The Ryan Boatright and Cedevita Resurgence in the ABA (And a Dzanan Musa breakout in the works?)

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.


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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.


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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.

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Adidas NGT Watch: A Trio of Talent to Watch from Serbia

From L-R: Simanic, Radanov (Red) and Glisic (Black) are three players from Serbia to pay attention to from the Adidas NGT

The Adidas Next Generation Tournament showcases some of the best 18 and under talent in Europe. While some of the players may have end-of-the-bench roles on the top-level club, most play for the developmental clubs, developing their skills and talents to be ready for the senior clubs in a year or two. It is very interesting to see how Europe treats their “player development” process (which can begin as early 13-15 years old, depending on how talented the kid is), especially in comparison to how that process is done in the United States.

Almost every club developmental team that participates in the Adidas NGT has promising talent to display, but there really are a only a handful of players who truly stick out and look primed to be major players on the Euroleague and Eurocup stage within the next few years. And that proves to be true for country’s national teams as well, as the talent that is showcased during this competition could also be a sign of what countries could be strong in future FIBA Europe competitions (such as the Eurobasket) depending on the countries’ talent participation in the Adidas NGT. If a country has a lot of talented players making an impact for their professional club’s developmental teams in the Adidas NGT, that could be a sign that that particular country is on the cusp of being a major contender in international competition within a five-to-seven year span.

One of those countries who look to be on the rise is Serbia, as they had an impressive trio of players who stood out impressively during the latest Adidas NGT. Forward Borisa Simanic and guard Aleksa Radanov of Crvena Zvezda (who finished runner up in the Adidas NGT to FC Barcelona) and forward/center Milos Glisic of Partizan were all named to the Adidas NGT All-Tournament team, and each put up impressive numbers and performances that will be chronicled in more detail below. And, not only will these three players have an impact in club competition in their respective domestic and international leagues (such as the Euroleague and Eurocup) fairly soon, but they also should be major contributors to the Serbian national team, who is coming off a fourth place finish in the Eurobasket 2015 (losing to France 81-68 in the 3rd place game). While the team is led by guards Milos Teodosic and Bogdan Bogdanovic, forward Nemanja Bjelica and centers Boban Marjanovic, Miroslav Raduljica and Nikola Jokic, only Bogdanovic and Jokic will be under 30 years by the next Eurobasket in 2017 (Bogdanovic will be about 26 and Jokic will be only 23) . So the need for good young talent to succeed the older veterans is high, and thankfully Serbia has that talent in the trio of Simanic, Radanov and Glisic.

So, let’s take a look individually at what each player did at the Adidas NGT and what their outlook is for their club as well as their national team.

 

Borisa Simanic, forward, 2.09 m, 18 years old

Simanic was named the MVP of the Adidas NGT for his dominating performances on the court as well as helping Crvena Zvzeda to a second place finish. Simanic was Red Star’s primary scoring threat and main impact player on the floor, as he averaged 22.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg while shooting 65.8 percent from 2-point land and 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. The 18-year-old Serbian also had a PIR (player impact rating) of 26.0, one of the higher marks from a player in the tournament.

The 2016 Adidas NGT was Simanic’s 3rd and final tournament, and he showed that he had come a long way since his debut in the Adidas NGT back in 2014. Simanic wowed basketball fans and scouts with his athleticism, his deadly three point shooting, and his ability to finish off the break. Though he is not a true “post” player in any sense, Simanic showed throughout the tournaments he was able to throw it down with authority off live ball turnovers as well as offensive rebounds as demonstrated in his highlight tape below.

However, Simanic’s main strength lies in his shooting, and considering he almost made nearly 50 percent of his 3-point shots, that further displays how talented and effective Simanic can be, especially considering his athletic 2.09 m (roughly 6’10) frame, which makes it hard for smaller forwards to defend him when Simanic is shooting. Simanic also shows strong handle for a big man, as well as developing athleticism and quickness that gives him the ability to drive the ball and finish around the rim should defenders close out too hard on him to defend his sweet shooting stroke from beyond the arc. Simanic’s athleticism doesn’t jump out at you, but he certainly has added more bounce to his game as he has grown into his body and become more coordinated since debuting as a 16 year old in 2014.

While Simanic has the shooting touch, the scoring ability, height and maturity (he displays a lot of composure on the court and determination, which is a reason why he spent some time with the senior club during the 2016 season) to be a future star for Crvena Zvzeda, he is still far from a finished product. His strength is lacking, as he gets pushed too easily by defenders out of the lanes when he doesn’t have the ball, and he lacks any kind of post or back to the basket game in the block. While Simanic excels with his shoulders square to the hoop and driving to the basket, especially with his size and against other forwards and centers, he needs to be able to have some kind of move set or scoring ability around the rim to make up for when his jump shot isn’t falling or if the defense is clogging the lane and he can’t get to the hoop on the drive. If Simanic can get stronger and be more comfortable with his back to the basket in the block, then he will be not only a more effective scorer, but tougher for defenses to stop as he matures as a player as well.

