After a near-perfect season with a very bitter finish, Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar is back in the 7DAYS EuroCup as one of the top candidates to lift the trophy. Lokomotiv has kept Sasa Obradovic, last season's EuroCup Coach of the Year, but changed a lot of players, laying the foundation for another very competitive season by bringing in a mix of experienced and up-and-coming players. Veteran bomber Vitaly Fridzon, power forward Jamel McLean, swingmen Mateusz Ponitka and Dorell Wright, and high-flying big man JaJuan Johnson belong to the first group. Playmaker Isaiah Whitehead, center Moustapha Fall and versatile forward Stanislav Ilnitskiy round out a deep, interesting, competitive group of new additions.
Coach Obradovic has a wide range of experience and talent at his disposal. Whitehead, who will make his debut in European competitions, is a combo guard who likes to attack the basket and take mid-range shots, as well as a physical player who gets to the foul line often. Dmitry Kulagin and Dimitriy Khvostov will help him with the point guard duties. Kulagin comes off a breakout season, having showcased his best basketball in the EuroCup playoffs. He has all it takes -- size, talent, driving skills, deep range, intensity -- to be a EuroCup superstar. Khvostov, who ranks sixth in the EuroCup's all-time assists list (344), is a creative playmaker with excellent shooting range who is very reliable in clutch time when his self-confidence is high. Fridzon is one of the best catch-and-shoot scorers in Europe and, at age 32, he will play a key role due to his experience of having won the EuroLeague with CSKA Moscow and the EuroCup with Khimki Moscow Region. Trevor Lacey, a great shooter off the dribble, returns to provide fireworks from downtown.
A former EuroCup Rising Star, Mateusz Ponitka returns to the competition ready to show how much he has improved. Aggressive and athletic, Ponitka is a slasher who uses his power and driving skills to attack the basket as often as possible. He is also a surprisingly strong rebounder for a player his size. Ilnitskiy, a good three-point shooter with above-average defensive skills, arrives to complement him. Wright had a solid EuroLeague debut with Brose Bamberg last year, showcasing his rebounding skills and deep range (5.4 rpg., 42.2% 3FG). His versatility, size and experience will make him a key player for Coach Obradovic. McLean is a force of nature, a physical if undersized big man with polished post skills. After two seasons in the EuroLeague, McLean will play the EuroCup for the fourth time with as many different teams. Johnson won the competition last season with Darussafaka Istanbul and was chosen to the All-EuroCup Second Team. He ranked second among all EuroCup players last season in blocks (1.6 bpg.) and eighth in rebounds (6.3 rpg.). Johnson is also very productive on offense (13.9 ppg., 1.8 orpg.). Fall is a defensive wall, using his 2.18-meter height to intimidate everyone. Vladimir Ivlev, as always, will provide intensity and quickness off the bench.
PLAYER TO WATCH
It is a tough call with so many potential game-breakers on this team, but Ponitka could give Lokomotiv the extra boost it needs to win its EuroCup title. Ponitka averaged 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in his last appearance in the competition -- with Stelmet Zielona Gora in the 2015-16 season -- and only kept getting better in the previous two seasons playing in Turkey and Spain. He remains a reliable scorer with outstanding driving skills, able to finish strong at the rim and draw many fouls. If Ponitka is able to be more consistent from the three-point line (42-of-146, 28.8%, in his last two seasons), he can take his game to the next level. He is ambitious, ready, talented and fun to watch.
Lokomotiv won 20 consecutive games last season to reach the EuroCup Finals undefeated but ended up being swept there by Darussafaka. There is no doubt that everyone who remains at Lokomotiv will keep that memory in the back of their minds not only to have a solid season but to deliver in the end. Lokomotiv has all it takes to win the competition: a strong pair of point guards, versatile wings with star power, Ponitka and Kulagin, as well as experienced big men that give Coach Obradovic plenty of options around the baskets. There are several other top teams in what promises to be the most competitive, hardest EuroC up season of all-time, but Lokomotiv can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of them as the season starts.