Get Ur Freak On - a closer look at Brose Bamberg
MIES, Switzerland - When it pertains to European basketball, the words super and club can get thrown around haphazardly at times. In truth, there are few, genuinely super clubs. When it comes to German basketball, if you are talking about super clubs, there is one club that must be in the conversation - Brose Bamberg. There are other big clubs in Germany, that have enjoyed some very successful seasons, but since 2005 Freak City has made success a habit. Nine BBL Championships and four German cups in 13 years - including seven of the last ten BBL titles - is undeniable dominance.
Much of Brose Bamberg’s success has come under the stewardship of a series of stable Head Coaches - beginning with Dirk Bauerman, followed by Chris Fleming and finally Andrea Trinchieri. But when the departure of Italian Luca Banchi at the end of last season, brought about the club’s third coaching change in a season and signified a trophyless season, it was clear that changes were afoot. We spoke to Bamberg’s new Head Coach Ainars Bagatskis about rebuilding the roster, reinstating a winning mentality and entering the Basketball Champions League.
Have you had the chance to watch the Basketball Champions League?
"Of course. Last season was my first break in 10 years so I had free time to watch basketball."
Coach Bagatskis was the Head Coach of the excellent Latvian National team during the 2017 Eurobasket, guiding them to their highest place finish (5th) since 1939.
"I watched the Final Four and all the Play-Off games. In the group stages as well when Ventspils played. They are the Latvian champions and I’m always following Latvian teams and players. For me, I have always been in the VTB and the Euroleague, it was very interesting to see the level (in the Basketball Champions League)."
Ainars Bagatskis calling the plays for Latvia at Eurobasket
What was your impression of the level of competition?
"You know, I liked what I saw. I watched on TV and also live for the Ventspils games, I was there. It’s a good competition with good clubs and good names. Of course, Euroleague is the strongest competition in Europe but the Basketball Champions League is a very good competition with a very high level and some very very good clubs, I really liked it last season."
Bamberg has such a strong, track record for winning. After last season, do you see the Basketball Champions League as an opportunity to get back to winning ways?
"You know, that’s an interesting question. Actually last season Bamberg had their most wins in Europe but weren’t as successful in the German league. This is not a step back but for the moment we have to rebuild the team," said Bagatskis.
"For me in any level, a team is supposed to be balanced between the experienced and the young, hungry, motivated guys. Of course, everyone is supposed to be hungry, everyone is supposed to be motivated but game-wise it’s important to have this balance. Right now in practice, we have 5 players from the Bamberg system. Kulboka was drafted and Olinde was almost drafted. Of course, we have problems - like anywhere else - with injuries but for the moment we have good balance."
Coach Bagatskis then expanded on the topic of winning and what it means to Bamberg.
“Bamberg always has the goal in all games and all tournaments to play hard and play aggressively. We have to build a winning mentality. There is a question: Do you play to win or do you play not to lose? "
"We are working to win. I just want that this group, every time they go on the court, they play to win. On a day to day basis you have to build the winning habits. Those habits start in practices. Players need to understand that what they do in a practice benefits themselves - they become better, they become stronger, then they have to feel each other and feel each other like a team and then they can count on each other," said Bagatskis. He then went on to elaborate on the importance of building those habits as a team.
"In modern basketball, you cannot win a game by yourself. There are situations where a player can take a game-winning shot but even then the whole team works for that shot. So that winning mentality has to start from the teamwork. We have to count on each other in the tough moments. We have started to build that mentality in pre-season. When they are tired and out of their comfort zone, we are looking for situations to shake them and they start to count on each other."
Brose Bamberg in full preparation for the new season
He then moved on to explain further what he wants to see from his players.
"We have some guys that Bamberg presents a good chance for them to show what they can do in the market - our young guys and experienced (guys). But my experience shows we have to be healthy. For a team to play well, they must be healthy, physically and mentally healthy. If you have players who are hungry, who want to compete, who want to fight, they don’t (over) respect anybody on the court, that’s the most important thing."
Coach Bagatskis also stressed the importance of maintaining winning habits.
"For me, that’s the German league and that’s exactly the Champions League - if for one moment you are too relaxed, anyone can beat anyone in modern basketball. All the teams are good, all the teams are aggressive, all the teams know how to play and all the teams know how to win. Also, we play for our fans. As you know in Bamberg we have crazy fans - crazy good! I’ve always enjoyed them in all my previous years when I played here with club teams."
Brose Bamberg building winning habits
You spoke about rebuilding the squad. What has been your impression of the guys that have stayed on from last season and how important are they in that process?
"I cannot tell you exactly because some of those guys are still injured and not in practices. But for sure, those experienced players will be important to the team if they want to compete."
When you look through the list of returning players on Bamberg’s roster - including those returning from injury - you start to get a much clearer picture of the balance between youth and experience that Coach Bagatskis referenced.
