Mamu, Goga and the Sherminator: Georgia look to regroup with unique big three
TBILISI (Georgia) - Ask Goga Bitadze or Sandro Mamukelashvili about their ability to play on the perimeter and both will credit the Georgian coaches who didn't put them in a box when they were growing up.
"I remember this tournament in Turkey," says Mamukelashvili. "I was one of the tallest guys, yet I was bringing the ball up every possession, because my coach was mad at our point guard at the time."
Now those skills come very handy as Georgia recover from the devastating shoulder injury to their captain Tornike Shengelia.
Part of the solution is turning to a lineup that features three players taller than 2.11m - Mamukelashvili at the small forward slot, Bitadze playing as the power forward and Giorgi Shermadini manning the middle. Experienced coach Ilias Zouros had it in his bag even before losing Shengelia, but as the start of the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 approaches it's a probable starting combination.
"We will try to find a way to function well with three bigs. There will be problems, but we're going to have some advantages," says Zouros.
"WE KNOW THAT IT WILL BE HARD TO GET OUT OF THE GROUP STAGE WITHOUT 'TOKO'. BUT THIS IS OUR HOME COURT, SO I THINK THAT THIS IS NOT A GOAL. IT'S AN OBLIGATION."
Some members of the Georgian national team were in tears after Shengelia went down. The adjustment is both mental and tactical as they had prepared to use Shengelia as a point forward.
"He was organizing our offense a lot - creating from the low post and from the outside," Zouros explains. "Now we have to change our game. We're trying to figure out what is better for us. We only have a few days to work on different things."
Their big three certainly have the skills to make that part of the plan work. For one, Goga Bitadze at 2.13m might be the tallest power forward in this year's EuroBasket. Armed with a smooth stroke, Bitadze brings up former Mega Basket coach Dejan Milojevic and countless hours in the gym as the reason for his touch.
Of course, familiarity with Shermadini also helps. "Coach needed me to play some four even before Toko got injured. So I was mentally ready for that. Me and Gio Shermadini have played together before. It's really easy to play with him. He just has so much experience on the court," says Bitadze.
"I feel good when we play like this. Our basket is safe. It's not easy for opponents to get offensive rebounds," Shermadini points out the benefits on defense.
For the 33-year-old veteran, it's not only about production on the court. Shermadini has taken on Shengelia's position of team captain, following the tradition of other great Georgian big men like Zaza Pachulia.
"I learned so many things from him. When young players come to the national team, I try to help with everything. They must feel like they're at home," says Shermadini.
The adjustment might be a bit harder for Sandro Mamukelashvili who usually plays the role of a big man for the Milwaukee Bucks. At times, you'll see the athletic Mamu stationed on the wing while Georgia run a pick-and-roll.
"As a four, you come out and set screens in pick and pops. When you are the three, you have to space the floor and find little cuts to get the ball or a mismatch. It's a different style of basketball so I'm trying to figure it out. I hope I can be helpful and maximize my potential at the three," says Mamukelashvili.
🇮🇹 Italy were pushed all the way by Georgia, but prevailed to complete a perfect World Cup qualifying window 💯#FIBAWC x #WinForItalia— FIBA Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) August 28, 2022
📺 Extended Highlights: https://t.co/4Q4fptEy1E pic.twitter.com/jCLqvtQlws
Zouros makes it clear that Georgia will need two ball handlers alongside the three bigs. In the dramatic FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Qualifiers game against Italy he started with Thad McFadden and Giorgi Tsintsadze, Georgia's record holder in terms of games played.
"We're gonna try to rebound the ball as much as we can and run a little faster. We also have great guards who can bring the ball up, find the big man and make an open shot," Mamukelashvili also points out that it's a team effort.
Yet all of the big three understand that together they can be a force in the paint.
For the host that will start the tournament with an important game against Belgium the goal stays the same. Georgia want to qualify for the next stage.
They're also sure that the Georgian fateful will have their back. With team spirit as their strength, they will give it their all.
"We know that it will be hard to get out of the group stage without Toko. But this is our home floor, so I think that this is not a goal. It's an obligation. We have to do this! That's how I look at it," concludes Bitadze.