Empowered - A closer Look at Unicaja
MALAGA (Spain) - "I left my job and my family and started an adventure that worked out for me. I was lucky," said Ibon Navarro, head coach of Unicaja, when describing his decision to leave his job as a chemical engineer and join Rafa Sanz's coaching staff at Tenerife Basketball Club. "I always thought that opportunities shouldn't be missed without trying them," he continued, explaining the mentality needed to leave a stable vocation and years of education behind in favor of an industry known for its high stress, long hours, and low job security. The trade-off was the opportunity to dream and to do the thing that drives him, all day, every day.
If you look closely, the parallels are there to see for his Unicaja team this season. They look solid right now, already at a trustworthy level, and looking good for their position in the top five of the ACB. However, if they trust the adventure, push that bit harder, and step out of the comfort found in their current levels, there are dreams out there to be achieved. The Copa del Rey in February is the first opportunity that they can't allow to pass with regrets. In the ACB, the top spot is only two wins away after another impressive victory over Valencia, and in the BCL they have just blown previous champions AEK out of the water on the way to a first win in the Round of 16. This is a club that won the ACB and the Copa del Rey in the early noughties and won the Eurocup as recently as 2017. It might be ungrounded to expect the biggest trophies every season at Unicaja but they have every right to dream.
Recruiting a squad during a Eurobasket summer is already difficult enough. When you have to recruit that squad with nine new players and you also need to win a qualifying tournament for the BCL before the season even really begins, the challenge is tenfold. For a club like Unicaja, failing to come through the Qualifying Rounds isn't an option. If you win you were supposed to, if you lose, you lose everything. For Ibon Navarro and this Unicaja club, that kind of pressure was a privilege and an opportunity to build on strong foundations right from the starting gun.
"I think it was a good engine for us to be that focused in pre-season, I think that helped us in October," he said.
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Starting with only three pieces of the puzzle in place isn't ideal, but when those pieces are Alberto Diaz, Dario Brizuela, and Jonathan Barreiro, you already have a mixture of culture, character, and skill that some teams never manage to find throughout the season. The first priority from that starting point was to add experience and leadership with Nihad Dedovic and Will Thomas. These are the type of players who can accelerate the learning curve and also have careers that carry authority and the ability to reinforce the message from the coaching staff to younger players.
"You need to have a mix of players; some who have already won trophies and don't need to prove themselves, and others with a bit of craziness but who are also coachable," Navarro explained.
Numbers were also a crucial part of the formula. Observing that the squad has what it takes to challenge in multiple competitions is one thing, but it's no coincidence. The roster was designed with a specific style of intensity in mind and also built to handle the demands of European competition and the toughest domestic league in the world outside the NBA.
"It’s important for us to build a team with 12 players that can play because it’s not easy to play like this for 40 minutes, especially with the number of games we are playing with the Champions League," Navarro said.
A quick scan of the box score against AEK can show us that the first part of that quote rings true. All 12 played in the game and the only players with less than 10 minutes were Dylan Osetkowski and Jonathan Barreiro, both players that are key pieces in the rotation on a normal night. The other important part of that quote is the emphasis on playing 'like this'. As you can see from the chart below, Unicaja rank third in the BCL this season for Defensive Efficiency. They also lead the league in opponent Turnover Percentage, with teams turning the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions when playing against Navarro's squad. Make no mistake, everything with this team starts with defense.
There is a real glint in the eye and extra pep to the tone when you hear Ibon Navarro talk about defense. It was basketball on his mind all day that drove him to take a chance on a coaching career and you can see that passion clearly when he's talking about the way his team plays defense.
"If you are the best team in the BCL at forcing turnovers, or scoring points in the open court on fastbreaks, this is something you have to show the team to say 'guys this is working'," said Navarro, describing the way they use positive reinforcement to build on the team's strengths.
"Defensive commitment is absolutely key", he continued, "with your personal effort and the team rules, you have a line where everybody notices and realizes their teammate's effort and supports it by giving the same kind of effort," Navarro said.
What is being described in those quotes is not just about coaching defense but more a description of how you build a defensive culture within a team. In the case of Unicaja that all starts and ends with Alberto Diaz. If you were to look through average stats you maybe wouldn't pick Diaz as the star player in this team but the way that Navarro speaks about the Spain international, it's clear he is one of the pillars this team is built around.
"When you have a guy like Alberto Diaz you can say, 'guys you are in a team with one of the best defenders in Europe, we have to follow him'," Navarro stated.
This, fittingly, leads us to the first clip of this Unicaja team. When you have a player that has an in-built radar for danger before anyone else sees it and the ability to convert that danger into an advantage on the other end, it makes perfect sense to exemplify that for the rest of your team. Watch the clip below, notice Diaz's feet and how early he reacts to the pass at the exact same moment that the two AEK players are still making eye contact to recognize that the pass might be on. If he didn't read it that early, he'd have had no chance to make the steal.
"We are a team that wants to play early defense, we want to pick up the ball early. The defensive positions that everybody has in the halfcourt, we also want to apply them in the full court," said Navarro.
