After a promising 81-59 opening day win at home against Strasbourg, times have gotten tough for Serbia’s Euorleague club, Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Telekom Belgrade. Earlier in the week in domestic play, the team suffered a massive blow when it lost captain Luka Mitrovic to a left knee injury during a rare home loss to Union Olimpija. Mitrovic, in addition to his leadership role, has been a crucial building to Red Star and head coach Dejan Redonjic’s recent success the past couple years after making the jump to the Euroleague last year, and making the second round. Last season, Mitrovic averaged 8.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg in 24 games as a 21-year-old, which earned him a 3-year contract extension this off-season. This year appeared to be a breakout year for him, as he put up a stat line of 13 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in the season opener. Add that on top of a pre-season injury to forward Nemanja Dangubic that will keep him out a few more weeks, and it’s easy to see why things looked grim for Red Star as the entered yesterday’s road game against defending Euroleague Champion Real Madrid.
However, even the most pessimistic of Red Star and Serbian basketball fans didn’t quite foresee their 98-71 blowout loss to the Spanish powerhouse. The first half for Red Star was especially putrid, as they scored only 6 points in the first quarter and 14 in the second to find themselves down 56-20 at halftime. In the second half, they made the game a little bit more respectable, scoring 21 in the third quarter and 30 in the fourth, but it was obvious that Real had put in their replacements, and were simply trying to rest up after halftime to conserve their star players for the following week of games, both Domestic and Euroleague.
The biggest difference in the game was the play in the post, as Red Star couldn’t stop Real in the paint, and vice versa, they couldn’t score in the paint against the talented Spanish front line either. Real shot 57.8 percent on 45 2-pt shots, with Gustavo Ayon scoring 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting on 2-pt shots, and Willy Hernangomez, playing a lot of early minutes due to Felipe Reyes in foul trouble, scoring 11 points on 5 of 6 shooting. As for Red Star, they shot 33.3 percent on 48 2-pt shots, and while German Maik Zerbes tried to pick up the slack with a 15 point performance, almost half of his points (7) came from the free throw line and he shot 4 of 10 on 2-point shots, struggling to get position and shots on the active Real post players (Real blocked 6 Red Star shots). Furthermore, they also got little to nothing from other post players such as Stefan Nastic, who went 1 of 6 from the field and played a little over 7 minutes, and recent off-season addition Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who went 1 of 5 from the field, had 1 rebound and was blocked 3 times in 13 minutes. Add those disappointing factors along with Israeli point guard Gal Mekel scoring 0 points and getting no assists (compounded even worse by Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull combining for 16 assists), and it makes sense why there was a difference in Total Player Index Rating between Real and Red Star (134-60).
While Mitrovic’s injury effect has already been felt by Red Star, there is help on the way. Earlier this week before their contest against Real, Red Star signed former NBA draft pick Quincy Miller, who has played for the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons, as well as the Reno Bighorns, Grand Rapids Drive and Iowa Energy of the D-League in his early 3-year professional career. Miller is an interesting pickup by Red Star, as he is still incredibly young (22 years old) and has so much raw potential, size (6-9, 210 pounds) and athleticism. However, this will be his first stint in Europe in general, let alone the Euroleague, and it will be interesting to see how Miller will adjust to the European (especially Eastern European) culture as well as the style of game from America.
What Miller Offers Red Star
Miller probably left college earlier than he should’ve, as he declared for the draft after his freshman season at Baylor, where he played with future NBA and European professional players like Quincy Acy, Perry Jones and Brady Heslip. In college, Miller averaged 10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg in 24.4 mpg over a 37 game span and shot 44.7 percent from the field, as well as 34.8 percent from 3-point land during the Bears’ Elite-Eight season. Miller impressed teams and scouts during his time at Baylor with his raw athleticism and his inside-outside game, but his inconsistent shooting (48.5 percent eFG%), tame rebounding percentages for a big man (7.5 offensive rebounding rate; 16.1 defensive rebounding rate), and tendency to be a “ball-killer” (his 23.1 usage rate was second highest on the team) and get the Bears out of rhythm offensively at times, was a major reason why he fell to the second round, though he was projected as a mid-to-late first round pick going into the 2012 draft.
In his rookie year, Miller struggled to find the floor, as he played only 7 games, and spent most of his time in the D-League, as he appeared in 23 games with the Iowa Energy, and averaged 11.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg on 39.1 percent shooting. In his second season, Miller saw more time with the Nuggets, as new head coach Brian Shaw gave him some more time on the floor to prove if he was worth keeping around and could realize his potential. He appeared in 52 games and averaged 15.2 mpg, and Miller was known for making some impressive plays at times, as evidenced by the highlights below:
However, despite his “upside” and ability to create off-the-dribble for a player of his size, Miller’s youth and lack of experience was obvious, as he only averaged 4.9 ppg and 2.8 rpg and put up a PER of 8.6 (15 is average). Trying to build a more “playoff-ready” roster, the Nuggets let Miller walk in the off-season (as a second round pick, he didn’t have the kind of rookie deal that first round picks receive; second round picks go year-to-year after their initial contract), and in 2014-2015, Miller found himself bouncing around in the D-League and NBA.
