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Update from Finland

Our Sportswriting friend in Finland checks in with an extensive report on Petteri Koponen plus everything you'd want to know about Finnish basketball.  Enjoy!

The last quarter of Finnish Basketball League regular season is beginning. After 28 rounds, Honka Playboys has won 19 of its games and is the leading candidate for the third spot and home court advantage for the playoff quarter-finals.

As you might know, the starting point guard of last year's Finnish champion, Honka Playboys, is 19-year old ballhandling wizard Petteri Koponen, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2007 NBA Draft and directly shipped to Portland Trailblazers. Petteri played with the Blazers' team in the Las Vegas Summer League, but didn't get a contract for 2007/2008.

After two months of contract negotiations with European top clubs Petteri decided to play the remaining year of his contract with Honka and deal with his military service while still in Finland. Just a couple of months from now Petteri will most likely say farewell to the league of his native country and try to earn a spot in European professional leagues or even the NBA. Here are some quick observations and an interview with Petteri for you to use. Enjoy.

1. A brief look at Honka's last few seasons

Just to understand the team, you will have to know the history of Honka Playboys and learn some basic names of the players. Honka is a Finnish basketball powerhouse, and although Honka hasn't had that much success in the international leagues, it is certainly one of just a couple well known Finnish basketball teams outside the country - at least for European basketball fanatics.

Honka started off the decade winning three straight championships in 2001, 2002 and 2003 under the tutorage of coach Mihailo Pavicevic, a Montenegro native. In 2003/2004, Honka participated in the FIBA European League. Honka sported 11 Finnish players in its 12-man roster and managed to win only one out of total of 14 games. After some narrow losses early in the international season and injuries for key players, Honka struggled late in the season and finished 4th in the Finnish League.

2004/2005 was a rebuilding season for Honka. The team had only one player born in the 1970s in center Heikki Zitting (6-8", 1979). 16-year old Petteri Koponen made his first appearance with Honka in 04/05, averaging 1,1 points and 0,3 rebounds in 4,7 minutes a game. Honka's youngsters showed some promise but got swept in the quarter-finals against '05 Finnish champion, Team Lappeenranta.

The core of today's Honka was really formed in 2005/2006. Koponen, alongside with former Arkansas-Little Rock forward and Finnish national team player Kimmo Muurinen (6-8", 1981) and experienced Americans Monte Cummings (6-4", 1976) and Timothy Kisner (6-0", 1978) are four out of Honka's six core players of 2007/2008. Honka cruised to a few easy victories during the season but weren't able to handle tight games. The team lost to Team Lappeenranta again, but this time in the semi-finals. Honka was able to get the bronze medals, but the season was looked back as a disappointment.

2006/2007 was truly a great season for the team. National team forward Jukka Matinen (6-8", 1978) and (at that time) two time Finnish champion, American Matthew Williams (6-7", 1978) signed with Honka. Koponen was handed the starting point guard duties and even though he showed youth quite often, he managed to be even better than expected. Honka celebrated Finnish championship after sweeping Namika Lahti in the finals. The results of Honka's last playoff home games really demonstrate the dominating ways of the team: Honka-KTP 97-59 (3rd semifinal), Honka-KTP 92-63 (5th semifinal), Honka-Lahti 90-76 (1st final), Honka-Lahti 94-74 (3rd final).

2. Honka Playboys, 2007/2008

While the playoffs were still underway in April 2007, Honka announced signing two-year contract with American players Cummings and Kisner and three-year contracts with national team players Matinen and Muurinen. Koponen returned to Honka in August. When the season was approaching, Honka's GM Mika Sohlberg announced that Honka would definitely want to fight for another championship, but one of the main goals for the season was to produce quality players out of the young substitute players. Even though Honka's starting line-up is probably the best in the League, the substitutes are League's youngest. The oldest substitute player in the beginning of the season was second-year forward Eldar Skamo (6-5", 1986) while three of the players, guard Sasu Salin and forwards Lauri Toivonen and Samuli Vanttaja are born in 1991 (!).

After the national team games, Honka didn't have the opportunity to prepare for the season well. Even though Honka played quite ugly basketball at times, their sole routine was enough for them to win 9 out of their first 11 games.

