The Replacements: Darius Thompson for Vasilije Micic and the next chapter for Anadolu Efes Istanbul

Anadolu Efes Istanbul said goodbye to Ergan Ataman and Vasilije Micic this summer. The head coach and star guard were instrumental in delivering the organization's first-ever EuroLeague titles. How do they replace such significant contributors?

Anadolu Efes v Cazoo Baskonia - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
Anadolu Efes v Cazoo Baskonia - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague / Anadolu Agency/GettyImages

Ergin Ataman and Vasilije Micic built a dynasty at Anadolu Efes Istanbul. Together, they all but dominated EuroLeague from 2018-2023. They made the 2019 final and lost, won back-to-back titles in 2021 and 2022, and then failed to make the playoffs last season (there was no EuroLeague Final Four in 2020 due to the pandemic). They are firmly cemented in the EuroLeague history books, but after last season’s woes, they have both moved on from the Turkish metropolis.

Vasilije Micic has finally decided to come to the NBA, signing a three-year $21 million deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder nine years after Sam Hinkie drafted him for the Philadelphia 76ers. Ataman has taken over as head coach at Panathinaikos, his next reclamation project where he’ll try to rebuild the Greek giants into the EuroLeague powerhouse they used to be at the beginning of the century. 

But what comes next for Efes? Micic may be gone but the core of this squad remains. Will Clyburn, Shane Larkin, Rodrigue Beaubois, and others are coming back. American point guard Darius Thompson was signed from Baskonia and he will take most of Micic’s minutes and touches, but the two are still different players. 

Erdem Can, who led Turk Telekom Ankara to the Eurocup final last season, is taking over for Ataman. Both teams had many similarities last season. They liked to space the floor, run pick-and-roll, and isolate. More than a third of Efes’ half-court possessions last season ended with either an isolation or a shot generated directly out of the pick-and-roll. For Turk Telekom, nearly 30 percent, per Synergy Sports

Can will not be reinventing the wheel here. He’s already used to the squads' tendencies and has much of the same team. But he still has to fill the void left by a former EuroLeague MVP. How will he do it?

EuroLeague: How will Anadolu Efes Istanbul adapt without Vasilije Micic and Ergan Ataman?

The first answer: Run. Micic was one of the best halfcourt players in Europe last season. He scored 1.17 points per possession which was good enough for the 91st percentile according to Synergy Sports. He was not a great transition player though, and knew this. He amassed 409 halfcourt possessions compared to just 47 transition opportunities where he was an average offensive player. Thompson on the other hand was a better transition player, posting 1.14 points-per-possession on a higher volume, 108 possessions. Can’s Turk Telekom side also sought out transition buckets more than Ataman’s Efes, 14 percent versus 10 percent. 

Can’s desire for transition opportunities is not only wise — your half-court offense will take a step back to a degree following the departure of a player like Micic — but also something he’s implementing very quickly. In Efes’ pre-season match-ups alone, the emphasis on taking advantage of fastbreak opportunities is already apparent. 

Can is able to do this with some of the talent already at his disposal. Rodrigue Beaubois was an elite transition player in Europe last season. He scored nearly 1.6 points per possession which was good enough for the 97th percentile among international players. He shot 38 transition 3s, hitting 22 of them. In one of their exhibition games against Tofas Bursa, he shot four transition 3s himself. 

In all these clips you’ll notice that as soon as Efes gets possession of the ball he is immediately sprinting down the court and filling in to an open spot beyond the arc, usually on the wing. He is then shooting without hesitation when he gets the ball. It’s clear that Can is instructing Beaubois to do this, and his teammates to look for him. 

Efes’ big men will play a key role in the teams' newfound urgency on offense as well. Ante Zizic and Tyrique Jones — the latter played for Can at Turk Telekom last season — have been rim-running vociferously in preseason. They are consistently trying to beat their opposition number down the court and trying to get easy opportunities down low. 

One other thing that underscores Efes’ new emphasis on pace is that on many of these possessions whoever takes possession — either from a rebound or a turnover — is initiating the fastbreak. Zizic and other big men are obviously seeking an outlet pass but Larkin, Elijah Bryant, Beaubois, Erkan Yilmaz, Darius Thompson, and even Derek Willis have run fastbreaks for them in the preseason. It has led to some sloppy turnovers, but these are early days. Those growing pains are expected. 

The increased emphasis on transition basketball will make up for part of Micic’s absence, but not all of it, especially when, and if, Efes make the playoffs where transition opportunities will be limited and their half-court offense will need to carry them to victory in tough games. 

The first part of this is relatively simple, Thompson will take the bulk of Micic’s pick-and-roll touches and some of his isolation touches. Thompson was a very good pick-and-roll and isolation player for Baskonia, but the isolation was on a small volume of only 54 possessions. Those numbers will likely go up but not to the 156 Micic accumulated last season. 

The overall isolation possessions for Efes should decrease, but some of those additional touches should go to Bryant. On 60 isolation possessions, Bryant scored nearly 1.00 point-per-possession which was good enough for the 71st percentile. He and Thompson both deserve more isolation opportunities next season. 

Looking at some of Bryant’s isolation successes from last season it's easy to see why Efes should go to this more often. Bryant, as a guard, is quick and comfortable taking bigger players off the dribble and if they sag off him too much, he can rise up and shoot the 3. But he is also deceptively strong, has very good balance, fastidious footwork, and a deft touch. He uses his body very well against opposing players who are of similar builds or smaller than him. His physical advantages are underrated, and something Efes should absolutely tap into next season.

Thompson pick-and-roll’s and ensuing spot-up opportunities will be the next step in making up for the loss of Micic. Thompson has already run plenty of pick-and-roll for Efes in pre-season and looked more than ready to pick up where he left off last season when he led EuroLeague in assists averaging 6.7 per game. 

Thompson’s pick-and-roll threat, Bryant’s iso’s, and Clyburn being Clyburn should open the floor for this Efes squad to do what they do best: spot-up. Last season alone Efes had six players rank in the 82nd percentile or higher as spot-up shooters. Two of them — Micic and Amath M’Baye — have left the club but more than suitable replacements have come in. 

Willis has joined from Reyer Venezia where he scored 1.155 points-per-possession last season on 194 attempts. Yilmaz, who played for Can at Turk Telekom last season, scored 0.845 points per possession on 187 spot-up attempts. These two alongside Clyburn, Beaubois, Larkin, Bryant, and Pleiss will provide elite floor spacing and plenty of opportunities for Thompson to do what he does best and create open looks for others. 

Every summer, EuroLeague teams watch as their best players get plucked to the NBA and in return, bigger clubs take from the smaller clubs. Efes has gone through that and brought in a new, young head coach who is coming off not only a successful season with Turk Telekom but also spent the season before as an assistant to Quin Snyder and Zeljko Obradovic before that. Micic will be missed, but with the moves Efes has made likely not for long. Their odds of contending for the EuroLeague title are as good as ever, and their offense will continue to be one of the best to watch. 

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