With Vlade Divac being the first International player to really succeed in the NBA, one part of the mystery may have been solved. Divac, who was always heralded as one of the league's top-5 or in the worst case top-10 NBA centers in each of his 15 NBA seasons, was an efficient player of course. The thing is he was nowhere close to being as influential on the NBA compared with the impact he had on European basketball, where he was considered a superstar. The same (even to a higher degree of influence) was notable with Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and Sarunas Marciulionis, while Drazen Petrovic died too soon in his NBA career to judge and Arvydas Sabonis made the trip to the U.S. when he older and already battling injuries.
Later on, another variable was added to the mix. In order to bring an International player to the NBA, it became unnecessary from him to be well known player in Europe (where most of the International NBA players shine), Asia, Africa or Latin America first. What NBA teams soon found out was that, through the NBA Draft most of the time, its possible to beat others to the punch by picking up a player with potential to become an NBA star one day simply by drafting someone who combines the things Europeans are famous for with the physical attributes the NBA looks for in its prospects. Obviously that doesnt always work, but early on it looked like forward thinking NBA franchises were on to something huge. Dirk Nowitzki and Toni Parker were completely unknown in Europe when they were selected in the NBA draft, Pau Gasol was just one more role player in Barcelona, while Andrei Kirilenko only had his moments in CSKA. You can say with some confidence that only a few of today's established International NBA stars made a strong name for themselves in Europe before going to the U.S. (Peja Stojakovic, Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni). This occurred for two reasons. First, the contradiction between the "individual" star system of the American basketball as opposed to the more team oriented game of Europe made it hard for these young player to stand out. Second, the potential that some players from Europe have is something that for many scouts is certainly worth the risk, especially when we are talking about drafting European teenagers as we are in the 2005 draft more than ever. Snatching these kids away from Europe at such an early age means that fans in their home countries will usually not even get a chance to get to know these players before they are swooped off by the NBA.
Knowing all the above, I met Yiannis Bouroussis of AEK Athens in order to interview him and see how he thinks he fits into this puzzle.
One thing to realize is that he obviously isn't an established Euroleague star. In fact he can barely be called a known player even in Greece. The guy is 21 years old (automatically eligible in this draft as a 1983 prospect), 6-11, weighs 255 lbs and spends most of his time on the bench of a Euroleague team. When he steps in, even though he is closer to a power forward, his coach uses him at center due to his size and rebounding ability. He shined for the first time two years ago, around this time of the year, when his team was playing Panathinaikos Athens, the most successful team in Greece, for the A1 (Greek National League) Finals. He scored 10 points in the second game to equal the series then, replacing in the starting line-up a player that was, at the time, the best player in Greece, National Team star Dimos Dikoudis. Bouroussis impressed many people quickly and was again given some playing time in the last two games of the series, but AEK fell quickly to their opponents by 3-1.
"Those were the first games of my career. Well, actually, I already belonged to AEK for three years, but this was my first year when I had an influential game, especially a game that was so important to the team, while our best player (Dikoudis) missed the series due to injury. But, if you allow me, I would like to start from the beginning," he told me early in our discussion, trying to narrate some things that I didn't even know about when I was planning this interview.
"I first came to Athens from a small city, Karditsa when I was 17, in the summer of 2000," he started. "At the moment, however, I was suffering from a very serious injury in both knees and I was too uncomfortable to even think about the future. I stayed in bed for more than six months in order to return to my form and to gain the necessary strength. At that point, the season was over. To be honest, I am already grateful because I can now be healthy and I have never felt hurt again."
I was a little scared to hear that. Imagine a player with already limited possibilities to be selected in the draft to fearlessly claim that has been through a heavy injury in both his knees. This guy sounds like a lost bet, I thought to myself. This interview will never be attractive enough." The only positive thing was that his character seemed to be (and actually is) strong and full of hope.
"You cannot imagine the feeling, my friend," he approached me in a honest way. "I stayed in bed until I was about 19. Other guys were moving on, they were getting playing time, they started acquiring experience, and I was in pain and in bed, having succeeded absolutely nothing and having made no name. The only thing I was thinking of was my knees and why on earth does AEK keep me here, since I can't be the best investment for the team, when I am not playing at all. I tell you man," he told me again, "this time was really hard for me."