In mid-November, Honka's starting line-up began to fall apart. Monte Cummings suffered a patella tendon injury, Tim Kisner struggled with his back and Jukka Matinen had issues with his groin.  Koponen and Kimmo Muurinen were accompanied with three unexperienced substitute players in the starting line-up. Even though Koponen, Muurinen, 16-year old Sasu Salin and all-hustle small forward Juho Nenonen (6-8", 1987) stepped up with their performances, Honka won only two out of its next six games.

Matinen and Cummings returned right after Christmas. At the same time, Honka announced the return Matt Williams. After the acquisition of Williams, Honka had six best players of the 2007 championship team together again. While Matinen, Cummings and Kisner were still recovering from injuries and Williams tried to adapt to team's rhythm, Honka won five out of its next eight games.

Alarm bells were ringing when Korihait, one of the weaker teams of Finnish League, was able to win its first game in Honka's home court in almost 16 years. Coach Pavicevic criticized the lackluster performance of his team with some R-rated verbalics and threated that there would be changes in the roster if something like this happened again.

Since that, the team has been impressive. First Honka won league-leading ToPo 62-81, then cruised to an easy 102-88 victory against Porvoon Tarmo and in their last game shut down 3rd place frontrunner Kouvot, 85-64. After the victory against Kouvot, coach Pavicevic stated that the team is not even close to the level it could be and even went as far as saying that no team in country can beat Honka in playoff series. After the "big six" of the team can get to the same page, Pavicevic's statement can be reality. There are twelve games left in the regular season and if Honka can avoid injuries, don't be surprised if they win ten out of them.

Here's the roster and the main stats of the team.


MATINEN Jukka 6-8", 1978, F, FIN (Pts 18,5 Reb 4,5 Fg2p .585 Fg3p .464 Ft .872)
MUURINEN Kimmo 6-8", 1981, F, FIN (Pts 15,2 Reb 7,1 St 1,4 As 1,2 Fg2p .573 Fg3p .386)
WILLIAMS Matthew 6-7", 1978, F, USA (Pts 11,7 Reb 5,2 St 1,7 Fg2p .585 Ft .806)
CUMMINGS Monte 6-4", 1976, G, USA (Pts 16,3 Reb 5,5 As 2,0 St 1,7 Fg2p .623)
KOPONEN Petteri 6-4", 1988, G, FIN (Pts 18,3 Reb 3,4 As 3,6 St 1,9 Fg2p .532 Fg3p .400)


KISNER Timothy 6-0", 1978, G, USA (Pts 8,7 Reb 2,8 As 3,5 St 1,9 Fg2p .579 Ft .783)
NENONEN Juho 6-8", 1987, F, FIN (Pts 5,3 Reb 2,6)
HEINONEN Petri 6-10", 1988, F, FIN (Pts 4,7 Reb 2,1 Fg2p .537)
SALIN Sasu 6-1", 1991, G, FIN (Pts 4,2 Reb 2,1)
SKAMO Eldar 6-5", 1986, F, FIN (Pts 3,6 Reb 3,2 Fg3p .400)
VANJOKI Anselmi 6-4", 1988, G, FIN (Pts 3,0 Reb 0,9)
TOIVONEN Lauri 6-6", 1991, F, FIN (Pts 1,2 Reb 0,8)
VANTTAJA Samuli 6-8", 1991, F, FIN (Pts 1,6)

3. The League

There has been a lot of questions about the level of the Finnish League. Like former Seton Hall player John "Tootie" Allen, who spent one season in Finland, described: "It's not the best league there is, but it's competitive and for most parts, people care."

Finland is not really a basketball country. So far, only one Finnish player, Hanno Möttölä, has played in the NBA (Atlanta Hawks 2000-2002). When it comes to popularity, basketball in Finland is behind ice hockey, soccer and floorball (!) and tied with volleyball. Every age group produces a few locally noteworthy players, but only a handful are notable in international level. At this moment, besides Möttölä and Koponen, only national team starting point guard Teemu Rannikko (Himky, Russia) is creating some buzz.

