Rade Zagorac has spent his whole basketball career playing in Europe up to this point. The rookie has spent the last few years playing for Serbian team Mega Leks, where he has had success as an “offensive swiss army knife” wing. Zagorac has good ability from three-point range and does a good job of rebounding, but his biggest asset is his basketball I.Q.
Zagorac comes into this year with limited opportunity to make a big impact on the court, but his competition at small forward and shooting guard is not full of many proven NBA rotation players. There should be ample opportunity for him to show that he deserves to play over guys like James Ennis III, Wayne Selden Jr., and Dillon Brooks. His skill level or understanding of the game are already at a very high level, his crutch is his athleticism and on ball defense.
In the 2017 NBA Summer League, Grizz fans were able to see Zagorac in action for the first time. He showed that he knew how to make simple passes and read the defense, and although he struggled from the three point line for the most part, it is clear that he and the coaching staff believe that his shot is a real weapon. Although there were bright moments, it was clear that Zagorac needs more time and training to adjust to the speed and athleticism of the NBA game. The three year contract that he signed is most likely a long term play by the Grizzlies, hoping to develop him for the next few years so that he can one day be a solid NBA player.
Rade Zagorac can play anywhere on the wing, and hopefully in the future as he bulks up, can possibly be played at the four in small lineups. But this year he will be competing with the other off-ball perimeter players on the roster for minutes.
When assessing the Grizzlies’ crop of wings, although it is not overly impressive, there are too many players who are either more polished (Chandler Parsons, Tyreke Evans, and James Ennis) or more prepared physically for the NBA game (Wayne Selden and Ben Mclemore) for Rade to break into the rotation. And when thinking about the Grizzlies needs from their wings this year, one of the biggest priorities has to be defense.
I personally do not think Zagorac is as big of a liability on the defensive end as some people do. His positioning off the ball, reactions, and anticipation are actually impressive. It is just his foot speed while guarding on the ball against quicker guards that lets him down. This can improve with time, as he gets used to the speed of the game in the NBA. But for this season, it is too big of a liability to play him extended minutes.
Expect Rade to get “garbage time” minutes in big wins or big losses, while occasionally getting impactful minutes to cover for foul trouble or injury. In my opinion, Zagorac has the potential to be a pivotal player on a good team a few years down the line. His knowledge of the game is something that is only becoming more valuable as the NBA continues to trend toward spacing the floor and quick ball movement. So although Fizdale may not see Zagorac as a key contributor this year, I believe the staff has high hopes for the young Serbian in the future.
2017-2018 Best Case Scenario
The best case scenario for Zagorac this season is that he adjusts to the speed of the game very quickly, and shows the coaching staff that his shooting and I.Q. compliments Mike Conley and Marc Gasol better than players like Wayne Selden and James Ennis.
In this case David Fizdale would have to sacrifice defense for offense, and play Rade in situations when the offense is struggling, in order to bring some rhythm and sound decision making into the lineup.
He plays eight to ten minutes a game on a regular basis, and improves over the course of the season as he adds more NBA experience to his game.
2017-2018 Worst Case Scenario
Rade can not adjust to the speed and athleticism of the game, and is a complete liability on the defensive end. He is a step too slow on the offensive end, rendering his vision and I.Q. almost useless.
The other players in his position excel and are a step above him athletically. He can’t find his shooting stroke and he rides the pine for the whole season while also spending a lot of time with the G-League Memphis Hustle.
Between the best and worst case scenarios shown above, the worst case scenario is much more likely.
The positive part of this is that many Grizzlies’ fans expect the worst case scenario. Zagorac is unproven, and that is ok. He will most likely need time to develop. As mentioned earlier, I believe the Grizzlies organization sees Rade as a valuable asset who can develop into a solid player in the future. And frankly, if Fizdale ends up having to resort to an inexperienced rookie to provide solid minutes for this team, that most likely is not a good sign for this Grizzlies roster. Players like James Ennis, Ben Mclemore, and Wayne Selden should be better than Zagorac this season.
I think that the hope and expectation for Rade Zagorac this season is that we see consistent improvement in his play as the season wears on. That in the few minutes he gets, he shows us how much his strengths can help this Grizzlies’ team in the somewhat distant future.