Hippo, our Friendly Finnish Sportswriter, had a chance to interview Petteri Koponen. He forwards the results to Blazersedge. Enjoy!
PETTERI KOPONEN PREPARING FOR HIS SECOND SEASON IN ITALY
Finland's 6-4", 21-year old point guard Petteri Koponen, whose NBA rights are currently owned by the Portland Trailblazers, wrapped the Finnish national team's Eurobasket campaign August 23rd and immediately joined his Italian Serie A club Virtus Bologna to prepare for upcoming season. After three weeks of practice, Koponen looks to have an immediate impact this upcoming season and become a full time starter for his team.
Koponen signed with Italian powerhouse Virtus Bologna over a year ago after winning two championships and an MVP award with Finnish team Honka Playboys. Koponen played around 15 minutes a game in his first season with Virtus, having very typical ups and downs for a rookie. In the end, he averaged 3,1 points a game but mostly excelled as one-on-one defender. Koponen struggled adjusting to the pace and physicality of Italian league, but managed to hold his own and show glimpses of his potential especially in FIBA EuroChallenge international games.
This summer, Koponen was the second leading scorer of team Finland that finished second in Group B of Eurobasket additional qualifying round after team France. Koponen had one steady and one poor game before a strong showing against team France (15 pts, 4 rebs, 4 ast vs. Tony Parker 4 pts on 2/14 shooting) and a fantastic showing on the road against Italy (26 pts, 3 rebs). In four national team qualification games, Koponen averaged 16,0 points, 3,8 rebounds, 2,3 assists and 1,3 steals a game with shooting percentages of 50,0% (2pt fg's), 45,8% (3pt fg's) and 85,0% (free throws).
Virtus Bologna has gone quite a lot of changes this summer. Last season's key players Earl Boykins, Reyshawn Terry, Keith Langford and Roberto Chiacig are gone and have been replaced by American trio of Andre Collins, LeRoy Hurd and David Moss, Spanish backup center Diego Fajardo and Georgian San Antonio Spurs 2005 draftee Viktor Sanikidze. Head coach Mattio Bonicinolli has been replaced by Lino Lardo, who has done a good job developing young players in the past.
Virtus snatched point guard Andre Collins from other Italian club, Carife Ferrara, to be the starter of the team, but Collins got injured last week and Virtus will most likely let Koponen be the starting point guard during the first three months of the season. The 2009/10 season will be a true test for young Finn who is still looking forward to become a key player in Portland Trailblazers' rotation somewhere in the 2010s. Here's a brief interview with Koponen himself.
1. First of all tell me what's new. You began practicing with Virtus the next day after team Finland's last Eurobasket qualification game in Italy?
Yep, the representatives of Virtus picked me up the next morning and we spent one week practicing at the mountains. We still haven't had a single day off. We've been running a lot, preparing for our preseason games. So far everything has gone well and the team seems to be good, but we'll know a lot more after we have played a couple of games together.
2. Your team was eliminated in the first round of Serie A playoffs last year and you've gone through a lot of roster changes. Could you tell us a bit about your team?
Right now there are only me, Brett Blizzard and Dusan Vukcevic left from the rotation players of last year's team. Alex Righetti and Sharrod Ford are practicing with the team but they haven't been able to negotiate their contract yet. I know our new American players because they played in Italy last season as well, and then we have two big guys, Diego Fajardo and Viktor Sanikidze, who seem to be ok.
3. You played your best national team game this summer in your last game against Italy. Have the Italian fans been talking to you about your performances with team Finland and your role in the upcoming season?
Yeah, when we had our media day, all the fans came to say hello and congragulate for the game I had. I, personally, am pretty satisfied with our achievements this past summer. Last season was difficult for me, I didn't really have the chance to show what I can do. Right now I know that because I played well last summer and the team has gone through a lot of changes, there will be more minutes for me this upcoming season. I've been talking to coach and team executives as well and they were very impressed with my play this summer.
4. Last season your backcourt was pretty much run by NBA veteran Earl Boykins, but now you seem to have a more balanced backcourt lineup?
Andre Collins is playing as the starting point guard which means that I will be playing at the 2 spot pretty much as well, but I've been able to show what I can do in the practice. One clear improvement is that I'm able to interact with my new coach (Lino Lardo) a lot. He comes over to talk to me in every practice so I don't feel like a rookie who's been inserted into roster just to learn the ropes anymore. Also our team system seems different; point guards are able to do a lot more than just dribble the ball upcourt and call the plays. (UPDATE: ANDRE COLLINS GOT INJURED LAST NEXT FRIDAY AND WILL MOST LIKELY MISS A COUPLE OF MONTHS. IT'S NOW UNCERTAIN IF VIRTUS IS GOING TO SIGN ANOTHER AMERICAN POINT GUARD OR WILL THEY INSERT KOPONEN TO THE STARTING LINE-UP.)
5. Last year Virtus began the season with Renato Pasquali coaching but Matteo Bonicinolli took the task after just a couple of games, and now you're playing under Lino Lardo. What's the new coach like?
Of course every single coach has their own philosophy. They observe basketball from entirely different perspectives. There are some differences and even though the differences are quite minor, they're pretty good. Lino Lardo has been a point guard himself and he sees the game through the eyes of the ballhandler, so I believe I will benefit from it and the team play will be stronger.
6. You won the FIBA EuroChallenge Cup last season and had the possibility to go to ULEB Cup, but I haven't seen your team among the ULEB Cup groups?
Yep, the organization decided to give up ULEB Cup. Even though I was looking forward to play even tougher international games, I guess the change can be good for me. Now we can focus on training hard in the beginning of every week and concentrate full time on our Serie A games instead of having to travel by plane or bus for 2-3 days every week. This is the first time in my whole career I will only play one game a week!
7. What can you tell us about the power rankings in Serie A this season?
I guess nobody is surprised to hear that Montepaschi Siena will be good again. I heard Terrell McIntyre wanted to go to Olympiakos but Siena didn't let him go. Benetton Treviso and Lottomatica Roma seem as strong as usual. Then again, last season proved that the worst teams in Serie A are able to win the best teams occasionally. Even though our lineup is very different from last year, we have both experienced and young guys and we'll definitely fight for playoff position. We tip off the season playing the annual SuperCup game against Montepaschi Siena. (SUPERCUP IS AN ANNUAL PRESEASON EVENT WHERE LAST SEASON'S ITALIAN CUP FINALISTS SQUARE OFF.)
8. Since I want to keep this short and simple, we'll end with this question... Portland Trailblazers still owns your rights, so you must be following them all the time?
Of course, I have to keep up with what's going on. With the acquisition of Andre Miller, Portland seems to be improving again. Steve Blake played well but I guess he just wasn't good enough? Let's see what happens to Jerryd Bayless, he had some scoring runs last season but he won't be playing as much the upcoming season. With or without Miller, my situation isn't that much different. Miller is 33 years old and he probably has 2-3 years as a starter left and I have three possible seasons left with Virtus. I just try to develop myself as much as possible and hopefully get to play with the Blazers one day. I have to be ready when the call comes.
Thanks to Hippo and to Petteri for the time!