Credit: AS Monaco, D.Repečka, TASS - Scanpix | BasketNews illustration/A.Zaikauskas
Credit AS Monaco, D.Repečka, TASS - Scanpix | BasketNews illustration/A.Zaikauskas

The long-awaited week has arrived. The 2021-22 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season will finally start. The title will be defended by reigning champions Anadolu Efes Istanbul.

Last year, we talked about the historically competitive EuroLeague, when 19 victories were not enough to make it to the playoffs. This year, fewer victories could be enough to be in the quarterfinals, as the top four have emerged and there is no longer a clear outsider.

However, the competition in the middle of the tournament table is even more intriguing.

Before the start of the most anticipated European basketball tournament, the BasketNews’ Jonas Leksas presents possible scenarios that seem bold, but at the same time, quite real.

These are not prognoses for the new season. They are unexpected but potential scenarios that are little talked about before the season start.

EuroLeague champions - CSKA Moscow

Credit BasketNews/D.Repečka

Before the EuroLeague season, the bookmakers ranked the Russian club in third place, leaving CSKA behind Istanbul Anadolu Efes and FC Barcelona. However, Dimitris Itoudis has many tools to return CSKA to the EuroLeague throne after a two-season break.

CSKA did not make any significant changes during the off-season and were reinforced by only two newcomers - Marius Grigonis and Alexey Shved. There is still the possibility that the Russian champions will be supplemented by a player on the perimeter line, who would take some responsibilities off the Shved’s shoulders.

Remembering last year, in the first EuroLeague round of the regular season, before Mike James conflicted with Itoudis and Nikola Milutinov’s injury, CSKA had no equal and dominated the league.

Although the Russian club lost two of their leaders during the season, they still went to the EuroLeague final four, where they were one shot away from reaching the final.

The main CSKA strengthening is Milutinov’s return on the court. The healthy Serbian big man is probably the best center in the EuroLeague, and we have already seen a wonderful tandem between him and Shved in friendly matches.

It is also important to note that last season was a comeback for Will Clyburn after a knee injury and a debut for Tornike Shengelia at the club. Both of these forwards are likely to have significantly more consistent seasons.

There are many questions about Shved. The talented Russian little descends to James, who left CSKA with fireworks. Nevertheless, the biggest question is about Shved’s motivation.

However, the guard does not lack ambitions to return to his youth team successfully, and Itoudis is the coach who knows how to work with stars of this level. For sure, Shved will be a less dominant scorer in CSKA Moscow but more focused on the team’s results, which will let CSKA seek the highest goals.

Grigonis, who has joined the Russian team in the off-season, is also a more solid option than Janis Strelnieks and Darrun Hilliard. Iffe Lundberg is coming for the first real season in the EuroLeague. He should have already learned a lot of defensive lessons.

MVP – Nikola Milutinov

Credit BasketNews/D.Repečka

When it comes to favorites to win the EuroLeague MVP award, Vasilije Micic, Nikola Mirotic, or Mike James are mentioned first, while Milutinov is much further on this list. Probably, many people have forgotten what a monster Milutinov can be when he is completely healthy.

The Serbian big man, who recovered from shoulder surgery, was a real double-double machine in the pre-season stage.

It is very realistic that the center will maintain similar numbers in the EuroLeague. In the past 15 matches of last season, the 26-year-old averaged 11.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 20.9 efficiency points.

This year, the 2.13-meter player has a new Pick and Roll partner in Shved, and since the first pre-season game, we have seen a strong connection between these two.

Last year, Milutinov scored most of his points from second-chance points. We can expect a number of his effective Pick and Rolls from the upcoming campaign with the master of this game element, Shved.

All top candidates to win the MVP award (Micic, Mirotic, James) have question marks to their names: will there be enough motivation for MVP Micic at the beginning of the season? Will Mirotic, who dominated the regular season last year, not burn in the playoffs again? James will have solid numbers, but will that help Monaco get to the quarterfinals?

For Milutinov, the most important thing will be to stay healthy all season. If injuries are avoided, CSKA will seriously chase the title, and the Serbian big man will be the most efficient player on the team.

Interestingly, from the 2004-05 EuroLeague season, only Jan Vesely managed to win the MVP award, being a center. However, the Czech is not as traditional five as Milutinov.

