Lev Tigai's Blog: Back-Up Five For The National Team

It's cliché to talk about Russian player development and the discussions are rarely rooted in reality. Optimism surges during the club season, but once it's summer and time to focus on the national team, we pretend to have never had much confidence in the first place. After all, we all know how much we struggle to develop our "own" basketball players. All it takes is a couple injuries, a few players backing out of the national team and suddenly there's no one left to represent their country.

But while it's winter outside and there's still time before the optimists "sober up" (new head coach Sergei Bazarevich and the national team compete in EuroBasket 2017 qualifying in late August - early September), let's set aside the battered rose-tinted glasses and evaluate who's earned a spot on the national team so far this season.

We can eliminate several names from the start. First, Viktor Khryapa and Alexander Kaun have already officially announced their retirement from the national team and from European basketball, respectively. Second, there are five players who have already clinched a spot on the national team: Alexey Shved, Vitaly Fridzon, Sergey Monia, Andrey Vorontsevich, Timofey Mozgov. They form the team's backbone and starting five. Our job is to figure who will back them up or take over in case of injury or withdrawal from the team, etc.

There's plenty to discuss. Here's my version of the Russian national team's back-up five for the 2016 season, consisting of VTB United League players.

Point guard: Dmitry Khvostov (Nizhny Novgorod)

Khvostov's performance at Russia's disastrous 2015 EuroBasket was perhaps the only bright spot on the team. He surprised many, including myself. But it's actually not that difficult to explain his progress. While he struggles with his dribbling and athleticism, especially when he's being pressured aggressively on defense, Khvostov has always been able to pass. But something else changed: beginning last season, Khvostov's three-point shooting noticeably improved. He can get shots off quicker, shoot over defenders and connect more reliably from longer distance now. As a result, defenders are forced to take a much different approach and guard him tighter on the perimeter. In turn, that allows Khvostov to drive the lane where it's much easier for him to distribute the ball than when he's trapped in the corner.

Khvostov has continued to play at a high level for Nizhny this season. There is plenty of competition for his spot on the national team: the experienced Anton Ponkrashov and Sergey Bykov at UNICS and Lokomotiv, respectively, plus Dmitry Kulagin, who's been able to avoid getting buried on the CSKA bench. I'd also suggest taking a look at 23-year-old Artem Vikhrov of Zenit. Point guards with his height (nearly 2 meters) are always interesting. He could, however, improve on his ballhandling and especially his shooting percentage...

Shooting guard: Evgeny Voronov (Lokomotiv-Kuban)

Loko's approach this season, cultivated by coach Georgios Bartzokas, is a perfect fit for Voronov: super-aggressive defense built on forcing turnovers and running in transition. Having sensed his importance to the team (Voronov is practically irreplaceable), the former defensive specialist has been more relaxed and improved on offense, demonstrating an ability to attack and create his own shot. You can't give Voronov much space on the perimeter. He's also fearless driving the ball, an area where he struggled in the past. Given his speed and athleticism, Voronov has no trouble getting to the basket, though he's not super efficient at the rim. Once he adds that element, he'll be seen as an elite European guard.

There aren't that many contenders for the shooting guard position. I'm not one to go crazy over Egor Vyaltsev's 12 three-pointers in the recent game vs. Astana. No question, he had a terrific game. But something prevents me from believing that after one breakout game, the defensive-minded Vyaltsev will suddenly be reborn as a European Kobe Bryant at age 30 and start scoring 40 every night out. I'm afraid his spot in Khimki's backcourt hierarchy hasn't changed, right behind Shved, Rice and Koponen.

The other person I would like to mention is Maxim Grigoryev, who got off to a great start, before getting injured in late October. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to play since. Nominally a point guard at Nizhny, he often moved over to shooting guard and looked very solid in the role. If he manages to get healthy and back in shape, he could certainly help out the national team.

Small forward: Nikita Kurbanov (CSKA)

He's definitely shown the most improvement of any Russian player this season. The U-20 EuroBasket 2005 MVP had been overshadowed by his teammates from that championship-winning team for most of the past 10 years and many wrote him off (including myself). But we were far too premature! Kurbanov's 3rd stint at CSKA has been terrific. He spearheads the Army Men's new pressure defense (similar to Voronov, but even more effective) and has developed into a much more skilled player on offense. Kurbanov can do it all: three-point shooting, mid-range, and driving to the basket. Of course, he's never had any trouble rebounding the ball or playing defense. The main thing now is for Kurbanov's terrific play at CSKA under Dimitris Itoudis to carry over to the national team and Bazarevich.

Other candidates at small forward include Kazan's Valery Likhodei (who's been inconsistent this season) and Sergey Karasev in Brooklyn (where he rarely gets on the court). It's not much, but there are a few options.

Power forward: Semyon Antonov (Nizhny Novgorod) or Andrei Zubkov (Lokomotiv-Kuban)

These two candidates are very similar and have met with mixed success this season. Zubkov is a better perimeter shooter, whereas Antonov has more experience and is a better defender and rebounder. It's impossible to guess right now which one will look better in the summer and prove a better fit for Bazarevich. It could be both.

Don't forget about Zenit's Pavel Antipov. He's quick and can shoot, but has a lot to learn on the court. He's still raw.

Center: Pavel Korobkov (CSKA)

The bigger the position, the fewer potential candidates in Russia. We could, of course, return to Avtodor's Artem Klimenko, who's yet to outgrow Saratov despite all his talent. Khimki veteran Dmitry Sokolov was impressive against CSKA and the injured Ruslan Pateev has promise. But in my opinion, the 25-year-old Korobkov is the most reliable bet. He's getting run through the ringer right now at CSKA, and has had to deal with several injuries. Korobkov is adding muscle and learning to play on the block. Itoudis rarely uses Korobkov's primary weapon, the mid-range and long-range jumper. If that continues much longer, he might lose his touch... It's happened before. But, nonetheless, CSKA is a real meatgrinder and the opportunities to improve are much higher here than at any other club. The key is surviving the process and not crumbling under the pressure, which does happen often enough. Take Kurbanov's first two attempts to earn a spot at the Army club...

Let's summarize. There aren't a lot of new faces, as usual, but several veterans have been a very pleasant surprise this season. Is that good or bad? Will it be enough? In the end, what does it matter? It's just the way it is. Let's be honest now, so we don't pretend we didn't see it coming in August and September.

Lev Tigai,
sportfakt.ru writer