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17 February, 2020
23 February, 2021
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Asia Cup Expert Opinions: How far can the Steppen Wolves go?

NUR SULTAN (Kazakhstan) - There’s one final stretch left in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers, which means the spots to play in Indonesia at Asia Cup 2021 will be filling up soon. One of the teams that seems to have a good chance of qualifying to 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 more work to do before clinching their tickets.

We checked in with our experienced experts/commentators Jeff Taylor and Josh Bett for their insights about the Steppen Wolves. Jeff has been a journalist since 1990 and has been covering the international basketball scene since 1996,  so his insights are results of decades of experience. Josh is a multilingual rising star as an international basketball commentator who is ready to hype up any exciting plays to the max.

We’ve seen Kazakhstan play through 5 games so far in the Asia Cup Qualifiers and they’ve came out with 4 wins. What does that say to you about this team?

JT: This team has athleticism, size and skill. If the players could avoid dips in concentration and have better execution for 40 minutes, they are a tougher opponent for any side. It's really difficult to assess this team right now, though, because they haven't played the best of teams in the Asian Qualifiers.

JB: Kazakhstan is a very unique team that plays within themselves who are well-coached by Emil Rajkovic. They have some good players who understand their roles and collectively work for each other. If you look at their top scorers in Bykov, Chsherbak, and Clemmons, they have a patient approach to their offence. Chsherbak who plays for BC Astana is comfortable to play alongside Clemmons in the backcourt, while Bykov who is an undersized PF/C enjoys being the main option for their pick-and-roll execution.

Do you think we’re seeing the best of what Kazakhstan has to offer already or do you think they still have another gear to shift in to? What’s their peak potential?

JT: I'm guessing that if everything went very well for this team, I could see it getting to the Quarter-Finals of the FIBA Asia Cup.

JB: Peak potential is very hard 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 on the previous FIBA Asia Cup results from 2017". However, I think Rajkovic will be preparing his team to achieve higher. He is an excellent basketball coach who understands his team's strengths and weaknesses. I think we will see Kazakhstan push for a top-two finish in their group, and then after that it becomes of matter of if they can achieve higher than their expectations.

However, we’ve also seen them being dealt a defeat here in the early stages of the Qualifiers. What aspects of the game do you feel Kazakhstan needs to sharpen down the road?

JT: It all starts on defense and you better believe it's going to be a lot harder against better teams in the Asia Cup like Australia, Korea, China, the Philippines.

JB: Perimeter shooting. Kazakhstan are a decent three-point shooting team at above 30 percent. However, if this team wants to progress further, then this is the area that needs to be improved. Back in 2013 in Manila, they finished top of their group against Thailand, India, and Bahrain. Their great start to the FIBA Asia Cup was then ended by a hard defeat to Gilas. If Kazakhstan can improve their perimeter shooting then this will enable them to compete with stronger teams.

The Steppen Wolves pride themselves in being a pack, but who has shined as the alpha so far? Who has been their star?

JT: Anthony Clemmons seems to do everything that is asked of him and a little more. Without question, he is the team's most competent player on offense.

JB: It would be unfair to make the suggestion that Kazakhstan are made up of one or two key players. Each player on this team has a pivotal role: Murzagaliev and Kuanov are key facilitators for this team while Anton Ponomarev & Askar Maidekin are the team's rebounding force. The scoring for Kazakhstan will rely heavily on Clemmons, Chsherbak, and Bykov. This team relies on each player to perform at their best in their area of strength.

With that said, who do you feel can be a surprising contributor as the competition level rises?

JT: If the coach gave him more minutes, I think Askar Maidekin could produce something. I like his size, his length, and athleticism, but the sample size is very small with just four minutes in a blowout against Palestine and a lot of time against a Sri Lanka team that was completely overmatched. But he's 23 and could be a building block for the future.

JB: Askar Maidekin for me has been an exceptional player in the three games he has played in the Qualifiers. He is going to be an important player for Kazakhstan as he a young player with potential.

From your experience commentating Kazakhstan games, what has been your favorite moments to call on the mic?

JT: My favorite moment lasted for two hours. It was their first Asia Cup Qualifier against Palestine, a riveting contest that Kazakhstan won, 79-76. It wasn't the best shooting performance of Kazakhstan yet they made just enough plays to win. Anton Bykov was a star in that game. They survived a career game from Sani Sakakini, who seemed to have descended from heaven while scoring 44 points for Palestine.

The national team itself has a fun moniker they go by in being the “Steppen Wolves”, but how about the players themselves? What would be a fun cool nickname for a specific player on this team that you’d like to coin?

JT: This is a funny one. When I saw Ruslan Aitkali, 23, run onto the court to face Sri Lanka in the last window, I had to rub my eyes and look again. He resembled Luka Doncic! Hence, he's the Kazakh Doncic, which is a compliment no matter how you look at it.

I also liked it when Askar Maidekin entered the game and started wheeling and dealing. It was if coach Emil Rajkovikj was muttering to himself on the bench, "I need a player that will go into the game and lower the boom on Sri Lanka," and someone answered, "Askar Maidekin, and you shall receive."

So to me, he's Askar "And you shall receive" Maidekin."

JB: When I look at the team's top scorers from qualifying windows; Clemmons, Bykov, and Chsherbak, collectively they represent the snow leopards. The three are a 'leap' essentially which is a group of leopards. I like to look at them as the #SnowLeapThree.