Cory Higgins Can be Europe’s Top NBA Sleeper

When the name CSKA Moscow is discussed, usually the first players that came to mind were Nando De Colo or Sergio Rodriguez. Probably three-time EuroLeague champion Kyle Hines, as well.

Before the beginning of the 2018-2019 season, few would consider Cory Higgins an equal variable in CSKA’s equation. He has been flying mostly under the radar, overshadowed by the stardom of the aforementioned well-established veterans. Even when he began rising to prominence among the ranks of the Russian team, he was still overlooked. Especially in comparison to his output and in total contrast with his actual value.

But in the four seasons he has now spent with CSKA Moscow, Higgins has evolved from being just an extra bench option to one of EuroLeague’s elite scoring guards and among his team’s primary contributors.

He is currently the top scorer for CSKA and second overall in EuroLeague with 15.1 points per game, along 2.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists.

It’s quite the production any way you might look at it. Higgins makes buckets with the flair of a superstar and on 56.4 percent true shooting slash, which is the fourth-best in EuroLeague among non-frontline players.

His efficiency is off the charts, actually. To shoot 51.85 percent from the field (with a 53.4 percent on more than three 3-point attempts per game) speaks volumes for guard’s capability. He’s now taken 129 of his 243 field goal attempts from a distance beyond 4 meters from the rim and isn’t afraid to take the initiative under pressure.

There are some key attributes that give Higgins the edge over his opponents. First, there’s this a fierce momentum he gets from a highly dynamic first step that allows him to either slice through the enemy defense or pull up for the jumper. In some ways, his methods form a contrast to the more calculated action that Rodriguez and De Colo bring to the table. Higgins can very well execute within the system but also bring flashes of the unpredictable when the situation requires it.

Even a team like CSKA, with an offense working like a Swiss clock, needs that player who sometimes tears apart the manual to make things happen.

Then there’s that beautiful and venomous jump shot. Higgins can shoot the ball from any range with a sweet release way above his opponents’ arms, sending it through the hoop while heavily guarded. His athleticism also helps him beat opponents on the dribble, sometimes completely stunning them when he decides to take a lane to the basket.

When unleashed in transition, he’s virtually unstoppable.

You’ll see Higgins championing his team on both ends as well, often with remarkable effectiveness. He’s a dedicated defender, especially on the ball, who will use his energy to harass opponents with much gusto. When he switches on big guys, he can pester them more than enough to stall the opposing offense.

There are actually very few players in Europe right now able to balance their game in such a powerful two-way fashion. And no other hooper can score and shut down opponents with equal prowess.

There’s a particular play that shows how Higgins uses his athleticism in the defensive end to the extreme.

It’s from the 2017 Final Four semifinal loss of CSKA to Olympiacos. Higgins was tasked with guarding Olympiacos’ most dangerous player, Vassilis Spanoulis—a  guy with a notorious history of making shots down the stretch, especially in big games. Higgins lost Spanoulis in the screens and the latter found himself in the corner for what looked like an open 3. But Higgins leaped for an almost impossible, thunderous block:

Being the top scorer of his team,—and at the same time an outstanding defender—is a characteristic Higgins shares with his godfather, Michael Jordan. Yes, his “Airness”, Michael Jordan.

Higgins actually played for Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets (then Bobcats) in 2011-2013, when his father Rod Higgins was President of Basketball Operations. Following this unimpressive NBA stint, Cory found himself in Europe: First Russia, then Turkey and then Russia again. Only this time, it was playing for a EuroLeague powerhouse—A club where a player can enjoy luxuries for a European organization (i.e. charter flights to every destination, etc. ) but also operate under “Title or Bust” circumstances for the team overall.

There’s probably no other team in Europe that carries such an enormous burden to succeed than CSKA. They have the top budget in Europe, quality in abundance and a 1 – 8 success record in EuroLeague Final Four tournaments after 2008. It all just multiplies the “pressure factor”.

While other important European clubs might sometimes feel content just reaching the Final Four, anything other than winning the trophy is a disappointment of epic proportions for the Russian side.

CSKA actually won its first EuroLeague title in seven years during Higgins’ debut season with the “Army Men”. Following consecutive upsets in Final Fours, Moscow beat Fenerbahce in overtime during the 2016 Final held in Berlin.

“I helped… rewrite the script,” Higgins humorously told me in the game’s aftermath.

He was indeed the kind of a glue guy and two-way scrapper that CSKA seemed to lack the previous seasons. But the more he developed his scoring strengths and adapted himself to the demands of EuroLeague basketball, the more he found his role upgraded.

Higgins displayed pure leadership skills in the 2018 EuroLeague quarterfinals when CSKA found themselves short of a key player in the series versus fellow Russian side Khimki Moscow. (De Colo was ruled out of the playoffs after a Game 1 injury, and they were already lacking center Kyle Hines.)

Not only did Higgins deliver an unprecedented personal output of 18.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.29 assists but he capped his performances with a bucket that won CSKA the series 3-1 and the Final Four spot. It was a tough basket, the kind of which makes you say “how on earth did he score it?” You need the clutch gene, a certain level of guts and, well, skill, to hit buckets like this:

Clutch is an understatement. This season. Higgins has been the second most potent EuroLeague player in clutch situations (i.e. the last five minutes of a game and/or overtime with a team up or down by five or fewer points). He’s logged 3.9 points on 14 of 25 field goals. (Credit to colleague Utkan Sahin for help with this info.)

Higgins has gone berserk in crunch time during the last two EuroLeague wins for CSKA. First, he scored seven points out of his team-high 19 in the last 2:28, including the game-winner vs. Anadolu Efes. Then he dropped seven, plus the go-ahead bucket, during the final two minutes against Fenerbahce Beko.

Higgins is that kind of ice-cold killer; Teams will feel his sting and never know where it came from. His style is far from flashy and his low-profile manner on the court mirrors his character.

“He doesn’t talk much. He seems a bit silent. He does things without attracting attention. But he’s been fundamental for us,” Rodriguez said on Higgins to Spanish outlet El Mundo prior to the 2018 EuroLeague Final Four.

“He’s definitely too humble,” a former CSKA and NBA player Joel Freeland once told me of Higgins.

Hard-working ethos and modest attitude have elevated Higgins to the highest peaks of basketball outside the NBA on a both individual and club level. The next step? Why not, grant him a ticket back to the NBA?

After all, NBA scouts have been paying attention to Higgins’ EuroLeague run. Since he becomes a free agent this summer, don’t be surprised if this journey brings him back to the league.

He’s earned it.

Photos courtesy of Statistics: