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Partizan’s young guns: Out but not forgotten

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Even though they appear to have a great future ahead of them, Partizan Belgrade should be allowed to dwell on their short Euroleague season. Getting knocked out of the top 16 after three brutal overtime losses will prompt even young players, who should have multiple opportunities to get there in the next decade or so, to wonder what could have been.

Still, the Serbian club seems to be well ahead of schedule. Partizan are the youngest Euroleague team since Cibona Zagreb lost all ten of their games in 2010/11 by an average margin of 20.1 points. Yes, their group was somewhat weak, but even against legitimate final four contenders, Partizan played with a sense of purpose that often made up for inexperience or lapses in execution. However, even if they manage to keep their core together for next season – easier said than done, considering their limited resources – they have a lot of work to do in order to realize their considerable potential.

OFFENSE: Creating Space

Partizan were a mediocre offensive team, posting underwhelming numbers in such categories as points per possession and effective field goal percentage, while turning the ball over at an above average rate. While the lack of a dependable playmaker behind the transcendent Leo Westermann was certainly an issue, most of Partizan’s problems were related to spacing – or a lack thereof. Vujošević has been known to prefer big lineups that dominate the paint and Partizan were an elite rebounding team on both ends of the floor, but too often things got crowded and his big men could not make the right pass in traffic.

The four players that shared the vast majority of minutes in the power forward and center positions (Dejan Musli, Drew Gordon, Đorđe Gagić and Davis Bertans) accounted for 42.2% of Partizan’s turnovers in the regular season. Passing out of the low post was not always smooth, but the main issue was executing high-low actions that are featured heavily in Dule’s playbook. Most big men need time to develop their passing skills and this group of players has not played enough games together to establish proper communication in limited space. But even if execution on these plays improves, the player on the receiving end of such passes could find himself surrounded by help defense. Luckily for Partizan, they have a pretty effective counter at their disposal:

After a shaky Euroleague debut with Olimpija Ljubljana last season, Davis Bertans reinvented himself as a stretch four this season, hitting his threes on pick and pops, keeping help defenders honest on 1-5 pick and rolls and helping Partizan’s perimeter players take advantage of their size in the paint – notice how Vladimir Lučić has more time to back down Patrick Christopher, since Damir Markota cannot afford to stay too far away from a 47% three point shooter. It’s not a coincidence that Lučić’s field goal percentage and offensive rebounding would improve markedly when he shared the floor with Bertans.

On the other hand, lineups featuring the Latvian prospect at power forward defended quite poorly, as Bertans struggled with both defensive rotations and guarding his man on the post. Simply put, Partizan’s improvement on offense (by 12.9 points per 100 possessions) was negated by their decline on the defensive end (by 19.2 points per 100 possessions). This is why Bertans spent 87 out of his 199 minutes at small forward, with the exact opposite results: Partizan’s offensive rating dropped by 15.6 points, while their defensive rating improved by 6.2 points.

Going forward, Bertans could become an even more dangerous offensive player at power forward, especially if learns to consistently put the ball of the floor against aggressive closeouts. But ultimately, his position (along with Partizan’s ability to spread the floor) will be determined by his defensive performance.

DEFENSE: guarding the three-point line and moving around

Partizan allowed their opponents to make 37.7% of their three point attempts, which is a pretty alarming rate, considering that no team on their group came close to matching it over the ten games of the regular season. And while Dule’s pack-the-paint defensive philosophy had something to do with it, missed rotations and poor communication were the real issue:

Some of those open threes are just another sign of growing pains – on the first play of the video, Partizan try their 1-3-1 zone, but Lučić finds himself all alone in the top of the key, between two very dangerous shooters. At the 1:30’’ mark, Westermann, Lučić and Musli are involved in successive switches, but the big man loses track of Nedovic in the corner – Vujošević’s glare pretty much sums up the breakdown.

But a more persistent problem was help defense from the weakside on pick and rolls. Too often, neither the big man nor the perimeter defender could force the ball handler away from the basket. This meant that they both had to stay close to the ball handler more than they should, which in turn led to a weakside defender rotating deep into the paint, leaving the other between two shooters. In this setting, a simple extra pass would lead to a wide open shot.

This video also showed Partizan’s full-court press, including traps far away from the basket. A similar strategy was often deployed in a half court setting, with successive traps inside and out. At its best, this type of physical defense forced the opponent’s designated playmaker to give up the ball early in the possession. But it is also pretty demanding, not only in terms of effort and activity, but also execution – with all five players moving around, mistimed rotations led to open perimeter shots and misplaced double teams allowed high percentage looks inside:

In any case, thanks to their athleticism and youth Partizan have a lot to gain from this sort of aggressive defense as they continue to grow as a team.

