19 September, 2017
06 May, 2018
21 Nikola Markovic (POL)
Diccon Lloyd-Smeath's Champions League Insider
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Stelmet Enea Zielona Gora – Strength in Numbers

LONDON (Diccon Lloyd-Smeath's Champions League Insider) - The influence of Stelmet Enea Zielona Gora (ZG), can be felt across the full breadth of the Basketball Champions League. The likes of Dee Bost, Mateusz Ponitka, Nemanja Djurisic and Coach Saso Filipovski, are all key figures at their respective clubs and all have the Polish club to thank for earlier stops on the track.

Despite the pipeline of talent flowing out into other Basketball Champions League clubs and the domestic dominance in the Polish Liga Koszykówki, ZG are yet to stamp their authority in European competition. After getting knocked out of the Basketball Champions League in the regular season last year and making an equally inconsistent start this time around, ZG are having the kind of start to 2018 that could change that record and the wind is starting to look like it’s changed direction.

All Smiles in Western Poland

Before the Christmas break, Zielona Gora were the classic case of a team that had promise but couldn’t find a way to line up the cogs. With 9 games gone, ZG were 2-7 and way off the pace in an ultra-competitive group D.

In 2016 Artur Gronek – at 32 – became the youngest Head Coach in the History of the Polish top-flight. Whilst clearly a talented young coach with some forward-thinking ideas, ZG decided at the end of 2017 that enough was enough and that Coach Gronek would be better chalking this one down to experience. They subsequently went in search of some experience of their own. They found it in spades by recruiting 60 years old, x5 Polish League Champion Coach, Andrej Urlep. In terms of coaching direction, a full 180 degree U-turn. A few roster and line-up tweaks later and it seems the team has made a similar U-turn, for the good. After winning four straight in 2018 – including wins against Besiktas, Nanterre and Play-Offs rivals Oostende and Avellino -  ZG now sit fourth in Group D, by virtue of owning the head-to-head with Sidigas Avellino. Almost unbelievably, the Polish champions, now look favorites to take the last spot in the Play-Offs.

So what’s changed?

If you hover your mouse over any of the bars in the chart above, you will see a progression of the stats listed, through the rounds of the Basketball Champions League. In each case, you will see a considerable uptick on Game Day 10. This is no coincidence. Game Day 10 was Coach Urlep’s first game in charge and saw ZG put up their best display of the season, as they took down tournament favorites Besiktas.

Four games may be a small sample size but the numbers since the coaching change make for promising reading. From Game Day 1 to 9 (Prior to Coach Urlep taking over), ZG’s Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, Effective FG% and Bench Points, read 104, 110, 54% and 36 PPG respectively. Since Urlep took the controls, those numbers read 126, 110, 58% and 45 PPG. Major improvements in each case and a pattern that displays across the board. Fast Break Points, Points in the Paint and 3-point% are all up. When investigating the reasons behind this turn-around, perhaps the most telling of all those stats is Bench Points. ZG have had excellent production from the bench all season but since the club moved to veteran leadership, they now sit first in the Basketball Champions League with 38 PPG from the Bench. This jump in bench production is no fluke.

Roster / Rotation Changes

A quick look through the box scores before and after Game Day 10 and maybe the first thing to notice, is that Thomas Kelati is now coming off the bench and has been replaced in the starting line-up by Przemyslaw Zamojski. This rotation tweak, was far from a demotion. In the starting unit, Vladimir Dragicevic is king. The team is run through the big Montenegrin and he rewards that faith two-fold. Kelati has now been given a license to be far more aggressive coming off the bench and the results look outstanding so far. In the same minutes, the veteran Kelati is mirroring the same uptick statistically since Game Day 10, that we saw in the team’s performance. Before the move to the bench he shot 38% from 3 and was averaging 1.8 APG. Those numbers are now 47% from 3 and 3 APG. Impressive and an excellent reflection on Coach Urlep’s decision to change his role.

Thomas Kelati embracing a new role

The other major change in playing staff came from the replacement of Armani Moore with Slovenian, EuroBasket Champion, Edo Muric. Muric was also a part of Banvit’s charge to the Basketball Champions League Final 4 last year and has hit the ground running on his return to the competition. Also coming off the bench – at 2.07 metres (6’8”) – Muric can help in multiple positions defensively and his ability to guard the post and use his length to jump passing lanes on the perimeter, is already paying dividends. On the offensive end, he’s been shooting over smaller wings and blowing by slower bigs. As a fellow Slovenian, Coach Urlep almost certainly had an idea of what he was getting and how best to employ Muric but whilst 3 games is too early to be sure, 55% from 3 (on 3 attempts) and 7.6 PPG in 21 minutes from the bench, already has Muric looking like one of the transfers of the season.

Before and After

To wax lyrical about the changes that Coach Urlep has made is both fair but also possibly doing Coach Gronek a disservice at the same time. Looking back through the video, ZG were playing some excellent basketball on the offensive end before Christmas. Offensive design like this "Horns Down" set, with flow actions on the perimeter, leveraging the shooting and playmaking of Koszarek and Gecevicius and the ability of Dragicevic to hit the elbow jump-shot on the short-roll, was intelligent and well-conceived.

The problem was not the scheme but potentially more in the discipline of consistency. Too often, well-designed actions were poorly executed and resulted in poor shot selection.

As is usually the case when a new coach comes in, they need to scout their own team and look at the things that had been working and the things that could be improved. Coach Urlep hasn’t made wholesale changes to the system. Instead it appears he has opted to leverage the same offensive threat carried by the playing staff but with a focus on the execution of simple things.  We are still seeing the same short-roll stituations for Dragicevic being employed but out of more traditional sets and actions.

If anything, the major change has been the chemistry and fluency of interaction between squad members. Partnerships are starting to form. A prime example of this being the PNR partnership between Gecevicius and Hrycaniuk in the second unit.

Not Done Yet

This is far from saying that the job is done. Stelmet Enea Zielona Gora have certainly turned the corner and their strength in numbers have made them a formidable opponent, as the likes of Besiktas and Nanterre will surely testify. The road to the Play-Offs looks to have been set for them, all they need to do now, is cross that final bridge. The problem is that the final bridge takes the shape of a trip to Prague, to face CEZ Nymburk, one of the form teams in this years’ Basketball Champions League. Their fate is in their own hands but should they slip, they will then be relying on Sidigas Avellino to make the same mistake, on the road at Telekom Baskets Bonn.

One thing we can say with certainty is that with experience and winning pedigree brought in by Coach Urlep, the depth of scoring coming off their bench and one of the most intense, home atmospheres in the competition, Zielona Gora will not be an opponent anybody will be looking forward to facing, should they get the job done and continue their win streak into the Play-Offs.


Diccon Lloyd-Smeath
Basketball Champions League

The Basketball Champions League's columnists write on a wide range of topics relating to basketball that are of interest to them. The opinions they express are their own and in no way reflect those of FIBA or the Basketball Champions League.

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Diccon Lloyd-Smeath

Diccon Lloyd-Smeath

Diccon is a basketball coach and analyst living in Madrid. Constantly digging in the crates of box scores and clicking through hours of game footage. Diccon is on the hunt for the stories within the stories. If you like to get a closer look at what’s going in the Basketball Champions League, you have found it.