It's not difficult to see this quote in the way that Unicaja play. When you have players like Kendrick Perry and Alberto Diaz prowling the court for 90 feet, you already have a great foundation to build a full-court defense. The clip below is the very next possession in sequence from the first clip above. Immediately after throwing the lob, Diaz was straight back into pressuring the ball as early as he could. Watch how the entire team was already alert positionally before the ball crossed halfcourt. The coverage on the ball screen was less aggressive, with Sima dropping a step and staying in front until Diaz could recover and you can see the rotations from there were fluid and seamless. Wherever AEK went in the offense, Unicaja had a body in front.
If we come back to Navarro's quote about the team 'following' Alberto Diaz, we can see great examples of that all over the roster but none more so than Dario Brizuela. If you asked most people in the world of FIBA basketball to describe Brizuela they would likely start with his scoring instincts and ability to hit shots in the clutch (they would have good reason for that). Brizuela is shooting 52 percent from three this season, 50 percent overall and until the AEK game, he was shooting 90 percent from the line. However, if you pay attention to his effort on the defensive end, you start to see Diaz-like contributions as well. In the first clip of the video below we see Brizuela doing the cold-blooded scorer thing on offense, then instantly flipping into defense mode and guarding the ball full-court.
If there is a glint in Navarro's eye when he's discussing defense in general, it goes into overdrive when talking about the craft of players reading the game on the defensive end.
"There are reads," he said, "and even then, with the good teams, they start to read your coverage so you need to read the reads."
So, how do you read the reads? Well, some coaches will teach players to watch the feet, the hands, or the body. Others will preach to read the eyes. For Navarro, it seems the answer is more instinctive than that
"You can’t teach them what to look for because not every player is the same (body language), you have to teach them where to look in order to see what they have to look for. You don’t have to look for anything, you just need to know where you need to look and read." Navarro explained.
This Unicaja team really does read the game extremely well and they are only going to get better at that as the season continues. We have already seen it in the first clip of Diaz but this next clip against Dinamo Sassari is a great example of what Navarro means when he talks about reading the offense's reaction to their coverages. Unicaja were using a more aggressive pick-and-roll coverage this time, with #6 Lima looking to hedge out. The read on this coverage for Sassari is to hit the short roll. Watch how Dedovic had his eyes firmly fixed on the ball handler. Instead of following his man lifting, he knew where the pass is going, left his man, and got there in time to take the charge.
"We always aim to attack and gain an advantage early, and then by sharing the ball, we find the best shot," Navarro explained about the key concepts in the Unicaja offense. He then qualified his statement:
"We aim to be a team that attacks the rim early, but that doesn't mean we have to finish within the first eight seconds."
In the clip below we see a transition from another Dedovic read and steal, into their fastbreak game. Watch how they fill the corner with #3, Melvin Ejim running the floor, and also note the speed that #1, Dylan Osetkowski sprints to be the first down the court. When you add Brizuela pushing the ball and attacking the rim early, the pressure on the defense is huge. They don't get a great look from it directly but instead of slowing the play and entering an offense, they are into a 'second fastbreak' as the ball finds its way back to Brizuela who attacks a compromised Sassari defense.
Navarro also emphasized the importance of his bigs being mobile enough to put that pressure on the defense.
"A team is as fast as its big guys run the floor," explained Navarro.
He's not kidding either. At some point, we might need to have a serious conversation about Dylan Osetkowski's shooting splits in the BCL and we have all seen how quickly he gets up and down the floor. David Kravish is no slouch at the center position and they just added Yankuba Sima to the mix.
That patience that Navarro spoke about in transition has also had secondary benefits in the half-court. When it comes to scoring in the last four seconds of the offense, they are the joint-most efficient team alongside Lenovo Tenerife (0.9 points per play). When you dive into the film this is a team that is very comfortable flowing from action to action and concept to concept. In the set below we actually see Unicaja running "Tenerife" action for #4, Tyler Kalinoski. They use a fake "Spain" pick-and-roll that flips into a screen for Kalinoski to shoot. They don't get the look they want, so it flows into a ball screen. They still don't get the look they want so flow again into a "Grenade" hand-off out of the post and finally Kalinoski nails the shot.
Lets just add the next clip to reinforce the point. We could go into Tyson Carter and Jonathan Barreiro making this offense almost unguardable but there is really no need to describe or analyze it, just enjoy this game we call basketball.
As much as we can all see how well this team is playing and envision what is potentially just around the corner, for Ibon Navarro, this is still a team that is discovering who they are, let alone concerning themselves with who they could be.
"With nine new players, there are a lot of things we have left to improve but we were clear that in the first three-four months we must empower our strengths. We have not started yet to cover or hide our weaknesses," he said.
Indeed, championship teams aren't built in months, they are built day by day and with a stubborn focus on the glory of incremental improvements instead of visions of lifting trophies under the glitter and lights.
"We live in a society where everything is about win or lose and everything is about right now but it’s not what I am personally looking for", said Navarro, "that doesn’t mean that we can’t win something this season, absolutely not but if you only think about the last goal, you are going to lose things on the way."