CSKA Moscow, a fixture at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four, showed once again this summer that it means business by keeping its entire core of key contributors while adding several intriguing extra pieces to the roster. Experienced and versatile guard Daniel Hackett will bring additional aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, and CSKA also acquired young and talented combo guard Ivan Ukhov to learn while fighting for minutes in this first EuroLeague season. CSKA got little more size and strength under the basket with arrivals of big men Alec Peters and Joel Bolomboy, while 20-year old homegrown stretch-four Andrei Lopatin was promoted from the club's youth categories.
CSKA's domination begins with its star-studded backcourt. Nando De Colo and Sergio Rodriguez, current All-EuroLeague guards and former competition MVPs, make CSKA go. The two players clicked together from the get-go last season, their first together. Now, with a year together under their belts, their collaboration and understanding of each other's strengths stands to get even better. Shooting guard Cory Higgins has developed into an elite scoring threat who plays well with either De Colo or Rodriguez, or alongside both of them when Itoudis decides to go with smaller lineups. Higgins is an important part of CSKA's defensive efforts, too, and it is also where Hackett will help with his size, mobility and ability to play aggressive on-the-ball defense. Hackett can back up any of the three CSKA's stars and brings a combination of height and court vision to an already talent-loaded backcourt. Mikhail Kulagin will be in a backup role and is poised to see extended minutes this season, while Ukhov will try to get the most out of any opportunity he gets on the floor.
There is a great deal of versatility in CSKA's front line, and Will Clyburn is a player who Coach Itoudis likes to turn to often. Clyburn can play both forward positions, score inside and outside, and pull down rebounds at a high rate. On a team that has players rotating and splitting time, Clyburn led the team in minutes played last season, which speaks volumes of his importance. Nikita Kurbanov, Semen Antonov and classic stretch-four Andrey Vorontsevich are all versatile forwards who create matchup problems for the opposition. Kurbanov started all but one game last season, and Antonov and Vorontsevich are experienced options who can carry the team on any given night. Undersized center Kyle Hines, a three-time EuroLeague champ, is the player who sets the tone on defense for CSKA and gives the team an aura of confidence at every moment. Othello Hunter was huge on the boards, especially the offensive glass, last season and finished plenty of alley-oop passes from Rodriguez. Now, CSKA gets even better with Bolomboy and Peters, who are only 24 and 23 years old, respectively. Bolomboy but could be competition's next rebounding ace, and Peters is a strong body in the paint who is equally dangerous from long range.
PLAYER TO WATCH:
Last season was the first for Will Clyburn in CSKA's system, and all he did was play and average more minutes per game than any other CSKA player. He also finished as team's top rebounder and one of four CSKA double-digit scorers. CSKA is a team where players only occasionally play big minutes. Last season, only seven times did a CSKA player get more than 35 minutes in a single game. Clyburn had the top three of those marks, which speaks of how much Coach Itoudis trusts him. This summer, CSKA added depth to its front line, which might cut into his playing time a little bit, but it could also enable the 28-year-old forward to break loose. Before CSKA, Clyburn had a reputation as a dangerous scorer, and it is a good chance that there will be more of that on display this coming season.
The bar is always set very high for a team that has made a habit of reaching EuroLeague Final Fours. CSKA's appearance at end-of-the-season event has become almost predictable, as the club is on an unprecedented run of success, making 15 Final Four appearances in 16 years, and in each of the last seven. There are no easy ways to produce success in the EuroLeague, but CSKA has become hard to stop and hard to beat anytime. Under the Coach Itoudis, CSKA has turned into an offensive machine that has been averaging an astounding 88.5 points during his four years on the bench. There is no reason to suggest much will change, with every one of the key players from last season returning and several pieces added to create even more depth and quality on both ends of the floor. There is another long road ahead for all EuroLeague clubs, but CSKA is certainly once again among the most serious contenders to go all the way this season.