2019 NBA Draft prospect Goga Bitadze has been tearing it up in Euroleague since joining Buducnost. We break down his recent game against AX Milano to project whether this run can carry over to the NBA.
In 2016, Boston Celtics draftee Ante Zizic was stashed in Europe, and ripped off a terrifying run of production to start the season at KK Cibona in Croatia. He was historically dominant at a lower level of competition. To get more publicity, Zizic’s agent negotiated a move from Cibona in the Croatian League to Darussafaka in the Euroleague. Zizic’s move to the Euroleague gave him more publicity, and while he wasn’t scoring 25 points per game any longer, his season averages of 9.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks per game helped lead the Turkish club to the Euroleague playoffs. The early stat-stuffing was impressive, but it was the consistent production at the Euroleague level that convinced Boston to bring him in for the 2017-18 season — and Cleveland to snag him in the Kyrie Irving trade.
Two years later, there is another young center prospect who has made a similar move. Georgian center Goga Bitadze has spent the past few years in Serbia with Mega Bemax, where he was the starting center for Europe’s preeminent junior team. He started the year there, posting impressive numbers in the Adriatic League — 20.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game and shooting 60.3 percent from the field. Seeking a boost to Bitadze’s draft stock, his agent saw a convenient gap in the middle on another Adriatic League team, and Bitadze got the Christmas present of a move to Montenegro, and the Euroleague, with Buducnost.
So far, just like Zizic, Euroleague Bitadze has been just as good as Mega Bemax Bitadze. In four Euroleague games, Bitadze has played 24.5 minutes per game, and his production has been exciting — 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 3.3 blocks per game. A 17-point, seven-rebound performance in a debut against Bayern Munich wasn’t just an aberration, and he has continued to impress with his fluidity, shooting proficiency, and rim protection. This run has helped him become a riser on draft boards as we enter the new year.
To take a look at where Bitadze’s draft stock stands, we’re going to take a look at Bitadze’s second Euroleague contest — a 111-94 Buducnost loss to AX Olimpia Milano. This game was a good representation of Bitadze’s NBA stock — Milano plays a very NBA-style defense, and there was a lot of NBA-level talent on the floor. For Buducnost, there’s former Heat Norris Cole, former Cavalier Earl Clark, and G-League veteran Coty Clarke, and their opponents featured former Knick Mindaugas Kuzminskas and former Sun Mike James. Most importantly, the matchup featured the test of Cavaliers draft-and-stash big Arturas Gudaitis — one of the strongest bigs in basketball and the probable All-Euroleague first-team center. In terms of figuring out the limits of Bitadze’s athleticism, there aren’t much better situations than having to guard Gudaitis in the post and James on the perimeter in the same possession.
Starting on the defensive side of the ball, the obvious point of emphasis for Bitadze is in rim protection. He had three blocks in this game, two of which came on one-on-one drives, and one of which came on a rotation towards the rim. From watching Bitadze’s movement to the rim, you can see that he’s not an athletic rim protector, and he doesn’t often get far off the ground when he jumps to contest. Instead, he relies on his 7-foot-2 wingspan and awkward-yet-effective agility to make plays against driving guards, such as this play against Mike James in transition.
Bitadze has some moments of great coordination, and good recognition of opponent moves as well. His other transition block, where he contorts his body around the cutter and gets a firm denial without fouling, is a very exciting play for the type of rim protector he could become.
You can see the same here on his third block — an impressive read out of drop coverage to attack the cutter, and again, get a hand on the ball without the foul.
From this, though, you can see the limitations of Bitadze’s game — his reactions are good, but he doesn’t get a good jump on the ball, and there really isn’t much extension off the ground to combat a potential shot dropped over the top. And realistically, Bitadze is much more in the style of a brilliant Euroleague rim protector than an NBA one. His ability to read and react is pretty limited to being around the rim. This drive by Kuzminskas highlights Bitadze’s poor footwork on the perimeter, and his inability to flip his hips and change directions, exposing the limitations of his rim protection.
