From an Insider at EuroBasket 2013: the Vesely, Satoransky and Czech Republic Experience
[Editor's Note: As it turns out, TAI's Czech correspondent, Lukas Kuba, has his own EuroBasket correspondent. Keep reading for an insider's perspective from EuroBasket 2013. -Kyle W.]
[Dan Casey (@dancaseyCZ) is a 31-year-old Englishman who has lived in the Czech Republic since 2008. He has worked as a journalist for FIBA Europe at youth tournaments, and EuroBasket 2013 was his first working as a sideline reporter in the Czech Republic's group. I asked him if he would like to write about his time there following the Czech hoops team and about his impressions of Vesely, Satoransky and the Czechs in a strong Group C. This is Casey's take. —Lukas Kuba]
From an Insider at EuroBasket 2013
With three teams able to qualify for the EuroBasket second round from each six-team first-round group, being drawn together with hosts Slovenia and two-time defending champions Spain did not bode well for the Czech Republic’s hopes of advancing.
They had not even won a match at EuroBasket since two victories in the 1999 tournament, and now they were likely having to scrap with a Croatia team wounded by a miserable first-round exit in 2011 and a strong-looking Poland team led by Marcin Gortat for the final qualification berth.
Outsiders Georgia were thought to be merely making up the numbers with big men Zaza Pachulia and Tornike Shengalia ruled out through injury, but Cleveland Cavaliers assistant Igor Kokoskov has built up an impressive reputation during his time in the United States and led his team well. Georgia served notice with a crushing win over Poland in the first game of Group C, setting off a roller-coaster group which, despite a few blowouts, had a number of thrilling games that were decided in the final minute.
Croatian coach Jasmin Repesa was clearly a relieved man after his team pulled away from the Czech Republic in the second half of their final Group C match, commenting that, having seen some of the action elsewhere in the tournament, he had no doubt that this had been the toughest first-round group. He was proven right as the three Group C qualifying teams went on to finish third, fourth and fifth overall in the tournament.
The Czech team’s contribution to the entertainment was substantial, with our friends Jan Vesely and Tomas Satoransky standing out alongside energetic guard Pavel Pumprla. They were upfront about their weaknesses—at this level, there’s no need to pretend otherwise. Any scout would quickly recognize the Czech team’s lack of 3-point shooting and struggles with half-court offense. However, the fact that they were able to be so effective despite these issues speaks volumes for their smart coaching and the strengths that the players did show.
The basis was simple: Vesely started at center and anchored an athletic, energetic unit that attempted to force misses and turnovers and capitalize on them quickly. They consistently tested the opponent’s transition defense, and Georgia wilted in the fourth game of the group, their short rotation having used so much energy themselves in pushing Croatia and Slovenia close after the opening-night victory over Poland.
The Czech team began the tournament with the unenviable task of taking on the hosts in front of their passionate fans. Basketball is hugely popular in Slovenia, a fact I first personally encountered four years ago when I stayed in the same hostel as some of their fans at the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland—some had driven through the night to be there, and they dominated that arena.
The local Slovenian media had been hyping expectations of a medal for their team (perhaps unrealistically), but they were fortunate to survive the Czechs’ spirited resistance to take a narrow win. Vesely had a game-high 17 points on 8-for-13 shooting, but was only 1-for-5 from the free throw line in a trend that would unhappily continue.
The second game, against neighboring Poland, was absolutely vital. As it turned out, Polish big men Gortat and Maciej Lampe looked out-of-sorts all tournament, but Vesely did a great job in restricting the pair while still showing the energy to burst forward on the break, producing a number of highlights, including an impressive put-back dunk at the half-time buzzer which cut the lead to four.
The tournament appeared to be slipping away for the Czechs though, as an 11-0 fourth-quarter run pulled Poland close. Czech captain Lubos Barton came up huge down the stretch, however, making some crucial plays and then hitting a corner 3 with four seconds left to break Poland’s hearts. Vesely again led all scorers with 23 points and added 14 rebounds and four steals.
Faced with Spain after such a great victory, the Czech team seemed to be all too aware that they couldn’t compete and frequently appeared to be intimidated by the Spanish defense. Satoransky had reportedly suffered a cracked rib in the Poland game, an awkward fall exacerbated as the giant Lampe came down on top of him, but he was eager to impress against the Spanish and suited up. Unfortunately, his shot was restricted and with the game blown open early, he rested down the stretch.
