19september

Kazan's Draymond Green? Albert Husainov On UNICS's Outlook

League runners-up UNICS Kazan made only a few moves over the summer, banking on experience and chemistry to mount another title challenge. Exclusive for VTB-League.com, Albert Husainov analyzes the Russian club's roster and preseason form heading into the highly-anticipated 2016-17 campaign.

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UNICS Kazan is only a few weeks away from one of the most challenging seasons in club history. 54 regular-season games (30 in the Euroleague, 24 in the VTB United League), and the vast majority against excellent competition.

Not like last year, when UNICS got bounced from the Eurocup in the round of 16, losing a heartbreaker to Zielona Gura. Despite the disappointment, Kazan was able to focus on the League and take advantage of Loko and Khimki's Euroleague fatigue, much like the Lithuanians storming the Russian rear after the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380.

Now the tables are turned! Every game in the Euroleague is going to be a dogfight. Meanwhile, back home, League teams will lie in wait, looking for a chance to pounce. Let's take a look:

- November 3 vs. Fenerbahce with Bogdan Bogdanovic in Istanbul; November 6 vs. Khimki.

- January 5 vs. Baskonia with Shane Larkin in Vitoria; January 8 vs. Lokomotiv-Kuban.

- From February 9-26, UNICS plays Real, Khimki, Nizhny, Pao, and CSKA.

I could keep going, but you get the point. It's tough to imagine how UNICS will survive the gauntlet, but it's also a tremendous opportunity for the club. The top clubs in Europe are coming to the Basket Hall this season, giving fans a chance to enjoy the best basketball on the continent. I doubt anyone in the stands will complain about the schedule.

Let's calculate UNICS's firepower and see if the team is ready for the step up in competition.

Russians:

- Guards: Ponkrashov, Voronov, Karpukhin, Khabirov, Tukmakov
- Forward: Antipov

Like last season, Anton Ponkrashov will have an important role on the team. He runs the pick-and-roll, gets the ball to Langford in iso, and can back down smaller defenders when the opportunity arises. At the same time, opposing defenses are okay with letting Ponkrashov attack the basket and sometimes try to goad him into shooting. He responds by taking low-percentage long-to-mid-range stepback jumpers. Sometimes they drop, but it's often a problem for UNICS. On defense, though, Ponkrashov is extremely underrated. Whoever's he defending generally has a terrible night. Given his versatility, he's a lock for the starting five.

The rest of the Russians will primarily be role players. They will draw the toughest defensive assignments so that the leaders can rest, while trying to get open on the perimeter on offense. Of course, the fans would love for someone to have a breakthrough season. For now, expect Evgeny Voronov to get the most playing time. He's an elite defender and has improved on offense in recent seasons.

Overall, the Russian contingent will do what it's done in past seasons: lock down the role positions, no more, no less.

Foreigners:

- Guards: Langford, Colom
- Forwards:
Clarke, Banic, Kaimakoglou, Williams
- Center:
Parakhouski

Almost everyone is back and last season's system is expected to stay much the same. I did a little research for this piece, breaking down Kazan's halfcourt offense in the final two playoff games vs. CSKA. I found that Langford iso's accounted for about 30%, pick-and-rolls from Colom and sometimes Ponkrashov equaled 40%, low-post offense from Kaimakoglou or Ponkrashov accounted for 20%, while the remaining 10% featured a variety of plays, including getting Milaknis open looks, though he's no longer on the team. 70% of the team's offense was very simple. Of course, Langford sometimes took the Kobe approach, while Colom is a master of the pick-and-roll, but it won't be easy to survive such a daunting season with such a simple offense.

Banic and Kaimakoglou's physical fitness and endurance is also a bit concerning. They play like veterans, using their experience, but that's not as effective when the tempo and physicality picks up. They might be okay for a few weeks, but I'm afraid they could be a weak link as the season progresses.

