Underdogs bite - a closer look at Anwil Włocławek
WŁOCŁAWEK (Poland) - Domestic champions - check Crazy fans - check Well coached, team basketball - check Innovating to compete on a lower budget - check When it comes to Anwil Włocławek, everything is in place for one of our prototypical, BCL Cinderella stories.
There is always a romance in a sport when underdogs are involved. When the underdogs are the domestic champions from a smaller nation, trying to find ways to innovate and compete on the continent, against much higher budget teams, the romance goes into overdrive. We spoke to Anwil's Head Coach Igor Miličić about the "underdog tactics" that his Rottweilers have employed in their first season in the Basketball Champions League. We also spoke about a club that's integral to the community in Włocławek and his relationship with one of the BCL's most passionate group of fans.
Coach Miličić feels at home in Poland
First of all, welcome to the Basketball Champions League. What does it mean for a club like Anwil to be competing in Europe and the BCL specifically?
"Thank you. When I signed here four years ago, it was after one of the club's worst season's in history. The goal back then was always to get back to the playoffs, get back to winning medals and back to being one of the best clubs in Poland. Last year we accomplished that. And because of that, now we are back in Europe and everyone was waiting for that moment. It's huge. The game against UCAM Murcia was possibly one of the biggest games in the club's history. "
You mentioned that you arrived at the club four years ago, you have enjoyed some considerable success together during that period. Can you describe your relationship with the club?
"I was also here as a player for a season and that year was the first time that Anwil won the Polish championship. I left after that season, most of the team left but the people here respect what we did that year. There is nothing much to do here in Anwil. It’s a city with 100k people and our only entertainment is basketball. People are living and breathing basketball. That championship was really big for the team and for the whole society here because the town lives Basketball. When I came back again four years ago, that’s the major reason they picked me to coach. They also hadn't won the championship again until we did it last year. So, yes I have sentiment for the town and the club."
Anwil's fans travel well
Your fans have been amazing. What is it like to coach a club that is so integral to its community?
"Our fans are usually a sixth player for us. Of course, that also means everyone here is a coach. We have 3500 seats, in the playoffs that’s 4000 seats and they are always really loud and supportive. We have a group that’s been traveling with the team for the last two years. We picked up a really nice connection with them and they are with us for good and bad."
"I think that’s extremely valuable for the club. As we are rising as a sports group, also our fans are rising. It’s not just winning that is a success for us. It’s a success that this year the club had to stop selling season tickets early because we needed to leave some tickets to sell before the games."
Has it been difficult to adapt from the Polish League to the BCL?
"I didn’t really know what to expect as I'd never played in Europe. Last year I was studying Turkish, Spanish, German clubs, all of the teams back to back. I was trying to understand what direction their basketball is going. We came into the competition with a huge amount of respect for the teams in the competition and our group, we were thinking that our group was a really tough one. Of course, we have a lower budget than the other teams but after playing everyone, we have come to the conclusion that the group is very competitive but with a decent amount of luck we can compete with anyone."
What have been the biggest challenges in adapting to playing the Basketball Champions League?
"The biggest challenge is finding time to prepare for teams. Last season we played weekend to weekend and we had seven days to prepare. Now we have three days between games and one of those days is a travel day. We place a lot of priority on the way we prepare for our opposition's tactics and it's a big challenge to balance the time for preparation."
How have you found ways to hold that balance and still feel prepared?
"We can’t make as many tactical changes between game to game. For this reason, we are trying to pair up games. So if we have two games in a week, we are trying to find common things between the two opponents so we can prepare for that."
Is it easy to find common traits between teams in Poland and the Basketball Champions League?
"It's not always easy and often it's challenging. Lately, we have found for example that in Poland and in Europe, a lot of teams play their secondary fast break the same way. When we stop the fast break, the secondary fast break would pretty much be the same. We also find that a lot of teams rely on their PG to make plays at the end of the shot clock and also at the start. So immediately we have two things we can work on in practice for both games in the week."
From the first game of the season, we could see that Anwil play a different brand of basketball to anyone in the Basketball Champions League. Was that a conscious decision?
