04 October, 2022
14 May, 2023
77 Yankuba Sima (UNI)
Diccon Lloyd-Smeath's Champions League Insider
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Irresistible: a closer look at Unicaja

MALAGA (Spain) - It almost feels unnatural to make the observation about Unicaja continuing the tradition of a club from the Qualifiers making it to the Final Four. Sure, Hereda San Pablo Burgos also started in the Qualifying Rounds and went on the win the whole thing but they had only recently joined the ACB and had nothing like the European pedigree of Unicaja. 

Yet, here we are... As Unicaja started their season early and eventually became the earliest to confirm their spot at the Final Four. In fact, Malaga head coach Ibon Navarro told us previously that they used the pressure of being a big club in Qualification to accelerate their team building and create some momentum before most teams had even started their seasons.

Now, Unicaja find themselves heading into Final Four as Copa del Rey champions, with homecourt advantage, and undoubtedly one of many people's favorites to lift that spiky trophy. 

As you can see from the chart above, this is no plucky upstart or underdog team that Navarro has put together. This is a dominant machine. They have led the BCL in terms of Net Rating for most of the season and come into the Final Four almost three points per 100 possessions better than Tenerife as the second-ranked team. 

Whilst this group was built on the culture inspired by their defensive talisman, Alberto Diaz, what has become very clear is that as the season progressed, Unicaja's identity grew into a team that is an irresistible offensive force. They score at a league-high rate of 116 points per 100 possessions, producing the most points per game at 84.7. They rank second for field goal shooting at 48 percent and third for three-point shooting at 38 percent. 

How they play

When we say Unicaja are irresistible on the offensive end, the clip below is exactly what we mean. What you are watching is the game's first play against UCAM Murcia in Game 2. Their opponents have a set defense and are clearly very familiar with the offense that Unicaja wanted to run.

Murcia certainly made life difficult by defending the first, second, and third options in the offense. Unicaja just kept rolling through the options and scored on the fourth.

  • This is Unicaja's 'Horns Away' offense, with two screeners on the elbows and shooters in either corner.
  • Thad McFadden stops Brizuela from catching the ball after the first off-ball screen.
  • Murcia then switch the second screen off the ball by Dario Brizuela.
  • Tyler Kalinoski force curls and screens his own defender to counter the switch.
  • McFadden stays in contact and prevents another catch for Brizuela.
  • Kalinoski reads his defender going under on the fourth action and flares to the corner for an open shot.

We may get quite accustomed to seeing Unicaja using 'horns' sets at the Final Four. In this next clip, we see the same alignment to start the play but a different entry with the weak side post player stepping out to receive the pass. From there they reverse the ball into a two-man game on the other side of the floor. What follows is a blur of movement off the ball and eventually, the defense makes a mistake. 

The core element of both clips is the balance in the lineups that coach Navarro can choose to employ. Whilst any of the perimeter players can handle the ball, Kendrick Perry and Alberto Diaz will usually take on the traditional point guard responsibilities whilst the likes of Brizuela, Tyson Carter, and Kalinoski are all given the freedom to be aggressive playmakers and shooters running off screening actions. NIhad Dedovic is also an underrated element in the rotation with his experience. 

Jonathan Barreiro is in the team to provide spacing and the whole thing is anchored around the versatility and mobility of Unicaja's bigs. They all motor down the floor quickly and maintain the pressure on opposing defenses from the start to the finish of each possession. In the video below we see two great examples of how their versatility is difficult to cover.

  • In clip 1, Melvin Ejim runs the floor and instead of rim running as the first big down the floor, he goes straight to the corner. His defender naturally orientates towards protecting the paint in transition, leaving a long closeout to Ejim.
  • In clip 2, David Kravish runs the floor and goes straight to the corner, this time his defender follows him and leaves the paint open. Ejim sets the drag screen and rolls to the rim and finishes to the side of a recovering defender.

