NUR SULTAN (Kazakhstan) – There is one final stretch left in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, which means places to play in Indonesia at the 2021 Asia Cup will soon fill up. One of the teams that seems to have a good chance of qualifying for the big dance is Kazakhstan.
The “Steppen Wolves” are in good shape to qualify, perched atop Group F with a 4-1 record, but they still have some work to do before they land their tickets.
We checked in with our experienced experts / commentators Jeff Taylor and Josh bett for their ideas on the Steppen Wolves. Jeff has been a journalist since 1990 and has covered the international basketball scene since 1996, so his ideas are the result of decades of experience. Josh is a multilingual rising star as an international basketball commentator who is willing to exaggerate any exciting game to the max.
We have seen Kazakhstan play 5 games so far in the Asian Cup qualifiers and they came out with 4 wins. What does that tell you about this team?
JT: This team has athleticism, size and skill. If players can avoid the drop in focus and perform better for 40 minutes, they are a tougher opponent for either side. It’s really hard to assess this team at the moment as they haven’t played the best of the teams in the Asian qualifiers.
JB: Kazakhstan is a very unique team that plays in itself and is well coached by Emil Rajkovic. They have good players who understand their roles and work collectively for each other. If you look at their top scorers in Bykov, Chsherbak and Clemmons, they have a patient approach to their attack. Chsherbak, who plays for BC Astana, is comfortable playing alongside Clemmons in the backcourt, while Bykov, who is an undersized PF / C, likes to be the primary option for their pick-and-roll execution. .
Do you think we are already seeing the best that Kazakhstan has to offer or do you think it has yet another gear to embrace? What is their maximum potential?
JT: I guess if everything went really well for this team, I could see them make it to the quarterfinals of the FIBA Asia Cup.
JB: The peak potential is very difficult to assess because I always believe that teams can progress beyond their expectations. Most coaches in Rajkovic’s situation might think: “Let’s just improve the results of the previous FIBA Asian Cup in 2017”. However, I think Rajkovic will prepare his team to reach higher. He is an excellent basketball coach who understands the strengths and weaknesses of his team. I think we will see Kazakhstan push to place in the top two in their group and then after that it will not be a question of whether they can achieve more than their expectations.
However, we also saw them suffer a loss here early in qualifying. What aspects of the game do you think Kazakhstan needs to improve down the road?
JT: It all starts with defense and you better believe it will be a lot harder against better Asian Cup teams like Australia, Korea, China, Philippines.
JB: Perimeter shot. Kazakhstan is a good three-point shooting team at over 30%. However, if this team wants to progress further, this is the area that needs to be improved. Back in 2013 in Manila, they finished at the top of their group against Thailand, India and Bahrain. Their superb start to the FIBA Asian Cup then ended in a tough loss to Gilas. If Kazakhstan can improve their perimeter shooting, it will allow them to compete with stronger teams.
The Steppen Wolves are proud to be a pack, but who has shone as an alpha so far? Who was their star?
JT: Anthony Clemmons seems to do whatever is asked of him and a little more. Without a doubt, he is the most competent player on the team in attack.
JB: It would be unfair to suggest that Kazakhstan is made up of one or two key players. Each player on this team has a central role: Murzagaliev and Kuanov are the main facilitators of this team while Anton Ponomarev and Askar Maidekin are the rebounding force of the team. Kazakhstan’s score will depend heavily on Clemmons, Chsherbak and Bykov. This team relies on each player to perform at their best in their area of strength.
Having said that, who do you think can be a surprising contributor as the level of competition increases?
JT: If the coach gave him more minutes, I think Askar Maidekin could produce something. I love its size, length and athleticism, but the sample size is very small with just four minutes in a blowout against Palestine and plenty of time against a Sri Lankan team that was completely outclassed. But he’s 23 and could be a cornerstone for the future.
JB: Askar Maidekin has been an exceptional player for me in all three games he played in the playoffs. He is going to be an important player for Kazakhstan as a young player with potential.
Based on your experience commenting on Kazakhstan games, what were your favorite times to call on the mic?
JT: My favorite moment was two hours. It was their first Asian Cup qualifier against Palestine, an exciting competition which Kazakhstan won, 79-76. It wasn’t Kazakhstan’s best shooting performance but they made just enough plays to win. Anton Bykov was a star in this match. They survived a career match for Sani Sakakini, who appeared to have descended from the sky while scoring 44 points for Palestine.
The national team itself has a funny nickname which it uses as “Steppen Wolves”, but what about the players themselves? What would be a fun and cool nickname for a specific player on this team that you would like to make up?
JT: It’s funny. When I saw 23-year-old Ruslan Aitkali running across the court to face Sri Lanka in the last window, I must have rubbed my eyes and looked again. He looked like Luka Doncic! Hence, he is Doncic Kazakh which is a compliment no matter how you look at him.
I also liked when Askar Maidekin stepped into the game and started spinning and processing. It was if coach Emil Rajkovikj mumbled to himself on the bench, “I need a player who is going to step into the game and bring down the boom in Sri Lanka”, and someone replied: “Askar Maidekin, and you shall receive.”
So for me it is Askar “And you will receive” Maidekin “.
JB: When I watch the team’s top scorers from the qualifying windows; Clemmons, Bykov and Chsherbak, together they represent the snow leopards. The three are basically a “jump” which is a group of leopards. I like to look at them as the #SnowLeapThree.