You’ve been in the United States for over a year, got a taste of the NBA early in the season, and spent most of the year in inferior G League competition. But only now you fully enjoy the real life of the NBA player. Did anything about him surprise you?
“I’m not going to lie – it’s really exhausting. We play three or four matches a week, we always travel and we don’t have time for anything. And I’ve only been playing there for a month: I can’t still can’t imagine what it’s like to manage eighty-two games a season. But I enjoy every moment. If, for example, I can think every day that we will play against stars like Nikola Jokič, c “It’s a great feeling. To be prepared to defend them, to oppose them at all. It’s good.”
As a newcomer, you probably can’t complain about the game load, can you?
“I was hoping there would be a few minutes for me at Thunder at the end of the season, and the opportunity really came. The minute is even bigger than I could ever imagine. I’m trying to use every minute I’m on board.”
In the winning match against Orlando, you scored the first double-double of your career: 12 points and 11 rebounds. Which of the congratulations did you like the most?
“I’m happy for everyone. And I saw the congratulations from Saty, it was very nice. I appreciate all the feedback: from the family and the fans, the response has been really great.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokič, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum… these are the biggest NBA stars and at the same time the players you’ve met on the set over the past month. Which of them impressed you the most and who defended the worst?
“As I said, getting ready for these players in a pre-match scout is a great feeling. Definitely another motivation. Of the stars I’ve had the opportunity to defend longer, the hardest defender for me was probably Jaylen Brown, a winger for the Boston Celtics. But maybe Ja Morant, the quarterback for the Memphis Grizzlies. They’re incredible basketball players and it’s a great experience to play against them.”
But how can these All-Star players slow down in the first place?
“There are fighters who are just plain unstoppable. They give thirty points no matter what you do. But you can partially influence how they give those thirty points – that’s what our game plan is based on. When they give thirty points just under the basket there is something different than when they give thirty points after heavier shots from distance it has a different effect on the team when Jayson Tatum gives a three after cooperation from the whole team than when he kicks him out of the game one-on-one. But you have to reckon with the fact that the biggest stars will just play their stats.”
Your role in Oklahoma’s offense is relatively strict: either you push after the basket or you’re ready for a three, where your teammates’ passes find you. Did you have to work in a game without the ball?
“I think it started in the last two years at Zaragoza, when I had to learn to play without the ball – I was one of the youngest in the team and otherwise it didn’t work out. J tried to work on it. And it’s good for me now that I’m playing with a player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The defensive attention towards him is huge, so I try to use every situation to relax without the ball, because everyone is focused on him.”
A key aspect of the game in today’s NBA is three-point shooting, in which you do well beyond expectations: when you attempt a three without a dribble after a pass, you even have a 40% success rate. which is an elite number. How do you work on distance shooting during the season?
“Most of the training we have now is individualized – and very often revolves around shooting from distance. It doesn’t even work otherwise, because of the carousel of matches. But shooting isn’t the only thing. I try to concentrate on working on the defensive rebound, because that gives me a chance to export the ball on a fast counter-attack, which is also my strong point. And you have to try to create a situation other than the built-up defence. That helps the team play faster.”
How have G League games helped you adjust to the NBA?
“It just came to our knowledge at that time. I hadn’t played basketball in a year due to injury, if I jumped straight into the NBA and tried to defend the best players in the world, it wouldn’t go well. But I was able to play in the G League and it helped me a lot. I wish I had more games there, but I had knee problems, then I got ankle injury. Thanks to the G League, however, I’m still in basketball condition and can compete in the NBA.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the youngest teams in the NBA, with your leader Shai Gilgeous-Alexander celebrating his 24th birthday this summer. What is your relationship?
“His approach to basketball is great: he works hard at it, but at the same time he loves it. He’s a great person and he’s fun. Our average age is around 22 and he’s a good leader in this area – he went through something that we go through and he still remembers it. Thanks to that, the atmosphere in the team is great. When I’m not shooting, my teammates keep encouraging me to keep shooting . »
And conversely: have you ever had a confrontation with your opponents on the board?
“You mean foul language? When we played Denver, center DeMarcus Cousins had some bullshit on me there. But it’s funny, I really like it – it’s a show.”
How is the communication with young coach Mark Daigneault going and what do you think you need to work on the most?
“I still don’t feel a hundred percent physically because of my knee, which has another minor operation awaiting me after the season. And when I don’t feel as quick and explosive, that’s important for me. to be in the right place at the right time, at the right time, especially in defense. I watch a lot of videos, I monitor my position in defense and I improve it. When I started, I had problems defending in one on one, because the players here are extremely fast and extremely well prepared physically, but even that has gradually improved and I feel better and more confident defensively.”
What exactly is wrong with your knee?
“You have to clean the meniscus. It is not a complicated operation, but it must be done. It’s not that it limits me extremely, but it’s painful. I’m trying to get through this season as best I can – and then, two days after the base game is over, I go into surgery. The rehabilitation should take five weeks, it’s not a serious injury.”
So is it still true that you should be available for the European Championships, the matches of which will be hosted by Prague in September?
“I have a rough plan for the summer and EURObasket is part of it, of course I want to participate 100%. I lost the 2019 World Cup, I was not at the Olympics – and I don’t want to not lose this. I haven’t spoken to Thunder about it, but now we’ll work it out.”
You mentioned that you were surprised by how hard it was to live in the NBA. What’s the hardest thing about it?
“The routine is simple: hotels, basketball, sleep, hotels, sleep. But the worst is two games in two days, which is really brutal. We arrived from Orlando at two in the morning and played with Boston that day. It’s important to use the free time to regenerate.”
When it comes to sleep: In the NBA, good sleep is a big deal, and many teams hire specialists to help players properly adjust their sleep habits. You don’t have a problem with that?
“After the game, it’s very difficult for me to fall asleep because I still have adrenaline in me. Even if we finish at nine o’clock, for example, I don’t fall asleep until two o’clock in the morning , I’m still pumped up and I have energy. But now one thing helps me a lot: the team gave me a really heavy special blanket, it’s about twenty kilos. And this weight will t help relax your body, so I sleep better.”
With the end of the NBA, the annual debate over who should be the MVP is once again coming to a head. Who would you vote for?
“There are a lot of candidates this year, it’s really well balanced. It’s difficult for a lot of people that some of the teams where the biggest stars play – like Kevin Durant in Brooklyn or LeBron James in the Lakers – are not not very high.And the MVP should come from a team that wins a lot… If I had to say a name, it’s probably Joel Embiid, the center of the Philadelphia 76ers.