Captain Elias Harris saw a short stint with the Lakers and has now seen three German championships with the club. Patrick Heckman brings roster flexibility, basketball IQ and more experience of winning at Bamberg. Veteran Point Guard Nikos Zisis needs no introduction but is one of Europe’s most decorated players, with domestic championships everywhere he has played and a EuroBasket gold medal with Greece in 2005. And Bryce Taylor returning from injury could be a huge plus for Bamberg. His combination of experience, athleticism, defensive intensity, and elite 3-point shooting was sorely missed last season. The rigors of a European and domestic campaign can take its’ toll on a squad but Bamberg’s depth bodes well. The experience level in a backcourt quartet of Zisis, Taylor, incoming Tyrese Rice and Ricky Hickman is unlikely to be matched in the Basketball Champions League.
Nikos Zisis getting to the rack
As with last season, Ricky Hickman will be the spark plug that gets the Bamberg engine humming. Throughout his career, Hickman has built a reputation on the back of his offensive skill-set, but when you look back at Bamberg’s best performances last season, it’s was his ability to contribute defensively that often made a bigger difference. In modern basketball, we are seeing an increasing emphasis on the ability to switch. At 1.89m (6’2”) and 190lbs, Hickman used his length and ability to guard on the perimeter but also the lower body strength to disrupt bigger players when he switched on to wings and even bigs. Watch the two clips below and in the first clip, you see Hickman (#2) execute the scout by top blocking, then fronting 1.98m (6’6”) Edgaras Ulanovas. Then in the second clip, he switches onto 2m (6’9”) Power Forward Aaron White. Hickman gives no ground and draws an offensive foul. If Hickman is able to consistently produce this kind of contribution on the defensive end, the rebuild could be accelerating down the Autobahn in no time.
In the frontcourt, Bamberg has gone through a major reshuffle with Stevan Jelovac and Cliff Alexander coming in for Dejan Musli, Leon Radosevic and Luka Mitrovic. Returning Augustine Rubit will be tasked with providing the glue to bind it all together. The American contributes in so many ways but his biggest attribute is his engine. Rubit genuinely plays 92 feet. He’s able to shoot it a little and finish aggressively around the rim but his defensive ability and hustle on the boards are what makes him such an enjoyable player to watch. The last clip in the video below is exactly what Coach Bagatskis means when he speaks about an entire team working to create a game-winning shot. It may be Hackett that hits the shot, but it doesn’t happen without Rubit (#21) chasing after a lost cause and pulling the offensive rebound.
Tyrese Rice coming in has certainly caught everyone’s attention. Can you talk about all of your new recruits?
"They are practicing with the team and they have been good. Cliff Alexander also, he’s like a rookie in Europe. Tyrese Rice won the Euroleague, he was a key player for Khimki and Barcelona and for some reason he was on the market. For sure nobody really knows how Tyrese Rice can play. I know Tyrese and he’s healthy and in good shape. He can still do crazy, big things. That’s the reason he’s here. There is a connection there, the club helps the player and the player helps the club."
There may have been some question marks over Tyrese Rice coming back to Europe after a season tearing it up in China. If he’s in the kind of shape that Coach Bagatskis is talking about, those questions will disappear quickly. Very few players have the ability to change speed and make plays like Tyrese Rice. Keep your eyes on him against Fuenlabrada in October - if we see him standing up on his dribble, then dropping back down to change gear and explode…... rest assured we are in for a fun season.
Coach Bagatskis also had high praise for his new frontcourt pairing.
"About Stevan Jelovac, clearly he is one of the best scorers in the VTB league and he deserves this chance to make the next step with Bamberg. Cliff Alexander is exactly the same - young, motivated, very very talented player, and I think he’s growing up as a person. He can do very big things in Europe."
Stevan Jelovac was a constant threat for Nizhny Novgorod
Bamberg has always placed a priority on young players. You already mentioned the balance in your squad, what is your opinion on developing young guys and what kind of role are you're expecting for the young players in your squad?
"Young guys can really help because they are not predictable. There are what I call top quality players but they are predictable - everybody knows what they do and they do it, nobody can stop them. With young guys, one minute they are doing crazy big things and the next minute they can destroy everything. So the end goal is to use the young guys as much as possible."
To illustrate Coach Bagatskis'point, watch the next two videos of Louis Olinde. In this first video, Olinde (#16) is playing with active hands on defense and gets caught with a bit of youthful over-exuberance and his man blows by him to draw a foul. The consequence for Olinde is a ride on the pine and a lecture from interim Head Coach Ilias Kantzouris. This also happened with Andrea Trinchieri earlier in the season.
Sometimes with young players, you have to let them learn through those mistakes and in return they can give you crazy, big, unpredictable things like this next video.
That’s certainly the case with the hyper-talented Louis Olinde. The German U20 star will be looking to make similar strides to his new partner on the wings Arnoldas Kulboka (Kulboka enjoyed an increased role in Capo d’Orlando last season). Fortunately for Olinde, it certainly seems Coach Bagatskis is willing to trust his young guns with playing time.
"For sure we are expecting these guys to have large roles. I like the way David Blatt says it "Show me your talent, I’ll show you your role". I just want to say with these guys, we will count on them a lot. There are some opinions on how to use them for the team but we want to count on them in the rotation. Kulboka is a good talent, brilliant shooter, good runner and Olinde the same. They will be base players on the team. They are not youngsters anymore. Ok maybe in age but they can play the way that Bamberg needs."
