Zvezda’s rocky road: Serbian champs enter Euroleague elite despite all odds

Тoday’s playoffs matchup in Moscow pits perennial Euroleague title contender CSKA Moscow against the team many label as the biggest – and the most pleasant – surprise in the Top 8 pack, Adriatic and Serbian league champs Crvena zvezda.

Last time the two teams faced off in the eliminating stages of a major continental club tournament was in the 1972/73 European Champions Cup semifinal. CSKA won both games and clinched the final, eventually losing the championship game to Italy’s Ignis Varese.

Over just three years the Belgrade team has taken giant steps as it progressed each season since making a maiden Euroleague appearance in fall 2013, and captured its first quarterfinal berth with seven wins in the Top 16 stage. It marks an improvement from last season, when the team posted a 4-10 record in Top 16 falling short of its quarterfinal bid.

At the same time, Dejan Radonjic’s men scooped up all three domestic/regional trophies (Serbian league and cup, Adriatic league), making 2014/15 the most successful season in club history.

In the offseason the Belgraders lost dominant center and All-Euroleague First Team selection Boban Marjanovic who was signed by the San Antonio Spurs, forward Nikola Kalinic (Fenerbahce Ulker), Slovenian swingman Jaka Blazic (Laboral Kutxa), scoring ace Charles Jenkins (Armani Jeans) and inspirational playmaker Marcus Williams whose contract had expired.

Rebuilding was no easy task as replacements revealed recruitment blunders – Sofoklis Schortsanitis, brought in to fill Marjanovic’s shoes, failed to make an impact and was cut, as was Israeli playmaker Gal Mekel whose job was to fill the void created by Williams’ departure.

Former Brose Baskets sharpshooter Ryan Thompson was signed to provide firepower from the perimeter, but instead spent three months struggling to find his scoring touch and was let go.

Stanford University graduate Stefan Nastic was expected to provide solid backup at center, however, in a matter of months he went from seeing decent minutes to being glued to the bench and then disappearing from the roster altogether.

Add here a rash of injuries that hit the team in the early stages of the season (a recuperating Maik Zirbes missed the entire preseason, while Marko Tejic, Nemanja Dangubic and captain Luka Mitrovic all went down during a three-week span in late September to mid-October), a 1-3 start in Euroleague’s “Group of Death” featuring reigning champs Real Madrid, Fenerbahce, Khimki, Bayern and Strasbourg, and you can see why Zvezda even contemplated shifting its focus completely onto the Adriatic league.

Mitrovic’s knee injury was the worst, sidelining Zvezda’s captain for five months. Last week, he made his first appearance after the lengthy layoff, playing 11.5 minutes in the defeat against Cedevita in Zagreb.

However, in a rare display of fighting spirit and determination to defy all odds, riding the wave of relentless support of their faithful fans, Radonjic’s squad regained composure and rebounded in the closing stages of the regular season.

The resounding home wins against Khimki, Real Madrid and Bayern, coupled with a fantastic “break” in Munich helped them clinch the Top 16 phase for a second year running, but the best was yet to come.

Maturing in the process, one of Europe’s youngest teams raced to seven wins in 11 games, capturing a place in the quarterfinals with two games left to play. En route to achieving this historic milestone Zvezda swept Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos and grabbed a key home win against its chief rival for a spot in the quarters, Anadolu Efes.

As the playoff series against CSKA Moscow kicks off in the Russian capital, let’s have a look at some of the players who have already made numerous European and NBA scouts fill an enormous amount of notebooks, and inspired scores of Youtube clipmakers to create highlight reels featuring some of this season’s most breathtaking plays in Euroleague.

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STEFAN JOVIC

When Marcus Williams got in trouble after testing positive for marijuana last June and FIBA handed him a six-month ban (meanwhile, his one-year contract expired), Zvezda signed Israeli Gal Mekel, projecting him to start at point. Mekel alternated good nights in Adriatic league with erratic play in Euroleague and was soon cut, providing room for Stefan Jovic to step in.

Apparently hungry for the big time role, yesterday’s backup flourished in his new capacity, driving opponents insane with almost perfect pick-and-roll plays with Maik Zirbes and running Zvezda’s offense so smoothly that he made diehard fans quickly get over the loss of Williams.

On Nov. 12, Jovic had a night to remember in Munich, setting the new Euroleague record for most assists (19) in a single game as Zvezda beat the hosts to climb back into contention for a Top 16 spot.

Athletic, quick, with good court vision, and ability to drive to the hoop, he worked hard on his outside shot and improved in that department, too. #1 candidate for backup point guard spot on the Serbian national team seeking a ticket to Rio Olympics.

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TARENCE KINSEY

In a nutshell, he was the right fit at the right time. Ryan Thompson had been signed to provide scoring, but couldn’t get out of a horrible shooting slump for months. When it became evident that Zvezda wouldn’t get what it hoped for, the former Brose Baskets swingman was released.

Right about that time Kinsey terminated his contract with Turkey’s Trabzonspor and the Belgraders jumped at the opportunity to sign him. Kinsey delivered – still owning a smooth shooting stroke, he provided the scoring punch from midrange (he’s making only 14 percent of his threes though) while playing tough defense on the other end of the floor. Mostly known for his ability to hit the bottom of the net, Kinsey trails only Jovic in steals per game.

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QUINCY MILLER

The new fan favorite who quickly embraced the role previously filled by Jenkins – the go-to guy who plays with all his heart and makes the crowd go wild by scoring key baskets in a myriad of ways, including thunderous posterizing dunks.

