You can count on a single hand the number of Euroleague players who have been able to score on mighty Panathinaikos the way that Drew Nicholas of Efes Pilsen did last week to open the Top 16 for his team on a true high note. A former Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy winner, Nicholas is in his second Euroleague season with Efes, having been rejoined for this one with head coach David Blatt. Nicholas says his team was inconsistent in the regular season but that it has all the talent to compete from this point until much later in the season, just as it showed in the Top 16 opener. "On any given night, we're capable of playing with anybody," Nicholas told Euroleague.net. "All year long, the guys on our team and people outside our team have been saying that we're one of the more talented teams in Europe. It's just a matter of being consistent and coming to play all 40 minutes or more, instead of just 20 or 30, which has been our major issue so far."
Hi Drew. Not too many players have ever dropped 29 on Panathinaikos. Most important, Efes won the game. Can you think of a better way to start the Top 16?
"Definitely not. We knew it was going to be pretty much all-out war, like any time you play against Panathinaikos. Everyone knows that Panathinaikos and CSKA are two of the favorites to win the Euroleague. Coach Blatt told us that if we want to move on, we at least have to take care of our home court and then steal another win away. That put a lot of pressure on us, but we played the game we needed to. Thankfully, every player on the team stepped up and played well."
What does beating Panathinaikos say about the potential of Efes Pilsen?
"I think it really shows that on any given night, we're capable of playing with anybody. All year long, the guys on our team and people outside our team have been saying that we're one of the more talented teams in Europe. It's just a matter of being consistent and coming to play all 40 minutes or more, instead of just 20 or 30, which has been our major issue so far."
What was your opinion of the team's regular season performance?
"We were inconsistent. We had some really good wins against big teams, twice against Lietuvos Rytas, at home against Unicaja rather easily. Then again, we had some bad losses in games that we should have won but we let them slip away."
What was your first reaction when the Top 16 Draw threw Efes in with two of the top five-rated teams from the first round - Panathinaikos and Montepaschi - plus a giant-killer like Partizan?
"Coming into the round of 16, if you look at every group, each one of them is a huge fight. There's no real group you can look at and say 'These two teams are definitely moving on'. With us being in the third seeding level, we know we were getting two heavy hitters. Plus we got Partizan, which is a very tough team to beat on their floor."
Tell us about your team a bit. First what has been the influence of David Blatt as head coach?
"I think he just brings his own style and approach to the game. Obviously, Efes before this was considered much more of a control basketball team, with its focus almost entirely on defense. That's not to say that we don't focus on defense now. For the most part we do, but Coach Blatt also likes an up-tempo game and on the defensive side we do things tactically to disrupt the other teams. For me, having been with Coach before at Benetton, it has been a joy to get back together here."
Indeed, you were scoring champ in your first Euroleague season with him at Benetton a couple years ago. Can you compare the two situations, that first year with Benetton and now with Efes?
"It's a little different. It's a little more difficult for Coach to handle this situation just because of all the Americans we have, six on the Euroleague roster, but only five can be on the bench for Turkish League games and only three in the game at the same time. Sometimes, that makes it hard to balance our chemistry on the floor all the time. The rotations differ from one league to another. I think Coach Blatt has done the best job possible, but that's the biggest difference, getting everyone on the same page chemistry-wise."
What effect did coming to the Euroleague have on you with that first, breakout scoring season in Treviso?
"I just remember being so excited to just be a part of the Euroleague. That year I cam to every Euroleague game trying to be the most focused and determined as I could possibly be. That transferred over to the way I play. I just think the Euroleague is the top in Europe and it's always pleasure to play in it. Hopefully, I can continue to do so at this level a few more years."
Istanbul is one of the biggest basketball markets in the world, with several pro teams - four major ones between the Euroleague and the ULEB Cup. What is it like to be a basketball player in Istanbul?
"Especially this year, it's very tough. The Turkish League has made a dramatic improvement over last year, when it was basically us, Fenerbahce and Turk Telekom fighting for everything. This year, the top six teams in the Turkish League can really compete at the highest levels. Istanbul is like most Europe places in that soccer predominates, but people definitely go crazy for their basketball, too.
What effect does the stronger Turkish League have on your team?
"The improvement in the Turkish League is helpful because you get in tough situations and games that unite guys on the team. As the year progresses, you learn to handle situations that might come up in the Euroleague later, down the road in hostile environments. I think that teams need those kinds of tough games to grow and mature."
Looking ahead after the Panathinaikos win, what would make this a successful Euroleague season for Efes in your opinion?
"To get to the Final Four. That's the ultimate goal for us right now, but obviously everyone on our team is mature enough to understand that this is one game at a time now. If we don't take care of business against Siena this week, I won't say it negates the win against Panathinaikos, but it would make it less important. We have big opportunities ahead of us and have to make sure we take advantage of them now."