For Arnoldas Kulboka, he may be young but he is certainly not a youngster anymore. After winning the Basketball Champions League "Best Young Player" award last season (whilst on loan from Bamberg to Capo d’Orlando), he followed that up with getting selected by the Charlotte Hornets in the second round of the NBA Draft. Make no mistake, Kulboka is coming into this team to play and will be tasked with replacing the skill set of outgoing Dorell Wright - in particular, his ability to slide around the horn for catch and shoot threes. We already know that Kulboka has that skill in abundance and by the looks of things, he’s already getting started.
Kulboka isn’t the only Bamberg product that has benefitted from time on loan. William McDowell-White and Leon Kratzer have both enjoyed successful spells away and returned. With positive veteran influence and a policy of loaning and developing young players, this season we could really see Bamberg’s policy of prioritizing youth, pay dividends.
The learning curve is not exclusive to the up and coming prospects at Bamberg. Coach Bagatskis was keen to make the point that he's still learning as well.
"I still count myself as a young coach and I’m always learning. This past year has been great for me. I have been to watch games to see how coaches are playing and influencing their teams. I’ve been to Europe and to watch to the NBA. For me, you have to keep learning. The only coach that isn’t learning is a dead coach."
With all these young stars, retained veterans and exciting roster moves, what kind of playing philosophy can we expect to see on the floor this season?
"I don’t like to use the word philosophy, I call it my opinion. For playing style that’s very easy, the one thing I know for sure, we have to play fast, aggressive and most important smart. We are working to do the right things at the right time. Of course, for me as the coach, it’s very easy to say and not so easy to do. I don’t want to just say the loud words "Defense Defense". For me, defense is about consistency and doing things the way we do them. Then, offense is the player's talent and I have to find and we as a coaching staff, have to find a way to use the player's talent."
When it comes to playing fast, there is no doubt Bamberg’s new frontcourt pairing can help to achieve this aim. In the first clip in the next video, you see Dejan Musli (#42) last season. After a pick-and-roll with Hickman, he catches the ball on the short roll with 14 seconds left on the shot clock and half a lane to attack. Instead, he kicks the ball back out Zisis and sets another screen. Zisis makes a play and finds Heckmann in the corner for 3 points 10 seconds later in the shot clock. It’s a good play but in the following two clips, you see what happens if you give Cliff Alexander that same catch with half a lane to attack…. Those extra 10 seconds add up to extra possessions. Alexander by-the-way is another player with much to gain from a big season. If he wants an example to follow, he could do worse than observing the impact that playing for Bamberg had on PJ Tucker’s career.
Then just to hit the point home, look what happens when you put Stevan Jelovac in the same early offense pick-and-roll. Bamberg had nobody that did this last season.
Then we come to "aggressive and most important smart". These are not hollow words from Coach Bagatskis - everywhere he has coached his teams have been known for smart basketball. None more so that the Latvia team that took EuroBasket 2017 by storm. Watch in the next three videos, how Latvia perfectly execute the same play against Turkey in EuroBasket, with three different reads each time. Video one and Blums (#7) sets a cross screen for Timma (#10), then cuts up the lane off a double screen on the free throw line. On the catch, Blums gets a ball-screen from Meiers (#33). Then also watch Meiers read that his man has dropped to help on the drive and screens him again to keep the lane open. Now think about Tyrese Rice in the Blums role attacking to his left hand....
This time, Latvia run the same play but throw it in the post to Timma. (#6) Kristaps Porzingis’ man doubles the post leaving the lane open and Davis Bertans (#8) sees the back of his defenders head and cuts for an easy dunk. Again, imagine Arnoldas Kulboka where you see Davis Bertans.
Then in this final clip, Timma reads his man cheating under the original cross screen and instead sprints up off the double screen for the shot. Janis Timma is an extraordinary player, particularly in the context of international basketball. But in Stevan Jelovac, Coach Bagatskis has another ready-made, Power Forward with the skill set to choose between the cross screen for the post up, or the double screen for the shot.
Of course, Coach Bagatskis and his coaching team are unlikely to use those exact sets from the Latvia EuroBasket team. However, no matter which actions they decide on to maximize their offensive talent, we can clearly believe him when he tells us his Bamberg team will play smart.
With his final comment, Coach Bagatskis made it clear that his ultimate focus, was to make this Bamberg experience as enjoyable as possible.
"When I was with Maccabi, we won a road game in Fenerbahce and my sporting director said to me "that’s the first time in 2 months I’ve seen you smile". I don’t want that to be the case this time. It’s important to enjoy yourself as coaches and players on the court."
He is right of course. With all the talk of tactics, rosters, budgets, performance and winning, it can be easy to lose sight of the real reason anybody gets involved in basketball in the first place - it’s supposed to be fun. This Bamberg roster may be in a rebuilding phase but with all the talent in this team, when they do finally click, this could be one of the most fun teams we have seen in the Basketball Champions League to date.