The league itself is semi-professional. The international players as well as a few local names in each team are getting professional money. After the age of 24-26, most Finnish players graduate, get a job and fade out from the league, but there are a few 30-something players that still hang on. Usually, the substitute players are teenagers or in their twenties and don't show much besides promise and hustle.

The level of play can be compared to the leagues in neighboring countries such as Sweden and Estonia. Even if you follow NBA or NCAA in regular basis, you'd probably be impressed with about two or three of the top teams in Finnish league. I'm not saying those teams would be Euroleague material or even do well in the ULEB Cup, but you would clearly see that those teams are well coached, have a functioning system and even have some notable individual players. The next three or four teams in the league you would probably describe as "OK", but it has to be admitted that teams that don't qualify for the playoffs are, well, junk.

Tempo of the game is fast. Big players in the history of the league even have had some problems adjusting to the speed of Finnish League. Former German Bundesleague rebounding machine, 6-10" Chris Ensminger had a really hard time trying to pick up the tempo of the game. Then again, the tempo usually means that the game is not under control; teams turn the ball over quite a lot, force tons of bad shots and (when it comes to the worst teams in the league) don't have necessary playbook or skills to compete. The lack of pivot players is obvious, only a few teams have usable big men.

Most dominating players in the league are usually physical, mobile Americans with size such as Jerald Fields, a 6-8" power forward out of East Tennessee State, who has been a one-man wrecking crew for two seasons in Finland. Fields averaged 4pt and 2rb last summer in the NBA summer leagues while playing for New Orleans Hornets, but has been one of the ten best players in the Finnish league with averages of 15pts, 9,9rebs, 2,4ast, 2,0blk and 1,9stl a game. The American players in the league are mostly NCAA starters, and currently there are three foreign players allowed per team. There's always a player with some NBA experience (former Denver Nugget Eric Washington plays currently with Tampereen Pyrintö), a couple of drafted players (Nate Johnson, Cory Hightower, DeeAndre Hulett) and some players created some hype while still in high school or college (Erron Maxey, Thomas Hill, Edmund Saunders). The American players in the league are usually young (22-26), they are doing their best to adapt to a foreign country and try to boost their statistics to get to a better league next season, but some guys find Finland pleasant and come back year after year (Cummings, Kisner, Williams, Andre Foreman).

The local players who have gotten serious burn in the bigger leagues in Europe are usually in charge. A prime example is Honka's forward Jukka Matinen. Matinen played four seasons with German bundesleague team Frankfurt Skyliners, excelling as a defensive player and sixth man. In Finland, Matinen is probably the best local player of the league. His routine, shot and wits create major match-up problems every night. Even though Matinen isn't the most athletic or versatile player on court, his fundamentals get him to international level. In 2007/2008, I would say there are only 15-20 international scale Finnish players in the league. Most of the young players lack fundamentals and every time there arrives a young Finnish players with good footwork or good built or pure shot, teams will fight for him.

When I describe the game as "physical", don't think that it would be as purely physical as in Euroleague. Finnish teams play often quite dirty basketball. There are only two referees in each League game so players get away with lots of stuff. The players have learned how to play under the surveillance of only two officials and they use their elbows and knees a lot.

4. Petteri Koponen evaluation - What's good?

A rumor says that when Petteri Koponen shook hands with David Stern in the 2007 NBA Draft, the commish stated: "You don't look a day over fifteen!" Koponen is and will be a baby-face, but his physical stature is clearly more pro league ready than a year ago. His footwork has gotten much better, his quickness is creating problems for opponents and he no longer has to rely on help defence while trying to defend American guards of opposing teams. Even his upper body strenght has developed.

Petteri has been practicing his jump shot and he has become a reliable scorer. At this point, he is the 9th in the Finnish League in scoring. His jumper is efficient from 3pt territory (.400) and from inside the arc (.532). Petteri has developed quite a lot of tools to become even more efficient in offense and his ability to draw a foul is noteworthy. Petteri has been averaging 6,3 free throws a game as a result of blowing by opponents and finding those little flaws in defence he can get through.

