Nowhere in European basketball will you find greater star players and brighter coaching minds than in the EuroLeague, the continent’s premier competition. The coaching giants of the EuroLeague are known around the basketball world for their schemes, sets, and, in some cases, their extremely direct and strict style of leadership.
The standing of the coach in European basketball is a lot different than it is in the NBA. The star players are the ones who call the real shots in the NBA, whereas the coach holds the reins in Europe and they will have no issue benching or chewing out their biggest star if they get out of line.
While this style of coaching would never fly in the US, many NBA coaches have admitted to stealing sets and learning from some of Europe’s clipboard maestros. Here’s a rundown on some of the greatest European coaches of the modern era.
Serbian legend Željko Obradović is the undisputed GOAT of the European coaching scene. While his 13-year playing career was fairly pedestrian from a trophy perspective, his coaching career boasts accomplishments such as winning the 11 Greek league titles, 4 Turkish league titles, 7 Greek cup titles, and 3 EuroLeague coach of the year awards. Overall, Obradović has won more games than any other coach in Europe and he’s one of the main reasons Serbian coaches have won the most games in the EuroLeague.
One thing that deserves special mention is his EuroLeague trophy section that involves nine titles in 14 finals appearances, by far the most in history by a single coach. For reference, the next four coaches on that list are tied for second place with 4 titles each.
The most recognizable thing about Obradovic’s coaching style is his temperament. He is a despot and he demands discipline and good execution from his players absolutely all the time. He will not hesitate to call a timeout and chew out his entire squad if they are not playing up to standard, routinely getting blood-red in the face during such timeouts. There were even instances where he called these kinds of shouting timeouts in friendly matches with his team up by 20 points. While playing for him is extremely demanding, he treats all his players equally and almost every single one of his players has reached new heights while playing for him. One of those players was Sarunas Jasikevicius, now a well-respected coach in his own right. Sarunas said that every-day Obradović was a lot different than the revved-up version we see during games, having relaxed chats with his players and even cracking jokes.
His system shares a lot of commonalities with the modern NBA game. His teams heavily rely on pick and rolls on offense and they rely on good spacing and three-point shooting to keep the defense open and on their toes. Head coach Gregg Popovic of the San Antonio Spurs is a great admirer of Obradović and not only has he praised Željko’s abilities on many occasions, but he has also admitted to stealing some of his sets. The two are great friends, and Obradović has also spent a lot of time dissecting the way San Antonio moves the ball to incorporate it into his own teams.
Remembered as a legend and a fan favorite wherever he coached, Obradović left the helm of Fenerbahce in 2020 to take a break from coaching and decide on his future. While virtually every single team in Europe wanted to sign him, he surprised many people by deciding to take over KK Partizan, a team from his native Serbia that plays in the EuroCup. Partizan is a strong contender in the EuroCup and their stated intention is to secure a EuroLeague spot next season. With Obradović at the help, that goal is more realistic than ever, and we have probably not seen the last of him in the greatest club competition that Europe has to offer.
Šarūnas “Šaras” Jasikevičius
The legendary Lithuanian point guard turned coach is one of the youngest coaches in the EuroLeague, but he has already established a reputation as one of the best in the business.
Before he hung up his jersey for good, Sarunas was known as one of the best point guards Europe had ever seen, winning four EuroLeague titles and a slew of other individual and team awards. With accomplishments like that, it’s not hard to see why he managed to command respect in the locker room from the day he started coaching. Sarunas has a tendency to demand the very best from his players on a daily basis while still understanding they are human beings. That is something he picked up from Željko Obradović while he played for Željko in Greece.
Not long after he announced his retirement in 2014, Sarunas took the position of assistant coach for his hometown team where he also chose to play out his final season, Zalgiris Kaunas. The team wasn’t playing in line with expectations, so head coach Gintaras Krapikas was fired, and Sarunas was promoted to interim head coach. He managed to right the ship and never looked back. The Lithuanian national league was never really an area of focus for Zalgiris since they were easily the best team in the competition. Their true competition was the EuroLeague, and that is where Sarunas truly left his mark as a coach.
For as good as Zalgiris was domestically, they were an underfunded team compared to their EuroLeague competition that featured the likes of CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, and Fenerbahce, to name a few. Despite the financial disadvantages, Sarunas simply made the roster he had work as best it could. Zalgiris was consistently playing above expectations in the EuroLeague, routinely beating opponents with much stronger rosters and getting into the playoffs. Sarunas had an extremely deep playbook and his Zalgiris was never a run and gun squad. Instead, they were very methodical and kept turnovers to a minimum.
