Every so often, a player in his early 20s seems to appear from off the radar and suddenly emerge into a force at the 7DAYS EuroCup level. Often these are players who have had success at a junior level and perhaps even played important roles for their national teams at the junior levels, but stall when called to the competitive senior squad. But after a year or two, they make the adjustment, whether it be physically, emotionally or tactically and then the breakthrough comes. This may be what’s in store for Khimki Moscow Region forward Stanislav Ilnitskiy.
Ilnitskiy, 22, has been a regular with Khimki for two seasons – and even played several games for the senior side the year before that. And there are those that believe that he has the ability to be a real impact player for Khimki very soon. In fact, one of those players that believes in Ilnitskiy the most was until recently the star of that team.
“He’s a guy that works very hard. His work ethic is what gets him the minutes, what gets him on the court. He keeps everybody fighting,” FC Barcelona Lassa guard Tyrese Rice said of Ilnitskiy. The two were teammates for two seasons at Khimki, the first of which saw the club win the 2015 EuroCup with Rice chosen as MVP of the competition and of the EuroCup Finals. Ilnitskiy started both of those finals games against Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas and was an integral part of the victory, even though his contributions cannot always be scene in the numbers. “He does all the small things on the court, offensive rebounds, hustling on defense and then he makes open shots. He’s a good teammate to have because he plays as hard as possible all the time.”
A native of Belgorod in western Russia, Ilnitskiy displayed promising skills as a youth and at age 15 was invited to train at the Khimki academy. A week was all that was needed for both sides to see that there was a fit and Ilnitskiy has been with the club ever since. After his first season with the Khimki juniors, word had spread and Ilnitskiy earned a spot on the Russian national team for the 2010 European Under-16 Championships in Montenegro, where he quickly showed that he belonged. In just his second game, Ilnitskiy posted 25 points and 12 boards in a victory over Israel. That was the first of three double-doubles Ilnitskiy recorded to help Russia get to the quarterfinals before falling to Croatia and ultimately placing seventh. Ilnitskiy led the Russian squad with 12.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in the tournament.
Ilnitskiy remained a steady producer at the junior level in years to come, including at the 2011 Ciutat de L’Hospitalet Tournament on the Euroleague Basketball junior circuit. He was second only to future Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champ Mikhail Kulagin with 10 points and 4.9 rebounds over nine games at the 2012 European U18 Championships in Lithuania as Russia reached the semifinals. Despite failing to clinch a medal, Ilnitskiy and co. claimed a spot at the following summer’s World U19Championships in the Czech Republic. There Ilnitskiy starred in an overtime win over Brazil with 29 points on 4-of-6 three-point shooting, though it was not enough to send his team past the group stage.
By this point, Ilnitskiy had shown he was ready for a new challenge and Khimki called him up to the senior squad. Though he was mostly an extra body, Ilnitskiy got his feet wet with four EuroCup appearances – in which he made 4 of 5 three-pointers! He also played in seven VTB United League games for a competitive Khimki squad. Ilnitskiy also competed that year with Khimki’s B team, for whom he posted 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in 34 games, most of which he was still of teenager for.
Come the 2014-15 season, it was clear that Ilnitskiy had earned a spot in the Khimki rotation. And that was with a team aiming high with many well-known players, including Rice. Ilnitskiy scored 8 points in that season’s EuroCup opener and made his first start in Round 6, when he again netted 8. Though playing time was inconsistent, Ilnitskiy’s hustle made sure he never disappointed his more-experienced teammates. A late-season injury to forward Tyler Honeycutt opened the door for Ilnitskiy to start in the EuroCup Finals. He totaled 39 minutes in the two-game series and helped Khimki capture the title. Though he earned his teammates admiration, it took time for Ilnitskiy to feel comfortable with the stars around him.
“Off the court he’s a very quiet guy,” Rice said. “He stays at home, goes to his girlfriend all the time. You barely see him. I had to drag him out sometimes to come and hang out. [He’s a] really good guy, really quiet, humble. He wants to work hard and that’s it.”
Even though Ilnitskiy did not produce big numbers last season, part of that may be due to the fact that Khimki was playing in the EuroLeague and accordingly had a deeper roster for the tougher competition. Still Ilnitskiy worked hard and appeared in eight Euroleague games, while in the VTB League he averaged 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds over 12 minutes in 33 games.
Watching him grow over those two seasons has Rice convinced that big things await the young forward. “He works hard. He wants to be good,” Rice said. “He wants to excel at a high level. There’s no doubt that he’s gonna get his shot and he’ll be one of the better players of the young guys on this circuit.”
Over the summer, Ilnitskiy achieved another first; he was called up to Russia’s senior national team. He was first summoned with a group of younger player to work with the senior coaching staff for two weeks before training camp for EuroBasket 2017 opened. At the end, Ilnitskiy was a member of a select group invited to stay and train with the expected roster.
One thing that remains to be seen is which forward position Ilnitskiy will end up playing. On that Rice is undecided. “[He’s] more of a 3. He’ll probably play both; he can defend both. He’s good at spacing the floor. He can defend. He does everything on the court. He gets offensive rebounds against three and four guys. He can play both; it will depend on matchups.”
Regardless of where on the floor he ends up, Rice and many of Ilnitskiy’s current and former teammates are convinced that he has a bright future in this game and his breakthrough may be right around the corner.