When a team loses its presumptive starting point guard to injury on the eve of the start of the season, it could spell trouble. However, Zenit St Petersburg has overcome the absence of Shabazz Napier by getting the campaign underway with back-to-back road wins.
In Thursday's 64-70 victory at Zalgiris Kaunas, guards Jordan Loyd and Billy Baron combined for 30 points and the team had twice as many assists (18) as turnovers (9). A big reason for that was the play of small forward Mateusz Ponitka, who tallied 6 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 3 turnovers while playing a team-high 26 minutes. It marked the second week in a row in which Ponitka paced Zenit in assists after dishing 4 in Round 1's road win at UNICS Kazan.
How his team has responded to playing without Napier, who will be making his Turkish Airlines EuroLeague debut when he returns, was a topic addressed by Coach Xavi Pascual in the post-game press conference in Kaunas.
"We are working hard with a lot of players in this position. Conner Frankamp opened the game very well. After that [Dmitry] Kulagin helped us also. Some minutes with Baron, some minutes with [Mateusz] Ponitka, with Loyd. I think this is something that we are working on," Pascual said. “When one player is injured, all the players must make one step up and to be ready to help in other things and all the team reacts very well. This is why at least we can compete in all the games until now.”
Loyd was the night's big star with 8 of his game-high 19 points coming in the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, Loyd and Baron were always expected to be Zenit's scorers alongside Napier, who is first and foremost a playmaker. The contributions of Ponitka, Frankamp and Kulagin have been incredibly valuable.
Frankamp started together with Loyd in the backcourt and finished with 3 points, 3 assists and 3 steals without any turnovers in 11 minutes. Kulagin added 1 assist and 2 steals in 15 minutes off the bench.
The production of that trio not only gave Zenit a good-as-gold road win, but reduces any pressure on the club and Napier to rush his return. Zenit will not play its first home game until Round 4 – it visits CSKA Moscow first on Tuesday – when it faces FC Bayern Munich. However, despite a tough schedule that handed Zenit four road games in the first five rounds, Coach Pascual's men have come together, are playing excellent defense and now know that they have great depth in the backcourt and the wings that could make this team a very dangerous opponent going forward.