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Interview: Montenegro national team coach Jelena Škerović talks coaching philosophy, working with American-born players and more

A conversation with Jelena Škerović, coach of the Montenegro national team. She provides insight into her coaching philosophy, working with American-born players Natasha Mack and Taya Davis-Reimer and more.

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Jelena Škerović on the sideline coaching Montenegro during a 2023 game against Serbia in Ljubjana.
Photo by JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images

Jelena Škerović played professional ball in Yugoslavia, Montenegro, Serbia, Poland, Czechia, Russia and Turkey, winning multiple championships. Since 2019, she’s coached the Montenegro national team.

Coach Škerović found time in her busy schedule to talk about working with former NCAA and WNBA players Natasha Mack and Taya Davis-Reimer, the naturalization process and EuroBasket qualifiers.

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As a player, Jelena Škerović, pictured competing for Montenegro in EuroBasket Women 2015, was a tough floor general.
Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

You mention Serbian men’s basketball coaching legend Željko Obradović, who currently is the head coach of Partizan, as the head coach who shaped your coaching style the most. Can you explain to American readers, who are unfamiliar with his achievements and approach, what made him so special and what qualities of his you’re trying to emulate?

Željko is the coach with the most trophies in EuroLeague history, he won it nine times. For me, I like how he runs the team and how his team plays the best basketball when it is most important. His ethic of work and how he manages to make the best out of his players is something I am trying to follow.

Back when you coached in Poland, you preferred “thinking” players who reacted to the events on the court. Is this reactiveness still the quality you value more in your players?

Yes, it is still the quality I am looking for in players, and I also try to teach them how to think on the floor. Basketball is game of action and reaction, so thinking and recognizing situations is very important.

Talking to Natasha Mack, she told me that you knew her from playing against her. Can you tell us more what you saw in her and how did the recruitment go?

The recruiting went pretty easy with Mac. Talks went smooth, both sides understand the obligations of contract. Mac is the player who is silent, but dominates on both ends of the floor. We needed player like her on our national team. And besides that, Mac is an amazing teammate and a great person. That is more important than playing basketball.

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Taya Davis-Reimer, pictured playing for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2018, is one of two naturalized Americans playing for Montenegro.
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Was getting Taya Davis-Reimer on board much different? What did you see in her?

With Taya, the process was the same as with Mac, easy communication and willingness to play for Montenegro. Taya is a player who can play inside and outside the paint. She can be used more for transitioning the ball and handle more aggressive defensive tasks. She is also a great teammate and a great person.

Can you describe to American readers the process of naturalization? How does that look legally? What are the requirements for a player to be naturalized?

The process of naturalization can take from two to three months. It involves a lot of paperwork also from the American federation, proving that the player did not play for the [US] national team. If the paper from the US federation is “green” then the process is much easier to finish. The next important thing is proving that player has no criminal record. After that, the institutions in Montenegro start their process. The player must come to Montenegro to sign proper papers and do other things in order to get the passport of Montenegro.

Do the American-born players require a different coaching approach? They’re not playing for their country, so how do you keep them motivated?

With the passport they have the opportunity to play in EU as European players. There are no limits regarding the number of EU players on EU teams, but there are regarding outside EU-born players. So they have benefits of that. As for motivation, it is the goals we put in front of us to achieve. We understand that as a group we can reach them sooner than doing it individually. And the most important things is chemistry with other players. When chemistry is good on the team then everything is easier to do and everyone gains from that.

In the first game of EuroBasket 2025 qualifiers, Montengro scored 91 points; in the second, the team had 85. Montenegro is the third highest-scoring offense so far. What teams influence your offense and what offensive rules do you try to follow?

I try to put the players in best positions for them to score. We try to stick to the rules and follow them. From good defense, we try to run fastbreaks and score easy points. If we can’t, we simply play off sets.

In qualifiers for EuroBasket 2025, Montengero sits atop Group H with two wins. Will any other result than a direct qualification to the tournament be a disappointment?

For now, we have good score; the plan is to stay on that good track. Next November, we play against Luxembourg, the team which is also 2-0. So that will be our focus for now. I like to take things game by game. If we reach a good result in that game, I think we will be able to qualify directly to the tournament. Our goal is to participate in EuroBasket 2025.