By Jeff Taylor
|Evgenia Belyakova is not only a great shooter but also a fantastic defender, according to Sparta&K coach Pokey Chatman|
Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje are missing some of the famous players of years gone by that have led the clubs to titles, but don't make the mistake of thinking this team is short on quality.
Players go, but players come.
Sue Bird left after last season and Diana Taurasi departed the year before.
What could shape up to be one of the most important additions to the Sparta&K squad for 2011-12 is Evgenia Belyakova.
A 1.82m guard, Belyakova played the role of a fourth-quarter assassin on Wednesday in the opening game of the EuroLeague Women Final Eight.
After drilling her first three-ball for her first points with 1:37 to go in the third quarter for a 50-49 Sparta&K lead, she threw in some daggers in the fourth.
With Sparta&K on top 52-51, Belyakova was left open and buried a shot from the arc.
She hit another three and finished three of four from long range with nine points.
"Everybody from our bench has to be ready to help our team," Belyakova said.
"It doesn't matter if it's me - anyone can make it."
Belyakova hasn't come out of nowhere.
She played well enough last year in St Petersburg to earn a spot in Russia's national team and played at the EuroBasket Women in Poland.
Even so, she was one of the more anonymous players on a deep and talented team, averaging 12.6 minutes.
Sparta&K general manager Steve Costalas and executive director Anna Arkhipova Von Kalmanovic knew Belyakova could help Sparta&K and lured her to Vidnoje.
"Belyakova's one of the best three-point shooters in Europe," Costalas said.
"I think she's started realizing it herself.
"When she plays the defense that she's learned how to play thanks to Pokey (Chatman), she'll become one of the better players in Europe.
"That's the reason we went after her."
Belyakova was a little nervous at first when making the decision to join a team that had won four of the last five EuroLeague Women titles, and reached last year's Final.
"It was a big team," she said, "but I knew I'd like the coach. I'd heard a lot of good things about her and how many good players had gone there, so for me, it was a chance to have a big experience.
"Pokey is one of the smartest coaches I've worked with. Everything she says makes sense. It's really interesting to work with her."
After Wednesday's game, Belyakova had hit 16 of 33 shots from long range in the EuroLeague Women this season.
One can't help but wonder if Chatman prefers to work with players that have potential instead of the superstars.
"What I like about Genia (Belyakova) is that at a crucial time, she's beginning to understand how important she is," Chatman said.
"Early on, she was trying to do a little too much. She was frustrated.
"But I think she's not only a good shooter, but a hell of a defensive player."
Chatman also says that Belyakova has been growing in confidence because her teammates keep telling her that the sky is the limit for a player of her ability.
"When your teammates believe in you, that means much more to a player," Chatman said.
One of those is veteran guard Becky Hammon, one of the biggest names in the sport the past several years.
"'The Best Shooter On Our Team' - that's her nickname," Hammon said.
"She's stone cold coming off the bench. She can come in after not playing for 20 minutes and hit threes.
"She's just an amazing shooter. When she misses, I'm surprised."