Given these concerns, UNICS tried to plug its holes with one big acquisition. Kazan's young scouts must be paying attention to new trends and modeling their approach after the Golden State Warriors and that team's true leader. Check out this clip comparing UNICS newcomer Coty Clarke and Draymond Green himself.


Coty Clarke is blessed with Green's unbelievable athleticism, as the video convincingly demonstrates. If it's really true, then UNICS has solved all sorts of problems: Rebounding and help on the fast break, three-point shooting, one-on-one offense, defending guards, defending centers, overpowering smaller players, dishing the ball... If you've seen Green play, then you know that it takes a long time to describe everything he does. UNICS coaches see Clarke with a similar role.

But relying too much on one player is risky. UNICS once signed a similar talent in Anthony Bonner, who had experience with the New York Knicks. In the preseason, it looked like he would be the leader on the team and help UNICS steamroll the competition. Instead, he only appeared in a couple of games, before deciding to leave the club and a legal mess behind. Then there was Joe Forte, who joined UNICS after leading the Italian league in scoring. Expected to light up defenses, Kazan got little in return. Both times, UNICS had a very tough time rebuilding.

Of course, the opposite has happened, too. Unheralded acquisitions like LaMarr Greer and Terrell Lyday turned out to be stars. We'll see what happens with Clarke. He wasn't drafted and didn't latch on with the Celtics after two 10-day contracts. Young and energetic, the American holds his future in his own hands. What happens next is up to him.

Preseason

UNICS has already played four preseason games in Turkey against local clubs.

The first game was against David Blatt's Darussafaka at the very beginning of camp when guys are working the hardest. The Turks looked quicker and more prepared, but that can happen in preseason games. Don't put too much stock in the 93-59 score. Blatt seems to be working quick. You could see the intensity on his team, whereas UNICS made a lot of mistakes. It was noticeable that Clarke will have a big role on the team, but still hasn't figured out the system completely.

The next three games were played much later and UNICS looked much more prepared. Kazan raced out to a 21-6 lead against Besiktas, but full-court pressure and aggressive defense, as well as a major advantage in size, especially under the basket, had an effect (UNICS's only center, Parakhouski, is with the Belarusian national team). UNICS lost, 73-62.

Kazan's most athletic player, Latavious Williams, didn't play in the next game against Tofas because of injury, but UNICS still recorded its first victory of the preseason, 81-72.

Williams and Clarke weren't available for Sunday's contest vs. Anadolus Efes, and only eight men played in the game. Voronov and Karpukhin didn't get many minutes and Khabirov and Tukmakov didn't appear at all. As usual, Langford led the way on offense, scoring 21 points. Antipov chipped in with 18, but Kazan still lost, 75-68.

It's evident the pick-and-roll with Colom and Langford iso's are the still the main options on offense. Coty Clarke has shown excellent mobility, rebounding acumen, and decent perimeter shooting, but he's not handling the ball much. Instead of Green, he looks more like Kazan fan fave Tariq Kirksay.

Club

There are changes at the club. Bogdan Bogachev, son of the club president, is making more and more decisions. He's young, studied abroad, and brings fresh ideas along with a passion for the game. Bogachev is energetic and ambitious. The club also hired a full-time marketing director for the first time, poaching Sergei Indeikin from Parma. The team will also have a new press officer.

This season is an excellent chance for a fresh start. The team's dedicated fanbase remains, but there is a lot of work to do. If all goes well, the Basket Hall will fill up, just like it did in the 2000's! Once again, everyone in town will be talking about UNICS basketball.

Prediction
There are some questions. Does the team have enough athleticism? Is the offense too simple? How will Coty Clarke perform? But I think fans should take an American approach to the season. Don't expect heroics every time out. Simply enjoy the season as a holiday; appreciate the incredible basketball at the Basket Hall night in and night out. If the team can manage to take down some giants, too, that would be icing on the cake.

Albert Husainov

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