"Our underdog plan is to catch teams unprepared. We also wanted to see if what we did in Poland will work in Europe. We are a team that changes and uses a lot of defensive tactics; 1-3-1, match up zones, switching and hard show on the pick-and-roll. We are looking for dizziness in our opponents - we want the PG or the coach to not really be sure what we are doing. But if we want to surprise teams with these tactics, we also need to execute them well and that’s the challenge for us because we are a new team."
Coach Miličić has certainly organized his squad in a playing style that is difficult to prepare for. As he said, they regularly switch between different types of zone defense and man to man coverage - think Rick Pitino's Louisville that used to relentlessly switch zone defenses (sometimes even in the same possession). Of all the different schemes Anwil has thrown at teams, maybe the most lethal has been the 2-2-1 match up press. Watch the three clips below where Anwil have two guards up the floor pressuring the inbound pass. Once the ball is inbounded, they occupy disciplined positions in the passing lanes and prevent the ball entering the middle of the floor. From there, they force the ball to the side of the floor and then trap. Once the trap is set, they are excellent at reading the passers' eye's to steal the obvious pass. They also use this press to control tempo and then often change defense again in the half-court.
It's not just the changing defenses that make Anwil different. On the offensive end, they share the ball purposefully* and create a blur of precision movements to ring every last drop of advantage out of each possession.
*Anwil is top 3 in the BCL for Assist % at 71.2%.
Only Tenerife and Lietkabelis score a higher percentage of their points from assists. What is it that makes this team move the ball so well?
"In the system we want to run, it's very important that the players understand how we want to attack, why we want to attack and where we want to attack. We have eight new guys this year and it’s actually been very tough to implement the system with that many new players. That's why we are struggling a bit this year with turnovers. We actually have a lot of space to improve our passing."
Despite Coach Miličić 's drive to improve his team's passing, when you watch Anwil play, it's clear how purposeful they are on offense. Every action is designed to put their players in positions where they have strengths and the roster has been put together to have players with strengths that cause difficult decisions for defenders. They are also innovative and deceptive. In the two clips below you see one of Anwil's most effective actions; using the roller in the pick-and-roll, as a down screener.
In the first clip, they start their shooter (#23 Michalak) on the baseline, and their PG (#9 Kamil Laczynsky) in a high pick-and-roll at the same time. Michalak sets a back screen to create separation from his defender, then instead of rolling to the rim, Sobin (#13) sets a down screen for Michalak as he cuts to the perimeter. This may look like a very simple action but it forces the defense to make a lot of difficult decisions, in a very short space of time. In the second clip, you see Anwil run the same action but at the end of the shot clock after several masking or false actions. Watch how Valerii Likhodei (#11) slips the screen, then receives a screen himself from the roller. This kind of offensive scheme means defenses have to stay focused for the full 24 seconds.
Coach Miličić then expanded on how his system also encourages players to make plays and create out of slightly unorthodox positions on-court.
"We are a little untypical for a European Basketball team, we play 30-40% based out of the low post. We also like to put different players to make plays from the low post, it can be anyone from our Point Guard to our 5-man."
Anwil's expertise creating out of the post hadn't gone unnoticed. After Gameday 3 we looked at some of the best X'andO's in the Basketball Champions League. The clip below is exactly the kind of set that Coach Miličić is talking about - on this occasion it's their PG making the pass out of the post.
The common trend in basketball is away from low post play and much more perimeter oriented. Why do you place such a high priority on playing out of the post?
"It has worked really well for us because a lot of teams don't spend a lot of time covering on those movements from low post situations. We have Josef Sobin who is very good back to the basket. But also because we have other players that are good from the low post. Then we developed a game based on spacing, based on how teams help on those players and where we want to share the ball and how we want to share the ball based on those players - we are using our Point Guard and 3-man on the post when we have stretch bigs on the floor."
Again, Miličić stressed the need for improvement in one of Anwil's areas of strength.
"We also have to improve. We aren’t playing as fast as we’d like to. We also need to play more outside inside basketball."
Two players that certainly help Anwil play inside out, are Valerii Likhodei and Szymon Szewczyk. 6'8" (204cm) Likhodei has been a huge pick-up for Anwil. His ability to score from the post, set screens, and also play on the perimeter has manifested itself in 15.5 PPG whilst shooting 71% from inside and 37% from the outside. The big Russian has seen his career take him on a tour of the "whos who" clubs in Russia. From CSKA to UNICS, Kuban, and Khimki, Likhodei has played for almost everyone. His performance so far this season for Anwil may be the best of his career.
