Still-reigning Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion CSKA Moscow changed very little from the last season, which was cut short due to the world-wide pandemic as it was attempting to defend its title won in May 2019. CSKA opted for quality over quantity with more departures than arrivals in the Russian capital, but the two players that did join CSKA - center Nikola Milutinov and forward Tornike Shengelia - are prized veterans at the respective peaks of their careers.
CSKA underwent few changes on the perimeter with the core of its backcourt returning. The group is once again headed by former Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy winner Mike James, who shined last season and ranked third with 21.1 points per game. James also runs the offense, a duty he will share with a pair of experienced veterans, Daniel Hackett and Janis Strelnieks. Both players can play either guard position, with Hackett also being regarded as one of the EuroLeague's premier defenders, while Strelnieks is one of the finest deep-ball shooters in the competition. Athletic swingman Darrun Hilliard, who also plays at a high level on the defensive end, is another great scorer and one of the most dangerous three-point threats in the competition. Outside of this experienced group, point guard Ivan Ukhov will look for more minutes and a larger opportunity, while 21-year old playmaker Alexander Khomenko will hope to crack the rotation in a EuroLeague game for the second time after making his lone appearance during the title-winning 2018-19 season.
There are new leaders in CSKA's frontcourt which is stacked and loaded with size, talent and versatility that will give Coach Dimitris Itoudis countless options. Last season's rebounding leader Nikola Milutinov is the new man in the paint and has been the most productive EuroLeague center in each of the last two campaigns. The case is similar with Tornike Shengelia, the most productive EuroLeague forward over the past three seasons who does just about everything on the floor, from handling the ball to crashing the boards, and of course, plenty of scoring. In Moscow, this duo joins a frontline that already features the last Final Four MVP, Will Clyburn, an All-EuroLeague forward whose 2019-20 season was cut by injury after only four weeks. His ability to play both forward positions means he can be on the floor at the same time as both Milutinov and Shengelia, which will give opponents nothing but nightmares. But that's far from all when it comes to the CSKA frontcourt because the next trio behind them can easily start for any other team. Team captain Nikita Kurbanov is a tough and physical forward who can hurt opponents from downtown. Johannes Voigtmann is an excellent-shooting big man who quietly has the most rebounds (720) in all of the EuroLeague since entering the competition in 2016, while Joel Bolomboy has already proven he has all the tools – including impressive athleticism – to be a great EuroLeague center. Small forward Semen Antonov, in his fifth season with the club, has served as a trusted injection of energy and another physical defender. With such depth, it will be hard to find adequate minutes for Andrei Lopatin, the youngest big man in this group at 22 years of age.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Will Clyburn did not get a chance to ride the wave of his stellar 2018-19 season, during which he first earned All-EuroLeague honors and then was voted as the Final Four MVP for leading CSKA to the 2019 crown. Clyburn suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Round 4 last October. Now, almost a year removed from the trauma and in the fourth season with the club, Clyburn is not only recovered and ready, but hungry and motivated to get back to competitive basketball. His game has it all and he helps the team in so many ways. Clyburn uses his combination of length, strength and speed to smother would-be scorer and his skills on the perimeter turn him into a dangerous scorer, too. Many eyes will be on the reigning EuroLeague champion and its Final Four MVP as Clyburn looks to regain his championship form.
There has not been a season in almost 20 years in which CSKA has not been a title contender and not much has changed in that department ahead of this season. CSKA was a team that had very few holes to fill in the first place and then it got even better with a pair of proven EuroLeague superstars. The team also got an All-EuroLeague forward with the return of Clyburn after he missed almost all of last season. As the reigning champs and a club that has not missed the Final Four since 2011, and with Coach Itoudis on the bench with a chance to become the first man in history to coach at six consecutive Final Fours, CSKA is, by all means, ready to make more history and will be charging from the get-go for more EuroLeague glory.