After an inconsistent start to the Euroleague season, Unicaja Malaga now sitting at 6-8 in the standings, seems to be headed in the right direction with 3 wins in a row after losing 5 straight and that may spell trouble for Maccabi Tel Aviv as they host the Spanish side on Thursday December 28th at 9pm. Coached by Joan Plaza, Malaga picked up home wins against Milano and Khimki along with an away victory at Barcelona after having lost to teams that are all .500 or better in Zalgiris, Real Madrid, CSKA, Panathinaikos and a rejuvenated Baskonia. Regardless, the Yellow & Blue will have its hands full at Yad Eliyahu with a team who are looking for a spot in the Top 8.
Malaga, who won the EuroCup last season over Valencia (who ousted Hapoel Jerusalem in the semifinals of the competition) has a roster littered with interesting players who will no doubt be hungry to show exactly what they can do in Israel especially from long range, an area that Neven Spahija’s team has struggled defensively all season long. Plaza, a veteran coach who in addition to last season’s EuroCup victory had won the ULEB Cup and ACB Spanish League Title with Real Madrid back in 2006/07 has also guided Zalgiris before arriving at Malaga in 2013 will look to take advantage and expose some of the Yellow & Blue weak points. To help us find out more about the team in green, Pablo Baena, a writer for Skyhook Magazine looked at some of the new additions, veterans as well as a potential homegrown NBA player.
Nemanja Nedovic is no question Malaga’s most dangerous player scoring 14.7 ppg while dishing out 4.2 apg. The Serbian guard, originally selected by the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2013 draft and played for a short period of time with the Golden State Warriors, has taken almost as many 3-point shots as 2’s splitting them 65/68 respectively with an accuracy rate of 47%/34%. However, he’s not the only player who needs to be paid attention to explained Baena, “Nedo and (James) Augustine are the most important players and they are playing at great level. Most of the fans think that Augustine was the best signing this summer. He is a center and a player that coach Plaza loves to have as part of his team. His experience is very important.”
In fact, James Augustine played in Moscow between 2012 and 2017 for both Khimki where he helped capture the 2015 EuroCup and for CSKA, played his college ball at Illinois. The veteran big man has oodles of know-how and will have a huge influence on Malaga as they return to the Euroleague this campaign.
Another offensive force is Adam Waczynski (10.5ppg) from Poland who is beginning his second year with the team. The 1.99m forward likes to shoot the 3 and is hitting over 53% from long distance Baena commented, “He has improved a lot since last year. His defense has gotten better and his shooting percentage has increased. He and Nedo are Malaga’s best offensive weapons.”
Ray McCallum, the Detroit Mercy product is spending his first year abroad after starring in the D-League last season. The veteran point guard was taken in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft by Sacramento and played 154 games split between Memphis, San Antonio and the Kings. “McCallum is getting better and Malaga have high hopes for him, however, he hasn’t adjusted yet. He is improving, but he needs more time. The expectations are that in February-March he will be playing at his highest level,” summed up Baena.
Yet another player on Plaza’s roster who likes to shoot the 3, more than 70% of the time, is Finnish International Sasu Salin. A veteran of the Spanish league, the 26 year old guard spent the last seasons at Gran Canaria was somewhat of a surprise signing for Malaga explained Baena, “A lot of fans don’t understand this signing, but I think he is the best complement to Nedovic. He’s a good shooter and plays very good in defense. His roll is simple: contribute on the defensive side of the game and be a threat via 3-pointers when Nedo is on the bench.”
A familiar face for Maccabi fans is Giorgi Shermandi who also signed with Malaga this season. The two time Euroleague Champion Georgian center, played for his national team in the Eurobasket this past summer in a group that featured Israel at Yad Eliyahu is still adjusting to his new surroundings Baena said, “He still needs time. Plaza is not the ideal coach to play with this kind of center, so he is still trying to find his place on the team. Over the last few games he is playing better, like the rest of the team.”
23 year old Alberto Diaz picked up the EuroCup Finals MVP honor last season is the best definition of Malaga, Baena commented, “Alberto is Malaga. I mean, he’s the heart and soul of this team. Besides that, he is improving every year, every game. Maybe he’s not the best PG in Europe or Spain, but he is the perfect PG for Unicaja and Malaga. Fans love his courage.”
There is also a potential NBA star on Malaga in Viny Okouo from the Congo. A cousin of Serge Ibaka, Okouo only began playing basketball at the age of 15. Baena spoke about the 2.14m center, “He is a homegrown talent of Unicaja and he will need to play a lot of minutes to develop his skills to become a true Euroleague level player. The problem with his playing time recently has been that after 5 losses in the Europe plus the not so ideal situation in the ACB, Unicaja had to play its best players (Augustine and Shermadini) and there was no space for Viny. Now, he is getting some minutes and I think he is going to play more. About developing into an NBA player… Well, I think he needs to improve a lot, but he can make it.”
Other players to watch out for are forwards Jeff Brooks and team captain Carlos Suarez who arrived with Plaza in 2013 after playing for Real Madrid and Estudiantes, while Serbian guard Dragan Milosavljević will miss the date with Maccabi due to a muscle injury.