|Even when measured against the best-rated players in the entire Turkish Airlines Euroleague season so far, Joel Freeland of Unicaja stands out for two things that go great together: youth and efficiency. Just turned 24 earlier this month, Freeland ranks fifth in average performance index rating, at 17.25 per game, on a list of mostly older, more experience players who are on the court more than he is. Nonetheless, he has recorded the second-most two-point shots made this season (66), the sixth-best two-point accuracy (66%), the eighth-most rebounds (75) and the 12th-most points (162). A total of 57 players average more minutes than Freeland. It might also be said that Freeland's consistency - at least 9 points scored in all 12 games this season, and at least 7 rebounds in 8 of them - has come despite his team's ups and downs, including mid-season changes of head coaches and starting point guards for Unicaja. There is little doubt now, as Unicaja heads resumes the Top 16 on Thursday with an almost do-or-die game at Lietuvos Rytas, that Freeland will be counted upon, despite his youth, to help lead the way to a victory that could turn the team's season around. "With the confidence we have now, I am sure we can hold it together," Freeland told Euroleague.net. "I wouldn't bet against us, not seeing how good we are playing every day now. I believe that we're definitely going to pull through."
Joel, you and Unicaja have a huge road game at Lietuvos Rytas on Thursday, with the winner assured a tie for second place in Group E. What's the team's outlook right now?
"It's a tough situation for us, but with the way we're playing at the moment, we're really confident in our game. Going in, we obviously need to win to have any chance to reach the Playoffs. We are confident now, both individually and as a team, and we're playing together a lot more. We will see what happens, but I can assure you we are ready."
The team has had 10 days or more without a game, your longest time with new head coach Chus Mateo. What has been accomplished in that extra time?
"It's true that we didn't have a lot of time with Chus when he started, because his first game came two days later. We had to learn a lot very quickly. This week we had the chance to take away any doubts that we had as players or as a team. We took the opportunity to clear those things up and get to know 100-percent what we are doing, as well as to add some things, new plays and things we want to do in certain situations. So all in all it has been a productive week."
Unicaja is coming off a high point, the comeback home win against Lietuvos Rytas in Game 3. That kind of changed everything, didn't it?
"It is, because that was one thing we hadn't done before as a team. In the past, if we were down in game, we were down both mentally and physically, and we weren't able to come back. Now, we have that quality that if we're down, we are ready to fight and get back into the game. That has happened now in two or three games since Chus arrived. We were down, pulled level and fought back each time. What that told us is that we can go up against great teams like Caja Laboral and, if we're close at the end, have a chance to win. We have that quality now, so we are in almost every game."
Nedzad Sinanovic was key to the comeback against Lietuvos Rytas, surprising everyone. You practice with him. Can we expect to see more from him?
"He's a good player, no doubt. He also has experience. He's one of them players who, due to his size - 2.22 meters - can help anytime just by intimidating opposing players. Obviously, in the Lietuvos Rytas game, he was really impressive, came on and gave us the minutes we needed to help us pull out the victory. We're just hoping that he continued like that in other games and we get some more wins. With me and Robert Archibald not having the size of some other teams, Nedzad adds diversity to the team on offense and on defense."
What specifically does Unicaja need to do Thursday to keep turning around a tough season?
"We need to stop them from running, because they are a fast team that loves to get out and run. The bigs as much as the guards, they are all fast players. We played them once now, so we all know each other, and we can relax a bit, not in the game, but in our minds. Knowing how they will play, we'll have more of an idea how to win the game. And like I said, stopping them from running and stopping their great shooters will be part of that. It's a tough team and it'll be a tough game, but we are capable of winning it."
How much did the changing point guards and head coaches earlier in the season influence Unicaja's inconsistency so far?
"Consistency is about each player and their confidence. We've had people going one day up and one day down, and it seems like we never had all the guys going good together at the same time. If one player was going good, we had five others with their heads in different places. Now, the players are a lot more focused, coming to practice wanting to get better and with a great interest in playing together to see what we can do as a team. Our consistency has improved and I hope it continues."
Personally, you have been consistent throughout the Euroleague season, raising your game in almost every statistical category. Was that a goal of yours coming into the season?
"As a player, you obviously want to get better all the time. One thing that helps me is the will to do that. You grow every year you play anyway, with improvement from one year to the next. But for me, the difference this year has been experience, knowing more about the game and especially about the Euroleague. Last year was my first in the competition, and although I always had confidence, there were still things - and still are - that I need to correct to make myself a complete player. I am happy with the statistics that I have in the Euroleague, for being just 24 in my second season, and I hope to continue achieving more with my team."
What did you learn as a rookie that you've been able to apply on court this Euroleague season?
"It was just a completely different competition for me last year, and a completely different level of play in comparison to what I knew before playing with Gran Canaria in the Spanish League and the Eurocup. I had to raise my game, mentally and physically, to compete better. I learned a lot in every game. I also learned a lot practicing with Robert Archibald, especially from his defensive work. And in the end, that one year was huge for me. I got experience and confidence to go forward and strive to be the best."
In your second year, what does it mean for you to play in the Euroleague?
"For me, it's just a fantastic competition. It's the biggest league in Europe and I couldn't ask for anything more than to be on a great team at my age and have the chance to play real minutes with an important role in the Euroleague. I consider playing in the Euroleague one of my best achievements so far, and I am proud to be part of it. Just the other day, I was thinking how much greater it would feel to win something in this competition. So that's what I am looking forward to now, helping my team get to a Final Four and win a title someday. That would be great."
Back to Thursday's game, the most important yet: what are your chances in Vilnius against Lietuvos Rytas?
"This week we just had of practice will be an advantage for us going into the game. With the confidence we have now, I am sure we can hold it together. I wouldn't bet against us, not seeing how good we are playing every day now. I believe that we're definitely going to pull through."