered a contract extension in the summer.
Henry moved on to Israel, where he returned to Vita-like numbers at Hapoel Eilat. There, he tried to establish a reputation as an all-around threat, but once again his production did not translate at a higher level–apart from respectable 40% shooting from downtown, Henry struggled to contribute at Tofas in the Turkish league.
That makes the move to UNICS all the more surprising. Dimitris Priftis has a reputation for deep, interchangeable rosters. Pierria hardly fits the mold. After losing Quino Colom, UNICS needed another savvy playmaker who could run the offense on his own or split duties with Anton Ponkrashov, not a gambler in Henry. But this is the path UNICS chose. Only the basketball gods know where Henry will take the Tatar club now.
If McKenzie Moore’s health problems are finally behind him, Avtodor may have found itself another Courtney Fortson clone. The newcomer spent last season lighting up the Greek league with Lavrio. In fact, the American guard has impressed at every stop so far in his career. The competition in New Zealand may have helped (Moore flirted with a triple-double in the South Pacific), but he’s also taken care of business in Europe, averaging around five rebounds and five assists per game. Of course, he knows how to put up points in a hurry, too, which is the big draw in Saratov… Moore’s biggest struggle has been the steady stream of breaks and sprains, which seem to pop up every time he’s asked to do too much. But Avtodor seems to be aware of the risk, loading the roster with talented Americans to help share the load. If Saratov’s gamble pays off, Moore could be this season’s breakout star.
Zoran Lukic is famous for his ability to turn a cast of unknown role players into a dangerous playoff team. There’s no magic involved. Lukic simply works hard and knows how to coax the most out of his men. He’s stayed true to this approach entering the 2018-19 season, bringing in a fresh crop of one-dimensional talent in need of serious coaching. Chris Czerapowicz is one such case. The ex-Tsmoki forward can drop 30-35 points in a game, but gives up just as much, if not more, on the other end. As a result, scouts around Europe largely ignored the Swedish big man over the summer, despite his tantalizing potential on offense.
Lukic’s system demands an understanding of the game, thinking 1-2 steps ahead of the opposition and exhibiting perfect positioning. It’s the only way for a player to hide deficiencies on the court. Lukic has turned around plenty careers simply by imparting a basic understanding of these principles. Now it’s Czerapowicz’s chance. If he can break through on defense, top clubs will be clamoring for his services by the New Year. But if not, he’ll leave fans and coaches wondering what could have been.
Astana is taking a completely new approach to the 2018-19 campaign after not extending Mikhail Karpenko and turning the team over to Emil Rajkovic. It looks like a brilliant acquisition. With the Macedonian’s arrival, the VTB United League gains another unique approach to the game. Rajkovic found success in Poland, where Stal twice finished in the top three of a challenging league. The same was true in Macedonia, where he thrice won the league. Even in the Macedonian youth ranks, he was able to implement his style of play no matter the age of the players. Rajkovic depends on creative, nonstop pick-and-rolls (he’s even known for using classic big men, which is a rarity these days), aggressively disrupting fast breaks and sudden changes in tempo. It should also be noted that several of Astana’s newcomers have experience playing in top leagues, which means the Kazakh club could be a major threat this season.
If you had any doubt about the summer’s biggest project, look no further than Kalev. Donaldas Kairys brought back the brains of the team in Branko Mirkovic, veteran captain Martin Dorbek, and built on the trustworthy duo with the acquisition of Kristjan Kangur, while supplementing with two-three role players. Since then, the Lithuanian has been busy implementing an up-tempo, aggressive approach. Kalev will not be overly dependent on an offense-first guard like Briscoe or lack mobility under the basket (sorry, Cedric Simmons). On paper–and judging by the preseason–the Baltic club did an excellent job of addressing last season’s deficiencies and could be in line for a first-ever VTB United League playoff appearance.
Ivan Almeida, meanwhile, was brought in to provide steady leadership and clutch offense. Don’t be distracted by his unlikely origins in Cape Verde–Almeida has spent the past five seasons playing against legitimate European competition, where he’s acquitted himself well. Take last season, for example, when the small forward was named the Polish league MVP. Those exploits followed a brilliant debut at Anvil, where he led the team to a Supercup title and picked up tournament MVP. Almeida knows how to win and how to do it. He’s not afraid of big opponents, either, after his time in France. Throw in Kairys’ reputation for developing fierce and effective competitors and it’s clear Kalev will be a threat this season. Alongside Almeida, Kairys has four more talented newbies raring to go.