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT: from beyond the arc to the low post

With the exception of Gordon and Dragan Milosavljević, all of Partizan’s core players are under contract for next season (edit: Milosavljevic apparently signed an extension with Partizan in July, see comment below and this link). Only 22 years old, Gordon kept developing as the season went on, working tirelessly on defense and rebounding. Even though he is somewhat limited offensively he could have a great career in Europe. The only problem for Partizan is that his skillset is more suitable for the role of an undersized center – finishing pick and rolls, roaming around the basket for putbacks, hedging out on defense. With Musli, Gagic and 18-year old Nikola Milutinov (who scored 4 points in overtime against Brose Baskets) making strong cases for increased minutes, things could get crowded in Partizan’s frontline.

Milosavljević is a keeper. Already an elite defender (especially on the ball), the young Serb also made a name for himself on the other end, by driving fearlessly to the rim, drawing a bunch of fouls (0.42 FTA/FGA) and finishing effectively. If he develops a jumper and improves his court vision he could become something special, but even without these skills he should be in demand next summer. If Partizan can’t hold on to him, they will probably hand over most of his responsibilities to Bogdan Bogdanović. The 20-year old swingman, who came to the spotlight after an electrifying performance against CSKA Moscow at Pionir, displayed enough creativity on offense – second among all Euroleague players who have played 90 minutes or less in shots created (unassisted field goals minus putbacks plus assists) per 28 minutes, pace-adjusted – and hustle on defense to emerge as a future rotation player.

Lučić and Musli could also draw heavy interest from Europe’s wealthiest teams – if not the NBA, in Musli’s case. Completing his transition to small forward, Lučić was often trusted to make plays in isolation sets and he delivered mainly by getting to the free throw line (0.53 FTA/FGA). His field goal percentage was not as impressive, due to a questionable at times shot selection (too many contested mid-range jumpers off the dribble), a lack of sophisticated footwork in the low post and a tendency to drive on a straight line. Keep in mind, though, that 57% of his made field goals were unassisted. If he is allowed to play off the ball with greater regularity and gets a consistent jump shot, his efficiency could match his breathtaking energy.

Musli also had to create a lot of his own offense – 46.2% of his field goals were unassisted; for comparison’s sake Nenad Krstic’s percentage was 26.8% and Aron Baynes’ 24.1%. This partly explains his proneness to turnovers, but also alludes to his potential: in his first full Euroleague season, the 21-year old center combined a solid foundation to his game (an effective right handed hook shot; solid rebounding numbers; great hands) with occasional flashes of a surprising versatility (footwork on the perimeter; ball handling skills; face-up game), that reminded everyone why he was so well known from such a young age.

Both of them need to keep working on their post-up game, as too often they would try to go through (as opposed to around) their opponents. But they will also need more room to operate, which requires improved perimeter shooting by a team that finished with the third-worst three point percentage this season. Danilo Andjusic has proved that he can provide the answer with Serbia’s under-20 and senior national team. All he has to do is keep his gunner instincts in check and find his way out of Vujošević’s doghouse.

As for Westermann, the folks over at Draftexpress have produced a brilliant video that answers most of your questions. I’ll just add that I can’t remember another 20-year old point guard playing so damn well at this level. If he improves on the way he finishes plays at the rim and makes up for his limited athleticism on the defensive end by learning how to anticipate his opponent’s move, he could evolve into something special, at least by Euroleague standards.

The aftermath

Does a team whose Euroleague season was concluded after just 10 games deserve more than 1,700 words? When that team is Partizan, yes. You see, this has not been just a Cinderella story. This was a first glimpse at a rising power. Partizan’s method allowed them to make the playoffs two seasons in a row back in 2008 and 2009, before selling the rights to their core players (Nole Veličković, Uroš Tripković, Nikola Peković, Milenko Tepić) and advancing to the final four in 2010. If financial considerations do not tear this team apart, the rest of Europe should consider themselves warned.

prtzn provided great help with this post

Written by Rod Higgins

December 16th, 2012 at 1:12 pm

  • rajon

    Milosavljevic extended his contract las summer.

  • Milutin

    Hope that Partizan will get a chance to keep most of their roster for next season, but it’ll be hard because the club really needs the money. Milosavljevic and Lucic will surely have much better offers, probably even Bertans.

    Keeping all three centers + Bogdanovic, Westermann, Andjusic would be a perfect scenario.

    About this early exit, I’m sad, but proud. And I’m even more proud after reading your article.

  • one team

    Not too many words for Milutinov?

  • rodhig

    Well, he definitely caught my eye – promising combination of length, mobility and shooting touch, even though he could stand to add a few pounds – but there were only so many words to go around 😀

    Definitely a player too look out for in the future though.

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