Vesely fought hard for 14 rebounds with Marc Gasol grabbing just 10, but in truth Spain didn’t need Marc so much, as their perimeter players wreaked havoc and the game was barely a contest. The Czechs were held to just 39 points in total and only scored two points in the brutal, final quarter.
To bounce back from that and rack up 95 points in the next contest was impressive, especially against a Georgia team who had performed so well in their first three games. Satoransky had 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists, and Vesely led all scorers for the third time with 27, adding 10 boards.
The victory set up a do-or-die encounter with Croatia, and there was a thought that the Croatian team may have been tired after their hard-fought win over Slovenia in a game which finished late the previous evening. Croatian star Bojan Bogdanovic was probably the one other player in Group C who stood out as much as Vesely, but he was held to just 11 points in the contest.
The Czech team took a 33-32 lead at halftime and the upset was on, but in the end, the Croatian team had too many weapons and pulled away for their fourth successive victory and a deserved place in the EuroBasket second round. Vesely finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the decider, but another wretched display at the line (1-10) undermined his efforts.
Vesely, Satoransky and Pumprla were the only players on the team to average more than 25 minutes per game, with veterans Barton and Jiri Welsch providing substantial minutes off the bench. Petr Benda had recovered from an ankle injury which threatened his tournament participation and often started at power forward with a knack of knocking down timely shots.
Regular starting guard Vojtech Hruban played good defense, which often didn’t show up on the stat sheet. Reserves David Jelinek and Pavel Houska are surely frustrated that they weren’t able to contribute more. Twenty-year-old Ondrej Balvin was a brute of a man in the middle but lacked finesse, and coach Budinsky rarely used back-up big man Kamil Svrdlik or Jakub Kudlacek, a point-guard who my media colleagues were crying out to play ahead of Welsch.
That was it, I literally just named the entire roster. Hruban, Welsch, Jelinek, and Houska shot 21-for-101 between them for the tournament. Vesely and Satoransky really didn’t have much to work with in a very strong first-round group, and were not far away from willing their team to progression. That should speak volumes in itself.
I’m not big on X’s and O’s and wouldn’t be able to tell you the refined details of analysis as well as some others. I was lucky to watch all the games at close quarters, and I love the experience and the ebb and flow of a game, so I wasn’t particularly observing footwork or decision-making or other facets of the game.
Part of my work in the tournament involved grabbing a player from each team after the game for post-match reaction. Most players would rather be left alone, some were cool with it, but often they did it only as an obligation. Satoransky was the only guy in the group who actually came to me to ask if I had enough or I needed anything more; it seems he has developed a reputation as a decent media-friendly guy. When we were planning which guy from the Czech team to use for a video feature, Tomas was suggested because he would be fun to talk to, but ultimately Lubos Barton’s game-winner against Poland and his connection with the last Czech EuroBasket victory back in 1999 made him a better story. Lubos was also very cool to talk to, and a couple of colleagues told me that he had been unlucky in his career and could’ve played at an even higher level if not for misfortune with injuries.
Whether Satoransky’s talents translate to the NBA game is another matter and again, I’m probably not analytical or experienced enough to offer any definitive judgement. But I spoke with quite a few people around the tournament, and there’s plenty who think Satoransky can join the top table of European point guards (if he’s not already there). He has good size and athleticism for his position, but my feeling was that he probably needs to improve his shooting to be anything more than a useful energetic back-up point guard.
Of course, that could well be a useful role for the Washington team in the future (remember, Eric Maynor is on a two-year deal), and Satoransky’s energy could ensure the opponent had no respite while John Wall rested. He will continue learning and developing his craft in one of the best training schools possible (the Spanish ACB league) and, though every player of course wants to reach the NBA eventually, there are enough riches and successes to be earned in Europe to keep him satisfied.
His compatriot’s difficult NBA beginning may serve as a cautionary tale, and it was impressive to see how effective Vesely can be at EuroBasket even when not surrounded by much. Most observers agreed that it was a pity that he’d been drafted so high, with the excessive scrutiny that being a top-10 pick carries. It was interesting to watch Nikoloz Tskitishvili, someone who is widely-regarded as a legendary “draft bust” after being taken as the No. 5 pick in the 2002 draft and who now plays as Georgia’s back-up center. Tskitishvili purposes during EuroBasket were to provide size in the paint on defense and the ability to pop out and drain an occasional 3-pointer.
