The Gospel Of Markovic: Dmitry Gerchikov On Zenit's Big Find

Serbia's busy summer at the Rio Olympics didn't keep Zenit from snapping up one of the Balkan nation's key players. Exclusive for VTB-League.com, Dmitry Gerchikov explains why the Blue-White-Sky Blues were in such a rush to acquire Olympic finalist Stefan Markovic.

The Serbian men's basketball team has medaled three times in top international tournaments during its independent history, despite lacking depth at the playmaker position each time. Per the experts, after the brilliant and unpredictable Milos Teodosic, no one else on Serbia's roster could control the tempo of the game or maximize the incredible talent on display. The Slavs were always hunting for solutions, relying on big men to play point-forward (think of Nemanja Bjelica or Novic Velickovic in his prime), or desperately trying to transform shooting guards into combo threats. Alas, it wasn't always possible to compensate for the lack of options at point guard. When the coaching staff's adjustments worked and the team had success, the local media celebrated. But when games did not go smoothly, journalists tended to grit their teeth and hope for quick progress from wunderkind Vasilije Micic.

But it seems this attitude toward Teodosic's backups often caused many to underrate a very important Serbian asset: Stefan Markovic, a seven-year veteran of the national team and significant piece in Serbia's success on the court. Markovich's modest club career has been somewhat to blame for the dismissive attitude taken toward the guard. There's never been much hype surrounding the Belgrade native. Atlas and Hemofarm were not highly rated in Serbia, Valencia never overachieved during his tenure; and Italy's Benetton and Turkey's Banvit always played second fiddle to other domestic clubs. Meanwhile, Spain's Unicaja, Markovic's most recent club before moving to St. Petersburg, never lived up to expectations, despite boasting a balanced roster and impressive talent. In 11 years of pro basketball, Markovich has never finished 1st in a domestic or international competition, causing many to dismiss him as a potential Serbian savior.

Not getting drafted and having to compete against a lot of backcourt talent made it even more difficult for Stefan to stand out. Nemanja Nedovic got publicity when he moved to Golden State, even though he averaged just 5.9 minutes in 24 appearances. Ognen Kuzmic was likewise named Serbia's backcourt hope, but had an even shorter stint in America. Markovic, meanwhile, though he drew attention from NBA scouts for his impressive run in the Serbian Cup, remained without an invitation to the States. Poor 3-point shooting, compounded by a terrible performance at the Polish EuroBasket (0-16!) doomed the guard's hopes of a radical career change, while further damaging his reputation in the media.

Last but not least, the Serbian has never been one to outshine his teammates. Quite the opposite, he's much better at doing the little things that help secure a victory in an otherwise even matchup. But that's never given the same respect as a 15-20 point outburst or double digit rebounds. A sharp pass in the final minutes, a big steal, reliable free throws that start a run--that's more Markovic's style, even if it means being overshadowed by flashier teammates. As a result, he rarely gets credit in either the boxscore or postgame recap.

Nonetheless, Stefan should be a big acquisition for Zenit. He's the perfect stabilizing force, someone who can get the team to focus and execute, no matter the speed of the game. Take a look at the Serbs over the past two-three years. Like clockwork, when Markovic comes off the bench or partners with Teodosic, the chaos on the court evaporates. He lets Milos create, while overseeing the ball movement and finding alternative approaches to the basket. When needed, he can mix things up by driving to the hole. Naturally, his experience can also prove invaluable at times. When it comes to spacing and shot selection, Markovic is very smart, thoughtful and pragmatic. That's something Balkan players sometimes lack (recall Tripkovic or Tepic), but not Markovic. At the same time, it's important to note that Markovic is very happy to play off the ball and doesn't seek to dominate possessions. That hasn't been very typical of Zenit playmakers in recent years. When Hodge, Toolson or Dowdell saw an opportunity to attack, they often forgot about their teammates. In that regard, the Serb is very different, which means Timma, Karasev, White and Toolson will feel much more comfortable on offense than they did prior to his arrival. Now Zenit's snipers will get creative help along with less competition to shoot the ball.

His ability to disrupt defensively is another plus. While putting pressure on the ballhandler, Markovic always seeks the best possible defensive position. Take the semifinals vs. Australia: Markovic practically erased Patty Mills from the court and even did some damage on Joe Ingles. In the Euroleague, Markovic may have been Unicaja's most irreplaceable backcourt player on defense, putting in work against the continent's biggest stars. It's a quality that's highly valued in Vasily Karasev's system. When you also consider that Stefan is equally comfortable starting or coming off the bench, the acquisition looks better and better for Zenit.  

Finally, Zenit also made a very smart investment from a financial perspective. The asking price for one of the most consistent (and undervalued) European playmakers would undoubtedly have risen in price after the Olympics. After all, Stefan Djordjevic relied on him more and more throughout the course of the tournament, underscoring his importance to the team's cohesiveness on the court. Markovic is playing 30 minutes or more and making very few mistakes. As a result, for the first time in many years, he's earned positive review after review from the press. That's meant increased attention for the Serb from those who previously saw him as an average role player. It seems Zenit snatched Markovic up at just the right time, staying true to its practice of not overpaying for even top talent. But that's probably not the end of the story. Don't be surprise if Markovic's value doubles after the 2016-17 campaign as he looks certain to be a big star in St. Petersburg, not to mention the entire VTB United League.

Dmitry Gerchikov