Credit: Roman Kruchinin / Contributor - Getty Images
Credit Roman Kruchinin / Contributor - Getty Images

Reaching the EuroLeague via EuroCup is a tricky business. Most of the time, it is the same old story: Those successful clubs suddenly find themselves in dire hardship to keep the balance between the budgetary limitations and retaining all those good players that caught interest from the other teams.

3-pointers this season

Points made: 9,4
Accuracy: 38,3%
Place in standings: 3
Record max: 15
Record min: 5
Most made 3FGs: Isaiah Canaan

Tough days are awaiting because most of the time, you need to start from scratch in a higher level of competition, and it does not always bring the best results for everyone involved. See Monaco's case.

Many EuroLeague community members were dubious whether UNICS Kazan could make a difference to that scheme. Longtime head coach Dimitris Priftis chose to join Panathinaikos and took big-time grit-grind squad member Okaro White with him.

Various parts of the backcourt like John Holland, Jordan Theodore, and Nate Wolters departed as well. 

True, some crucial pieces such as Isaiah Canaan and John Brown remained, but Velimir Perasovic had to build new team chemistry from the very beginning. There is no magic formula to make most of the summer additions like Lorenzo Brown, Mario Hezonja, and Tonye Jekiri. 

Coming to the midway of the season, UNICS sit at 7th place with their 10-7 record, overcoming higher caliber teams like Real Madrid, CSKA, and AX Armani Exchange Milan.

They won 14 of their last 17 games and lost only three, two of them away from home and only against ASVEL, in the regulation. Both Olympiacos and the notorious Barcelona games were lost in the last possession.

The question is: How? How does a team that lost against Fenerbahce, scoring only 41 points in the entire game and had won only 2 games in 25 days back in October, engineer such a quick recovery? 

There is not a single explanation for this rapid turnaround. But in this article, I would like to bring only one perspective; a small shift in the offensive sets that proved very effective.

John Brown

John  Brown
Team: UNIKS Kazan
Position: SF, PF
Age: 29
Height: 203 cm
Weight: 98 kg
Birth place: United States of America

In a nutshell: they shifted to a better environment for the player's skillsets resulting in a rise in both volumes and the quality of the 3s. Basic stuff, right? Easy to say, not that easy to put into action.

Credit Uygar Karaca

UNICS had a relatively consistent pattern regarding defensive ratings (the lesser rating, the better, of course). That consistency was based on an agile, aggressive, and switch-heavy defensive scheme that limited the opponent's shooting ability.

There are so many details about the implementation of this defense, spearheaded by J. Brown, that led to a lot of steals and transition opportunities.

For those who wonder about J. Brown's contributions to this, our staff has a nice video. UNICS became the joint 2nd-best Euroleague team regarding defensive efficiency, with 90 points given per 100 possessions. 


Defensive Rating

(Per 100 possession) 

No of Pick&Roll Defended

Percentage of Switches

2-pointers Allowed on Switch

3-pointers Allowed on Switch




271 (46%)

24/47 (51%)

29/41 (70%)




246 (34%)

15/36 (41%)

7/35 (20%)

Real Madrid



57 (6%)

13/27 (48%)

4/9 (44%)

The offensive-defensive rating graph above also tells us that the defense was only one part of the story. The variations in the offensive efficiency were quite impactful for UNICS to lead their wins or losses.

Starting with the game against Anadolu Efes, they consistently enhanced the offensive ratings all the way to the mid-season and became 5th best offense in the competition despite a disastrous start.

Behind this offensive development, the first place to look should be the usual suspect of the contemporary basketball conception: 3-pointers. 

When things were getting worse, UNICS managed to change the trajectory of their season by trading their 2-pointers with 3-pointers. Especially after the game against ASVEL, where they hit on abysmal 32% accuracy, they started to hit those shots from deep up to 38% in EuroLeague, which is the second-best rate of the competition.

Credit Uygar Karaca

"It's hard to find an explanation. I couldn't believe it. This is the most solid team in the EuroLeague early in the season with a great defense. For me, it was unbelievable. This is a surprise," Perasovic admitted, after winning against Milan while shooting 14-29 (48.3%) from 3-point range.

Perasovic's question is legit: How did their shots start to hit the target suddenly? 

It is important to get this right because if this improvement is not based on structural reasons, then impressive runs could be a false spring. Many success stories were cut short once the favorable effects of a relatively easier schedule dim down or some players' individual peaks were passed. 

However, an obvious shift in the pattern of UNICS' style shot creation could indicate sustainability of this offensive success: Increasing the margin of higher quality, off-screen shots, trimming those ineffective post-up attempts, and a much better pick and roll execution. 