Vesely offers much more than that, and surely there is enough there that if you surrounded him with an offensively-decent big man and at least a couple of capable shooters, Vesely’s size, energy and passion could wreak havoc. As far as I could tell, the Czech team did not run any plays which involved Vesely taking a jump shot, and why would you? He simply accumulated points by running hard and rebounding well. If he’d been drafted a bit lower and surrounded by a bit more, he may have thrived in a role similar to Kenneth Faried in Denver, for example.
Maybe Washington improve this year, or maybe they move Vesely and he finds a situation where he can flourish. But the reasons why he once won the European Young Player of the Year award and why he is so revered by the Partizan fans were in evidence during this tournament, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him turn his back on the NBA soon in a similar way that some of the players he faced in Group C have. For example, Spanish duo Rudy Fernandez (28-years old) and Sergio Rodriguez (27 years old) have both come back to play for Real Madrid.
Vesely clearly has the ability to be a big star in European basketball, and with him and Satoransky inspiring a new generation of young Czechs, they will be hoping to push on and make their mark at the next EuroBasket, which will be played in Ukraine in 2015.
[Hope you enjoyed Dan's piece. What follows is my sort of photo-essay of the Czech national team's stay in Slovenia, featuring quotes of note from Jan and Tomas that I kept writing down during the EuroBasket. -Lukas Kuba
Jan Vesely on the first group game against Slovenia:
“I’m looking forward to the [Slovenia] game [tomorrow] a lot. After all, I started my pro career here in Slovenia. I’m in contact with lots of people who would like to come to see me play. And when they don’t have tickets for a game, they just wanna go for a coffee or a dinner [with me].”
Vesely still closely follows the basketball happenings in the Balkans:
“When you think about it, all countries of former Yugoslavia qualified for EuroBasket. If they fielded one joint team, they would be very strong. Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Macedonia—none of these teams are weak.”
Vesely on his sophomore NBA season via a Slovenian sports site:
“I didn’t get the right opportunity. I just have to wait to get one, I hope it will happen. In the NBA, there’s a different basketball game [compared to Europe]. I was also moved to play a different position. But I’m not a small forward anymore, my role is power forward now.”
“It was an experience to play against him. We tried to push him right, staying in contact with him on his drives and he just didn’t hit some of his shots. A part of the game plan was to cut him off the ball—we knew, as a point guard, he always has the ball in his hands a lot. He’s kind of the brain of their team.”
Vesely on the Poland game:
“I’d like to commend the entire team from the first player to the last one. We were prepared for the game and we played hard until the end. … There’s not time to cry here [after a loss], you gotta give it all until the very last game.”
(laughs) “Well, we can’t play any other style… Our 5-on-5 half-court offense is completely barren.”
Satoransky on the Spain game:
“I didn’t go out there to just play [vs. Spain], I wanted to win. Of course, it’s an excellent experience playing against such great players like the Spaniards are. But I think we could’ve, or even should’ve, achieved a better result in this game.”
“We were so close to advancing [out of the Group C] … But in the fourth quarter against Croatia, we looked a little desperate on offense, and we couldn’t hit the free throws. Maybe we’ll have the feeling that we could’ve played better and advance, but even so, I think it was a successful tourney for us. We showed to the European basketball that we are to be reckoned with. The future looks bright [for Czech basketball]. We got lots of young players on this team. Yet, I still hope that we’ll be able to persuade those old grandpas [Jiri Welsch and Lubos Barton] so that they represent the Czech Republic in the next several years and help us with their huge experience.”
Czech national team coach Pavel Budinsky on Jan Vesely’s great play at EuroBasket:
“I must say he pleasantly surprised me [with his play]. Of course, it was a [great] experience to work with such a player like Honza. Expectations were quite high, because being an NBA player means people expect a high level of play out of you. I must say that he shined in an incredible light on the floor — the way he played all-out with his energy, how he fought out there. For this, he deserves huge credit from everybody. He was absolutely our No. 1 leader.”
Jan Vesely on EuroBasket and the road ahead:
“I’m satisfied. I put maximum effort into EuroBasket, and I think I brought to the team what was expected out of me. Now I can benefit from it. The experiences from EuroBasket will come in handy in the NBA. We played such tough games—five games in six nights, and it definitely will help me before the NBA season. After my sophomore season, my performances at EuroBasket are an encouragement for further work in the NBA. At EuroBasket, I lifted my mood up and confidence as well. I started enjoying basketball again, so I can only benefit from that.”