Despite never going all the way in the EuroLeague with Zalgiris, everyone recognized his coaching ability. There was no shortage of teams that wanted to see him on their bench, and that included some NBA squads. After 5 Lithuanian league titles in 5 years, he finally said goodbye to Zalgiris and signed with Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona in 2020. In his very first season with Barcelona, the team won the Spanish Liga ACB and went to the EuroLeague Finals. Given the fact that he’s only 45, there’s still plenty of time for Saras to add hardware to his trophy case.
For many basketball fans, their first introduction to David Blatt was his unexpected takeover of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. That episode lasted for one and a half seasons before he was fired citing a lack of fit with the team’s personnel. If that’s all you know about him, you’d write him off as a nobody, but the truth is that he’s one of the most unique coaches that has ever graced European basketball.
His playing career was so unremarkable that, at one point, he went back to the US to sell photocopiers. He was an unathletic point guard, but he was fortunate enough to have played under the legendary Pete Carril in college, and that experience probably shaped his future coaching career. Blatt got his start in coaching as an assistant for Maccabi Tel Aviv. However, his first couple of years were spent bouncing from one team to another.
His big break came when he returned to Maccabi as a head coach. One of the biggest running themes of his coaching style is making things that probably wouldn’t work for any other coaches work for him.
One great example of that is practice. Practice is taken very seriously in Europe, but Blatt’s practices rarely lasted longer than an hour. Instead of being a despot, he took a very friendly approach with his players, and their trust in him was absolute.
This unorthodox approach led to success at every single level of competition. He won multiple Israeli league titles, a gold medal at the 2007 Eurobasket with Russia, a EuroCup title in 2018, and EuroLeague title with Maccabi in their legendary 2014 underdog run. Many of his players couldn’t believe that they were winning with such an approach, but it seems that some things just work.
Ettore Messina is one of the few coaches who left a notable mark in both European basketball and the NBA. Unlike all the previously mentioned coaches, Messina never played professional basketball. Instead, he went into coaching when he turned 17. Given his young age, his first coaching steps came at the head of a youth team. It took him six years to land his first gig as an assistant coach for Udine, and another seven years to get his first head coaching position. That came in 1989 when he took over Virtus Bologna.
Success came quickly for Messina, winning the Italian cup and the FIBA Winners Cup in his very first season, a sign of things to come if there ever was one. The next several years saw him win more trophies, and it was just a matter of time before the EuroLeague giants started calling. In 2005, Messina decided to accept the head coaching position for Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow, and he led them to the triple crown in his first season as head coach. This was the first of his four eventual EuroLeague titles, and the first of his two EuroLeague coach of the year recognitions.
Just like Obradović, Messina is not easy to play for, but the payoff is worth it. Upon his arrival to Real Madrid, he famously cut several of the team’s stars in favor of players he saw as more coachable. Many European coaches find it beneath them to take assistant coaching positions once they experience being a head coach, but Messina is different in that department. After consulting for the LA Lakers and a second stint with CSKA Moscow, he joined Gregg Popovich’s staff on the Spurs as an assistant coach. He quickly rose to become Popovich’s most trusted assistant, replacing him as a head coach on multiple occasions when Pop was away from the team.
This experience was invaluable for Messina, who sought to find a balance between his own strict tendencies and obsession with discipline, and the NBA style of coaching that was a lot less authoritarian. After five years in San Antonio, he went back to Italy to take over Olimpia Milano. The team went to the Final 4 last season and they finished third overall. At time of writing, Milano has the third best record in the competition. Given how they’re looking under Messina, it won’t be surprising to see them make a second consecutive F4 appearance.
Dimitrios Itoudis is a Greek coach that got his first taste of coaching at the helm of Zagreb’s U18 team in former Yugoslavia. Given that the Yugoslavian coaching school was probably the best in Europe along with the Soviet one at the time, it’s safe to say that Itoudis had a lot of great learning opportunities. Speaking of learning from the best, Itoudis spent 12 years working as an assistant for Željko Obradović on Panathinaikos. Obradović and Itoudis won the Greek league 11 times in 12 years and they won five Euroleague titles in that same time span.
That was enough to earn him the attention of the EuroLeague’s elite, and after a season at the helm of Banvit of the Turkish Super League, Itoudis took over CSKA Moscow on a two year deal and delivered a VTB United league trophy in his first season with the team. The very next season, he took CSKA all the way in the EuroLeague to secure the club’s 7th title and grab the Coach of the year honors for himself. This also made him the first Greek head coach to win a EuroLeague title with a non-Greek club.
A contract extension wasn’t even a point of discussion after the results he has brought. He justified the extension with a further five VTB titles and a second EuroLeague title in 2019. CSKA’s 2019 title run got him his second Coach of the year award. He still coaches CSKA, and that probably won’t change for the foreseeable future.