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Catching Up with Koponen

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Our sportswriter friend from Finland has sent an extensive update on Petteri Koponen.  I hope the Petterioholics out there get their fill!

Catching up with Petteri Koponen in Italy

 

From Las Vegas to Eurobasket qualifiers

Petteri Koponen showed some promise in the 2008 Las Vegas summer league. He managed to average 13,2 points and 3,4 assists a game for the Jerryd Bayless-lead Portland Trailblazers team and showed the skeptics he is able to hold his own against NBA substitute level guards such as Dee Brown, Quincy Douby, DJ Strawberry and Bobby Brown. Petteri's defensive presence was much better than advertised and his ability to find the open man wasn't left unnoticed, even though because the lack of shooters in the team, Koponen's assist numbers were smaller than the majority of the people expected.

Of course, there were flaws in Petteri's game. Except for the summer league opener against Washington Wizards, Petteri couldn't find stability in his shooting. Excluding the Wizards game, Petteri only shot .345 % from the field and horrendous .071% from the three point land. Petteri's ability to create plays when pressured by defensive specialists such as DJ Strawberry left a lot of room for improvement. And even though Petteri showed he was tough enough to play with the big boys, it was clear that he could need more seasoning - 20-year old Euro point guards rarely are able to perform well in the NBA (Alors, Tony Parker!).

Much like the experts expected, the Trailblazers finally left Petteri off their 2008/2009 regular season roster. Even though a handful of other NBA teams showed interest, Blazers didn't want to let go of Koponen's rights. When it was clear that Koponen wouldn't return to Portland for October training camp, he began searching for a new club and finally ended up to Italian powerhouse Virtus Bologna - a team that just had signed NBA veteran Earl Boykins for a (rumored) 3 million euro contract.

Before heading to Italy, Koponen lead Finnish national team to the Eurobasket 2009 qualifiers. Because Finland's starting point guard, 28-year old 6-2" Teemu Rannikko of Russian elite club Himky was injured, Koponen was handed the starting point guard duties. Even though Finland was able to beat proven European basketball countries such as France and Latvia in the friendly games, doubters gathered when Koponen had a 2-point, 4-turnover night (field goals 1-7) in the qualification opener against Bulgaria. Finland lost the game 68-90 and things didn't go much better in the second game, when team Italy was able to beat Finland 88-80: Koponen shot only 4-13 and struggled against seasoned Italian guards.

In the third qualifier game, Koponen lead Finland to team's biggest win in fifteen years, when Nenad Krstic and basketball giant Serbia suffered their only qualifier loss in Vantaa, Finland, 80-77. Koponen lead the team in scoring with 18 points, clinched the game with clutch three pointer with less than a minute remaining and harassed experienced Serbian starting point guard Milos Vujanic all night long. Finland was able to win two out of remaining five games, with Petteri having his ups and downs put finally ending up with respectable averages of 14,3 points, 3,0 assists and 2,7 rebounds (field goals .400 %, treys .306 %, free throws .885 %) over the last five qualifier games.

Even though Koponen showed pretty much of his youth in the qualifier games, ESPN picked him as the "sleeper" of qualifier group A (http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?page=Euro-Qualifying). Being the starting point guard of his national team against top international competition should help Koponen in 2009, when Finland heads to the additional Eurobasket qualifying round against Italy and Tony Parker's France.

From Eurobasket qualifiers to Italy

The beginning of Koponen's first full season as a professional was far from easy. Because of national team duties, Koponen was able to join the team only a month after the team had began training. After signing the contract with Virtus, Koponen became the second youngest professional in Italian Serie A after Lottomatica Roma's Brandon Jennings. The second youngest player in Virtus Bologna's active roster is 25-year old American Keith Langford.

Koponen performed relatively well in the first preseason games in limited minutes. After a relatively good opener (5 points, 2 assists, 2 steals in 12 minutes of play), Koponen didn't get much playing time under coach Renato Pasquali. So far, Petteri has averaged a ho-hum 2,3 points, 0,8 rebounds and 0,8 assists in 12,2 minutes a game in six Serie A games. The beginning of the season didn't lack drama, either - after three straight wins, Virtus lost two games in a row and head coach Pasquali was fired and replaced by 2007/2008 Italian League coach of the year, Matteo Bonicinolli.

After the arrival of Bonicinolli, Koponen has cracked the playing rotation of Virtus Bologna and in the last two games, it seems that he has found his role in the team. Last Sunday Petteri had four points and one assist in 20 minutes of play against NGC Cantu, but what's beyond the numbers is more important. Petteri entered the game in the beginning of the second half, with Virtus Bologna trailing 39-33. Petteri was assigned to lock down Cantu point guard Sundiata Gaines and he responded with a really strong defensive effort, sparking Virtus to 14-4 run over the next five minutes. Virtus won the game 87-69, improving to 5-2 in Serie A play.

After his strong performance against NGC Cantu, Koponen logged his first start of the season in FIBA EuroChallenge Cup opener against Belgian club Base Oostende. Koponen played 14 minutes in the first half of the game, scoring 4 points to go with 1 assist and 1 steal. Virtus Bologna climbed to an early 40-18 lead, but Oostende stormed back behind strong play by center Nick Fazekas (28/11). Virtus eventually won the game 70-69, but Koponen played only two minutes in the second half.

All in all, right now it seems that Koponen has been able to overcome the opening difficulties. The level of play in Italian Serie A is far better than Finnish League, so the slow start didn't come as a surprise. Right now it's interesting to see how much playing time Petteri is going to get behind Earl Boykins in the remainder of the season and when is Petteri able to regain his shooting touch (.476 % three point average in Finnish League was no accident).

