Two weeks ago Artem Klimenko was named the VTB United League's Young Player of the Month for December. And the Avtodor Saratov center is high up on the shortlist of favorites for this season’s Eurocup Rising Star award. What’s remarkable about that is not how well Klimeko is playing in his first season in the Eurocup, but that a player who’s been so hyped for the last few seasons is just 21 years old still in the running four these awards. If it’s true that centers develop at a slower pace than perimeter players, Klimenko could be in for a scary future.
Avtodor has long believed in greatness from the 2.14-meter Klimenko, who is a product of the team’s youth system. At the end of last season, Avtodor signed Klimenko to a three-year contract extension that is already paying dividends for both sides. Through the first game of the Last 32, Klimenko has averaged 9.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists for a performance index rating of 10.8 over nine games – including five as a starter. His 66.7% field goal shooting places him fourth overall in the competition. Those numbers are further magnified by the fact that foul trouble has limited him to fewer than 17 minutes per game. To put his efforts in perspective, no Rising Star Award-eligible player is posting better per-minute numbers than Klimenko in scoring (22.4 points prorated over 40 minutes) or index rating (25.6).
At age 16, Klimenko took his future into his hands. A native of Mariupol, Ukraine, he decided to leave the local Azovmash club to train with the Avtodor system, which over the years has developed future stars such as Zakhar and Evgeny Pashutin, Victor Khryapa, Sergey Monia, Vladimir Veremeenko and Semen Antonov. Although his road to minutes with the senior team at Azovmash was paved, Klimenko preferred what Avtodor offered, knowing that he might progress slower, but would likely come out as a better player. In just two years, that decision started to bear fruits when he was the youngest player invited to the Adidas Eurocamp 2012 in Treviso, Italy. He roomed there with future Team France regular Evan Fournier and worked out alongside such future Euroleague and Eurocup stars as Bojan Dubljevic, Tomas Satoransky and Toko Shengelia, who were all three years his senior.
The tools that ensured every general manager in Europe would be aware of Klimenko were his great size – both in terms of height and wingspan – coupled with very good speed relative to his frame. Those attributes allowed him to beat overpower smaller players and outrun anyone his size. Moreover, his length led to many offensive rebounding opportunities. Although he had not fully developed physically, Klimenko preferred to play like and old-school center and bang inside, rather than shoot from the perimeter.
Klimenko did not play much in his first season with Avtodor’s senior team, but progressed to 13.5 points and 7 rebounds as a 19-year old in Russia’s second division in 2013-14. Expectations were high entering the next season, in which Klimenko and Avtodor would play in the VTB United League for the first time. In a preseason interview with the league website, club president and its former coach Vladimir Rodionov did not pull any punches about Klimenko’s potential:
“There are three, four people on the roster that are capable of taking the next step. Naturally, Artem Klimenko is the most likely to do so. It's possible he's not progressing quite the way I would like. But…. He's a very gifted, versatile player and he really wants to play basketball at the highest level. I don't like to compare players. He's Artem Klimenko… I wouldn't like to compare Klimenko to someone else or talk a lot about the strengths and weaknesses in his game. He's on his own path.”
Avtodor gave Klimenko all he could handle that season, even though he missed some time with injuries. When he was healthy, his talent came shining through. Klimenko averaged 8.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in eight FIBA EuroChallenge games and 5.9 points and 2.9 boards in 22 VTB United League appearances. Though he suffered from inconsistency – twice he played more than 12 minutes in the EuroChallenge and failed to score and he fouled out six times between the competitions, there was no doubting his talent. That talent was what led to an invitation to train with the Russian national team camp ahead of EuroBasket 2015 and a spot on the Russian squad that claimed a bronze medal at the 2015 World University Games in South Korea.
That brings us to Klimenko’s best season to date: the current one. He’s playing meaningful minutes and playing well. Avtodor is 5-1 in Eurocup games when Klimenko has scored in double figures. And he’s already earned his first award in the VTB United League. With added experience, fewer fouls committed and more minutes on the floor, Klimenko’s already impressive numbers will surely rise. And with more from its rising star in the middle, Avtodor Saratov will also continue its climb to the top levels of Russian and European basketball.