In Tune - a closer look at VEF Riga
RIGA (Latvia) - When Group E drew VEF Riga against Peristeri, Rytas Vilnius, and SIG Strasbourg, very few neutral observers would have expected the Latvians to progress from Regular Season. Yet here we are at the halfway point in the group with coach Gailitis squad second in the group and holding a joint-best (2-1) record with group leaders SIG Strasbourg.
What’s more, they have achieved this playing some of the most eye-catching basketball in the league this season. Let’s take a closer look at how they have done it, with some help from head coach Janis Gailitis.
On a surface scan of the advanced stats, VEF Riga are just about league-average or better on offense and defense. For Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating, the average is 112.8 points per 100 possessions*. Riga have scored at 113 points per 100 and conceded only 110.7 per 100 possessions. The area for concern for the Latvians statistically has been looking after the ball. They turn the ball over on a league-worst 20.8 per cent of their possessions. They have, however, made up for that with the way they have shot the ball so far. With an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 59.5%, they rank eighth in the Basketball Champions League.
*Use the team filter in the viz to select VEF Riga and League Average if needed.
If we take a slightly deeper dive, we see that coach Gailitis squad are in this position because they have excelled in some key areas. They rank ninth for transition offense, scoring 1.3 points per play (per Synergy) and lead the league in points per play from put-backs (1.67) and points from cutters (1.79).
Style of Play
Coach Gailitis spoke about what makes his squad such a threat in transition.
He said, "Honestly, this is about the blend of skills and traits in players we have. Many guys know how to handle, and pass, and also how to do it at a good speed. Combine that with the understanding that passing is the fastest way and playing together is much easier and brings joy."
One of the players that best personifies those words is Isaiah Pineiro. The Puerto Rican generally starts at the Small Forward position, but at 6’7” (2.07m) he gives coach Gailitis the option of playing both forward positions with the ability to bring that blend of skills and traits that enable uptempo basketball.
In the video below you see Pineiro playing the Power Forward in smaller lineups. The first clip he made a play on the defensive end to block a shot at the end of the shot-clock, then took the ball coast to coast with the kind of aggression, tempo, and skillset that Rytas weren’t able to handle defensively. The second clip he pulled the rebound and instantly looked to push again without having to find a guard. This enabled Skele (another excellent transition player) to get out and sprint the wing for an easy two - passing is the fastest way...
Finally, we see Pineiro at the Power Forward again in this clip against Peristeri and we can see how he personifies VEF Riga's desire to play fast. At the time of the Peristeri turnover, Pineiro was the lowest defender on the baseline. By the time the pass was made, there were three Riga players ahead of the entire Peristeri team.
Pineiro is far from the only forward making the most of life in coach Gailitis' system. Both Alexander Madsen and Michale Kyser are regularly on the receiving end of well-timed passes for easy finishes. If you play one of the post positions in this offense, you must know that if you cut to the basket good things will happen for you. Whilst none of the Riga forwards are the type of stretch-bigs that we often see in BCL teams, coach Gailitis spoke about how they have learned to stretch the floor by cutting to the basket against defenders stepping off them to defend the paint.
"I think Madsen and Pineiro are players you would not like to leave open without reason. Of course, they must also learn how to play off the ball. They have to cut, screen and attack close-outs in different ways. We play with 5’s who cut to stretch the court." said Gailitis
The two clips in the video below are excellent illustrations of what he is talking about. The two plays are almost identical with Kyser in the ball screen action and the two other forwards spaced in the corners. In both plays, Pineiro and Madsen respectively read that their defenders have been sucked in to defend the short-roll and made the dive to the basket. The pass from Kyser in the second clip is out of his hands almost as soon as he touches it. This kind of instinctive pass without having to look is a clear sign of a well-coached team that knows what they are doing.
Without question, the creator in chief for the VEF Riga bigs is Kyle Allman. Michale Kyser has been box office, finishing lobs and dunking everything that comes his way but it's clear to see how much easier his life is made by Allman - eleven of Kyser’s seventeen made field goals so far, have come from an Allman assist. The former Cal State Fullerton guard is so explosive off the dribble and the relationship between the two is so intuitive. Anytime Allman creates advantage off the dribble, he knows exactly where his partner will be.
It would be amiss to discuss VEF Riga’s style of play and not talk directly about coach Gailitis and how well this team is executing his ideas from the tactics board. Riga are sixth in the BCL for scoring after a timeout and right from the very first play of the season Gailitis put the league on notice for his intentions with this squad.
The play in the clip below was as creative as it was direct. You don’t often see a double, angle pick-and-roll but the key here was the timing of the second screen from Pineiro. Just as Zorik’s defender got back in position after going under the first screen, Pineiro arrived late to screen him again. The outcome was that the defender was forced under for the second time, only this time with Zoriks in shooting range. If we didn’t know then about Zoriks shooting ability off the dribble, we do now.
Then against Peristeri Gailitis called the same play with an even more creative twist. Watch how they put Allman as the second ball screen, then Kyser sets the back screen for Allman to cut backdoor. The clearout from the weakside corner removed any kind of help in the paint and left Riga with an open layup.
