5 Observations for EuroLeague Monster Nikola Milutinov

San Antonio Spurs stashed center Nikola Milutinov had the best game of his EuroLeague career Dec. 12, pushing Olympiacos to a key 69-60 road win over Barcelona.

While Milutinov has scored more in other matches, he never had such a magnificent all-around impact for Olympiacos.

The Serbian center finished with 18 points (5-8 from the field, 8-9 from the line), a career-high 14 rebounds (seven offensive, seven on the defensive end) plus two blocks for a career-best 36 PIR. He was eventually named MVP of the Week in EuroLeague, winning the honor for the second time this season.

Milutinov’s game has been observed up close by Spurs personnel (including GM RC Buford) who have often visited Piraeus. This time however, San Antonio scouts and front office people had to see their 2015 pick performing on the road. Here’s some stuff they most likely noted:

1. Scoring

Milutinov’s offensive potency has been a highlight this season. He’s finishing plays with remarkable ease and is third in EuroLeague with a 68.0 true shooting percentage.

During the win over Barcelona, his true shooting percentage was 72.0. He’s a menace to opponents with or without the ball in his hands.

Apart from the traditional mid-range hook shots he made equally easily with either his right or left arm, his points after the pick-and-roll or his putback baskets, Milutinov pretty much forced Barcelona players to foul him constantly.

He drew eight fouls and made the trip to the charity stripe five times since opposing big guys could neither contain from getting the right position under the rim nor stop him when he finished. That includes Croatian center Ante Tomic, the most experienced and one of the top-skilled 7-footers on the continent. Neither could former NBAer Kevin Seraphin nor Ukrainian giant (7 ft. 1 in.) Artem Pustovyii.

2. Rebounding/Positioning

Fourteen rebounds through 27 minutes in Europe is a lot because the tempo of the game is slower than the NBA. Teams often exhaust the 24-second clock in Europe, which means fewer possessions and lower counting stats.

Milutinov registered his career-high 14 rebounds by combining two factors: Displaying his fantastic feel with accurate timing, along with showing more passion and energy than his opponents.

Even when he was coming off a switch to an opposing guard (we’ll analyze this below), Milutinov managed to quickly rush closer to the hoop at the right place and jump to get the rebound at the right time.

He won nearly all battles against the other big bodies that Barcelona head coach Svetislav Pesic threw against him. He beat everyone who was near him on offense to get half of his total boards. Olympiacos scored 20 second-chance points during the game, while Barcelona had 10.

Given that the Reds won by a nine-point margin, you might consider Milutinov’s offensive rebounding as one of the primary reasons behind the win.

3. One-on-one defense

Ante Tomic has been having his best EuroLeague season since 2014-2015. Before the game against Olympiacos, he was averaging 11.8 points and 1.9 assists. Against Milutinov, he only scored two points on two attempts and no assists. His lone basket came with Milutinov at the bench.

Milutinov made one of the most crafty low-post bigs in EuroLeague (and a cornerstone for the Barcelona offense) irrelevant. The Serbian center implemented huge overplay defenses on Tomic and then made sure to “slide” over to the right position for the rebound. With Milutinov on him, Tomic could barely touch the ball, much less get close to the basket. He was pushed out of his comfort zone, and that was half the battle in the Reds’ game-winning defensive schemes.

By stopping Tomic from being a factor, Milutinov forced Barcelona’s guards to try and take over. But he had something in store for them as well.

4. Rim protection/Defensive awareness

Milutinov’s insane 64.0 defensive rating is but a glimpse of both his overall impact in Olympiacos’ top defensive game of the season, as well as how he terrorized every opponent who tried to score in front of him. The 24-year-old big guy erected a rim-protecting barrier near the basket with clean, top-class defense that warded off Barca centers and scared away guards who tried penetrating to the hoop.

Barcelona guards Thomas Heurtel and Kevin Pangos are two guys with an almost complete offensive package: They score from distance, hit mid-range jump stops and have the creativity and passing aptitude to finish a match with 10 assists apiece. The pair composes two of the most talented offensive guards in Europe, but Milutinov made sure to nullify their actions every time he switched against them.

He put on some exceptional footwork to prevent them from driving to the hoop and at the same time forbade them from taking a long-range shot. Subsequently, he made them second-guess their decisions with fatal results for Barcelona.

One characteristic play took place during the first half when Milutinov switched on Pangos and kept just the ideal space with the guard in front of him (and Tomic on his back) to deny every possible course of action—Pangos taking a shot, driving to the basket or sending a lobe to Tomic. This completely stalled the Barca offense.

Milutinov served a similar purpose by standing inside the paint. In another sequence, he blocked Kyle Kuric’s mid-range shot. When the American sharpshooter grabbed the loose ball, Milutinov followed the play and threw his body on his opponent as the 24-clock horn sounded.

Milutinov was all over the place, diverting guards and returning to his guy with superb quickness. From one point onward, the mere presence or sight of him inside the paint was a “Careful, he bites’ sign for every Barcelona player who attempted to score. He created an air of “uncertainty” to Barca’s ball handlers and main offense initiators that eventually doomed the “Blaugrana’.

5. General offensive impact

Milutinov produced a game-high 18 points, but he was involved in so many more Olympiacos points by setting numerous screens for his teammates and also sending passes that allowed the Reds a more fluid offensive game, especially during the second half.

With the score 30–32, via beautifully designed play by coach David Blatt, Milutinov received the inbounds pass from Vassilis Spanoulis then directly made the handoff and held back two Barcelona players. This allowed his teammate an open look from the corner that resulted in a 3-point bucket.

He then pushed back Victor Claver to help Kostas Papanikolaou make another triple. In the next offensive possession, he threw down the putback slam. Milutinov then delivered another pair of points, this time from the line as his team took a crucial 33-43 lead, its first double-digit advantage of the night.

When he wasn’t acting as a “shield” for his backcourt mates and preventing help defenses from coming their way, Milutinov influenced the offense with quick decision making to put the ball in the hands of another Olympiacos player. A characteristic example was early in the fourth period when Milutinov received the pass by Axel Toupane, instantly saw Zach LeDay and delivered him the assist for an easy basket.

Apart from being directly involved to his squad getting buckets, Milutinov made everything easier by attracting extra attention from Barcelona players after he began inflicting damage. This allowed more area and spaces for action by guards Nigel Williams-Goss and LeDay.

Photos courtesy of EuroLeague. Stats by EuroLeague.net and Overbasket.com