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Petteri Koponen Addresses Changing Role, Blazers Struggles, Trade Rumors

Early this morning, Blazersedge received the following dispatch from Finnish journalist and long-time friend of the site, Hippo.

Hippo checks in with a lengthy interview with Petteri Koponen, the Finnish point guard who was drafted in the 2007 NBA draft and whose rights the Blazers currently hold.  Koponen currently plays professionally in Italy. In this interview, Koponen addresses his developing game, his current contact with Blazers officials and rumors that he might have been renounced or traded last summer.

Click through to read the full feature and interview.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver | Twitter 


Finnish point guard prospect Petteri Koponen (6-4", 1988), who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers as the 30th pick of 2007 NBA Draft and immediately traded to Portland Trailblazers, has been developing into a household scorer and reliable combo guard in Italian Serie A team Virtus Bologna in 2009/10. After a slow start, Koponen has doubled his point average and shot his way into Serie A Top 20 in 2pt-, 3pt- and free throw percentages.

Last summer, Koponen started alongside veteran point guard Teemu Rannikko (6-2", 1980) in the Eurobasket Qualifiers in four games against Italy and France. After limiting Tony Parker to a four-point performance in a qualifier game in Vantaa (Finland), Koponen dropped 26 points on Marco Belinelli in another qualifier played in Italy.

After these performances and a promising preseason, many expected Koponen to blossom as a scorer in Italian Serie A. Alas, Koponen struggled early on and averaged only 5,5 points, 2,5 rebounds and 1,5 assists a game in the first five rounds, to go with just mediocre shooting percentages (2pt 36,4%, 3pt 37,5%).

When these first five rounds had passed, Virtus Bologna owner Claudio Sabatini called Koponen out in local newspaper, naming him "dead weight" the other players would have to carry. Koponen took the criticism seriously and has been very effective in the last six games (four Virtus victories): 13,7 points, 1,8 rebounds, 1,7 assists and 2,2 steals a game (2pt 60,9%, 3pt 42,9%, Ft 75,0%).

Koponen spends the Christmas in Finland and he had time to respond my questions just the day before their Dec 20th home game against Benetton Treviso.

1. It's been quite a season so far. Tons of things have happened and meanwhile you seem to have finally found your comfort zone in Italy. Could you tell what's the biggest difference between last year, or even the first rounds of this season?

My role in the team has changed quite a bit. Last year my task was to play the point guard alongside Earl Boykins and pretty much get out of the way of our veterans. When this season began, I pretty much assumed I had the same role but as the season has progressed, the coach and my teammates have told me to shoot more. The other main thing is that I start the games as a shooting guard and our half court plays result to my shot more and more. I've had a couple of good games and that has done miracles to my self-confidence.

2. You play as a shooting guard? That's new to me. Could you be more specific - have you changed from 1 to 2 permanently?

Not really... like I have said earlier, everyone has to be able to handle the ball in modern basketball. I have always considered myself a point guard but like last year, we have at least two or three players who can play positions 1 and 2 on the court at the same time all the time. I think I switch between point guard and shooting guard 50%-50%. Right now it's better for me to learn the ropes and know how to play 2 spot, since there are less and less players who are only limited to one spot.

3. You have played like a different person ever since the day your team owner Claudio Sabatini called you out in public. Has that really affected your game that much?

Of course it was a shock to hear he had said something like that. But then again, I know that's the name of the game in professional sports. Owners and executives want results - last season Sabatini called out Earl Boykins in the middle of the playoffs, which tells something. I think that's also characteristic to European basketball: people will label you a hero after one big game but you will become a scapegoat after just one bad game (laughter).

But to tell you the truth, Mr. Sabatini himself came to our practice the next day after that article was published and we had a good, long conversation concerning the matter. He encouraged me to be more selfish. The whole last season and in the beginning of this season I have settled into the point guard role and concentrated on sharing the ball and playing good defense. It's not that I haven't been playing well, it's just that Sabatini told he has seen dozens of DVD's of me playing and he didn't get me to Italy to play blue collar game. Now I have to right to shoot whenever I have the opportunity and coach even wants me to take quick shots if I'm in a flow.

4. You have risen into Top 20 in all shot percentage categories and you are also fouled constantly, resulting into numerous trips to the charity stripe. Is there something new about your offensive game compared to previous seasons?

Mostly it's all about self confidence. Last year I wasn't too comfortable shooting with all the veteran guys in our team and because the defense was much tougher compared to the Finnish League, but now I know I have the tools to beat these guys. Sometimes opponents do not respect my shot enough and if they let me free, I won't think twice before I shoot. Then again if they play tough man defense, it seems I will find the way to get past them and force them to foul me. Because I play guard, majority of our sets go through me and that also results to traps and pressure defense, especially late in tight names, but I'm more comfortable with that as well.