Of course, from Trailblazers perspective, it might be difficult to be interested in Koponen right now. Koponen is signed with Virtus Bologna until the end of 2011/2012 season, and with Trailblazers being one of the most interesting (and youngest) teams in the league, it might be true that reading about a project point guard who might be in roster one day could be a waste of time. Anyway, the Blazers fans should remember that they are a dynasty in the making. Blazers certainly have the most upside in the league and the nucleus of Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Fernandez could dominate the league in 2012.

But the Blazers couldn't have gotten here if it wasn't for GM Kevin Pritchard, who seems to select the right choices time after time. Sergio Rodriguez was criticized? This year he has shown he can be very effective in limited minutes. Drafting Nicolas Batum and bringing him to the active roster? Come on, he made D-Wade look like Ricky Davis. Joel Przybilla? With Oden just getting started, Przybilla has proven his worth. And how about Joel Freeland? After two years of collecting bench splinters, he has been one of the most steady performers in Spanish ACB, the best league in Europe. You might not see Koponen in Portland before 2011 or 2012, but Pritchard didn't want to let go of him. That alone should tell something.

I catched up with Petteri just before the EuroChallenge game against Oostende and asked him a few questions. I translated the text into English, trying to maintain the original sound of the conversation. Enjoy.

Q + A with Petteri Koponen

Me: You had a pretty rough start in the Italian Serie A. You didn't get to play many minutes and you struggled with your shot a bit. You've been there for two months now, does it seem that you're getting the hang of it?

Petteri: Well, things are getting better day by day. I came here one month later than other guys and I knew that adjusting would take some time. The level of Serie A is of course much better than Finnish League, but at this moment I already know what's coming. It's true I didn't get much minutes in the first games, but it seems that our new head coach is willing to give me some more responsibility. Although we have to remember that Earl Boykins has really earned his minutes, he's been one of the most dominate players in Serie A so far.

Me: Have you been able to catch up with your own expectations? And have you been able to sit down and talk with your new head coach about your role in the team?

Petteri: I have to admit that my expecations were a little bit higher, I thought I could be able to perform almost straight away. Then again, we have a good group of players - ten guys in this team have NBA or Euroleague experience, and I'm just a 20-year old youngling from Finland, that isn't exactly known as a basketball country. This scenario forces me to admit certain realities, like the fact that I wouldn't get anything for free.

Throughout the season I have seen that I am able to hang there in practices and that has helped me believing in myself. The biggest difference is that right now I have to be able to use all the minutes I get effectively. In Honka and national team I got used to playing 30, 35 minutes a game and I didn't play full speed all the time so that I could be effective in the fourth quarter. Over here, I might be entered for 40 seconds and I have to give everything I got in that time.

At the moment my role is to come off the bench and bring more energy to our game through defence. I also play in very classic pass-first point guard role, because we have a team full of capable scorers. I haven't been able to shoot and score a lot so far, but it takes time, I'm not worried about it. Local reporters have labeled me a defensive expert, which is something completely unheard of for me (laughter).

 

Me: When you played for Honka Playboys, coach Mihailo Pavicevic gave you quite a lot of liberties to create plays the way you liked, but now you're in an entirely different situation. What is Virtus Bologna's offensive playbook like and what kind of a point guard would you describe yourself right now?

Petteri: We have two pretty much alike motion offences. Every player participates in the play, reading all situations and the movements of other players. We also have a handful of set plays but that's just about it. So far our team offence has been functioning pretty well and it will get better once we learn how to know each other and get adjusted to the system.

Me: How about professional life in general? Any sour surprises for you so far?

Petteri: No, things have been pleasant. Luckily I learned about customs of professional sports from the older national team players such as Hanno Möttölä (1996-2000 Utah Utes, 2000-2002 Atlanta Hawks) and Teemu Rannikko. It has been a surprise how my whole life is built completely around basketball but I just enjoy doing what I like to do the most.

Me: And what about local fans? I've heard they're quite enthusiastic in Italy..

Petteri: Oh yeah, the fan culture in Bologna is to die for! The fans notice every situation - they cheer our every basket and defensive stop and when we're not doing well, they push us to do better. It makes yourself feel important and that's something I didn't get used to in Finland. Bologna lives for basketball. It's always an incredible feeling when you hear fans singing your name.

Me: Last summer, you told blazers.com blogger Mike Barrett, that you wouldn't want to be like Luis Scola, who plays his NBA rookie season as a 26-year old. Right now you're signed with Bologna until spring 2012... have you already gotten used to the thought that you would stay in Europe for a few more years?

Petteri: Of course NBA is still the dream of mine and that is the league I want to play in some day. When it's going to happen, it's hard to say - I try to focus on one season at a time. European top basketball is a lot different from NBA basketball and right now the adjusting takes time, but I'm not worrying about it. Right now I just try to get better every day. I got a lot of work to do. I am also aware of what I'm capable of and I know that as long as I stay healthy, I have the possibility to earn myself an NBA roster spot one day.

Me: How about those Blazers? Looking good right now, right?

Petteri: Yep, gotta admit. I've been watching at least the recaps and highlights of every game and I've also seen a few games. Portland has been good. Greg Oden is steadily improving and Brandon Roy has become one of my favorite players. I don't have to be a prophet to predict that those Rose Garden fans will enjoy some playoff basketball next April!

There you have it...everything you need to know about the Blazers' "other" point guard.  Thanks to our friend in Finland for the update!

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)