U18 Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade owns one Euroleague Basketball ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT continental crown from back in 2014. But after winning the club's eighth straight ANGT Belgrade title as MVP, Zoran Paunovic is hoping to guide the team back to the top of Europe – especially since the ANGT Finals are going to be played in the Serbian capital at the Final Four in May.
Paunovic collected 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.3 steals and 1.0 blocks to lead Zvezda to the ANGT Belgrade trophy. Those numbers included his 26 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in a victory over city rival U18 Partizan NIS Belgrade in the championship game.
"I think we deserved to win," said Paunovic, who led the tournament in scoring, performance index rating (33.3), steals and three-point percentage (56%). "We trained so hard. And I'm very happy and proud of my teammates that we won this tournament in such a dominant way."
Those numbers helped him to win the MVP award, which comes after he was named to the all-tournament team last year in Belgrade as well.
"This award means a lot to me," he said. "It's my biggest success until now in my career. I'm really happy because of that. I didn't expect at the beginning of this tournament that I would achieve that. My goal was that my team wins first place and I played that way."
Paunovic is a native of Nis, the third-largest city in Serbia, located in the southeast.
"My first basketball steps were when I was seven years old, in elementary school. I quit several times, but when I was 10 years old I started to practice with KK Konstantin Nis," he recounts.
After four years with Konstantin, the mighty Crvena Zvezda came calling in 2014.
"After that, I was starting to work more seriously and to think about a professional basketball career. For now, I am satisfied with my progress and I do not regret that I came to Zvezda."
The 2.00-meter guard's progress in 2016 earned him a spot on Serbia's U16 national team. He was the country's second-leading scorer at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016 with 14.6 points to go along with 4.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Paunovic and Serbia lost to Finland and Greece in the group stage and were defeated by Montenegro in the Round of 16 to miss out on the medals podium and a possible spot at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2017.
Paunovic has taken a big step forward since last year, when he relied more on his defense to gain his playing time for Zvezda. Paunovic is more responsible for the team now, both on offense and defense, as well as on and off the court as captain.
"It is a big honor to be captain. It is the proof that the coach has a lot of confidence in me," Paunovic said.
"The leader of the team is the player who is the best on offense and defense. He should find a way to score when the team is playing bad. That is my opinion. With the leader's role, I always try to take responsibility in tough situations and to find solutions in important moments."
Zvezda will be making its eighth straight trip to the ANGT Finals. And Paunovic feels the team is good enough to not only reach its fourth ANGT championship game – after going to three straight from 2014 to 2016 – but also to add the 2018 trophy to the previous one from 2014.
"We'll try to win," he said. "I think we have a high-quality team, a team that can win the trophy. We will practice very hard for sure, and we hope that we achieve the best result."
As opposed to the previous seven trips to the ANGT Finals, Zvezda's players will not need to travel very far to the games since they are taking place in Belgrade at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four from May 18 to 20 in the Serbian capital.
"That will be amazing for us," Paunovic said about playing the ANGT Finals at home. "I think that will be an advantage for us."
The talented guard hopes the home fans can carry him and the club back to the top of Europe.