UNICS Playtypes

First 5 games
(Share of All Possessions)

After 5 games
(Share of All Possessions)

Pick and Rolls

16.5% (0.7 PPP)

16.1% (1.13 PPP)


14.1% (1.17 PPP)

13.7% (1.21 PPP)


13.3% (1.12 PPP)

14.9% (1.2 PPP)


8.9% (0.55 PPP)

6.5% (0.81 PPP) 


8.4% (0.77 PPP)

10.6% (1.29 PPP)

PPP: Points Per Possession

If we look at the first five games where UNICS fell to 1-4, their shot-making was dominated by pick and rolls (16.5%), which did not change much until today.

However, there is a difference in content: In the first 5 games, those picks and rolls initiatives are shared by L. Brown or Canaan by an almost identical margin.

Meanwhile, Hezonja was using the ball screens to create shots to a considerable extent.

Pick and Roll Ball Handler

First 5 games
(of all PnR Possessions)

After 5 games
(of all PnR Possessions)

Lorenzo Brown



Isiah Canaan 



Mario Hezonja



The initial case with Canaan and Hezonja reflected the player's habits. During his NBA, G-League, and last season's EuroCup days, Canaan was more frequently utilized as the pick and roll handler and isolation scorer. Nearly half of his all shots were created with those ball-heavy actions. 

But stats don't lie. In his entire career (131 games), Caanan shot 94/280 from the field when using ball screens and 115/278 in catch and shoot or off-screen scenarios. That means, making extra dribbles before the final take-off disrupts his shooting accuracy. He was more effective when hitting the ball more directly.

Perasovic was quick to recognize his pure shooter's skills instead of a ball carrier and somehow convinced him to use flare screens for his looks to the rim.

However, creating shooting corridors for Canaan and Hezonja via flare screens was not an easy task. It needs perfect timing and a high level of communication between all five players.

In the first days, most attempts failed, and Canaan had to hit the ball to the ground before shooting it. Those 1/7 efforts were the results of sluggish self-confidence. Likewise, Hezonja frequently forced his way into the painted zone via ineffective post-ups.

But starting with the game against Baskonia, those singular flare screens or stagger settings finally started to work. Effective protection from J. Brown and Jekiri gave Canaan, as well as Hezonja, breathing space for better quality shots.

When the season proceeds, Perasovic designated L. Brown as the primary ball-handler of the pick and rolls, while Canaan and Hezonja became more of shooting guards that dribble less, move more, and make more off-screen shooting. Their role of initiating pick and rolls were brought down for a good cause.

As a result, off-screen scoring became the main weapon of both Canaan and Hezonja, both with an improvement with points scored per possession.

Credit Uygar Karaca
Credit Uygar Karaca

The results are pretty clear: when UNICS trimmed those ineffective pick and rolls and post-ups into some off-screen shooting, Canaan reached his career-best 47% accuracy from deep while Hezonja reached 5-year-best points per possession efficiency (0,99 PPP).

But as the movers like Canaan or Hezonja stretched the opponent defenses, other opportunities arose for the rolling players or alternative positions. Due to better floor spacing and increased gravities of these two players, L. Brown, who became the undisputed leader of pick and roll plays, found many ways to contribute to team offense.  

Lorenzo Brown's Field Goal % with as a Pick and Roll Ball Handler 

Credit Uygar Karaca

In the process, L. Brown befriended Jekiri and J. Brown, with whom he played 109 pick and rolls as a ball-handler, and conquered the short mid-range and rim zone with occasional jumpers and lay-ups.

Currently, he has the best FG rate (48.4%), highest points per game (13.5), and per possession numbers (0.92) in his EuroLeague career. Meanwhile, he became the top EuroLeague assist provider while shooting from deep in the EuroLeague. 

We are still very far away from the more decisive stages, but thanks to Perasovic's early-season adjustments, UNICS' dreams about a new playoff experience in the EuroLeague are very much alive and reachable.

This is important not only as a feel-good story but for solidifying their place in the EuroLeague for the next season.

There were many occasions that surprise packages such as Lokomotiv Kuban of Bartzokas (2016), Partizan of Vujosevic (2010), and Perasovic's very own Baskonia (2016) made it to the Final Four.

Among them, Lokomotiv even played the previous season in the EuroCup. Let's not forget that Pesic's Valencia (2011) and Bartzokas' Khimki (2018) reached the playoffs as a EuroCup team one year earlier. For UNICS, there are many reasons to be hopeful. 

Database: Instat-Basketball  


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Mario Hezonja

Mario  Hezonja
Mario  Hezonja
MIN: 28.92
PTS: 14.47 (51.63%)
REB: 5.53
As: 1.65
ST: 1.24
BL: 0.29
TO: 1.65
GM: 17