By Cesare Milanti/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Before Round 14 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, Crvena Zvezda was the hottest team in the competition. Coming off a six-game winning streak, Dusko Ivanovic’s team was hosting EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, which on the opposite side had lost nine consecutive games in a row.
In a buzzing Aleksandar Nikolic Hall, Ettore Messina’s team prevailed. Luca Vildoza remembers very well that night, and he knows what the red-and-white Serbian team needs to do tonight, facing Milan in the Mediolanum Forum.
“They knew how to attack us. They were playing in the low post a lot with Brandon Davies, who did a great job in Belgrade. They play tough defense full-court, and they have a lot of high-experienced players. They are not in a good position right now looking at the standings, but that doesn’t show how they’re playing. I think they had a lot of bad luck with the injuries and now they signed Shabazz Napier. It’s gonna be tough, especially because they’re playing at home, and we come from a three-game losing streak”, he said in an interview with Eurohoops.
Since he joined the team back in late October, when his former head coach in Baskonia Dusko Ivanovic hadn’t been appointed yet to guide the Belgrade side, the Argentinian point guard has been by far the best player on the roster.
When he left the court against FC Barcelona in Round 16 suffering a hamstring injury, then, everybody felt stressed only thinking at how much they would have missed him. Fortunately enough, the 27-year-old playmaker had to be sidelined only for a couple of games, coming back against AS Monaco.
Now that he has played consistently, it seems he’s in pretty good shape. “I’m feeling better. I think I need to improve my condition because on Tuesday I played for 27:10 minutes and I was really tired at some moments of the game. I need to maintain that and keep getting better, but I’m feeling great, especially on offense. I know I’ve got to be better on the defensive end, but with the opposing team pressing you full-court for 40 minutes you need to handle it. And that’s the way I handle it”, Vildoza said about his current physical moment.
During this game span, Vildoza experienced once again what it’s probably the best atmosphere he has been in his whole career, facing Partizan in the second-ever Serbian EuroLeague derby.
After beating Zeljko Obradovic‘s team in Round 12 thanks to a thrilling ending where he served the assists for Nemanja Nedovic’s buzzer-beater, the black-and-white side got his revenge. “We lost, but I think overall we did a good job. They were better than us at the end especially and we couldn’t make it, so we have to keep working on some details we need to improve”, Luca Vildoza said about the loss in the Belgrade clash.
However, the atmosphere remains incredible whether it’s the final result. “It’s special, it’s amazing. Look at how people suffered, how they feel the game, they were screaming, chanting. That’s awesome. I recommend playing for Serbian teams to everybody, I’m happy to be here”, he added about the Serbian derby.
In both games, Crvena Zvezda found in Nemanja Nedovic the perfect deus ex machina. In the away win, he banked in the winning three-pointer that shocked Partizan, while in the home loss, he still delivered an important dagger to not give the opposing team the overall lead in the double confronts.
The former Milan and Panathinaikos shooting guard is finding himself well alongside the Argentinian in the backcourt, and both are averaging 14.5 points per game. But Vildoza thinks the key has to be found in the whole team.
“When Nedo is in shape and is ready, he can’t be stopped. He can score in so many ways, he can shoot, he can drive, and assist. He can do everything. But I think this season as a team we are playing better, we are a tough team to face when we step up our defensive intensity. And then in offense, when it’s not me or Nedo there are Bentil, Dobric, Petrusev… so many players that can help us score important points. But our main strength is the defense”, he commented on Crvena Zvezda.
After losing to its fiercest rivals, Crvena Zvezda is facing its double-game week in Italy, where Vildoza potentially sees himself since he has an Italian passport due to his roots and he likes “the food and the people, who are very similar to Argentina”. It’s a future possibility for the former Baskonia player. “Nobody expected me to play in Serbia, and here I am. We’ll see in the future”, he added.
Against Virtus Bologna, he faced Tornike Shengelia, while he could have played against an injured Shavon Shields in Mediolanum Forum, and seeing at the same time Dusko Ivanovic on his bench. This brings Baskonia memories to Luca Vildoza, especially thinking of that 2019-20 winning season.
“We were so bad that year. I think we were 14th in the EuroLeague and 8th in the ACB League. Covid stroke and then we practiced a lot with Dusko. When we found ourselves in Valencia we were in perfect shape, and we did a great job winning the ACB League”, he said.
If the Argentinian is the kind of player that we’re all looking at now week by week in the EuroLeague, great credit has to be given to the Basque front office and mostly to somebody who has been leading operations for years. “I think Baskonia is everywhere in Europe. Alfredo Salazar, Baskonia’s scout, is the main guy choosing players. He brought in Markus Howard when almost nobody was talking about him, then Darius Thompson… It’s all heart for Alfredo, he helped me a lot when I was there and he’s the guy who’s bringing that kind of player to the team”, he said praising Salazar.
