Credit: TASS - Scanpix, BNS | BasketNews/E.Alšauskas
Credit TASS - Scanpix, BNS | BasketNews/E.Alšauskas

Now in its third season in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, Zenit Saint Petersburg are quickly becoming one of the most consistent teams in Europe and a stable playoff contender. For a team with such a short history, it's a remarkable achievement. And with a present already bright, the future looks even more promising for the Russian team. 

Recent history

3-pointers this season

37%
8,8
Points made: 8,8
Accuracy: 36,7%
Place in standings: 9
Record max: 14
Record min: 2
Most made 3FGs: Billy Baron

Zenit St. Petersburg were founded in July 2014, after Triumph Lyubertsy club was relocated to Saint Petersburg. In its first season in VTB League, 2014-2015, the team reached the quarter-finals.

In the following years, results kept improving, and Zenit reached the semi-finals of the VTB League for four years straight while also establishing themselves as a solid European club, reaching the EuroCup quarter-final for two consecutive years. 

Zenit's growth convinced the EuroLeague to give them a wildcard for the 2019-2020 season in the top European basketball competition. The first season in EuroLeague wasn't particularly good, and Zenit finished at the bottom of the table, even if the regular season never saw the end due to the global pandemic.

In February of 2020, the team decided to hire coach Xavi Pascual as a replacement to Joan Plaza, and that's when things started to improve quickly for the Russian club.

The former Barcelona and Panathinaikos head coach imprinted his concepts on the team in a very efficient way. In his first full season as head coach of Zenit, he led the team to the playoffs, losing only after 5 games in the series against Barcelona.

Nowadays

This season, Zenit are solidifying their position as one of the top teams in EuroLeague. During the offseason, the Russian club lost their star, Kevin Pangos.

Despite receiving a good contract extension offer from Zenit and other lucrative proposals from other teams, including Russian rivals CSKA Moscow, the Canadian point guard decided to fulfill his NBA dream and signed a deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But Zenit didn't sit tight, and their transfer campaign was pretty busy. They re-signed coach Xavi Pascual, Arturas Gudaitis, Billy Baron, and Mateusz Ponitka to multi-year extensions.

Then they added American guard Jordan Loyd, big man Jordan Mickey, Lithuanian wing Mindaugas Kuzminskas, point guard Conner Frankamp, and Russian guards Sergey Karasev and Dmitry Kulagin

Last but not least, Zenit decided to replace Pangos with a big splash on the market, signing two-time NCAA champion Shabazz Napier. Unfortunately, the American guard suffered a severe ankle injury at the very beginning of the season and has been absent since.

His timetable for recovery is still unclear, but a recent report from George Zakkas of SDNA stated that the player came back to the team before the end of the year and started training with the rest of his teammates.

Recently, the Russian side also added young guard Tyson Carter, who has shined with Greek side Lavrio in the last year and a half and might provide a further scoring boost to the team. 

Rebounding and three-pointers

With 12 wins and 6 losses, Zenit are currently sitting in fourth place in the EuroLeague. They're riding a four-win streak after beating ASVEL, Monaco, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Crvena Zvezda.

It's a remarkable result for a team that achieved these numbers without their supposed star. 

One of the main qualities of Pascual's team is that they rebound the ball exceptionally well. Zenit have the fourth-best offensive rebounding percentage with 33.6% and the second-best defensive rebounding percentage with 74%.

Except for Frankamp, every main rotation player averages at least 1 rebound per game. The two best rebounders are Ponitka and Mickey, averaging 5.2 and 4.6 rebounds per game, respectively.

The other key aspect of Zenit's season so far has been the 3-point shooting. Xavi Pascual's team is currently the third-best team in 3-point shooting with an average of 37%.

As of right now, three players of the team are shooting better than 40% from the 3-point line: Frankamp (43.8%), Andrey Zubkov (40.5%), and Denis Zakharov (42.9%).

The other three players (Kulagin, Loyd, and Mickey) are shooting above 36% from deep. On the defensive end, Zenit are also doing an excellent job in protecting the 3-point line, allowing only 18.2 three-pointers per game - the best number in the EuroLeague.

The priority that has been given to the shots from deep is also highlighted by the fact that Zenit are the last team in EuroLeague in 2-pointers attempts per game with only 33.9.

However, those shots are converted at a high rate (52.7%, which is enough to be in the top-10 of the EuroLeague). 

The Greek factor 

In August of 2020, Zenit announced the hiring of Greek executive Manos Papadopoulos. A legendary figure of Panathinaikos, who worked with the Greek club for almost 30 years in different roles.

Papadopoulos quickly became a key presence in the Zenit's organization, despite the presence of another important executive in Alexander Tserkovny.

Papadopoulos has brought his expertise in dealing both with players and agents but also with EuroLeague management. 

"I think that Manos has been the mastermind behind Zenit's success in the last year and a half," a source with knowledge of Zenit's situation has told Basketnews. "He's a guy who knows everyone in Europe and knows how to handle difficult situations."

"He's very well respected by agents and executives, and he's absolutely one of the top in his role in Europe. Zenit made a huge step forward when they decided to bring him in", the source added. 

During his time at Panathinaikos, Papadopoulos dealt with top coaches and players while also maintaining the right balance with a difficult owner like Dimitris Giannakopoulos. 

Since his arrival in Russia, he has been able to reshape the roster in the right way, finding the players that could fit coach Xavi Pascual's system.

Papadopoulos and Pascual had already worked together in Panathinaikos, and the presence of the Greek executive was one of the main reasons that convinced coach Pascual to sign the contract extension the past summer, multiple sources told BasketNews. 

With the rich hand of Gazprom behind the team and the project for a brand new sports complex already in discussion, the future for Zenit St.Petersburg looks bright.

In less than three years, the Russian club has been able to cement its status as one of the growing realities in the elite of European basketball.

With the current premises, it's not hard to imagine that Zenit have the potential to become a stable playoff contender and a familiar face at the EuroLeague level.

With UNICS Kazan currently holding a playoff spot, the Russian presence in the biggest European competition might become even stronger in the coming years. 

Zenit are here to stay, that's something that the other teams should get used to it as soon as possible. 

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