Zoran Paunovic knew exactly what it would take to get onto the court for U18 Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade. It was his stellar defense that ended up earning him playing time – and eventually a spot on the All-Tournament Team at the EUROLEAGUE BASKETBALL ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT Qualifier Belgrade. Paunovic hopes to build upon his strong showing in Belgrade and use his defense to play at the ANGT Finals in Istanbul.
“I didn’t expect coach to give me such a big chance and that type of trust. I tried to play my best level, especially on defense, because I know that is a recipe to keep me in the game,” said Paunovic, who averaged 11.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.5 steals in 17:34 minutes coming off the bench for Zvezda in the Belgrade tournament in February. “I am glad that I earned the chance from my coach and in the end to play very good in the final.”
Paunovic’s 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks in the ANGT Belgrade championship game earned him a performance index rating of 19 and an average PIR for the tournament of 17.5. His PIR per 40 minutes was 39.84, which was the highest of any player in Belgrade.
“[Being named to The All-Tournament Team] means a lot for me, especially because I am one year younger,” said Paunovic, who turns 17 years of age in July. “I didn’t expect that. I only tried to help my team to win this tournament. When I was playing, I didn’t think about earning some individual trophy. I just wanted to win with my team.”
Winning is definitely part of the history for Zvezda, which has reached the ANGT Finals for a record seventh straight time. The Belgrade team is also heading to Istanbul on a three-year streak of reaching the ANGT Championship Game after winning in 2014 and losing to U18 Real Madrid in the 2015 title game and to U18 FC Barcelona Lassa at that stage last season.
Paunovic has seen that success; this is his third season with the club - albeit his first campaign in the ANGT competition. “I am very happy to earn a spot in the final tournament in Istanbul. Our club has a very strong system working with the younger teams and juniors and 16-year-old players. When I was a kid, and I watched this tournament, of course that was my goal, to play in this type of tournament and to earn a spot in the Final Four tournament,” said the Nis native, who joined Zvezda from KK Konstantin Nis in 2014.This is not Paunovic’s first experience on the big stage. He played for Serbia last summer at the FIBA U16 European Championship and was the team’s second-leading scorer with 14.6 points to go along with 4.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Paunovic and his Serbian teammates did experience their share of disappointment at that tournament, losing to Finland and Greece in the group stage and then to Montenegro in the Round of 16 before a final defeat versus Germany to finish 10th among 16 teams.
He is looking for a more positive experience in Istanbul, where Zvezda has been drawn into Group A along with reigning continental champion U18 FC Barcelona Lassa, 2010 winner U18 CFBB Paris and three-time champ U18 CSKA Moscow. The Serbian team knows it will need to play tough defense to be successful in Istanbul. However, Paunovic seems comfortable with that. “That is our trademark,” he said.
Paunovic will now experience an ANGT Finals for the first time after watching and learning from past leaders such as Aleksandar Aranitovic, Borisa Simanic and Aleksa Radanov from the strong 1998 generation and current 1999 leaders Aleksa Uskokovic and Stefan Momirov.
“I realized from them that defense is the key because that is part of our system. Playing good defense is my chance to be on the team and to be better every day,” Paunovic said. “This is logical and the philosophy of the whole system: When I play well on defense, I will be better with my teammates and my offense will be better.”
Paunovic may be playing in the ANGT for the first time, but he has already figured out what it takes to get on the court and be a factor for U18 Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade.