Heroes of Tomorrow - a closer look at medi Bayreuth
MIES, Switzerland (Basketball Champions League) – March Madness may be gripping the attention of the basketball population in the USA but for all the Loyola Marymount's and UMBC's, the Basketball Champions League has a Cinderella story of its own. medi Bayreuth have made the Play-Offs in their first season of European competition and now look a serious threat to make the Final Four. We spoke to Head Coach Raoul Korner about everything Bayreuth, in an attempt to lift the lid on this year's surprise attack squad.
This is medi Bayreuth's first season in a European competition, can you talk about your expectations coming in and your experience of the Basketball Champions League so far?
"We knew we wanted to be competitive. We didn't really know what to expect, then we saw our group and knew immediately that it was full of high-calibre teams. This also meant we were under dogs or under the radar a bit. We liked the underdog role. We knew that we had the advantage of continuity but unfortunately that advantage fades throughout the season. Maybe this still helped us win a game or two early on."
Coach Korner then elaborated on the advantages of keeping so much of their spine from last season.
"We kept everybody but three players. Two of those players - Kyan Anderson and Trey Lewis - were key players at the guard position and tough to replace. James Robinson came in and is more of a pure PG than Kyan, whereas Gabe York for Trey Lewis is much more like-for-like - they are both natural scorers. John Cox has also come in and given us some veteran leadership but this season proved the core of the team is functioning and from there it's easier to add the puzzle pieces, especially when they are good players of good character."
Have you found any major differences in the playing style of the German BBL and the clubs from different countries in the Basketball Champions League?
"Obviously, the playing style can vary from club to club in the BBL but generally speaking, the German BBL is faster and more physical. I think it's very interesting to play against the clubs from different countries and encounter the different philosophies. Also, what we see that sets the German BBL apart is the quality from top to bottom - 17 clubs can beat you and you can beat all 17 also. You have to be ready each and every night."
Do you think this helped you to prepare for competing against top teams in the Basketball Champions League?
"It's both an advantage and a curse at the same time. Yes, because you feel you can beat anyone but also no, because you can't reduce minutes or rest guys in any games."
You have guys like De'Mon Brooks playing his first full season in a top European league, combined with veteran guys like Nate Linhart. Can you talk about what goes into putting together a roster like this?
Nate Linhart is actually the exception - he has already built his career. With the budget we have, we have to find players on the way up. Our idea is 'Heroes of Tomorrow' and we are bringing this to life with the players we recruit. Budget-wise we probably aren’t even a Play-Off team in Germany, so we need guys that are hungry, ambitious and willing to work. We also look for players that are making logical steps - Assem Marei played NCAA division II but has taken logical steps in his career. Once a player is established in a top league we can’t afford them and we can't target them. If other clubs are hesitant to take a shot on a guy, maybe because they haven't built their reputation yet, we are looking at them. Then the idea is, in our organisation they can develop into the best players they can be and take the next step."
Andreas Seiferth is now a full German international
This roster may have been built on a limited budget but when you watch them play, you can see the exact ambition and hard work that Coach Korner searches for. Each player contributes in a specific way, to make the whole much bigger than the sum of its parts. A great example of this, is the balance between De'Mon Brooks starting at Power Forward and Steve Wachalski rotating in from the bench to play the same position. The two players have very different instincts.
Brooks - who was plucked from the Italian second division - is direct. He wants to catch in the post and bully or catch on the outside and drive at the basket. Wachalski is much more perimeter and pick-and-pop focused. Watch these two clips of Bayreuth in transition, within the same system, each player is free to play his position to best suit his strengths and hunt different areas on the floor. Combined as a Power Forward rotation, they are very difficult to play against.
Look at the rotation at the Center position and you see more evidence of medi Bayreuth's policy of recruit and develop. Andreas Seiferth and Assem Marei play practically identical minutes and similar roles. Both men have taken different, but equally logical steps and clearly followed their ambition to arrive where they are now. Seiferth is product of Alba Berlin but wasn't afraid to move clubs in search of playing time, then build his career and reputation from there - He's now a full German international.
Egyptian Assem Marei is possibly the most fascinating story of all. The son of two basketball players, Marei had an outstanding junior, national team career for Egypt - even being selected for the seniors at age 16 - then took the decision to play for NCAA division II, Minnesota State. This may not seem a logical step for a pro career in Europe's big leagues but after a stop in Lithuania with Siauliai, he's developed into a player that consistently produces. Marei has a combination of heart, hustle and some nifty footwork. This play in the fourth quarter against Ludwigsburg, in leg one of the Quarter-Finals, is what Bayreuth fans have learned to expect from Marei.
Then there is Gabe York.....
Can you talk about recruiting and coaching a player like Gabe York?
"I knew Gabe already when he came out of College. Back then, his agent had financial ideas that we couldn't match, so we weren't in a position to recruit him any further. Then he got himself in a situation in Italy where he couldn’t function, so again we had to take a chance on a guy. We had to decide if it was a good player in a bad situation or if he was a player that doesn’t work in Europe - and I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s worked out."
Gabe York has spoken recently about his desire to develop his impact on the game, besides his ability to shoot. Is this something that you have been working on with him?
"We want to develop players so it wouldn’t make sense to limit him. A good shooter will always be confronted by people running him off the line, so it makes sense to use his athleticism to attack hard closeouts. A lot of times, you won’t always get to the rim, so he's had to develop extra tools, like the pass. He has also made tremendous progress in reading pick-and-roll situations, defensively and understanding the rhythm of the game in relation to his shot selection."
