Even though Nizhny Novgorod has fallen short of reaching the EuroCup quarterfinals, there are many positives in Nizhny’s journey through the competition. One of them has been the development of center Ilya Popov. At 21 years of age, Popov was the youngest regular member of the Nizhny rotation. He appeared in each of the 13 games so far this season – and in more than half of them as a starter – and is one of the reasons Nizhny’s young core looks so promising.
This was the third season for the 2.10-meter Popov in the competition, but his first with a well-defined role on the team. In his first two EuroCup seasons Popov appeared in a total of 10 games, but totaled only 4 points and 9 rebounds in those appearances. However, this season alone he is averaging more points (5.0 ppg.) than what he previously totaled and is also posting 2.7 rebounds per contest.
Even though he has been slowly emerging on the main continental scene, Popov has shown promise for many years. He made his professional debut as an 18-year old with his hometown club Spartak St. Petersburg in 2013-14 season. Popov played in nine Russian League games and had three EuroCup appearances that season, however he proved his abilities best playing for Spartak's second team. As a teenager going against players several years older than him, Popov averaged 16.9 points and 8.7 rebounds in U23 competition.
The year after Popov made the move to Nizhny and felt the thrills of playing in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, too. He impressed in his debut, a road regular season game at Real Madrid, as one of the bright spots in his team’s big loss. Popov came up with 6 points, 6 rebounds and 2 steals in 11 minutes in the Spanish capital. The following week, Popov played again, but was held scoreless at home against Anadolu Efes Istanbul. In the weeks that followed, Popov played most of the time with Nizhny's second team, and continued his dominance in the U23 competition by posting 14.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2 assists in 10 games. It was pretty obvious that the then 19-year old center needed stronger opposition to keep improving his game, so he was loaned to Spartak Primorie Vladivostok of the Russian League. That meant getting an opportunity for his first continuous action in the professional level and Popov grabbed it. He helped Spartak reach the Russian Cup semifinals and League finals with averages of 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds over 23 games that season.
The following summer Popov had 11.8 points and 5.1 rebounds for the U20 Russian national team at the European Championships, which was another in a line of reasons he was about to be given a real shot on the biggest of stages. In a natural flow of the events, last season Popov played for Nizhny in all competitions for the first time, and in a limited role helped the team reach the EuroCup Quarterfinals. He remained on the roster for the whole season, although he did not appear in any of the elimination round games. Popov and Nizhny also got to the VTB League quarterfinals, where they were swept by Unics Kazan, but Popov had more than a solid role in limited minutes, averaging 7.5 points in the last two games of a best-of-three series at the end of the season.
It was only natural that would lead to an expanded role this season, and that is exactly what has happed for Popov. So far, the young center has started seven times and scored in double digits twice. It’s no coincidence that Nizhny won both of those games. Popov scored 10 points as a starter in a big 82-97 road win at MZT Skopje and in the Top 16 opener needed only 13 minutes to post 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting, with 2 rebounds and a block in 113-105 home win over Zenit St. Petersburg.
With clear improvements in his game in the past years, and with a willingness to go to great lengths – and play in less-appealing competitions – simply to get minutes and improve, there are certainly more even brighter moments in Popov’s future. His club might have ended its quest to reach the EuroCup Quarterfinals this season, Popov is only at the beginning of what has the looks of a promising career.