The AX Milano game also gave us a good look at where Bitadze’s strength is at. Matchups with Gudaitis in the post and on the glass were generally not a good outcome for Buducnost. Gudaitis quickly guided Bitadze to the basket on his one post-up opportunity:
And on the glass, well……yeah.
Of course, Bitadze is still 19, and still has plenty of time to develop that strength — young European bigs are pretty notorious late bloomers, and Gudaitis even had his struggles with strength-related skills prior to his drafting. Buducnost compensates for this in part by playing Bitadze in a lot of drop coverage when he has to defend pick-and-rolls, and that does give him better positioning to contest stronger players, and he does cut off the lane well here. That could be an effective use of him at the next level. But if Bitadze is going to have to be battling players like Andre Drummond and Deandre Ayton, he needs to make significant strides in strength to survive.
Offensively, Bitadze had a very impactful game, despite the overall team struggles, and hinted at a lot of his ceiling as a 5 on offense. Bitadze finished with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting and two assists, and showed positive flashes in most of his strength areas. Chief of those was passing, as this was probably his best game in Euroleague in that regard. Bitadze’s vision and touch as a passer are advanced for his age and position, and these kinds of passes for backdoor cuts are integral to his projection to the next level.
Just like on defense, Bitadze has good reaction time as a passer. He’s able to make the quick diagnostics necessary to be an effective passer in transition, and that should translate into one of the more vital offensive skills for an NBA big — short roll passing.
Bitadze doesn’t have many opportunities to make those plays with how Buducnost’s offense is structured, but that passing touch and recognition is going to help him operate in that way in the NBA. He doesn’t offer much in terms of vertical spacing but fits as a Jakob Poeltl or Tristan Thompson-style roll man, utilized for his touch, passing, and screen setting. Bitadze’s technique as a screener has a good foundation, and he’s adept at establishing a wide base and engaging the defender.
Bitadze didn’t finish well in his two pick-and-roll finishing opportunities, partially because of the impediment of Gudaitis at the rim. That again hints at his lack of strength, as did his one post-up opportunity, where he couldn’t carve out space under the hoop against Gudaitis.
But Bitadze did show off his hands, which will be valuable at the next level if he doesn’t provide vertical spacing. His ability to catch passes at awkward angles on rolls is impressive and could counteract the strength issue early on.
In another positive sign, Bitadze did hit his only 3-point attempt in the game, and continues to shoot at an impressive 45.2 percent clip from beyond the arc this year. Of course, the line is a little shorter in Europe, and Bitadze does hug the line when he pops — but he has good fundamental shot mechanics, and looks projectible to shoot at the NBA level.
Overall, the AX Milano game was a good snapshot at why Bitadze is a fringe first-round prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft, and what he needs to continue to work on to make the leap to productive NBA big. Right now, his lack of strength in absence of above-average mobility is his biggest concern, and Gudaitis and former Arizona big Kaleb Tarczewski exposed that. But Bitadze is young, and has a lot of room to add mass to his frame. And if that happens, he showed a diverse skill set that should play in the NBA as a centralized rim protector that can pick and pop and clean up under the basket.
The gains he has to make to get to that point aren’t massive ones, as he has most of the bones of a smart, finesse skill set that he’ll need. There’s real question as to whether he’ll get strong enough to play the 5 full-time, and those are valid. But as Lauri Markkanen and Domantas Sabonis have proven over the past two years, there’s potential for him to slide down to the 4 despite his slow feet on the perimeter. If he can improve his technique in space and his shooting incrementally, a future as a pick-and-pop 4 next to a more versatile 5 could be an ideal situation for him in the NBA.
Bitadze has passed the test of production at the Euroleague level, and should continue to do so as he gets ample opportunities for playing time in Buducnost’s already doomed Euroleague adventure. He has his issues, certainly, but so does every big in this class, and while members of his cohort like Daniel Gafford and Simi Shittu have disappointed in their lack of high-level execution, Bitadze is producing at a high level in a professional league, and showing the skill set we want to see from guys like those two at the college level. So while Arturas Gudaitis put Bitadze in his place two weeks ago, Bitadze’s performance against AX Milano showed he can keep soldiering towards a probable spot in the 2019 NBA Draft’s top 40 picks.