He has been such a consistent force over several years with two of the Europe's marquee teams that it is hard to believe Jaka Lakovic of AXA F.C. Barcelona started his Euroleague career late and is sitll only 29 years old. This season, he has become the undisputed team leader of Barcelona, which put a boost in its Group C campaign by ending the undefeated run of archrival Real Madrid last week. Lakovic is Barcelona's go-to guy on offense and has become the new leader of a team that he believes has its best days ahead this season. " I am feeling really comfortable with my role now and just hoping I will continue and the team will continue to play good, even better," Lakovic told Euroleague.net. "Many great teams in Europe have lot of national team players, and all of them came to their clubs late this season after EuroBasket. So it's understandable that the big teams aren't at their highest level yet. We can expect that the best basketball is yet to come, after the new year."
Jaka, congratulations on last week's win against Madrid. Your team led by 19, losing its entire advantage before you stepped up big in crunch time. What can be the effect of a win like that on your team?
"First of all, it was a big game for us for a couple reasons. We were 2-2 in the group and trying to improve our standing. And, of course, more it was more than that here in Spain, the classic derby between Real and Barca. This game had much more importance to us for that reason, and we are just happy to have won it."
You have been in several Barcelona-Real Madrid derbies, as well as in Panathinaikos-Olympiacos showdowns. How do you compare them?
"This one, Barca-Madrid in Spain and the Panathinaikos-Olympiacos derby in Greece are, I think, the two biggest derbies in Europe. Both are very very emotional from the fans' side and, of course, from the players' side also. While the Panathinaikos-Olympiacos derby is more concentrated to the Athens area, the Madrid-Barca one is an all-Spanish derby, important to the whole country, and that's unique. But on the other hand, I think the fans were more crazy in Greece. Here, everything is more civilized."
You know a bit about playing against Real Madrid since your incredible Euroleague debut in 2001, when you had a 55 index rating and 38 points against them in Madrid. Did you think of that at all before playing Madrid last week?
"Well, I remember that game very well, but you know I didn't think about it before playing last week. These days in professional sports in general, and in basketball, of course, you have to prove your quality every single day. To think about something so far back in history doesn't make sense, so I don't think on that. I just try to concentrate on the game in front of me, especially, whichever it is. I try to do my best in all of them. Maybe I have some luck against Madrid, but mostly it's about hard work every day."
Since your Euroleague debut six years ago with Krka Novo Mesto in Slovenia, you have been a key player on two of Europe's major powerhouses, Panathinaikos and Barcelona. Did you dream that would happen when you started?
"Of course, I dreamed about playing for the biggest teams. And my career has gone really smooth, I would say. From my first team, Slovan, one year only I played for Krka in the Euroleague, and from there things just went up and up. First, I went to Panathinaikos and had so much success there for four years. And now, in Barcelona, another European giant, I am really enjoying all of it."
In your group, you have already played against Panathinaikos, the only unbeaten team in the competition. Do you see Panathinaikos as the top contender to defend the title?
"Of course, they are a candidate. Panathinaikos is always up there with four or five other teams, always trying to reach the Final Four and to win the title. I think it's too early to say, however. Many great teams in Europe have lot of national team players, and all of them came to their clubs late this season after EuroBasket. So it's understandable that the big teams aren't at their highest level yet. We can expect that the best basketball is yet to come, after the new year."
Alex Acker was a key factor in the Madrid game, scoring 9 points in the last 9 minutes. How can Alex help Barcelona in the long run?
"He was huge in that game. He was the key in the last quarter because, first of all, Real reacted well to our lead by playing zone defense, against which we didn't find good solutions. He came to the game in fourth quarter, made two three-pointers that gave us self-confidence and the push to win the game. He showed that he has big heart, big character and, of course, the quality to bring to this team one more excellent, excellent player in the rotation. It's another dimension to help us win more and more games."
How have the off-season changes in the team affected your responsibilities this season?
"It's true that since Juan Carlos Navarro has left, I have a different role on offense. I am the point guard, but also I can move to shooting guard with Pepe Sanchez on the court. That gives me more responsibility and more of an open hand on offense to look also for baskets. I am feeling really comfortable with my role now and just hoping I will continue and the team will continue to play good, even better. We expect to play even better after the new year because we had so many national team players join the team late."
One of Barcelona's strengths is veteran players like Gianluca Basile and Denis Marconato. You're still young, but do you feel like a Euroleague veteran after so many years in the competition?
"I don't know. After five years of Euroleague and everything, I could say I am a veteran. But honestly, I don't feel like that. I still feel young, fresh. But if you look at it that way, in terms of experience, I guess I am a veteran."
Is there pressure on Barcelona this year to be at the Final Four in Madrid.
"In Barcelona, there is always pressure, you know. In whatever competition we play, there is pressure to win titles. I'd say that pressure is nothing new for me and we can play better under pressure than playing relaxed, without expectations."
What would it mean to lead Barcelona to its second Euroleague title and finally become a Euroleague champion yourself after so many great years in the competition?
"It would mean a lot. This is one of the titles I have not won yet. I have a big , big motivation to win it. Of course, I would love to have it happen in this place, Barcelona, to lift a Euroleague trophy for this club."