 

Aleksa Radanov, guard, 2.02 m, 18-years-old

Fellow Crvena Zvzeda teammate Radanov doesn’t have the height or the pure shooting or scoring ability of Simanic, but Radanov is an explosive guard with incredible speed and two-way ability from the guard position. While Simanic was Crvena Zvzeda’s Kevin Durant, Radanov was the Russell Westbrook, with his ability to drive to the hoop and finish at the him with aggressiveness and strength. In addition, Radanov was a pick-pocket on the defensive hound, not only putting pressure on opposing guards, but also generating a lot of turnovers that led to transition scoring opportunities for the Adidas NGT runners-up (he averaged 2.4 steals per game during the tournament).

However, the main strength of Radanov’s game is in his ability to create scoring opportunities in different forms for himself and his teammates. Radanov is strong in his drive and ability to take it to the rim, and he has good vision off the drive as well. He can hit teammates with spectacular passes (he averaged 4.6 assists during the Adidas NGT), but he also has the strength and body control to finish around the rim with a layup or even dunk. If you watch his highlights below (from the start to about 1:07), he amazes with his ability as a playmaker despite only being 17 during the time of competition. Whether it’s a behind the back pass or an emphatic dunk, Radanov displays some of that Westbrook-esque explosiveness off the drive that makes him entertaining to watch and enticing to think about when it comes to his professional future.

If there is one issue with Radanov, it is that his shot isn’t very consistent, especially from beyond the arc. While he shot over 40 percent from 3 during the Belgrade rounds, he only shot 31 percent from beyond the arc during the Berlin rounds, which undoubtedly hurt them against FC Barcelona in the Adidas NGT Final. If Radanov wants to continue to progress as a guard, he needs to shore up his shot, and not only get a more consistent stroke, but develop a faster and more fluid shooting motion as well (you can see in one of the clips his shot is extremely slow and i’m surprised he got it off at all, let alone made it).

I like Radanov a lot, and was surprised by his ability to finish against contract, and use his speed in the open court, especially with the ball in transition. He has a lot of Teodosic’s style of game in him (i.e. ability to be a creator for himself and others), and though he may not have Teodosic’s shooting ability just yet, he may have more pure athleticism and bounce than the Serbian standout guard who also won a championship with CSKA Moscow this past season. Once Radanov develops a more reliable outside shot, it will complement his already dangerous penetration game off the dribble that gave opponents fits during this years Adidas NGT and give him the potential to be one of Europe’s next great guards.

 

Milos Glisic, forward, 2.05 m, 18 years old

It hasn’t been easy for Partizan, as they have lost to conference rival Crvena Zvzeda twice in the national championship the past two years, and haven’t qualified for the Euorleague since 2013-2014. However, they do have some hope for the future, as evidenced by Glisic.

Glisic isn’t particularly tall at 2.05 m (roughly 6’9), but he is built like a rock and he is not afraid to play in the block. Unlike Simanic who tends to play more around the 3-point line, Glisic fights to get good position and displays a good back-to-the-basket game that is advanced for his age and leads to a lot of scoring opportunities. During this tournament, Glisic, who also made the All-Tournament team, was arguably the most impressive player in the entire tournament, as he averaged 27 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 1.8 spg and a PIR of 36.6.

One surprising thing that stood out about Glisic, especially on tape, is his quick hands and ability to generate steals. Even though he is a player who lives in the post, I was surprised how he was able to get easy steals off of unsuspecting opponents who weren’t ready for his quick hands. During the Adidas NGT, Glisic was able to get pick opponents  on the perimeter and demonstrate a strong ability to finish in transition off the turnover. This sneaky ability will serve him well as he gets older as a player, and display Glisic’s unique combination of strength and speed as a player, as evidenced by the highlight video below.

There are a couple of issues with Glisic’s game of course. He is not particularly a strong free throw shooter, as evidenced by his 63.6 percentage during the Adidas NGT. Considering he shot 33 free throws in a 5 game span, he needs to get that percentage up in order to keep defenses honest and prevent them from fouling him purposefully “Hack-A-Shaq” style. The second issue is that is outside shot is not particularly strong either. I wasn’t entirely impressed by his shooting form, and his 35.3 percentage from beyond the arc wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring as well, especially compared to fellow countrymen Simanic and Radanov.

Nonetheless, I like Glisic’s game. He has the ability to be the kind of natural post player Serbia has been lacking as of late, though Jokic had a solid campaign in Denver last season. Glisic is incredibly strong and talented, with good footwork and a natural scoring touch around the block. If the free throw shooting can improve, he can be a lasting post presence not just for Partizan but the Serbian national team in the near future as well.