MADRID (Spain) - If you clicked an article called "Game Changers" looking for a story on vegan athletes in the Basketball Champions League, sorry this column isn't that. I mean, it could be, if there are any BCL players that have changed their lifestyle and enjoyed enhanced performances, we'd love to hear from them. But, no, this article is about three players that are changing the game - and in some cases, changing their own game - on the court.
Marcelinho Huertas - Huertin' 'Em
A smart, tactical coach in Txus Vidorreta and a smart, veteran Point Guard in Marcelinho Huertas was always likely to be a great fit, or as they say in Tenerife "Keep Calm and Trust Aniano" (Aniano Cabrera is the Sporting Director for Iberostar Tenerife). The question is, did Txus, Aniano or even Huertas himself foresee the fit would be this good?
Off the back of a strong World Cup showing with Brazil, Marcelinho Huertas has started this BCL campaign in vintage form. 11.5 points per game is on track for his best-ever season in European competition, and 7.5 assists will be an all-time career-high if he maintains it.
Gameday 5 saw Huertas have 7 assists in the 4th quarter of that incredible, comeback win against Gaziantep. In fact, he was the only player in yellow and black to have an assist during the final quarter, including the one in the clip below for the win. Yes, Txus deserves a lot of credit for drawing up the play. Huertas, however, was in total control of the court from the moment he caught the inbound.
Fast forward back to Gameday 6 and Huertas was at it again. Another timeout from Txus drawn up to put the ball in Huertas' hands with the game on the line, another special delivery. If Gameday 5 vs Gaziantep was more about what Txus drew on the tactics board, this one is all about Huertas. Watch how he declined the ball screen, then had eyes in the back of his head to find Gabriel Lundberg.
Impressive? Sure, but maybe not game-changing, Huertas has been doing this for years. To fully understand the scope of how Huertas is changing the game for Tenerife, we need to dive into the way he is impacting their statistical profile - to be more specific the way they share the ball since the Brazillian arrived.
Marcelinho Huertas putting another one on a plate for a teammate
We are used to seeing Tenerife share the ball as a team and a pass-first Point Guard is also nothing new in the Canary Islands, but they have always done it by committee. What we are seeing for the first time this season, is one player being responsible for the lion's share of the playmaking. Before this year, Ferran Bassas' 22.7% of the team's assists last year, was the largest assist share in four BCL seasons for Tenerife. Bassas had 87 total assists in 20 BCL games. In (stark) contrast, Huertas is responsible for 42.7% of Tenerife's assists so far this season and has 45 assists already in only 6 games. That is nearly double the total assist share. To add some further context to this, Ferran Bassas also led the team last season with an Assist Percentage of 33%, meaning that when he was on the floor, Bassas provided 33% of his team's assists. After that, there were three players with Assist Percentages over 20%. This season Huertas is dishing 57% of Tenerife's assists when he's on the floor and nobody else has an Assist Percentage over 17.4%.
Maybe the best example I could find to show you how Txus and Marcelinho are made for each other is the transition, quick-hitter Tenerife use to maximize Huertas' passing and Shermadini's ability to command space at the rim. This is such a simple action but absolutely requires elite passing accuracy and high-level decision making.
Tony Wroten - Livin' at The Rim
If Huertas has changed the way Tenerife delegate playmaking responsibilities, then Tony Wroten has been part of a complete culture change on the offensive end for Anwil Wloclawek.
Last year Igor Milicic told us in an interview that Anwil aimed to buck the current trend in European basketball and play 30-40% out of the post. In reality, it's difficult to measure if they achieved that target as offense out of the post often result in extra passes against rotating defenders, or dribble drives against closeouts. However, looking at offense that came from a score in the post or directly from a pass out of the post, Anwil led the BCL last season with 16.4% of their offense coming from the post or a pass from the post (per Synergy). They also generated a league lowest 29.9% of their offense from a pick-and-roll or a pass from a pick-and-roll. The play below was classic Anwil last season; a Point Guard posting up and kicking to the most open player from a screen party happening off the ball.
This season we are seeing a very different look to Coach Milicic's Anwil team. A different look powered by the incoming talents of Ricky Ledo and Tony Wroten, especially Tony Wroten (so far). From leading the league in offense generated by the post, Anwil now generates just 5.5% of their offense directly from the post or a pass from the post. Only three teams in the league employ the post less. The - perhaps unexpected - outcome of this is that they are scoring at the rim more.
Gameday 6 saw Anwil score 50 of their 87 points in the restricted area alone, as they picked up their first road win in the BCL against Teksut Bandirma. This wasn't the first time Anwil had lived at the rim this season. That was, in fact, the third time this season 45% or more of their points had been scored at the rim. Anwil are currently 3 and 3 in the win/loss column. I will leave you to fill in the blanks here.
Tony Wroten doing Tony Wroten things at the rim
The chief instigator of those shots at the rim is Tony Wroten. The American scored 11 FG's at the rim vs Teksut Bandirma. Ordinarily, you might expect a post player to lead the team in scoring at the rim, but Wroten is the clear President of Anwil's new life at the rim. Wroten has already scored 50 points in the restricted area in only 6 games this season. Consider this is not scoring in the paint that could be a floater or a pull-up jumper, this is points scored directly at the rim.
The weapons of choice have invariably been the pick-and-roll and getting out in transition. Wroten with the ball in his hands in the open court or 2v2 in the pick-and-roll is a conundrum that is yet to be answered in the BCL. He is a lethal combination of length, strength, and agility. If he turns the corner he can go either side of the screener's defender and is almost impossible block.
Howard Sant-Roos - MVP'ing
The entire AEK team is changing the game in different ways. In my first column of the year, I wrote about how AEK are creating more assists in their frontcourt than their backcourt, and that their biggest post threat is actually Keith Langford at Shooting Guard. The roster may have changed since then but the juxtaposed style remains. If you take the literal meaning for Most Valuable Player then look at the way AEK plays, it's very hard to argue against Sant-Roos as AEK's MVP this season, and as a consequence one of the frontrunners for BCL MVP.
Howard Sant-Roos is not only a great scorer, with 13.7 points, 54.5 percent from the field & 46.4 percent from three, he's also the main defensive weapon for @aekbcgr. Here's your n°7⃣ in the #BasketballCL MVP race! pic.twitter.com/dV0l7x6pqX— Basketball Champions League (@BasketballCL) November 27, 2019
We are accustomed to seeing Sant-Roos as the three-and-D stopper that defends the opposition's best player and knocks down open threes. And, in that regard alone, Sant-Roos is having a career season. 46% from deep on 4.7 attempts is a career-best in European competition. Where he has changed his game, and as a result helped AEK change their game, is his development into a consistent playmaker. Sant-Roos is averaging 4.8 assists per game in the BCL so far (Also a career-best). He leads AEK in assists and produces 29% of The Queen's assists. Zoltan Perl is the only forward dishing out more assists in the league this year.
Watch the video above and you will see that Sant-Roos is a massively underrated passer, especially in transition. He is also excellent at reading defensive coverages in the pick-and-roll. So far he has been unerring in the decision to read the help and hit shooters or recognize when the help isn't there and find the roller. His improved shooting is also helping him rack up assists from extra passes. The more defenders feel the need to scramble over to stop him shooting, the more he is finding the likes of Keith Langford and Linos Chrysikopoulos for wide-open jumpers.
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