| He grew up in England, didn't even try basketball until age 16 and until this season played professionally in the Canary Islands. But in his few short weeks on the European mainland, Unicaja big man Joel Freeland has made his presence felt like few other rookies in Euroleague history. Despite a spate of injuries to key players, Unicaja is the exclusive undefeated leader of Euroleague regular season Group B, and through three games, the 22-year-old Freeland leads the team in scoring, rebounds and performance index rating. If it seems like a marriage made in heaven - a late-blooming super-talent under the tutelage of a master coach on an experienced team whose massive fan base supports it through thick and thin - well, after a month, Freeland would agree. "Honestly, it's the perfect situation for me here in Malaga," Freeland told Euroleague.net. "All the tools are here to help me become a great player. I look at everything I have in front of me and know that all I have to do is take advantage of what everyone is offering me."
Joel, congratulations on a great start to your first Euroleague season. First of all, it certainly looks like you're having fun out there...
"I feel really comfortable. Euroleague games are very hard, like I expected, with very tough teams, obviously, but I feel a lot of confidence going into the games. The biggest asset I think is me knowing how good the teams are that we're playing against. For me, to know that going into each game gives me the feeling that it's a great opportunity to step my own game up to that level, and that's what I've been trying to do so far."
How did you make the adjustment to the Euroleague so quickly and what role has your coach, Aito Garcia Reneses, had in helping you?
"Mainly, I've been trying to focus a lot on defensive work. Aito is big on that. Last year, I feel that I made a huge step offensively and this year I want to make a big step on defense. The two are not coming together fully yet. I am still trying to learn the ropes a bit on defense. But Aito is teaching me to play defense, rebound and take whatever else comes from the game after that."
The net result so far has been Unicaja's 3-0 start in Group B, which is amazing considering all the injuries. How have you guys banded together under the circumstances to start so strong?
"It's strange for everyone - us, too - to see it, because everyone knows how much we've been struggling at the same time in the Spanish ACB League. So for us to suddenly step up in the Euroleague and perform as we have, with guys missing, like I said, it's strange for us, too. But I feel like during the Euroleague games, as a group we are playing comfortable, not just me. We just have to find the same balance the whole week."
How much does it help to have the experience of veterans like Carlos Jimenez and Berni Rodriguez to fall count on?
"It's huge, especially for me, being a young player. It's my first time in the Euroleague and that's a big step that I am trying my best to make. But I know that when I come back to the bench, or on the court, at any moment that I get to ask something, that I can go to them. I go directly to Berni and Carlos a lot with my questions because they are such winners who have got so much experience from having played on a lot of great teams for many years."
How about the luxury of having another UK player, Robert Archibald, in the same frontcourt?
"That's also huge. We're at the same position, but he's played a long time and is obviously another veteran who helps me a lot and teaches me the little things. In practice, if I am having problems, he pulls me aside to say I should be doing this or that. Honestly, it's the perfect situation for me here in Malaga. All the tools are here to help me become a great player. I look at everything I have in front of me and know that all I have to do is take advantage of what everyone is offering me."
The team has suffered a bit of an injury jinx. Robert Archibald and Taquan Dean have missed time, now Georgios Printezis is out indefinitely. You're nursing a broken finger. How is the team dealing with injury after injury?
"It's not easy with such good players being out, especially now that George is out indefinitely. New players come in and have to learn the plays and learn about us, so no, it's not easy. But that's basketball. The sportsman's life comes with injuries. We've got to see it for what it is and get past it. We can't complain. If you have injuries, other people have to take the opportunity to step up."
You guys are going to Orleans with a new addition, Shammond Williams, expected to play some. What can he add to the mix for Unicaja at the moment?
"He started just today and we travel tomorrow, but you can already tell his veteran's mind will help us. He's a quick learner, and got a grip on the plays right away. He's a great shooter with great ability and speed. The way he sees the floor, drives and kicks will help us a lot, I am sure."
You mentioned the flip side the injury problems, five straight losses in the Spanish League. How do you guys explain that when you are winning all the Euroleague games?
"Well, we get frustrated in the ACB games, and the next game - when we're still hurting from the domestic league loss and have to grit our teeth and dig down - is always a Euroleague game. It's like we have to take out our frustrations in the next Euroleague game. Of course, we need to find a way to do it in both competitions."
You're 22 now, but you started basketball at a rather late age, 16. Is it true you were exhausted when you first tried basketball?
"Yes, it was very difficult for me physically, and I still struggle now with it. Six years later, it's hard for me still to come to grips with the speed of the game. I'm better now, and one of my assets is I can run well, which is very useful at my position. But it's still hard for me to run like that over long periods of time; I get gassed quickly. I grew up playing football, and though you can't quite relax, you are not always running in football. In basketball, you are always running or moving or doing something. It was hard for me to adjust, but it's something I learned with time."
Far from being exhausted, you seem to outrun other big men as part of your playing style? Did that style develop naturally or were you taught by someone?
"A bit of both. I always had people who taught me how to play, but I kind of took that and elaborated on it myself. Roberto Orellana helped me one or two years with my individual skill development in Gran Canaria. In England, with Jimmie Guymon, we worked on individual skills, too, but at a different level. It's all a learning curve, but I came to realize that I was not going to be getting points from being stronger than the people in these leagues who are so big and strong. It's going to be hard for me to back someone down and dunk over them. It's easier for me to get a quick backdoor or an alley-oop or run the floor faster."
A lot has already happened this season for you and for Unicaja. Do the injuries make you wonder- if the whole team can get healthy - what the potential is here?
"I think it's making everyone wonder. When the whole team is fit and ready to go and together, we have a great side. Everyone is strong and talented and knows how to play. It's going to be interesting for me to find out just how well we can play as a team. It's going to be great, I'm sure."