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NIKE International Junior Tournament
Interview: Nikola Pekovic, Panathinaikos
One of the biggest off-season moves last summer came when Panathinaikos announced a multi-year deal with Nikola Pekovic, one of the world's top young centers. Almost a year later, it has already been a win-win situation for both. Panathinaikos is back in the Final Four for the first time since winning the title in 2007, while Pekovic has cemented his status as one of the most unstoppable big men in basketball. His development started at Partizan Belgrade under one renowned head coach, Dusko Vujosevic, and continues now under the most successful ever in Europe, Zeljko Obradovic. With Panathinaikos, Pekovic has had a similar, but more contained, role as with Partizan, where he had to be dominant every night. Now, he's still dominant - in fact, on a per-minute basis he leads the Euroleague in both performance index rating and scoring - but he's not under pressure to do so on a team full of veterans who can step up whenever necessary. "For me, it has been easier to play with Panathinaikos," Pekovic told Euroleague.net. "There are a lot of players older than me who understand basketball, and playing with them is easy. Everyone can play and score, so the responsibility is shared all the time."
First, Nikola. How does it feel to be heading to your first Final Four?
"The dream of every basketball player is to go to the Final Four, so of course this is something really special. It is like what Coach Obradovic has said to me, that I will see something unbelievable and amazing, so since I have the chance, I have to take it."
You know the opposite feeling as well, because a year ago, you had the disappointment of missing the Final Four. How tough was that?
"It was very difficult, but we knew last year that we wouldn't make the Final Four after losing the first playoff game to Tau. I still remember everything, because we knew Game 1 was the biggest chance for us. Going back to Pionir Arena for Game 2, we knew they had no chance to beat us, so we had to play a good first game to advance, and we didn't. We played bad. In the second game we destroyed them by 21 points. But the third game, we knew even before. We just played, but it was difficult for us. Still, we also think that it was a very big success for us to have been one of the top eight teams in Europe."
What do you remember about getting called to join Panathinaikos?
"I remember it was one excellent feeling. I knew Panathinaikos as one of the biggest names in the world and they told me they wanted to put together a very big team, especially after missing the playoffs last year. There was big pressure on the club to do well. Everyone here had big expectations: the club, the fans, everybody. So thinking back to that, for now I would say we are doing a good job."
Compared to Partizan, wasn't Panathinaikos a different kind of team, deeper and older, than you were used to?
"For me, it has been easier to play with Panathinaikos. There are a lot of players older than me who understand basketball, and playing with them is easy. I had great time at Partizan, but it was a lot of responsibility. If someone didn't score 20 points, the team went down. Here it's a different story. Everyone can play and score, so the responsibility is shared all the time. At the same time, it's different because of the big expectations. You must be focused and concentrated all the time."
What are you learning from the winningest coach in European club basketball, Zeljko Obradovic?
"I can say I am learning everything, about basketball, about life. He's one of the reasons I came here to Panathinaikos. He's probably the biggest success there is when it comes to coaches, since he won the most European titles. From him, I am learning every day how to improve my game. Everybody tries to get as much as they can from him, every game and every practice, just as he tries to teach everything he can. It's a big pleasure working with him."
That's not to forget another genius who coached you, Dusko Vujosevic. How do you compare them?
"Dusko did a lot of things for me, for sure. He let me have all the time I needed to develop. I think he is one of the best coaches for young players in Europe. He can improve your game a lot, because as you continue playing, you still need individual practice, and he was someone who put attention on the details about how you play, what's good, what's wrong. He knows how to get the best from you. Of course, he gave me a lot, and now Coach Obradovic adds to that."
What were the highlights of this season for Panathinaikos in your opinion?
"Well, we didn't start season how wanted to start it. We played little badly during some games. I think things turned around when we got the big win in Malaga against Unicaja in the Top 16. After that, we started playing good almost always. And then of course, the series against Siena showed we were at a really high level. For me, the Siena series was something special because it taught us big lessons. The first game, we played excellent, but the second we lost after leading by 15. Not too many people believed that we could win the next two games in Siena, but we played on a really high level and proved, I think that we can play with anybody. That, to me, was the special moment of the season and the big lesson."
How did you develop your powerful inside game?
"When I started playing basketball in Montenegro, they made me a center and I never played any other position. They realized I had the size and I think that I am naturally strong, so the power game is natural for me, too. Along the way, I learned some moves and a couple of other things. Then in the last couple of years, it all came together and I showed I can do the same things at a high level."
In the semifinal Panathinaikos and Olympiacos face each other in a Final Four for the first time since 1995. Do you think that having played Olympiacos three times this season leave less room for surprises?
"Of course, we are preparing for the semis and Olympiacos. Their team hasn't played a Final Four in a lot of years, but with these two teams, every game against them is something special. It's the biggest derby in Europe. I think it will be a very nice game, and very difficult too. Any semifinal would be that way, but with these two teams, it might be stronger. I remember the first time I played against Olympiacos, it was an unbelievable atmosphere, 20,000 people in a full gym. It was excellent."
How is Coach Obradovic preparing you mentally for the Final Four?
"He's trying to explain to me that I must play like in any other game, and not play with pressure. I have to continue to play my game as I have until now. But we have some days left to keep working. As we get closer, I will try every day to get better, and to understand."
Thursday, April 23, 2009
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