The starting five have been the same in both of the games that VEF Riga have won; Kyle Allman, Kristers Zoriks, Isaiah Pineiro, Michale Kyser, and Alexander Madsen. That five-man unit consists of the only players averaging over 25 minutes per game. After that Artis Ate, Aigars Skele, and Marcis Vitols are the only other men playing more than 10 minutes per game.
This isn’t a roster that boasts the depth to match the BCL's biggest clubs but they have found a way to maximise the quality they do have. We asked coach Gailitis about his young backcourt of Allman and Zoriks.
"Kristers is a guy every coach would love, he understands what and when you want and is capable of executing. We also need to notice that this is his first year as a pro." He said
In fact, Zorik's first three games in the BCL have been the league’s quiet revelation. 15.3 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists are impressive enough averages for such an inexperienced player, but when you consider that he’s put those numbers up with shooting averages of 85.7% (2-points), 53% (3-points), 90.9% (FT), and 63.5% overall from the field, the young Latvian has started the season as one of the most efficient scorers in the BCL.
Zoriks may not be the explosive athlete that his backcourt running mate Allman is, but he makes up for it by being such a smooth operator. He never looks rushed and once the ball is in his hands everything looks under total control. The fact that he can shoot so effectively off the dribble means defenders can't afford to step off and gives him the ability to leverage that and attack closeouts.
From there he's been able to utilize an ever-expanding collection of floaters and different finishes around the rim. The play below is a great example of Zoriks cool and deadly style. With the quarter counting down, the ball found him attacking a closeout from a skip pass. The jab-cross and step back was slicker than a squid.
In the case of Kyle Allman, this is his second year as a pro in Europe and first season in the BCL. After a solid, but slightly inefficient season in Greece with Lavrio, he has really found his feet in the right situation with VEF Riga. The way his game has developed since arriving in Latvia is something his coach was explicit about.
"I think he became a much more interesting player (this year), initially being a scoring type but also becoming better at involving other players, rebounding and showing signs of leading the team emotionally," said Gailitis.
It's when Riga need a bucket at a key moment in the game or late in the shot clock that Allman has really started to show that leadership. Right from the first game against Strasbourg, he showed that he can use his rapid first step to blow by or hit the shot off the bounce if defenders step off.
Against Peristeri, the Greeks elected to switch and try to negate Allman's ability to create an advantage for Riga. The ability to punish switches is becoming an increasingly vital skill for any guard as teams incorporate switching schemes more often. Allman is already proving to be a player that has the potential to be considered as switch-proof. He will most often use his explosiveness off the dribble to blow by but as we saw in the last clip below vs Rytas, Allman also has the ability to create separation by stopping on a dime and knocking down the jumper.
As we mentioned at the top of the article, VEF Riga sits second in the group with a 2-1 record. It was, however, very nearly 3-0. All three games have been very close but none closer than Gameday 1 against SIG Strasbourg. With just 12 seconds left on the game-clock, Riga held a 2-point lead. Coach Gailitis elected to foul and send the French club to the line. The idea was to prevent a 3-point winner for Strasbourg and secure the last possession of the game. Strasbourg made the first Free Throw and missed the second, playing perfectly into VEF Riga's plan. The problem came after that, as Bonzie Colson stole in and pulled the offensive rebound, then nailed the game-winner with Kyser in his grill.
We asked Gailitis about this situation and his decision to foul. His answer spoke to a coach that is confident In his convictions but also aware of what his team can learn from these types of situations early in the season.
"It is a never-ending dispute about fouling or not, at the end of the day - if you lose you are wrong if you win you right. I would foul again, just rebound better. That is one part of the game which is always underestimated by players," he said.
It seems that his young VEF Riga squad has already learned some valuable lessons from that experience. A lesser team would have taken that loss as their plucky, near-miss and crumbled in the following game but this team is nobody's underdogs. They have subsequently been in two, tough, close games on the road at Peristeri and Rytas. They passed the test on both occasions.
First in Athens. After building an early lead against Peristeri, the Greek team fought back to lead the game at the start of the fourth quarter. Seven points in the final quarter from Kyle Allman and five points from Zoriks were enough to steer Riga to a win they would have almost certainly not collected last year.
Then again in Lithuania they started the fourth quarter down three. This time eight points in the fourth quarter from Michale Kyser paced the Latvians to another huge win against a team they have a good record against in recent history.
The final game of 2020 sees Rytas Vilnius make the short trip to Riga for a rematch and a chance at redemption. The result of this game could have huge implications on the outcome of the group. VEF Riga currently hold the head-to-head by just four points. They need to win or lose by no more four to maintain their advantage in the standings. They go into the game with all the confidence in the world.
After that loss to Strasbourg, Riga are 8-1 in all competitions. The only blemish being the recent loss at BK Ogre in the Latvian and Estonian League. Even though few would have predicted VEF Riga to be in this position at the halfway point of the Regular Season, now they are here, they don't look like a team that will concede their position easily. Expect a thriller against Rytas on the 23rd of December.