In this next clip, we see Dylan Osetkowski playing the center position, with Will Thomas as the four. Unicaja are great at using their hands to disrupt passes in the pick-and-roll, as we see from Osetkowski here. What you don't often see is a five-man picking up the loose ball and looking completely comfortable dribbling it up the floor on the break then throwing the lob to a guard. 

In a Final Four setting, experience is huge, as is the ability to get an easy bucket without having to execute complicated offensive actions. Thomas gives Unicaja both of those things. Don't be at all surprised if we see Ibon Navarro start throwing the ball to Thomas in the third quarter of their Semi-Final or Final, should they make it to the title game.

We know this team has the likes of Brizuela and Carter that can create their own shot but having someone offering an easy target for a pass and a guaranteed shot within 15 feet of the rim can make all the difference, even if only for a few possessions in a game. 

The final clip we finish with is another example of what you will see from Unicaja when they are their best. We could break down what Dedovic brings by having the versatility to post up as a bigger guard.

We could also talk about the fact that the play ends with Carter passing it back out from the short corner, whilst Unicaja's two perimeter players are inverted on the three-point line, with Jonathan Barreiro and his drive and dish to Kravish... Or we could just enjoy irresistible team basketball for what it is.


The Roster

The minutes share on this Unicaja roster are a feat of distribution, as is the share of shots taken. Perry is the only player averaging over 20 minutes. After that, 11 other players in the 12-man rotation play between 14 and 19 minutes.

Brizuela is the only player averaging close to a shot every two minutes (0.48 shots per min) and his efficiency with those shots is genuinely remarkable. The 'Basque Mamba' is shooting 51.3 percent overall, 48 percent from deep, and 89.7 from the stripe. 

The minutes at the point guard position are generally shared by Perry and Diaz, with Kalinoski, Brizuela, and Carter throwing flames, essentially operating as combo guards.

Dedovic also brings a cool head and a brilliant hoops IQ to the mix on the perimeter, whilst Jonathan Barreiro is very quietly having an extremely efficient season, shooting 60.6 percent overall and 59.1 percent from three.

We mentioned the versatility and mobility of the Unicaja bigs and they are all equally rewarded for that. Kravish plays 19 minutes as the starting center that anchors the whole show. Yankuba Sima knows what a BCL Final Four is all about with Manresa last season and has already started making his presence felt above the rim in his 15 minutes per game since arriving. 

Thomas brings a calm presence in his 17.8 minutes, whilst Ejim and Osetkowski see about 15 minutes of action each. Osetkowski's 8.5 points in 15.4 minutes means he scores over 0.5 points per minute on 47-50-78 shooting splits. His ability to be a superstar in his role is a pretty good example of what has made this Unicaja squad successful already this season. 


Any of Unicaja's three perimeter scorers could end up being the X-Factor in a knockout game and Perry shouldn't be excluded from the list of players with the scoring ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck.

But if you have to pick out the one player most likely to take over a game when Unicaja really needs it, Brizuela is that man. He has a penchant for making the big shots in those pressure moments and has done it so many times throughout his career. 


Up Next

Up next is Telekom Baskets Bonn and pretty much the definition of a tricky matchup. These two sides have probably been the most consistent across the season so far and it seems fitting that their first time ever facing each other should be at this stage.

Just about everyone will be watching to see Diaz guard T.J. Shorts but no doubt Perry will also get that assignment and he's equally menacing defending the ball. Brizuela may well find himself having to deal with a mixture of Karsten Tadda and Tyson Ward, whilst the returning Jeremy Morgan will also be a challenge for Unicaja to prepare for.

Unicaja's depth goes 12 deep, which should be an advantage but can also present a challenge should Navarro opt to shorten his rotation. How do you decide who gets fewer minutes on a team like this?

However, as much as both coaches would likely refuse it, the marquee matchup could end up being the chess battle on the sidelines.  Navarro and Bonn coach Tuomas Iisalo will have some huge decisions to make before and during this game.

Big players win big basketball games but their coaches need to make sure they do everything they can to put them in the best position to do that. 

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.