The hottest team in Europe right now (not named CSKA Moscow, that is)? BallinEurope figures Radnički Kragujevac could be in the discussion. After stumbling to a dismal 1-6 start in Adriatic League play, the recently reformed club has enjoyed a complete about-face and is clawing its way back up the ABA table, currently sitting in seventh place at 9-8. Back home in Serbia, they’re considered one of the favorites (behind Partizan Belgrade, that is) in February’s Serbian National Cup tournament.

Marko Savkovic today takes a look at Radnički’s comeback, particularly in light of exciting things from American players David Simon and Michael Scott.

“Until one’s star fades the other does not begin to shine,” goes a well known Serbian proverb. While news of the week depicted Hemofarm’s imminent collapse, the players of Radnički Kragujevac meanwhile reserved their time under the spotlight. After a disappointing start, they have beaten the likes of Red Star Belgrade, Cibona Zagreb and Partizan, to mention just a few, and are a strong – some even argue the strongest – contender ahead of the Serbian Korac Cup.

One should not be surprised. Although a relative newcomer to the Adriatic League (as well as to Serbian basketball), this team has evolved. Built around the charismatic persona of Miroslav Muta Nikolic, well known for his direct, no-nonsense approach to basketball, supported by an ambitious organization,* Radnički has managed to beat opponents with star-laden rosters. And in this modern Cinderella story, two Americans – playing their first ever season in Serbia – have proven vital for the team’s success.

(*How ambitious? The mayor of Kragujevac and former Vice-President of the Serbian Government, to cite two names, helped initiate the club’s move to Kragujevac and attracted sponsors.)

David Simon, first of the two U.S. players on the squad, has been good enough that he’s on the way to becoming the ABA regular-season MVP. After suffering early injuries to both his knees, which prevented him from playing in the NBA out of Indiana University Perdue (IPFW), Simon came to Serbia after building his career in Korea, Bulgaria and France.

Along with two other “regular underdogs,” Miljan Pavkovic and Steven Markovic, Simon exemplifies the way Radnički likes to play basketball: wide. Most offensive plays start with Pavkovic/Markovic and Simon going for the pick. If it goes in, great; if not, there will be someone lying in wait for the perimeter shot. When and if opponent’s defense is well set, isolation is played for Michael Scott or Boris Bakic, a surprise package on the low post. Although Scott can get carried away – once managing eight turnovers in a single game – he is better known for his ability to posterize anyone who stands in his way, say, Marino Bazdaric.

Simon and Scott’s numbers are at times impressive. For example, in Radnički’s away win at Cibona Zagreb, Scott scored 31 points on 10-of-14 field goal shooting while Simon, despite limited playing time, managed to score 26 with a hard-to-believe 11-of-14 from inside the paint. Against Partizan, it was Pavkovic’s turn to shine: The team captain scored 23, followed by Simon and Markovic, with 18 and 17 points respectively.

With Europe already in sight, Radnički could actually reach another milestone, this year’s ABA Final Four in Tel Aviv. In order to do so, the defense must improve, something coach Muta has been insisting on. Yet, aside from Bakic and Stefan Sinovec, there are no dedicated and hardworking defensive-minded players in the rest of the team: This is why Radnički allows its opponents way too many offensive rebounds and second-chance points.

Nevertheless, Radnički’s amazing comeback has been the story of the season so far. More surprise results are sure to come.

Marko Savkovic fell in love with basketball because: a) his older brother used to play, so it must have been a cool thing to do; and b) he witnessed Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc play an exhibition match back in 1988. After learning the fundamentals with Partizan Belgrade, Marko spent four years in FMP Zeleznik’s youth system and another three playing lower-division ball. Years later, as a political science graduate, he found a different career for himself, yet remained devoted to hoops. For BallinEurope, he will be closely following developments in the Adriatic league. You may write him at markosavkovic@gmail.com.

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