Coming out of Arizona, York was clearly an extremely talented player. At 1.91m (6'3"), with jump-out-the-gym athleticism, lights-out shooting ability and the handles to create advantage against the toughest of defenders, it seemed a safe bet that a successful pro career was waiting. However, after scoring only 4.3 PPG, in six games at Vanoli Cremona, it certainly took the right environment at medi Bayreuth, for York to start delivering on his potential in Europe. Running off screens to hit open threes or curl to hit floaters in the lane, has always been York's Game.
Where you see the development, is the way York is now able to use the gravity of his shooting, to create for his teammates.
This is now a huge part of the way Coach Korner and medi Bayreuth have been able to design a system to maximise York's talent. Watch this next clip and notice how York is being used as a back screener to create an advantage situation. Bayreuth are running 'Spain pick-and-roll' where Andreas Seiferth sets the ball screen and as he rolls to the rim, York sets the back screen, then pops. This action forces all kinds of difficult decisions for the defense and when York pops, he's invariably open for three. As the defense reacts to that threat and rotates, we see how York makes the right pass selection and creates the 'Hockey Assist'.
This is also a clear example of York's developed understanding of the rhythm of the game and his shot selection. Watch the clip again and you see, there is certainly enough daylight to pull the trigger when York catches the ball. What we are now seeing is a player that understands the moments in the game when he needs to take that shot - often in late in the game - and when the ball needs to move and find a teammate.
Can you talk about your background and what inspired you to start coaching?
"In Austria you don't normally grow up with the ambition to become a basketball coach - maybe a ski instructor or a football player, maybe even a bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger but I'd always loved coaching. Even when I was 15 or 16-years-old, I would coach the younger kids the things that I had just learned from my coach. I played in the Austrian Bundesliga and during my playing days I started coaching, from U10 all the way up to the men.
"I finished my law degree parallel to my playing career and then at 25, I was offered the opportunity to become the Head Coach at Vienna. I'd already overseen the youth program there and had already worked with players in every age group. I knew all the players that had been involved in the club being promoted, from the second to the first division in Austria. It was an easy decision. I was offered the opportunity to turn my passion into my day job and I think you have to do that if you get the chance."
At medi Bayreuth you have developed a reputation as a team that executes offensively, especially out of timeouts. Can you talk about this and has this always been the case with teams you have coached?
"Every team has its own characteristic. One team might be more energetic offensively and another might be more defensive minded. You have to use the strengths of the team's personnel to shape the characteristic of the team. In Braunschweig, we were known as a lockdown defensive team but this team was always going to be offensive minded. I thought we would be a smart team from the start and we are a team with clear roles, which is a strength for us. I sometimes wish we had a little more defensive mind-set. We are capable defensively and in games when we have needed it, we have shown it."
One of those games was certainly the first leg of the Quarter-Finals in Ludwigsburg. Watch this clip of Bayreuth on defense early in the game. Linhart denies Walkup the post catch, then York and Robinson communicate effectively to switch and stay in position to 'Ice' the Waleskowski ball screen. De'mon Brooks stunts on the pick-and-pop to buy Seiferth enough time to recover. Seiferth recovers and makes an excellent defensive play on the ball to block the shot. Team defense in action.
On the offensive end is where we are used to seeing medi Bayreuth excel. This is a team that moves the ball expertly and puts its players in position, to do what they do best. The first clip in the sequence below is Bayreuth running a set called "Horns Nate". Most teams know this set and realise it's designed to get Nate Linhart going left but Linhart displays some of the smarts that Coach Korner spoke about and declines the screen.
Then after an expert bounce pass to Sieferth on the short roll, the ball moves once, then extra pass to Robinson, wide open in the corner. Very typical. The second clip you see Besiktas play outstanding defense but Bayreuth flow through all the options of their offense and get a lay-up regardless. Watch again how Linhart leverages the threat of his left hand, to set up the ball screen and create an advantage. There are very few players in the Basketball Champions League, that can make that bounce pass for Marei.
Up next is the second leg vs MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg. Is it harder to prepare, when the teams know each other so well from the BBL?
"You can't really prepare for a team like Ludwigsburg because they play so unorthodox. You can’t simulate a team like this in practice. They press for forty minutes and they rotate a new line-up, with length and athleticism, every two minutes. For them it’s about intensity and it’s very hard to simulate, so for this team you have to be innovative in your preparation. In practice, we played 5 vs 6 so there was always a double team. When we played them first time - in the German BBL -we weren’t ready for the intensity. They play on the edge and the officials can't call everything. You can't let them slap you from side to side. If you can make it about the basketball and match the intensity, then you have a chance. I felt we matched that intensity in game one. Game two is the game everyone has been waiting for and we know we have to be ready for it to be a street fight again."
MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg are certainly one of the most physical teams you'll see and if you have read our Power Rankings, you will know how important it was for medi Bayreuth to win the rebounding battle in game one - something very few teams manage against the Giants of Ludwigsburg. Another thing to look out for in game two will be the way Bayreuth found cracks in Ludwigsburg's pick-and-roll defense and exploited them in the mid-range, with Robinson and Linhart taking jumpers off the dribble. Then of course, it will also be about the atmosphere that the Bayreuth fans can create in the Oberfrankenhalle.
You have a packed stadium at home every game and a noisy following on the road as well. What can you tell us about your fans?
"The fans are part of our identity. You can feel the energy and enthusiasm coming from them. This is what Bayreuth basketball is about. Basketball is #1 in this city. You can feel it when you do your groceries when you are at the petrol station, people will ask you about the last game. Bayreuth is basketball."
De'Mon Brooks and medi Bayreuth will have the home fans behind them for the second leg