Credit: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images
Credit Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

On Tuesday, AX Armani Exchange Milan faced its first loss of the season in Turkish Airlines EuroLeague against Bayern Munich, the team that Milan knocked off in the playoffs last season after a difficult battle.

Even Tuesday’s night game was a really contested one, Milan fought well until the very end, but they couldn’t slow down Corey Walden and Vladimir Lucic - the two main offensive forces for Bayern. 

But despite this loss, Milan’s start of the season has been nothing short of impressive. The team that reached the Final Four last season and went just one 3-pointer short of the EuroLeague final changed a bit in its structure, but they remain one of the strongest teams in Europe. 

The departures of Kevin Punter and Zach LeDay, both ended up with Partizan Belgrade, were surprising at first.

They had an impressive season with the team, but at times, during last season, Milan looked too limited physically to be completely able to fight for the title, and due to the injuries, their backcourt was often too short, which cost the team precious energies in the key moments of the season. 

So over the summer, Milan had one focus: going bigger and deeper. For this reason, they added physicality and versatility in the frontcourt with Nicolo Melli, Giampaolo Ricci, and Dinos Mitoglou. They did the same in the backcourt with the additions of Devon Hall, Troy Daniels, and Jerian Grant

Last season, Milan was already a great defensive team with their ability to switch and help in basically any situation. Still, their lack of physicality and athleticism in some situations was evident, even in the semifinal against Barcelona.

But this version of Olimpia Milan brought the defensive energy and the team’s strength to a whole new level. Ettore Messina’s guys are incredibly resilient, even more than last season. 

Points this season

46%
78,3
Points made: 78,3
Accuracy: 46,3%
Place in standings: 5
Record max: 84
Record min: 73
Best scorer: Shavon Shields

In this first part of the EuroLeague season, they came back from a double-digit deficit on multiple occasions, and that’s possible only if the group is very compact and tight. Even when the situation looks desperate, Milan can find a way to get back on track. 

“For the way we were playing, I thought this was already a lost game,” coach Ettore Messina said after the game against ASVEL when his team came back from a 14-point deficit.

And that game looked lost in several moments, but the team’s determination and ability to lock down the defense in the second half changed everything.

“This group has very important qualities, and in the second half, we showed that clearly,” said Nicolo Melli, the co-captain of the team, after the match against ASVEL. 

The addition of Melli was a key for Milan, not only for his qualities on the court but also for his presence in the locker room and his leadership. Nicolo knows the environment of Milan well, having already played there for several years before starting his experience in Germany with Bamberg.

He’s an incredibly smart player and an important voice in the locker room, with his mix of determination and congeniality. With veterans like Sergio Rodriguez, Kyle Hines, and Gigi Datome already on the team, adding another player of the caliber of Melli was really a no-brainer for the club owned by fashion king Giorgio Armani. 

“When Melli and Hines play together, I believe they’re the smartest defensive duo in Europe, so you need to stay away from them because they can cover, they can switch, and their ability to read the situations it’s just out of the world,” said coach Andrea Trinchieri of Bayern Munich after his team’s win against Milan. 

It’s like having two professors of the game both on the court at the same time, teaching to their opponents and teammates. 

So far, Milan has allowed more than 75 points to their opponents only once, in the loss against Bayern Munich - another proof that the defensive system is working in a very effective way. 

Of course, not everything is going perfectly. Newcomer Grant has been struggling and, so far, hasn’t provided the kind of impact that the team was expecting from him.

Even in the last game against Bayern Munich, with Malcolm Delaney out with an injury, Grant played only 5 minutes, and coach Messina gave more playmaking responsibilities to Hall.

The team has already started to look for alternatives to Grant, a source told Basketnews, and with Delaney sidelined for at least three weeks, the change might arrive sooner rather than later.

Among the names that Milan is considering for that role, one is Langston Galloway, multiple sources confirm to Basketnews.

While Milan is not currently at an advanced stage with any potential replacement for Grant, it’s clear that the situation with the former New York Knicks guard is not going as expected.

“They brought him in this summer because they wanted to have a solid alternative to Rodriguez and Delaney, but so far, he hasn’t provided what the team expected from him,” a source close to Olimpia Milan told Basketnews. “Messina’s trust in him might already have reached an all-time low,” the source added.

Daniels has been limited because of an injury, and he’ll need time before he can become a factor in coach Messina’s rotations. But his case looks different from the one of Grant. 

Another issue that might become something to monitor in the continuation of the season is how much the offense relies on Shavon Shields. The American/Danish forward has inherited the offensive load left by Kevin Punter and has become even more important than last season offensively.

When his scoring contribution lacks, the rest of the team, so far, has struggled to fill that void and will need to find more options over the season. 

But the solidity and the strength of this year’s version of Olimpia Milan have already proven that this team can accomplish great things even without a clear go-to guy offensively.

If Milan will be able to repeat the path of last season, and all the early signings are pointing in that direction, it is because this team clearly embodies the mentality and the ideals of coach Ettore Messina, it’s his team, in every possible way. 

The trip to another Final Four has just begun, but Milan is already driving with confidence towards their goal. 

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Nicolo Melli

Nicolo  Melli
Team: AX Armani Exchange Milan
Position: PF
Age: 30
Height: 205 cm
Weight: 100 kg
Birth place: Reggio Emilia, Italy