Signed to plug the hole at power forward in Mitrovic’s absence, Miller seemed a bit lost in his Euroleague debut in Moscow against Khimki on Oct. 30 – he bricked all five of his threes, committed three turnovers and had trouble reading plays. You could tell he was new to the team.

But when he stepped for the first time on the floor of Pionir Arena (meanwhile renamed after coaching legend Aleksandar Nikolic) five days later and torched Zvezda’s archrival Partizan for 17 points in 12 minutes, the house was on fire! Miller immediately connected with the fans, and his good-natured, easygoing personality and disarming smile made Delije adore him even more.

A genuine crowd pleaser and basketball entertainer, he has also been the most prolific scorer on the team, doing an excellent job on the boards, too. Occasionally, he does get carried away dribbling on the perimeter or driving to the basket at breakneck speed with no clear idea how to finish and then bumping into the opponents’ bodies in the paint, but he’s only 23, and that explains a lot – he still has time to mature and raise his game to another level.

Zvezda’s chances of keeping him after this season are similar to those of defeating CSKA in the quarters: very, very small. I won’t be surprised if he lands a seven-digit contract, and he deserves every penny.

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MAIK ZIRBES

Stepping out of the giant shadow of Boban Marjanovic, the muscular German center quickly became one of the best big men in European club basketball. Last season, he provided glimpses of excellence and then played through injury in the decisive fourth game of the Adriatic League finals helping Zvezda clinch its first title in the regional tournament.

In the new season, he charged right out of the gate showing immense progress and high level of confidence as he propelled Zvezda to new heights. Taking advantage of his size, strength, mobility and quick, strong hands, he’s been able to dominate the paint. His form took a dip in recent weeks, but he’s sure to bounce back when it matters most.

Along with Miller, he’s been on the radar of many European giants and after two years in Belgrade seems ready to move on.

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MARKO GUDURIC

Last year’s MVP at European U-20 championship and gold medal winner, Guduric was expected to fill the void left by Blazic.

He surpassed expectations and came up big for Zvezda on several occasions, most notably in home wins against Real Madrid and Bayern, and the victory against Unicaja in Malaga. In the defining moments of these games, the left-handed guard kept his cool and drained shots – including several key threes from deep downtown – like an experienced veteran, lifting the team and igniting the crowd.

Guduric is also an able creator, both for himself and his teammates, has perfect court vision and a quick first step. We won’t be seeing him in Moscow, though, as he’s fighting a virus and hoping to return to the fold in Game 3 in Belgrade.

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SUPPORTING CAST

This story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning those who displayed some great performances over the past five months, and contributed to Zvezda’s unprecedented success.

Branko Lazic handled with grace the thankless task of guarding the opponents’ best scorer while going perfect (or almost perfect) on the offensive end in some key games such as the match against Pao on the road or Anadolu Efes at home.

Dangubic had struggled to regain form after injury, but in recent weeks he considerably improved his game contributing as scorer and rebounder, and playing tough defense. His confidence has apparently been boosted and it seems that he just needs to spend more time on the floor to make the most of his talents.

Marko Simonovic was one of those signed during the season when recruitment faltered, and he repaid the team with sinking Bayern in Munich and destroying Unicaja in Malaga with his three pointers. His shooting magic helped him extend the temporary two-month contract to the end of the season. Making 42.8 percent of his threes, he’s unanimously the best long-range shooter on the Serbian team.

The new faces also include former Bayern Munich player Vasilije Micic. The 21-year-old playmaker has had his share of ups and downs as he adapted to his new team, but also had some stellar moments in back-to-back wins against Cedevita and Anadolu Efes in February.

Another “emergency signing”, Vladimir Stimac, was summoned from Spain after Schortsanitis left, contributing size and rebounding effort in the paint, but the red-and-whites’ fans will remember him most for an epic performance (17 points on 70-percent shooting) against Cedevita on the road in the Adriatic league semifinal that Zvezda won to close the best-of-three series and clinch a spot in Euroleague next season.

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THE MAN BEHIND IT ALL

If the game that sealed Zvezda’s Euroleague entry three years ago was anything to go by, Dejan Radonjic’s time on the Belgraders’ bench was sure to be an exciting journey.

Less than two weeks into the job, his team down seven points with two minutes remaining in the do-or-die Adriatic league semi against Radnicki Kragujevac, the Montenegrin coach pulled the strings as his squad bounced back to life and held the opponent scoreless during an 8-0 run that sent Zvezda back to Euroleague after 13 years (in 1999/2000 the team was part of the old FIBA-run continental tournament).

It has been a rocky road for Radonjic ever since, but he has never wavered in his belief in building the squad brick by brick and making his players better every day. He was patient and focused, unfazed by doubters and critics, and hard work started paying out.

When nearly everyone saw him on the way out after a stunning defeat in the Adriatic semi against Cibona on home court in Kombank Arena in April 2014, the front office stood behind him and he kept the job.

He has won four trophies so far, and is soon bound to eclipse legendary Ranko Zeravica as Crvena zvezda’s coach with most wins (170). Meanwhile, he has continued to push the boundaries with his team in Euroleague, advancing a step further each year.

Next fall, Zvezda will be making its fourth straight Euroleague appearance under Radonjic, a firm believer in hard work and long-term commitment. With that in mind, it’s obvious he’s far from done yet. There is still that one last step to be made.