17 victories will be enough to get to the playoffs

Credit ž

Last year Zalgiris Kaunas won 50 percent of the EuroLeague matches but finished only eleventh. Valencia Basket, which got 19 victories in the regular season, were still behind the playoffs. What is changing this year?

First of all, it’s hard to believe that this year will be a club like Khimki Moscow Region. Last year they won only 4 games in 34 duels, which significantly distorted the standings. If we have to guess, the last league’s team will get at least 7-8 victories this season.

Moreover, last year there was not a big separation from the first 3-4 teams. First place finishers Barca got four victories more than Zenit St. Petersburg, which finished 8th.

This year we can expect a more similar picture to the unfinished season of 2019-20. Then, after 28 rounds, the team in third place had a 10-win lead over the eighth place.

In the 2019-20 EuroLeague season, 17 victories would have been enough to get to the playoffs because the fights were even in the middle of the tournament table (then Khimki and Fenerbahce shared 7-8 places with 13 victories after 28 rounds).

Before the start of this season, it seems that there are three very clear shelves - leaders, middlings, and outsiders. Therefore, 18 wins will be the focus of clubs, aiming for the quarterfinals. It will also not surprise if a team with 17 wins moves to the playoffs.

Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy winner – Mario Hezonja

As it was for the last few seasons, the battle for the Alphonso Ford award should be as close as it could get. Mike James could be named as an early favorite, but there are also such prolific scorers like Shane Larkin, Vasilije Micic, Nikola Mirotic, and many others.

However, Mario Hezonja shouldn’t be written off as well. UNICS Kazan will be completely his team, and there’s no doubt that Croatian international be the no. 1 option on the offensive end. Especially, when the team is guided by his countryman, Velimir Perasovic.

Last season, Hezonja played in only 8 EuroLeague games but was averaging 14.4 points per game. He also didn’t finish the game with a double-digit points tally on only one occasion.

Moreover, Hezonja has a lot to prove before the upcoming season. Speaking exclusively to BasketNews, Croatian revealed that the departure from Panathinaikos OPAP Athens was bittersweet and added that he would do everything to carry UNICS into EuroLeague playoffs, including the effort on and off the court.

“I have to give a great comment to Kazan. To the president Eugeny Bogachev, his son Bogdan, daughter Olga, Claudio Coldebella, Velimir Perasovic. Everyone, man,” Hezonja told. “It’s unbelievable… With Russians, you always know where you’re at. There is no BS. It is what it is. You name what you name: this is what we got, this is the role, this is the coach. I respect Kazan to the fullest.

We got along pretty quickly. We kept it quiet, and I have to say congratulations to them. They really did an amazing job. The way they handled the stuff with me, knowing there’s like an atomic bomb in Greece happening with my signing and everything. It’s impressive how they handled all the situation. I’m so happy with them. They were professional from day one. They still are. It’s a greatly run organization.”

The best comeback to the EuroLeague - Donatas Motiejunas

Credit AS Monaco Twitter

There are a few players who will make their comeback to the EuroLeague, including Nigel Williams-Goss, Nicolo Melli, Matthias Lessort, James Nunnally, and others.

There are quite a lot of choices. Motiejunas returns to the strongest European league after 10 years. Monaco made great efforts to invite a Lithuanian, therefore the expectations for him are high.

During Motiejunas’ years in China, many basketball fans forgot his offensive talent - an equally good low post game in both directions, good scanning of the court, reading situations, and a solid size to grab the boards.

Lithuanian big man will definitely offer a lot on the offensive end of the floor, and in some places, his talent will stand out in the centers’ context.

The biggest question is Motiejunas’ defense and how many minutes he will spend on the court due to his weaknesses. But even playing a limited amount, such as 18 minutes per game, a 31-year-old center can manage to record a consistent return of 12-16 efficiency points.

Of course, there are more question marks in Motiejunas’ upcoming performance. AS Monaco’s front line is crowded with centers, the new attack alpha, Mike James, has recently joined the squad, and an absolutely newly assembled team.

However, D-Mo returns to the EuroLeague to prove his worth again, he will not lack motivation, and coach Zvezdan Mitrovic has prepared the particular combinations for the Lithuanian player.

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