heinnews’s David Hein this week caught up with Sarunas Jasikevicius, guard for Greek basketball giants Panathinaikos Athens. They discussed – thanks to Sofia Gialleli – starting strong in the Euroleague and Greek league, integrating stars such as Nikola Pekovic and Antonis Fotsis in the mix, comparing NBA coaches and Panathinaikos boss Zeljko Obradovic, struggling in the NBA, watching the 2008 Euroleague Final Four from home and his younger brother Vytenis Jasikevicius.
heinnews: Panathinaikos have started the 2008-09 season very strong with just one loss each in the Euroleague and the Greek league. Among the victories this season have been over Olympiacos and Montepaschi while the losses have come at Barcelona and Panellinois. How important was beating Olympiacos and how do you see the progress of the team going so far this season?
Jasikevicius: It’s important in a stand point that we have lost to Panellinios and if we go two games down against Olympiakos in this point it would be hard to compete for the regular season and now we are ok, we go game by game and see what happens. It’s a long season and we’ll see. We have the game in Olympiakos’ home court and a lot more other games.
heinnews: You are in your second season with Panathinaikos and the club kept a solid core from last season while adding excellent players such as Drew Nicholas, Nikola Pekovic and Antonis Fotsis. How important have those three players been for the team this season?
Jasikevicius: They fit the system excellent. We needed some inside help and Pekovic is there, we needed some extra help from four position and also some rebounding and Fotsis is doing that and Drew, and also Kecman is giving us a lot of experience. Drew is a very good shooter to spread the court and Kecman really knows how to play and help you in tough moments. These guys first of all they give us help in a sense that they are really good for the system that coach Obradovic wants to run. As opposed to last season we have players that they fit the system. There a lot of good players, we had good players, but you also have to fit the system. Maybe this year we are more suited to play that pick n’ roll system the coach wants to play.
heinnews: At just 22 years of age, Nikola Pekovic is considered one of the emerging big men in the European game. What kind of future do you see possible for the young Montenegrin?
Jasikevicuis: It’s up to him. I cannot answer for him. It’s really up to him. He is a really big talent. If he is not the best right now, he can certainly be the best big man in Europe. He can add a lot of things in his arsenal, he must add experience and I think it’s in his hand. He is in a great situation. He is surrounded by a lot of older players, one of the best coaches and technical staff in general and he is playing for a big team. What else can you ask for when you are young?
heinnews: While in the NBA you played for Rick Carlisle at the Indiana Pacers and Don Nelson at Golden State. And now you play for another respected coach in Zeljko Obradovic. Where does coach Obradovic rank among the best coaches in the world of basketball?
Jasikevicius: He is completely different from all those NBA guys. You rank from the titles he has won. If not number one, ok… It’s not easy to work with him. He demands a lot and he pushes you to the limit sometimes. It’s good. The best thing about him is that he is honest. If he has something to say to you, he will say it in your face. And one more thing that is great about him, is that he is not a dictator. He listens to you if you make a suggestion. Obviously he is going to be the man to make the decisions, but he listens to the players.
heinnews: Looking back really quick to your time in the NBA, you signed a three-year deal coming to the Indiana Pacers looking to make your mark. Unfortunately it never happened. How do you reflect on your time in the NBA?
Jasikevicius: It was difficult time. I started both seasons very well. The first season maybe I didn’t manage to stay in the same level for 82 games and my play went down a little bit, some of it being my fault, mostly my fault and some of it being the coach as many of the things he promised never being there and the fact that Indiana was a complete mess over there I started another good season and I got traded for no basketball reason, for financial reason. It was very difficult, but I am glad being there. I think the biggest mistake was choosing Indiana. If I went to another team maybe things would have been better, but I have only myself to blame for it.
heinnews: Last off-season one of the biggest transfer moves was your coming to Panathinaikos. The two moves that really made big headlines this summer was Josh Childress leaving the NBA for Olympiacos and high school graduate Brandon Jennings passing up college to play with Lottomatica Roma. You played college basketball in the U.S. and professionally in the NBA, what did you think of each of the moves and do you see them beginning a trend at all?
Jasikevicius: The trends are changing. It’s becoming an international game. You are going to see a lot of those. I Think NBA is still going to be the best league in the world, because of how much they have advanced in the marketing department. It’s just a bigger market; period. But it’s going to be moves like this. There are going to be people that they are going to throw a lot of money in European teams, but I think that one trend you see in European basketball is that is going to be up and down, as far as the finance goes. One year you see a lot of teams who all of a sudden have great budget and the next you don’t see so many teams. I think that European basketball will be up and down and NBA will still be the best league, but I believe that always the best basketball will be played in Europe because it’s basketball.
heinnews: Last season Panathinaikos were bounced in the Euroleague in the Top 16 stage. How difficult was it for you to watch the remainder of the Euroleague and how much fire has last season’s early exit given you and the rest of the team?
Jasikevicius: Ιt didn’t really fire me or anybody else for this season. The fire was there last year too. The fire is always there still. And I am very happy for this in my age you know. It was very difficult just to watch the Euroleague season last year, to sit home and watch the game. Let’s hope that this year we are not going to watch it from home. We can only get better. And Berlin is an excellent city!
heinnews: I know it’s quite some time in advance, but I would like to just really quick get your reaction to the draw for the EuroBasket 2009 in Poland. Lithuania were drawn into Group D along with hosts Poland, Turkey and Bulgaria. What do you think about the draw and what are the goals for Lithuania at EuroBasket 2009?
Jasikevicius: I really don’t think about the national team right now. This is the least of my worries right now. When summer comes I’ll think about it. We’ll see!
heinnews: Last question, I see your younger brother Vytenis is averaging double figures in both the Baltic and Lithuanian league for BC Kaunas Triobet. How much are you able to keep up with him and how good of a player is Vytenis, who just turned 23?
Jasikevicius: Finally I got to see him for the first time as a mature player during holidays. I was really impressed. I didn’t realize he was so fast and I don’t understand where that comes from in the family (laughing). Maybe from my mother, she was really fast too. I think he can be a player. Again, with young players who have some kind of talent it’s up to them how they are going to develop and how they are going to work. He is a talented kid and I think he has the talent to make a living out of basketball for the next 10-14 years easy!
heinnews: He has the genes?
Jasikevicius: Yes… (laughing all the way) He has the genes. Different ones, but still good ones for basketball you know!