As though defeating the last two Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champions to end 2016 was not enough, Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade established its longest winning streak ever in the competition with a perfect run of five more victories to start 2017. And now, the club has added another milestone: its first MVP of the Month, none other than center Ognjen Kuzmic. As victory after victory in January catapulted Zvezda into the conversation about Final Four contenders, Kuzmic was the team's defensive anchor and go-to performer down the stretch again and again. A parade of big-name clubs ran smack into a wall as Zvezda's defense held Zalgiris Kaunas, Fenerbahce Istanbul, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz and Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens to an average of just 67.2 points. And three of those games Zvezda played on the road! Looming as a sentinel in the paint and cleaning up the boards after each defensive stand was Kuzmic. When that wasn't enough, he made a game-winning block in one game and scored the last three points in another. All of which make Ognjen Kuzmic the Euroleague Basketball's most-deserving choice for MVP of January!
The MVP of the Month honor is now in its 13th season. Although statistics and performance index ratings are taken into consideration for the award, they alone do not determine who is honored. The winner is named by Euroleague Basketball based on his and his team's performance. The award for January was based on the five regular season games that all teams played during the month.
Zvezda opened January on the road against Zalgiris, and by the time Kuzmic scored all of his 8 points, the visitors were ahead 5-10 and never looked back on the way to resounding 61-77 victory. Next, last season's runner-up, Fenerbahce, visited Belgrade at full strength in a tense battle in which Kuzmic's three-point play with 1:20 left paved the way for a 75-73 victory that he saved with a blocked shot at the buzzer. Kuzmic had his career-best scoring total, 21 points, to go with 8 rebounds, both highs for all players in that game. A week later, back on the road, Kuzmic scored the only 3 points in the game's final minute, and added 2 offensive rebounds and a steal down the stretch as Zvezda prevailed 67-71. In another blowout road win in Round 19, against another Final Four team from last season, Baskonia, it was no coincidence that Kuzmic's 18 plus-minus rating - the amount of points his team won by while he was on the floor - was equal to the difference in the final score, 69-87. But he saved his best game of January for last, posting a 10-point, 14-rebound double-double - including a key late offensive rebound and put-back - as Zvezda tamed Panathinaikos 72-66.
At the end of January, Kuzmic had averaged 11.6 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist and a performance index rating of 17.8 during those five victories. But perhaps the most important numbers were the three places that Zvezda jumped in the standings, from eighth place to fifth, over the course of January, in good measure due to Kuzmic's dependability at both ends of the court. It was indeed a month to remember for Zvezda fans, just as they will surely remember Kuzmic when he receives his award at an upcoming home game.