Despite the lack of security and a stable team, Miller’s most promising stint in his early professional career happened last year in the D-League during a 15-game stint with Reno, where Miller was featured in first year head coach David Arsenault’s “System”. For those who aren’t familiar, the “System” originates from Grinnell College and features constant full-court pressure defense, frequent waves of substitutions and a heavy reliance on 3-point shots (at least half of their total field goal attempts need to be from beyond the arc). Miller fit in this system like a glove, as he averaged 25.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg on 50.3 percent shooting. Miller constantly torched team from beyond the arc, but he also was able to beat slower defenders on the dribble drive to the rim, and meshed seamlessly in Reno’s fast break, consistently finishing break opportunities off of turnovers as well as made and missed baskets (Reno is always running the break, regardless of the result on defense). Take a look at a game during last year’s D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz where he scored 35 points against the Westchester Knicks.
His impressive stint in Reno earned him billing as the Top D-League Prospect by the D-League Web site last season, as well as short 10-day contracts with the Kings and Pistons and a spot on the Brooklyn Nets preseason roster. But, Miller didn’t do enough to make the Nets roster, and after being cut by Brooklyn, and the D-League not really a lucrative financial option, Miller opted to sign with Red Star for a much better payday as well as a bigger role on a team that is looking to stay competitive despite their rash of injuries.
The big question will be how Redonjic will utilize Miller with this roster. Miller isn’t a physical forward and he will not help much on the glass (they were outrebounded 51-33 against Real), but Mitrovic didn’t possess any of those qualities either, and he still was a productive player that Redonjic planned to build around this season. Furthermore, Red Star has those types anyways with Zerbes and Schortsanitis. What Redonjic needs from Miller is scoring and instant offense, which was painfully missing against Real, as it seemed like Red Star didn’t have the kind of go-to scorer to help them out of the various scoring slumps they suffered through in the first half of Thursday’s contest. Miller needs to be able to be “the guy” and carry this Red Star team on the offensive end, and considering Red Star likes to push the ball and play more up-tempo, it makes sense why Red Star signed Miller, who played his best basketball in an up-tempo system in Reno.
It will be interesting though how Miller responds to the European game, as well as how he fits chemistry-wise with this roster. As talented as Miller is, one of the biggest knocks on him is his attitude and focus, as this was stated about him in a pre-draft scouting article from Draft Express prior to the 2012 draft:
Additionally, his focus and energy level are inconsistent, as he doesn’t seem to bring the same intensity level from possession to possession, which was clearly an issue for him already in high school. He’ll need to improve his toughness, particularly in terms of fighting his way through screens, something that getting stronger will likely help with.
This will be interesting considering Red Star’s passionate fan base as well as the annual circumstances Euroleague teams face with the threat of being regulated with a poor season, which puts additional pressure on players, especially imports, to perform and make an impact right away. Miller can come off as passive and uncaring at times on the court, and to the common European (or even American) fan, that can be a huge insult, and prevent them from supporting a player. Red Star fans though have showed in the past that they can really get behind their players though, as evidenced by their little “bus surprise” put on by the fans for Schortsanitis when they signed him this off-season. If Miller can embrace them and the environment (which is one of the best home crowds in Europe), and be more consistent in terms of displaying his passion on the court, not only can he help Red Star win, but he can garner the kind of fan support he never really received in the States professionally or in college. And at the end of the day, when somebody is a fan favorite, they will get paid in one way or the other.
That being said, at the end of the day, this is most likely temporary. Miller solves an immediate need and has the potential to fill the role that Mitrovic would have had prior to his injury, which is as the team’s primary dynamic scorer. There is no questioning his skills, but how Miller adjusts to Redonjic, the Red Star team and European basketball will be key to whether Red Star rebounds after the early setback to Real, and Miller revitalizes his status as a prospect, or they continue to regress and Miller proves that he is another “athletic” talent who doesn’t have the makeup to put it all together at the professional level.
Let’s face it. Red Star needs Miller to continue their Euroleague success from 2014-2015, and Miller needs Red Star to find his way back to the NBA. Whether or not this “relationship” can or will be successful for both parties though is yet to be determined, and it will be interesting to see if Redonjic can be the “counselor” to make it work this season.