Luca Vildoza has been the first offensive option for Crvena Zvezda this season, and he proved that by winning his first EuroLeague MVP of the Month in December while waiting for his fellow countrymen Facundo Campazzo to join him.
After playing with the former Real Madrid playmaker for several years representing Argentina, the two will share the court soon in the EuroLeague and they’ve already stepped on the court together in the ABA League, proving that the chemistry is still there.
However, Vildoza believes that they’re both different players since they tried the NBA experience. “I think the connection stays, but I think I’m not the same guy. Just like Facu. We’re not the same guys who left for the NBA: we improved a lot our game, and I think we find each other better now. We’ve got only a few games to connect in the ABA League, and it’s hard to play with him after this long time, but I’m waiting until March so I can share with him the EuroLeague court”, he said on Campazzo.
The Vildoza-Campazzo duo will try to help Crvena Zvezda in the playoff race only for a few games, starting in March. “Facu is a top player in Europe, he can be the best point guard in the EuroLeague alongside Micic and Mike James. He can bring us energy, and as a point guard, he can score and assist while being a great defender on everybody. So that will really help us, especially because after so many months of competing in the EuroLeague, we will need his freshness”, Vildoza added about Facundo.
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In which probably is the most balanced and intense EuroLeague Regular Season ever, the Serbian red-and-white team has all the rights to fight for a spot in the Top 8. But something needs to change, according to Luca Vildoza. “We’re having a bad streak right now. Not only because we’re losing, but also because of our attitude. We’re not getting ready for the games since the very beginning and we’re waiting until the other team scores something like 15 points to start being focused”, he said.
Particularly, the former Baskonia leader believes they should improve on the rebounding side. “But I think our defense is the key, not letting the opponents have that second opportunity by getting offensive rebounds. Everybody is crushing our rebounds and they know how weaknesses of course. Everybody is doing the scouting. Everything starts with me, the front line, the point guard. But we’ll be good”, he added.
Before heading back to Europe, the Argentinian point guard tried his way into the NBA world, first with the New York Knicks and then with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Despite playing a very limited number of games, Luca Vildoza came back with a new mentality. “The best thing I took from there is the way they practice, the way they take care of their bodies. They’re not running every day, so they can get conditioning. They wait and they know when and how to stop and practice. Knowing that even Giannis and the stars are going 100% in every single practice made me realize that I had to do the same”, he said.
“Before I went there I wasn’t practicing at my best, I thought I was taking care of my body. But what I was doing wasn’t taking care of my body, at all. And now, practicing 100% every day made me make a step forward in my career, in my basketball style. I’m happy with it and I’m happy to be grown as a player there”, he admitted.
If he went from averaging no more than 11 points per game in his EuroLeague seasons with Baskonia to being one of the highest scorers in Europe this season, something has to be changed.
During his time with the Milwaukee Bucks, Luca Vildoza stepped up his game offensively to explore a new and better version of himself. “I improved a lot when I was there this last summer, I stayed with them also during the preseason. I was working on my skills, my shot, and my weight. Before the NBA, when I drove to the basket and I got it, I eventually lay up somewhere else”, he said.
The most important progress he made, however, is somewhere else. “The best improvement I had was with my shot. It gets further and I’m shooting very far sometimes. That changed everything. When I played with that kind of shot, everybody is trying to press me and I can drive to the basket. I feel free to do it with this team, so I have the trust of the staff, Dusko, and all of my teammates”, Vildoza added.
He grew up with Manu Ginobili’s poster in his room and he took a lot from Vassilis Spanoulis to improve his skill set, but what if Luca Vildoza was a young basketball fan growing up nowadays? His answer is very clear.
“As an idol, I would have Giannis, and not because I played with him. I care about his story, his life, how he improves every day, and how he worked to get where he’s at right now. In Europe, I think I’ll be watching guys like Mike James and Vasa Micic. I like the way they play and how they change their rhythm every time, how they control the game. Vasa has been the top point guard in the last three/four years”, he commented on the players who inspire him the most.
From having its winning streak interrupted at home to coming away to get back on the winning side after three defeats in a row, Crvena Zvezda meets Milan again in the competition where every game matters.
And if that’s the truth, it matters most if the 27-year-old point guard from Argentina is the leader of Serbians on the court. A new version of himself, better on offense, having switched mentally, taking control of the whole team. A different leader, a different Luca Vildoza.
PHOTO CREDIT: Turkish Airlines EuroLeague