With Real Madrid and Olympiacos Piraeus facing significant injury problems heading into Thursday's Round 25 games, the question in the air was how the teams would cope and who would make up for that production. In both cases, some of the youngest players on the team took advantage of the opportunity and came up big.
Usman Garuba made his first career EuroLeague start for Los Blancos and contributed almost everywhere in 23 minutes in place of stars Anthony Randolph, Jeffery Taylor and Felipe Reyes. He was involved in highlights with both his quick passing and phenomenal blocked shots in posting 3 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks for a performance index rating of 10. His across-the-board production helped Real march to a 65-94 rout of Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul.
Olympiacos came into its game against LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne with seven injured or absent players and lost center Nikola Milutinov in the first half due to an ankle problem. Coach Georgios Bartzokas found answers on his bench and gave significant playing time to 17-year-old Alexandros Nikolaidis, one of Olympiacos's top prospects.
Nikolaidis ended up playing 17 minutes and helped Olympiacos make the difference, leading a 7-0 run that gave the Reds their first double-digit lead, 43-31, late in the first half. He had 6 points with only 1 missed shot and was perfect on his 4 free throws. Nikolaidis added 5 rebounds, a game-high 4 steals and 4 fouls drawn for a PIR of 13.
In his previous two EuroLeague appearances - against Zalgiris Kaunas and CSKA Moscow, Nikolaidis accumulated almost 6 minutes and did not score, but was able to show his potential against ASVEL's teen duo, Theo Maledon and Matthew Strazel. Most important of all, Olympiacos managed to beat ASVEL 77-68 for its fourth consecutive home win.
The future is bright for both Real and Olympiacos not only because of Garuba and Nikolaidis, but precisely because they are not alone among highly-regarded teenage prospects on the roster. Aleksej Pukosevski, a 2.11-meter point forward for Olympiacos, played in the EuroLeague for the first time this season.
Swingman Mario Nakic, who is less than a year removed from winning the MVP award after leading Real to the title at the 2019 Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament alongside Garuba, made his EuroLeague debut in this game against Fenerbahce. He came on late and sank a jumper with his first touch and added a putback moments later to finish with 4 points, 1 rebound and a PIR of 5 in the final 2 minutes and 36 seconds.
"Usman already plays a lot of minutes for us and he's helping us a lot. He's growing up as a player. I'm happy for him," Coach Pablo Laso of Real Madrid said of his young charges after the game. "I'm happy for Mario. A lot of times we just see them in games and they're looking for their minutes, But a lot of times as the coach I wish I had more [playing] time for them. They deserve it and I'm very happy with the way that they are performing every day in practice and in the games. So I'm happy. I'm happy they both played and they both played very good."