But time passed, as it always does and the player was healthy somewhere before the 2001-02 season. He was not on the Senior team this year, but he started to get to know the teams mentality and what he would have to do in order to become a member the year after. This was a very important year for AEK, as they managed to win the A1 in a memorable 5-game series versus Olympiakos, meaning that the responsibilities for coach Dragan Sakota were now higher. Bouroussis needed to gain his coach's respect and needed to try more and more for that. Before the beginning of the season, he was another talented player, with an already uncertain future, due to his previous injury. His only tools was his young age, his size and a sweet shot, that he had to take advantage of in order to improve.
So, between getting to know his teammates, the team's rules and regulations, the coach's system and the way he should behave in order to have a bright future, he was also given a chance to shine with the U-20 National Team of Greece in a series of games during the summer of 2002. "This summer was a great chance for me," he said. "Playing for a team, filled with very talented and already experienced players like (this year's draft prospect) Nikos Zisis, Christos Tapoutos and (Houston draftee) Vassilis Spanoulis, this team was very strong on the perimeter and it needed for some guys to provide the size and the rebounding ability, in order to do well in the European Championship for U-20 teams."
The first games, as well as the tournament itself, proved to be a great experience for Bouroussis, who was the team's 6th scorer, although he only played a low 13.0 mpg. He finished averaging 6.0 ppg (in a total of 10/12 FG shots), 3.5 rpg and 0.8 blocked shots per game. Greece won the gold in that tournament, helping the teams trio (Zisis, Spanoulis and Tapoutos) make a good name in the Greek A1, but Bouroussis remained more or less unknown to most.
When he returned to AEK practices, it was his first time to start thinking of a season in a more productive way. "I was looking for ways to help myself get more chances to play with the big guys and I was trying in parallel to strengthen my body, in order to improve my game and have more tools to support my moves during a game." The first games were more or less not important, but he ended the season, having played in 15 games (12 in A1, 3 in a terrible Euroleague, where AEK finished with a pathetic 1-13 record).
This season might have been productive for him, but it wasn't that good for his team. "Throughout my first real season with AEK, the team had some ugly moments, concerning our two top players, Dikoudis and (Michalis) Kakiouzis. The first missed half the season due to an injury and the second left for Montepaschi Siena in the middle of the year, so we were out of strong weapons in the forward positions. However, I have to say, that even this way, we finished second in the regular season and only fell to Panathinaikos in the finals, with Dikoudis being absent again."
These finals were the first games that Bouroussis had an important role for Sakota's squad. In the second game of the series, he played 24 minutes at Power Forward, scoring 10 points (4/6 shooting), grabbing 8 boards and being the man of the match for AEK's win. Bouroussis was "the man from nowhere" for the defending champs, considering also that nobody could imagine him beating a frontline filled with experienced players, who had been European Champions just a year ago.
"That was a great game for me," he said. "It was so important for a 19-year old guy like me, playing in the A1 finals and also contributing to such a fantastic win. I think it was a huge surprise then, given that Panathinaikos was the absolute favorite and we were playing without our star."
Bouroussis was only used for 5 minutes in the third game of the series, but played for 20 minutes in the last one, when he was positive again. 8 points (3/3 FGs), 11 boards and a nice co-operation with his teammates almost pushed the series to a 5th game, but Antonis Fotsis' block on Joe Crispin was enough for Panathinaikos to beat AEK and come away with the Championship.
"Unfortunately, we couldn't win this one and I couldn't celebrate a championship. But, at least, I managed to help my team accomplish the most we could in a very difficult time for us. I also managed to make a name for myself, but if there is no win in the game, then everything else is not so important."
One would expect that Bouroussis would be the new "golden boy" of Greek basketball after two great games in A1 finals. That was the wrong guess...
AEK changed coaches during the summer. Their top player Dikoudis left for Valencia and AEK decided to build around American guard Horace Jenkins. Rookie coach Fotis Katsikaris (an ex-player for the team) did not seem to trust his frontline so much, and thus Bouroussis, a youngster with not much experience could not be confident with his game. He ended a problematic season, averaging 4.7 ppg and 4.0 rpg, while his relationship with his coach didn't seem to be the right one. The summer ended and Yannis continued struggling for some playing time, finishing this year with a bitter 4.6 ppg and 3.7 rpg in the Euroleague. He had his moments when starting center Sandro Nicevic got injured. Yannis averaged 7.2 ppg and 7.0 rpg in just 16 mpg, shooting a fantastic 61% from the field and proving his coach wrong in the limited playing time he got. The sad thing for the kid was that AEK went 1-4 in those five Euroleague games, while when the Croat returned, AEK went 6-2 and managed to earn a spot in the top-16.