Coach Pavicevic has stated for two years now that Petteri is at his best under pressure. That is and is not true; Petteri is a young player and it is extraordinarily important for him to have a veteran of Tim Kisner's caliber backing him up. Anyway, Petteri has been able to step his game up when needed, whether we're talking about Finnish League, Finnish national team games or Nike Hoop Summit. In November, Petteri registered whopping averages of 21,4pts, 4,1ast, 3,9reb and 2,1ast when the team's starters went down with injuries. Petteri has been able to bounce back every time after a bad or a mediocre performance and he seems determined to get a spot in the NBA in 2008/2009. His self-confidence is something to be admired, even though he has appeared a little bit of cocky every now and then this season.

5. Petteri Koponen evaluation - What could be better?

Petteri lured basketball scouts into his charms in Nike Hoop Summit 2007 as a pass-first, pass-second point guard with solid fundamentals. This year Petteri has adopted a little bit of a scorer's mentality. The injury situation of Honka forced Petteri to shoot the ball more and it seems that he is enjoying a scorer's role. I do not mean this is necessarily a bad thing, but once his self-confidence level has gone up, he has transformed from pure point guard to scoring guard and I'm not sure, how this suits the interests of Portland Trailblazers. Then again: Koponen's playmaking skills are still there as strong as ever and it is certain that he does whatever coach McMillan asks him to do when the summer league begins.

Even though Petteri's ballhandling has become better and he is able to command half court offense better then before, he still tends to get lost under pressure defence. He averages three turnovers a game and usually those turnovers come in bunches in result of trapping or misreading the fast break. And there still is quite of room for improvement for the afore-mentioned half court offense. Petteri has picked up a habit to dribble the clock out a little too much, something he can get away with in Finland but would be instantly punished in higher European Leagues.

And, like said before, his youth is still an issue. His vocal leadership is above last year's level, but he's not an authority. Tim Kisner has been golden for Honka when the team has had problems communicating. This part of his game will get better in a few years, but it is worth noticing at the moment.

Final word: Expect to see a grown man in Las Vegas next July. Petteri is the same gentleman he was a year ago, but this year he has been arguing calls and hassling opposing guards with some semi-dirty defence.

6. Petteri Koponen, the interview

ME: The important things first, Petsku... So, how many mornings you got left (in the army)?

Petteri: (Laughter) Too many. I get out March 30th, so that means I have about two months to go. That's a long time to me. Luckily I'll get out once the playoffs begin.

ME: How have you been able to blend in military service with basketball season? You struggled early in the season but then again bounced back in November better than ever.

Petteri: It was definitely harder in the beginning, when the recruiting period was still underway. I was stuck in the base for long days and couldn't practice the way the coach had planned. The days were long and the program was kind of exhausting.

After new year it has been somewhat easy. The worst part is clearly over. I have been able to practice quite as much as I want. Because I'm in a military program designed for top athletes, I have to stay in base only a day here and a day there. We have our final drill in the middle of March but it will only take two days.

ME: A lot of people have questioned your decision to stay in Finland after getting drafted. So, have you gotten enough responsibility and challenges while playing here?

Petteri: Well, kind of. There is definitely enough challenge. Almost every team has an American professional point guard and every one of those guys can play. Of course, sometimes I get the feeling that I get away with a lot of stuff that wouldn't allowed in Euroleague or Italy or Spain. I can make quite a lot of mistakes but the opponents can't take advantage of them.

Of course it has been great that I have had all the time in the world to get to better physical condition. I have also played starter minutes and gotten a lot of responsibility. I believe that develops me more than sitting in the bench of an NBA or Euroleague team.

ME: You turn 20 in April and this is your fourth year with the team. Do you still get rookie treatment from other players?

Petteri: (laughter) Luckily we have younger kids in the team that came to my rescue. I no longer have to carry the bags of other guys. I just try to give the kids as much hell as I got when I was a rookie!

ME: Anyway, when your age is mentioned, a lot of people still look at you as a toddler. Despite your age, you have gotten a lot of responsibility in your team during last year and a half. Describe your role in Honka compared to the role you had last year.

Petteri: Last year was more of a learning year and obviously I can direct a game a lot more as a point guard than last year. Coach Pavicevic is a determined person who has strong views about which plays should be called. I talk with him after every single game about my performance and the way I directed the game and we still have this mentor-student-relationship going on; if he tells me to call a certain play, I just have to do it, end of story (laughter).