Szymon Szewczyk is vital to the way that Anwil play but in a much more explosive role. The giant Polish center is only playing 11 MPG but he plays every minute with intent and often completely changes the dynamic of the game when he's on the floor.
"He has the ability to change the game in short stretches of the game. He can help us change the pace of the game because he’s a 5 man that can stretch the floor and that allows us to put other positions in the post (and still have good spacing). Not many 5’s can defend the pick and pop very well."
Observe the way Coach Miličić employs Szewczyk and you see more of the same underdog style. In this video you see Szewczyk as the second screen, in a double ball screen action early in the offense - as his man drops to stop the penetration, he pops and nails the three. Ventspils are forced to call timeout.
Then in the next video, you see Anwil mask the same double ball screen action with Szewczyk. The first clip they mask it with a wing handoff and a staggered down screen and the second clip, they use a 'Horns" set to disguise their intent from the defense. You will be hard pressed to see better offensive execution than this.
Of course, for all their unorthodox playmaking and scoring from different areas of the court, Anwil - like most teams - rely on their wing players to carry the bulk of the scoring load. Michal Michalak is putting up some of the best numbers of his career after leaving Zaragoza to return to Poland and in his second stint at the club, Chase Simon has been a revelation.
"We were looking for a combo guard with size who can play all three perimeter positions and get points, pull rebounds and also play defense in our defensive strategies. Chase has a big role in our team based on those attributes. It's been a process for him to get on the physical scale where we want him to be, and where he can help us the most. He’s doing a great job of picking up those things and he’s close to being on top of his game."
The fact that Simon leads the team in scoring despite coming off the bench has been a major plus for Anwil. The fact that he's been shooting a career high from behind the arc at 41.7% and 63.2% from inside has been just as encouraging. And if - as stated by Coach Miličić - he's still yet to reach his best physically, there is still time for Simon to be considered in the race for some of our individual honors - especially if he can help Anwil get back on track and into the Play-off hunt.
Then there is the Point God, Kamil Laczynsky. If you have been reading Igor Kokoskov's column you will probably know all about the likes of Kamil Laczynsky, Ferran Bassas, and Nikos Gkikas - throwback Point Guards that care little for their own scoring and much prefer to take their delights in dishing for the swishing, for their teammates.
"it’s really important to have a Point Guard that’s been with us in the system for four years. He knows where, why and how we want to play. That's definitely part of the reason Kamil is creating so many assists. Hes a very intelligent player and he's getting the best of the system and the players we have."
Coach Miličić isn't kidding. When it comes to pass-first Point Guards, Laczynsky has been the best of the bunch so far. #9 for Anwil leads the Basketball Champions League at 10.2 APG and assists on a ridiculous 48% of Anwil's field goals when he is on the floor. Next time you watch Anwil play, you could do worse than spending at least one quarter paying attention to only what Laczynsky does with the ball. There isn't a pass he can't make.
Still, despite an incredible fan base, a well thought out roster, and some innovative tactics, the Basketball Champions League is ultimately about wins and losses. Anwil currently owns a disappointing 2-4 record after losing a couple of games on the bounce. It seems balance is the key. Anwil may well be top 3 for Assist%, but they also turn the ball over too much. They are top 10 for Offensive Rating at 112, but they are struggling to get enough stops on defense. They have managed to get two wins on the road but they are yet to win at home.
Sobin's post play has been vital to the way Anwil operate
However, all of this can change quickly. We are only six games into their first season in Europe for ten years and very much in the adaptation phase. Coach Miličić has been very vocal about Anwil's need to improve, even in the areas they have performed well. Up next is another fantastic opportunity to make those improvements - the French champions Le Mans are in town. Both teams need a win badly and both teams have an identical 2-4 record. We may be only just hitting the halfway stage of the groups, but already we have reached a game that is must-win in the race for the Play-offs. Despite being at home, Anwil still goes into the game as underdogs.... We suspect the Rottweilers wouldn't want it any other way.