Coaches typically try to put their best players on the court at tip-off, but there are always exceptions. Having the ability to change the course of a game with a timely substitution can be very strategic.
Luckily for the coaches, some players view the role as a calling. Read on as we profile this season’s biggest impact reserves.
Kyle Kuric (Zenit)
Stats: 18 of 24 games off the bench, 15.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 13.5 efficiency rating.
Zenit struggled with consistency during the regular season, following big wins with unexpected defeats. Injuries have haunted St. Petersburg since the preseason and the club had to fight for a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the first round.
Kyle Kuric was one of the biggest reasons for Zenit’s resilience. The American was a perfect fit for Vasily Karasev’s up-tempo offense and his perimeter shooting became a primary option in St. Petersburg.
Kuric was one of only two players to appear in every regular season game, a significant accomplishment on this Zenit roster. He also led the team in scoring and finished in the Top 10 in the League (8th place). Even more impressive, Kuric was the only player this season to score 30 or more points three times: 34 vs. Enisey, 32 vs. PARMA, 31 vs. VEF.
Jamar Smith (UNICS)
Stats: 12 of 24 games off the bench, 14.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 14.2 efficiency rating.
UNICS enjoyed an outstanding regular season campaign. Despite losing twice to CSKA, Kazan went undefeated vs. everyone else, including a clean sweep of the other Big Five teams: Zenit, Loko and Khimki. UNICS may not have a lot of stars on its roster, but Dimitris Priftis was able to assemble a talented, hungry group of players who turned out to be greater than the sum of their parts.
Jamar Smith may be the most exciting player on UNICS’s roster. Within Priftis’ system, the American guard has seen his perimeter shooting dramatically improve, ranking 3rd in the League in three-point field goals (2.6 per game), and 6th in accuracy (47.7%). Remarkably, Smith is equally effective spotting up, on the dribble, or coming off a screen.
Smith only started half of Kazan’s games on the bench, which means including him on this list may spark some controversy. But the stats are in his favor. Smith is much more effective entering the game as a substitute, as seen in the table below.
Starter: 52% on 2-pt fg, 42% on 3-pt fg, 82% on ft, 2.4 reb, 1.9 ast, 0.8 stl, 11.4 eff, 12.6 pts
Bench: 63% on 2-pt fg, 54% on 3-pt fg, 100% on ft, 2.1 reb, 2.8 ast, 1.5 stl, 17.0 eff, 15.8 pts
Dmitry Kulagin (Lokomotiv-Kuban)
Stats: 11 of 15 games off the bench, 10.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 10.1 efficiency rating.
Kulagin enjoyed a breakout season in the League. He was an instant fit in Krasnodar and quickly became a leader on and off the court. Yes, his stats may not be as impressive as the other Sixth Man of the Year contenders, but Kulagin makes up for it by impacting the game in subtle ways, including his presence on the defensive end (which is not as easily reflected in the stats).
His versatility this season has been the biggest eye-opener. During his tenure at CSKA, Kulagin was seen as a talented defender and iso scorer. Since joining Loko, however, he’s smashed those stereotypes. Sasa Obradovic put him at the point guard position and Kulagin blossomed as a playmaker.
Kulagin finished in the top 25 in assists (3.4 per game), while his connection with Elegar provided some of the most electric highlights of the season.
Branden Frazier (Avtodor)
Stats: 19 of 21 games off the bench, 13.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 14.2 efficiency rating.
When you talk about Avtodor, Coty Clarke and Justin Robinson usually grab the attention, leaving Branden Frazier in the shadows. It’s not easy competing with an MVP candidate (Clarke) and electric playmaker (Robinson). But that should not diminish the role Frazier has played in the team’s success.
Avtodor doesn’t have much depth this season, making bench contributions that much more valuable. Frazier has stepped up, giving Evgeny Pashutin someone to carry the second unit.
April was especially good to Frazier. Saratov went 4-1 during the month, catching Khimki in the race for 5th place. Alongside Clarke and Robinson, Frazier was one of the biggest reasons for Avtodor’s success, leading the team in scoring twice (25 vs. Tsmoki-Minsk, 28 vs. VEF). For the month, Frazier averaged 19.2 points and 4.2 assists.
The guard’s highlight of the season, however, was probably his game-winner in Minsk back in November.
Frank Elegar (Lokomotiv-Kuban)
Stats: 15 of 22 games off the bench, 12.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 14.1 efficiency rating.
Loko may have one of the deepest rosters in the League this season. Not surprisingly, Kuban head coach Sasa Obradovic has no trouble bringing stars like Ryan Broekhoff, Chris Babb, Dmitry Kulagin and Joe Ragland off the bench, even though each of them would be a starter on almost any other team in the League.
But let’s not forget about Frank Elegar. The American was named the League’s top center last season with Enisey, before making the move to Krasnodar in the summer. He has not disappointed, proving he can hold his own at the next level.
Technically speaking, Elegar lost the battle for a spot in the starting lineup to Brian Qvale. But that’s only on paper. In reality, Elegar is Kuban’s primary center, which he’s proved numerous times on the court. His role on the bench is merely a strategic move from Sasa Obradovic, one which has paid dividends.
Elegar is an intimidating presence in the paint, able to bully opponents on both ends of the court. His talents will be in high demand during the first round series with Khimki as Kuban looks to gain an edge in the frontcourt battle.
Nando De Colo (CSKA)
Stats: 13 of 21 games off the bench, 17.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 18.0 efficiency rating.
Over the past two years, we’ve become accustomed to De Colo starting for CSKA (48 games as a starter, 12 on the bench). But Dimitris Itoudis switched things up this season, with Sergio Rodriguez typically entering the game as a starter before being replaced by De Colo late in the 1st quarter.
The move has benefited both the Army Men and De Colo’s personal stats. The French guard is averaging more points off the bench (19.5 vs. 13.0) to go with a higher efficiency rating (20.7 vs. 13.8).
His influence on the team’s offensive style has also grown. When it comes to leadership roles on the team, Rodriguez brings energy, Higgins hits shots, while De Colo serves as the brains. He’s taken over Teodosic’s role to become the primary playmaker in Moscow. In fact, the Frenchman may be the reason CSKA was able to overcome Milos’ departure so quickly.