Cedevita Zagreb of Croatia punched their ticket to the ABA Finals in a thrilling 87-78 Game 3 victory over legendary Serbian power Partizan Belgrade on Sunday. This most likely will set up an ABA championship matchup with Crvena Zvezda, who has pretty much strangled the competition in the ABA this season, as evidenced by their 25-1 record and +464 point differential in ABA play (though they still need to clinch Game 3 against Buducnost VOLKI of Montenegro on April 4th). While some hardcore European basketball fans would have enjoyed a 3-game rivalry series featuring the “Eternal Derby” (Partizan and Red Star), Cedevita may provide the better series, as they may be one of the most underrated and entertaining basketball clubs in Europe not playing in the Euroleague.
Cedevita participated in the Eurocup this season, heavily condensed due to late defections by many clubs due to fear of FIBA sanctions. The Croatian club performed well in the first round, going 6-2 in a group that also included Gran Canaria (whom they split) Lietkabelis (split), Nizhny Novgorod (sweep), and MZT Skopje (sweep). However, the Top 16 proved to be much tougher, as they went 2-4 against Valencia Basket, Unicaja Malaga and Alba Berlin, and failed to qualify for the playoffs (then again, Unicaja and Valencia are playing for the Eurocup Championship so it’s not all that bad really).
In ABA play, the Zagreb-based club finished second with a 20-6 record and point differential of +215. The club has mainly been led by center Miro Bilan, who leads the team in minutes played, and averages 12 ppg and 7.2 rpg with a PIR of 16.7. Power forward Marko Arapovic has also been key in the interior, as he averages 7.8 ppg and 3.6 RPG, and forward Luka Bebic has been Cedevita’s Swiss Army knife of sorts, as he averages 10.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.5 apg and a PIR of 15.3.
However, the biggest prize of Cedevita management’s roster composition this year has been the mid-season pickup of former UConn star Ryan Boatright. A point guard in the mold of Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier, both teammates of his, Boatright has helped make this Cedevita club a multi-dimensional force. Boatright has flummoxed opposing defenders with his dominant scoring ability, excellent handles, and his Kemba-like crossover and step back, which has produced highlight reel plays that undoubtedly are played on loop amongst the Croatian basketball fanbase. Add the super athletic Rashad James on the perimeter with him, and this Cedevita club has been one that can run and gun with the best clubs in Europe. While the NBA career didn’t unfold like Walker and Napier before him (though Napier hasn’t matched Walker), Boatright is proving to be a regular highlight-machine in Europe.
Check out his night against Zadar early in the season.
Nearly a month later, Boatright again dazzled against Croatian rival Cibona, where he scored 24 points, had 4 rebounds and 4 assists and put up an Index rating of 30.
However, Boatright’s most spectacular performance may have been in their Game 2 loss against Partizan, where he nearly willed Cedevita to a victory in Belgrade despite the hostile Partizan fan base. The speedy and skilled guard went toe to toe with Partizan star guard Will Hatcher, as Boatright scored 25 points per game and put up a PIR of 23 in the semifinal contest. While Hatcher did score the game winning bucket as time expired, Boatright’s crossover and step back with seconds remaining was the kind of play that would make UConn fans and Kemba Walker proud.
While Boatright has played in Europe before (he played for Orlandina Basket of the Lega Basket Serie A in Italy last season), this probably has been the biggest stage Boatright has played on since he graduated UConn in 2015. The high-scoring guard has not disappointed in his debut in Croatia, and it will be interesting to see if Boatright will stay with Cedevita next season. While Cedevita is a Eurocup participant and has played in the Euroleague before (making it more high profile than other ABA clubs outside of the Red Star and Partizan combo), it certainly doesn’t have the budget of other bigger clubs in Europe.
There is a lot of Tyrese Rice in Boatright’s game. He’s fast, he’s competitive, he can jump lanes on defense (sparking many Cedevita fast breaks off of steals), he can shoot it well in transition, and he can beat opposing defenders off the dribble with ease in the half court. It would not be surprising to see Boatright attract some major European club attention this offseason, especially those who are looking for more spark and production at the point guard spot.
It was expected that Cedevita would need Boatright in Game 3 to clinch a spot in the ABA championship. However, an injury in the first minute of play sidelined Boatright for the game (not to mention another injury to Arapovic, which will sideline him for the remainder of the season and this summer’s Eurobasket). With Boatright out, it seemed likely that Partizan would pull the road upset and perhaps set up a Belgrade-derby ABA championship.
However, the emergence of 17-year-old Bosnian national Dzanan Musa off the bench helped Cedevita pull off the 87-78 win. I have talked about Musa before on this blog, especially about his performance in FIBA international competition at the youth level (he helped BIH win the 16 and Under European youth championship in 2015), but this definitely may have been the biggest professional highlight of Musa’s career thus far. Musa scored 16 points on 5 of 8 shooting (3 of 5 from 3-point land) in 17 minutes, good for a PIR of 16, the third best total for Cedevita in the game. Musa came alive in the 2nd quarter, where he scored 14 of his total 16 points. The second-quarter explosion by the Bosnian helped Cedevita establish a lead that Partizan just couldn’t overcome in the second half.
Musa is not yet 18, and though he doesn’t have the high profile of fellow teenage sensation Luka Doncic of Real Madrid, he is a promising player who has showed flashes of star potential in various roles this season (he is more of a bench player when Cedevita plays in the ABA, but is given more playing time in A1 domestic league play). It is likely that Musa will be given a key role with Cedevita next year, though much like Boatright, one has to wonder if a bigger European club will try to acquire him this summer.
Croatia is a basketball crazy country (though the fans are not as rabid as Serbian ones, they are still passionate), and Cedevita has definitely proven to be the country’s premiere club the past few seasons. They have a puncher’s chance against Red Star (barring upset on Tuesday of course), as their ability to score (and Red Star’s struggle to at times) should make the ABA championship an entertaining affair. If this Cedevita club stays together, Red Star-Cedevita could be a good ABA rivalry for at least another year or two.
That being said, let’s hope for Croatian and Cedevita basketball fans that the Zagreb-based club can keep one their budding stars and not lose both to bigger budget clubs after the ABA season ends.