With 14 Final Four appearances over the past 15 years, CSKA Moscow is the standard bearer for EuroLeague success and one of its secrets has been continuity. Accordingly, the core of players that returns to play for Coach Dimitris Itoudis accounted for nearly two-thirds of CSKA’s scoring and 72% of its rebounding last season. The most notable departures were in the backcourt, where six-time All-EuroLeague selection Milos Teodosic and veteran Aaron Jackson left, but they are replaced by another former EuroLeague MVP, Sergio Rodriguez, and gifted playmaker Leo Westermann. Forward Will Clyburn adds more scoring punch and rebounding stud Othello Hunter and Alan Makiev fortify the frontcourt.
With two new faces, it may take some time for the guard rotation to return to being the well-oiled machine it has been, however with the mix of team-oriented players and great scorers this squad has, CSKA will be filling baskets at a high rate all around the continent. 2016 EuroLeague MVP Nando De Colo will remain the focal point, while 2014 MVP Sergio Rodriguez has the skills to be his ideal backcourt mate. It will be interesting to see if Coach Itoudis starts Rodriguez or uses him in the sixth-man role he excelled so much in at Real Madrid. Knee injuries have slowed the emergence of one-time top prospect Leo Westermann, but he comes off a breakout season and his combination of height and court vision will serve all of his teammates well. Cory Higgins provides instant offense and elite outside shooting off the bench, while three-point marksman Vitaly Fridzon punishes any defense that leaves him open. Mikhail Kulagin will likely see more time in the VTB United League than the EuroLeague, but he too can play an important role off the bench if needed.
Will Clyburn has proven to be an offensive dynamo and he may be even more dangerous in Moscow with all the stars around him. The aggressive Nikita Kurbanov and Clyburn will likely split most of the minutes at small forward. Three-point ace Semen Antonov is a third option at the position. Andrey Vorontsevich and Victor Khryapa are the ideal modern power forwards for Coach Itoudis as both can hit the outside shot, move the ball well, rebound and play defense. Center Kyle Hines sets the tone on defense and remains a dangerous weapon in the paint on offense, too. Mighty Othello Hunter can be counted on to make a great impact on the glass. If healthy, Pavel Korobkov will look to become a regular in the big man rotation this season. Alan Makiev is the only player on the roster without EuroLeague experience and he should get his shot, too.
PLAYER TO WATCH
He is the second-youngest player on the squad and playing for a true title-contender for the first time. If at age 25 Leo Westermann is able to meet the expectations many had of him in his late teens, he could be a significant difference-maker for CSKA. The tall point guard showed that he can score and pass at the highest level last season when his game took a step forward under the tutelage of Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius at Zalgiris Kaunas, which included a double-double in a home win over CSKA. Coach Itoudis will surely put Westermann in the best position to maximize his skills. Westermann may often find himself flanked by top-notch shooters and at times alongside an additional ball handler so that he will have his choice of how best to attack. If it all goes according to CSKA’s plan, we will see the best of Westermann this season as his team makes another march to the Final Four.
The CSKA roster features two former EuroLeague MVPs (Rodriguez and De Colo), two former Best Defender Award winners (Khryapa and Hines) and nine holdovers from the 2016 title-winning squad. On top of that, only one player (Khryapa) will be older than 31 years of age on opening night! Thus, with a roster loaded with talent and experience, but with the core players in the primes of their careers, CSKA figures to be knocking on Belgrade’s door for what would be a seventh consecutive trip to the Final Four.