Honka's system is very different from national team's system, where point guards may read the defence and call the plays quite independently. Then again I think it's just good for me as a player to get adjusted to different systems.

ME: There has been a lot of talk about the physical program which was constructed to get you in NBA-ready physical condition for next season. Are you in schedule with the program?

Petteri: Well, I can't get too greedy. I have to listen to my body and keep in mind that injuries do happen if I try to get results too fast. But so far, so good. I believe there has been a lot of progress. My legs are notably stronger than a year ago and therefore I am more mobile in defence and quicker as well. Eventually I still have a long way to go. These things don't happen overnight.

ME: Last year coach Pavicevic stated that you can be the best player on the court without taking one single shot. This year you are 9th in the league in scoring. Was it a plan for you to adapt into scoring role?

Petteri: After three of our starters got injured in November, I both had to and got the chance to take more shots. Then again, I believe that my aggressiveness is beginning to show. I'm getting more and more versatile in offence and that way I have the opportunity to shoot the ball a lot more. Now that all the starters are healthy, we have a lot of players capable of scoring and I no longer have to be the first or second option in offence, but I believe it's good for the team if there are more players who can score twenty when needed.

I also have been speaking with the coach and he always reminds me that my every game is followed. Finland is far away and most scouts don't have the opportunity to watch our games, so boxscores are more important than you would think. In Finland, it's harder for a point guard to get assists than in some other countries. If I feed an open guy behind the arc, I won't get an assist even though I would get one in the same situation in the States.

ME: Coach Pavicevic probably kills me for asking this question since there is still three months left before the season is over, but... once you get back to Portland and prepare for the summer league, what are you able to do better in 2008 that you did in 2007?

Petteri: Well, physically I'm much more ready than I was a year ago. I was occasionally a bit awestruck because of the athleticism of those guys in the summer league in 2007, but now I believe I'm ready to compete seriously. I also have one more year of experience under my belt. Since I'm only turning twenty this April, one more season of experience means quite a lot.

We will also have to wait and see what happens before the summer league. Finnish season ends in April and there are couple of good months left before summer leagues tip off. If I get the opportunity to play in some of the top leagues of Europe in May and June, I'll do my best to learn from that experience and even bring some more intensity to my NBA workouts.

ME: So, have you been following Portland Trailblazers? Your observations about the team?

Petteri: (Laughs) I have been following every.. single... game! The first month of the season was bad but then they rolled to, what, thirteen wins in a row? That was just awesome. I believe they are winning around 50% of their games right now and I believe that's enough for a playoff spot.

Brandon Roy is one hell of a player. Sometimes it seems that he keeps the engine running when other guys fade out. The team also has many guys who can shoot the ball. The Blazers have lot of young, fundamentally sound players and once Greg Oden gets healthy, they have a team that can really make some noise. Not taking anything away from Joel Przybilla who's playing a good season, but Oden will be a franchise player.

ME: How about the Blazers' point guard situation? There seems to be some kind of a logjam in that position.

Petteri: Oh, definitely. Steve Blake is experienced, Jarrett Jack is having a good season... Sergio Rodriguez is a tremendous ball player but he has gotten almost none serious burn this season. We'll see what happens once the trade deadline window closes, I have heard about some possible trades. This will be interesting.

ME: When you got back from Las Vegas, coach Pavicevic said in press conference that you could already play in the NBA. Do you ever think about that? There's a big difference playing against New York Knicks or Kauhajoen Karhu..

Petteri: Of course I sometimes think that how would I be able to keep my spot there and what could I do in the minutes that were given. For example I participated in several workouts with Taurean Green and felt that I really could compete with him. Then again there are guys like DJ Strawberry and Gabe Pruitt who I also got to know during workouts.. I just have to stay positive; guys like Strawberry, Pruitt and Green haven't really gotten that much minutes. Even though I play in much weaker league, I can play 30-35 minutes every night and get prepared for next summer's workouts.

Thanks to our Finnish Sportswriting Friend for the extensive coverage!

--Dave (