After struggling in its first season in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, Zenit St Petersburg made a concentrated effort to bring in players with a lot of EuroLeague experience - as well as top-level success. K.C. Rivers, 33, brings his 163 EuroLeague games - and the 2015 title with Real Madrid - to the Russian team’s backcourt. He will be joined by Vitaly Fridzon, 34, who has logged 195 games in the competition and reached four straight Final Fours with CSKA Moscow and won the 2016 trophy. New playmaker and former ALl-EuroLeague pick Kevin Pangos helped Zalgiris Kaunas to the 2018 Final Four. Also new to Zenit will be efficient center Arturas Gudaitis, sharpshooter Billy Baron and athletic big man Alex Poythress, who will be making his EuroLeague debut after impressing with Galatasaray Doga Sigorta Istanbul in the 7DAYS EuroCup in his first season in Europe in 2019-20. All of those new weapons, not to mention the successful past of 2010 EuroLeague winning head coach Xavi Pascual, should make Zenit a tough team to beat in 2020-21.
Zenit management put together a strong backcourt for Pascual in his first full season with the club. He will have Pangos running the show at the point with Dmitry Khvostov - a long-time member of the Russian national team - as a capable and veteran reserve. The shooting guard spot has the leadership of Rivers, who understands exactly what his coach wants after he and Pascual were together for two years at Panathinaikos Athens. The backcourt is deep with sharpshooter with the likes of Baron, who averaged 11.6 points and hit 40.3% three-pointers in his first EuroLeague season; and Fridzon, who has a career three-point shooting percentage of 41.9% over eight EuroLeague campaigns. Add to that group Mateusz Ponitka, who picked up his third EuroLeague season of experience in 2019-20 and four times scored at least 16 points in his first season with Zenit. The Polish forward, who was chosen as the 2015-16 7DAYS EuroCup Rising Star and earned a spot on the 2015-16 All-EuroCup Second Team, could be due for a big season.
The frontcourt will also have a very different look with Will Thomas the main returnee as Gustavo Ayon, Tim Abromaitis and Colton Iverson all departed. Just like Rivers and Fridzon, Thomas is a proven winner; he helped Valencia Basket win the 2019 EuroCup as the EuroCup Finals MVP. This will be his fifth season in the EuroLeague and it comes after he averaged in double figures scoring for the first time last year. New to the low post is Poythress, who helped the University of Kentucky to back-to-back NCAA Final Fours in 2014 and 2015. He spent three seasons in the NBA before making his European debut last season and averaged 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds with Galatasaray in the EuroCup. Also new to Pascual’s team will be Gudaitis, who had a breakout season in the EuroLeague in 2018-19, but suffered a long-term knee injury after 21 rounds. He missed the first four rounds of last season and saw a significant dip in his numbers. Now Gudaitis will be out to live up to what he did two seasons ago. Two backup centers do return and both Andrey Zubkov and Anton Pushkov proved to be serviceable at times, scoring 13 points against Valencia and 12 points against Anadolu Efes Istanbul, respectively last season.
PLAYER TO WATCH
When it’s all said and done, Zenit’s 2020-21 season could very well come down to how Pangos performs. The point guard missed the entire 2019-20 EuroLeague season with injuries after going down in FC Barcelona practice before the Spanish League even started. The 27-year-old finally got back to the court in Spain’s end-of-the-season tournament, in which he appeared in one game. That played a big role in Pascual taking a risk on Pangos, who averaged 7.0 points and 3.2 assists in 35 EuroLeague games during his first season with Barcelona in 2018-19. Pangos is most well-known for guiding Zalgiris Kaunas to the EuroLeague Final Four in 2018 and grabbing a spot on the 2017-18 All-EuroLeague Second Team. He also previously was named to the 2015-16 All-EuroCup Second Team after he collected 11.9 points, 1.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists in carrying Gran Canaria to the 7DAYS EuroCup Semifinals in his debut season in Europe. Knowing he can lead a team to big things, Pangos will have the extra motivation going into 2020-21 to show he is back to full health.
No one has doubted Pascual’s credentials - with the 2010 EuroLeague crown topping his highlights. And now he has a team that he built after coming to Zenit midway through last season. The club did a good job of giving him experienced players who know what it takes to win important games in the closing moments. That was something that was lacking in 2019-20 as Zenit went 5-6 in games decided by 5 points or fewer in its debut EuroLeague campaign, including a 2-4 mark on the road. Players like Rivers and Fridzon will be able to show their teammates the way this time around. The roster cannot really be considered deep so it will be vitally important for the team to remain healthy. But the goods are there to fight for a spot in the playoffs.