Then AEK had a smooth top-16 round and became stable in a rough A1 league. The season ended, and AEK, who finished sixth in the regular season, made the A1 finals, losing again 3-1 to Panathinaikos. Yannis Bouroussis was not given (again) the opportunity to shine, although AEK's big men had foul trouble throughout the series. Who is to blame in this case?
"I have always tried to make excuses for myself when I made a mistake," he said, being more honest than any other player I have spoken to. "This wasn't correct. It wasn't the right way. It's just sometimes I felt that I was going to do something good and it ended up being wrong, which is why some players can end up being characterized as lazy, confused, or not focused.
There were many times when the team's oldest players, (Nikos) Hatzis and Zissis were telling me to stop talking, to shut up," he told me laughing, telling me that after all, he has understood that his mentality was wrong.
"I was always thinking, why don't I play as much as I think I deserve to? Always was answering that it was somebody else's fault. Now I know," he sums up. "It's my fault and I need to do many things to improve it."
Sounds like Good Will Hunting, right? Well, it's true. You can't imagine how much. "Although I know that I can get disappointed very often, because I am not used for more than two minutes and I am not in the court to participate in the tough, closing minutes, I have some strength to move on. I am not a loser in this case. Long-term I am winning... But if you see that ball coming, if you see you can do it and you are still sitting on the bench, then it hurts. You know, I am 21 and I still can't say that I have accomplished something. There are kids that are younger than me who contribute for Euroleague and NBA teams."
A little bit disappointing, he told DraftExpress. "When I came to AEK, I was just a kid. I didn't know what to expect and the injury cancelled out my aggressiveness. Maybe I was happy to just start playing basketball again. But, I think that I should be more focused on what my coaches were telling me. I never learned that rule from the beginning and I struggled a lot later. Right now? Seriously, I don't care. I know how many talented players have hurt their potential, by having a different character and also how many stars kept and still keep working on their game, without being revealed by eventually becoming stars. I know. I just have a tough, double task. I am working both mentally and physically. I think I am readier now. Readier than ever."
And he is. He is a tall, athletic big PF, with long arms, nice moves and a fine understanding of the game. The guy has great talent, you can't ignore that. He can shoot the trey easily; he can even be a go-to guy if his coach allows him to. But he still lacks experience. With his talent on both ends and his rebounding ability, he would be a star in Europe if he was more experienced. "This is what I lack the most. Games, playing time, experience. The good thing is I know that when I have that, I will become much better. The bad thing is that in order to accomplish all that, you need patience and I am still working on that," said Yannis who had the best game of his career versus underdogs Panellinios three months ago, when he completely dominated the game, scoring 24 points (in 10/17 FGs) and grabbing 11 rebounds, being guarded by ex-NBA big man Gary Trent.
"This is not enough," he realized. "Having one great game, or five, or even ten? No, thank you. I need to learn, I need to know how I should react when my team needs me. I need to become mentally stronger through tough games. This might occur with AEK, or with any other team," he said, while it is already rumored around the European press that some big Spanish and Italian clubs are targeting him for next year, although he has a contract with AEK.
Moreover, the Senior Greek National Team coach Panayiotis Yannakis is probably going to call him up for at least the first squad, looking for a guy who will back-up star center Lazaros Papadopoulos in September's Eurobasket in Serbia.
"Well, yes, good signs of my game may attract attention. I know that for sure. The NBA and the National Team and the Euroleague those are great. All these are like dreams to me. I would like to work more and become better. I am going to L.A. for a camp in order to strengthen my body, but not too much so I can keep my mobility. I want to see how NBA players are moving, how strong they are, how well I can play defense against them, how good my rebounding is in comparison to them. I want to learn, I want to improve."
Well, yes, he will learn about that first hand and of course he can get better. But will he be good enough for the upcoming draft? Will some recent failures of big, skilled young guys like him affect his stock and drop him out?
"Look, when you are a good player, nobody is going to ignore you. If you work, you listen and learn, then it's over. You'll get better and if you deserve it, you'll play where you belong. In this life one gets what they deserve, correct? So, I'm not afraid. I forget the past and look for the future, hoping to be healthy. If I'm healthy, then I'll surely make it."