A playoff contender last season and a playoff participant a year before, Crvena Zvezda returns for its fifth consecutive Turkish Airlines EuroLeague campaign with a revamped roster and a brand new coach. At 31 year of age, Dusan Alimpijevic is the youngest current head of bench in the EuroLeague. The list of players that joined Zvezda over the summer includes players in their prime like shooting guard James Feldeine and veteran stars like point guard and former Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy winner Taylor Rochestie and three-time champion – including last season with Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul – Pero Antic. The big man is also one of two players returning to the team, joining Marko Keselj, who was his teammate when they won the EuroLeague with Olympiacos in 2012. Up-and-coming big man Mathias Lessort and young domestic talents point guard Nikola Radicevic and power forwards Stefan Jankovic and Nikola Jovanovic provide plenty of depth for the team from the Serbian capital.
Taylor Rochestie will have a lot of freedom in running the offense. A former Ford Trophy winner, Rochestie will have to find the balance between scoring and setting the rhythm for his team. His backup, the talented Nikola Radicevic, is poised to make his long-awaited EuroLeague debut and play a hand in Zvezda’s trademark defense, which leans heavily on guard Branko Lazic and small forward Nemanja Dangubic, two players who never fail to set the defensive tone. There are other promising perimeter players arriving from a seemingly never-ending pool of talent who are poised to grab bigger roles this season: swingman Ognjen Dobric proved capable of handling a larger load last season, while tall guard Petar Rakicevic is eager to make his EuroLeague debut.
The last man standing from Zvezda’s tenacious front line from last season is veteran big man Milko Bjelica. He is now joined inside by another man of huge experience and character. Center Pero Antic returns to his favorite team after 10 years away. Antic’s game and experience of playing four Final Fours over the last six seasons will be invaluable for a young team. Marko Keselj, who can play both forward positions and stretch any defense with his long-range shooting, also returns to his hometown team and brings much-needed experience into the locker room, as the rest of the frontcourt is set to make their respective competition debuts. Of those debutants, the most is expected of Mathias Lessort who could be an anchor of the team’s defense and important part of Zvezda’s offense. On the other hand, big and promising rookies coming from US colleges, power forwards Stefan Jankovic and Nikola Jovanovic, hope to make the most of their opportunity in their first professional seasons.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Mathias Lessort may be making his competition debut this season, but when Round 1 tips off on October 12, he might look nothing like the rookie he actually is. Already a proven pro, Lessort has the size and skill to keep it up with the best centers on the continent. But more importantly, the big man has the strength, athleticism and passion that make him a perfect fit for Zvezda. This team has seen the likes of Boban Marjanovic, Maik Zirbes and Ognjen Kuzmic shine in the past three seasons and Lessort is not only a player who might follow in those footsteps and turn into a feature of the red-and-white paint, but also a player whose style of play could easily make a connection with Zvezda’s diehard fans. So, other than expecting him on the weekly highlight reels, fans might get used to seeing Lessort as a difference-maker for Crvena Zvezda.
Crvena Zvezda has been in this situation before, entering the season with low expectations that keep rising as the season progresses, usually thanks to its style of play and a trademark defense that keeps the team in the games on any floor around the continent. But knowing that the Final Four will be played in their city in May of 2018, there is no running away from the fact there is a little more at stake for Zvezda and its young coach this season. At first, it is expected Zvezda will rely more on its veterans, but if young players develop like the team hopes they can, the Serbian powerhouse could be raising eyebrows once again. Add to the equation the advantage of having a home court where no opponent can come in as a clear favorite, Zvezda could once again turn into a force and basically continue where it left off.