5. You had some injuries early in the season, do you think they limited your effectiveness?

My ankle was a little sore after Eurobasket Qualifications and my leg was hit pretty badly a couple of times. It took some time to trust my step again and I came off the bench in the first two games of the season. But from my perspective, injuries are inevitably part of sports. If you get injured, you just do your best to get back in shape and after that you just try even harder. I have to admit, though, that I wasn't 100% before perhaps late November.

6. Starting point guard of Virtus Bologna so far has been Euroleague veteran Scoonie Penn. You were supposed to start alongside Andre Collins, one of the best players of Serie A, but he got injured and will come back in early January. What's it been like to play with Penn and what will change once Collins comes back?

Scoonie is definitely different from Earl Boykins. Earl was a lethal 1-1-scorer. Scoring isn't really Scoonie's bread and butter, but then again he is the kind of veteran that oozes self condifence and experience. It's good to play with Scoonie - you don't doubt his ability to take the right selection at any time. Once Andre comes back, he's supposed to boost our offensive game quite a lot. He is such a good scorer and passer that everybody else should benefit from his presence.

7. Italian basketball experts say you have been the surprise team of this season, since you lost your three best scorers (Boykins, Keith Langford, Sharrod Ford) from last season. What has been the team's secret so far?

It's true that we don't have so many big names this season but I guess it just makes thing easier. When people don't expect us to be nothing more than perhaps a 7th or 8th seed playoff team, it's easier to sneak on them. Our victories are result of team defense. We got a lot of work to do with our team offense, but our D is already almost the way it's supposed to be. I'm not too happy, though, because we have a couple of losses that are a result of our own sluggishness - we didn't box out, fight for rebounds or control the ball well in those games.

8. It's also interesting to see Georgian forward Viktor Sanikidze (6-9, 1986) to play in Virtus Bologna with you. You guys have similar backgrounds - you both are the best players of your age group in small country and both of you have been drafted to the NBA (Sanikidze is a 2006 San Antonio Spurs 2nd round draft pick). Do you guys talk about your possible NBA future a lot?

Yeah, I played against Viktor in U18 and U20 European Championship games a few years ago and we talked a bit there as well. In 2006, Viktor had a monster game when Georgia beat Finland in U20 Division B semi-finals and he just keeps talking about that game (laughter). It's easier for me now to have another young European in the team with me. Domestic players hang out with their familiers and local friends a lot and American players spend their free time with each other, so it's great to have a guy like Victor around. Viktor brings attitude and strenght off the bench and helps us with interior defense and rebound a lot. Of course we talk about the NBA but right now we just concentrate on playing in Virtus Bologna.

9. Speaking of Portland, what's your take on their season so far?

Man, they've had such bad luck. Batum is injured, Fernandez is injured, Outlaw is injured, now they lost Oden... last year everybody said that Blazers is team that can only get better, but come on, last season was exceptional - getting 54 victories with youngest (?) team in the league is unheard of. It's not easy to repeat that kind of success. While it seems that fans are panicking somebody should remind them that they are steadily going to the playoffs, no matter what...

10. How about the Blazers point guard situation? Rodriguez went to the Kings, Miller and Blake are sharing minutes at the 1 spot and Bayless isn't really playing. What do you think?

Well, Blazers are logjammed on every position, which is good for the team. I think this Andre Miller/Brandon Roy thing has blown out of proportions. Steve Blake's last season was really good but I think Blazers acquired Miller because they thought he would be the missing part from a championship team. It's not easy to settle into a new team immediately - I believe once everything is said and done, Miller has done well. Of course, as a fan and a potential player of the team, I follow the team daily and do everything I can to be ready once they call me and want me to join the team.

11. Do you stay connected with the Blazers executives, coaches, scouts or anyone?

Blazers' Europe scout actually lives in Bologna and we talk from time to time. We're going to see each other this Sunday at the Benetton Treviso game. Of course, my agent sends greetings from Mr. Pritchard time to time but that's just about it.

12. Did you hear the rumors last summer that Blazers were about to deal you and Joel Freeland? Did you pay any attention to that?

Rumors are rumors. Anything can happen in the NBA, something is always brewing. I knew that there were NBA teams interested in me, but after the summer I was happy that Blazers wanted me to be a part of their long term plans. Thinking about "what ifs" would just messu p my concentration so I try to settle and play as well as possible.

Many thanks to Hippo for the latest and greatest information on Koponen.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver | Twitter