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David Pick | Nr. 64

Sacramento wartet schon auf ihn | David Pick über Sasha Vezenkov, seinen Favorit auf den Award des diesjährigen EuroLeague-MVPs.

The Sacramento Kings have been one of the coldest teams in the NBA this season. In slang language, “cold” means good. Like REALLY good. The Kings, formerly known as the “Sacramento Queens” per Shaquille O’Neal, have been so cold, they put out Steph Curry’s flame thrower and the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the battle of California in the NBA Playoffs. The Kings in fact are so cold, they’ve been closely eyeing the coldest player in the EuroLeague in Olympiacos forward Sasha Vezenkov.

It seems that nearly everyone in Sacramento at some point this season, have taken notice of the soon-to-be EuroLeague MVP, with hopes that Vezenkov makes the immediate jump to the NBA.

“What he’s done in the EuroLeague is crazy. … We would love for him to come over [to Sacramento]”, said SacTown PG De’Aaron Fox. Kings All-Star Domantas Sabonis also praised the Bulgarian forward: “I’ve watched him. He’s a great player, very talented. He’s playing great in Europe with Olympiacos. They’re doing amazing in the EuroLeague. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but we obviously would love to have him here.”

Vezenkov is no stranger to the Kings’ liking of his talents. He was drafted 57th overall in the 2017 NBA draft by the Brooklyn Nets. In January 2021, the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired his rights, in a multi-team trade involving James Harden. In June, 2022, his rights were traded again to the Sacramento Kings for the 49th pick in the 2022 draft, which became Isaiah Mobley.

The Kings have sent multiple personnel to Athens to follow and meet their new shiny stash forward. Sacramento assistant Jay Triano traveled to Greece to watch him in person. Per Greek reporter Sotiris Vetakis, based upon the strong feedback and encouraging performances, Kings general manager Monte McNair and vice president Phil Jabour also departed for Athens.

It’s possible Vezenkov has been warming up to the idea of bolting to the NBA, but he recently signed a 2-year extension deal till 2025 worth close to 3.5 million Euros, according to Vezenkov does have an NBA-out clause in his contract, rumored to be in the 1-1.5 million Euros range. Worth to mention that the standard NBA buyout amount is $650,000, therefore Sasha would have to pay possibly an additional $500,000 out of pocket to free himself from Athens. While that indeed does sound like a crazy amount, Chicago Bulls guard Patrick Beverley spoke on the J.J. Reddick podcast about leaving Russia for the NBA and paying $1 million out of his mother’s pocket because he himself couldn’t afford it. Beverly said he and his mother lived together at the time, and while he left home to go to NBA practice, his mother went to her day job to support her aspiring son.

However, despite the high praise from Sac stars, a recent King sounded a bit skeptical about Vezenkov’s role and abilities to shine in the NBA. AS Monaco’s big man Chima Moneke signed with Sacramento in the offseason, but did not stick. He shared his thoughts in the recent interview that got picked up by HoopsHype: “It depends on how Mike Brown is going to use him”, Moneke responded when asked if Vezenkov would be a suitable piece in Brown’s schemes. “I love the way he plays because he doesn’t need the ball to affect the game. He is shooting the ball and rebounding very well. What he is doing in the EuroLeague, they will find a way to use him in the right way, I hope for him. He is a great player, and he will be fine. He should be fine if they are telling the truth about how they want to use him.”

From the look of things from my viewpoint, Vezenkov is the frontrunner to grab the EuroLeague MVP award. Here’s why: Vezenkov joins an elite class of Euro forwards to win the award behind Andrei Kirilenko (2011-12), Nemanja Bjelica (2014-15) and Nikola Mirotic (2021-22). What’s impressive is that his numbers are far more superior than theirs. In fact, Vezenkov is averaging 17.6PPG which makes him the 3rd highest scoring MVP since Anthony Parker dropped 17.9PPG (2004-05) and Nando De Colo poured in a record 19.4PPG (2015-16).

Vezenkov has long been a safe horse in the EuroLeague, but his scoring dominance and statistical rise from last season to following MVP season, has been the 3rd greatest jump among the last FIVE Euroleague MVPs. Here are the stats below.

2022/2023 Sasha Vezenkov: From 13.6PPG to MVP with 17.6PPG = +4PPG

2021/2022 Nikola Mirotic: From 15.5PPG to MVP with 16.9PPG = +1.4PPG

2020/2021 Vasilije Micic: From 14.5PPG to MVP with 16.7PPG = +2.2PPG

2018/2019 Jan Vesely: From 12.4PPG to MVP with 12.2PPG = -0.2PPG

2017/2018 Luka Doncic: From 7.8PPG to MVP with 16PPG = +8.2PPG

2016/2017 Sergio Lull: From 12.3PPG to MVP with 16.4PPG = +4.1PPG

While the attention and notice of his progress and potential are flattering, Vezenkov isn’t looking too far ahead, and wants to make the impossible possible. “At this moment, my mind is on making the Final Four with Olympiacos, nothing else. I want to be in Kaunas, that’s all I think about.” Many of Vezenkov’s teammates in Greece are ex-NBA players. It’s safe to say that the conversation of his potential transition to the US has come up in locker room chats this season. Tarik Black, Isaiah Canaan and Kostas Papanikolaou have tasted the NBA and graced Vezenkov with their thoughts on the importance of having a role and opportunity to stick in the NBA, because getting to the NBA isn’t so much the hard part. Finding your role, maintaining stability, and job security are the big challenges for fringe NBA players. Lord knows we’ve had multiple EuroLeague superstars that found life to be unhappy and rough in the US from Juan Carlos Navarro, to Sarunas Jasikevicius, to Vassilis Spanoulis, to Mario Hezonja to Jan Vesely, to Nicolo Melli to Gigi Datome etc.

“Of course, [the NBA] it’s a dream for anyone who plays basketball. But I don’t think about doing it just to say I did it. If the situation is good, the team wants me and we find a way and an opportunity, something can be done”, Vezenkov said.

Do you remember I mentioned Vezenkov being on the hunt for making the impossible possible?! Please, allow me to explain. GREAT writer Frankie Sacks recently posted a fantastic article highlighting a huge, major red flag for Vezenkov and Olympiacos. Not one team, since the onset of the current round-robin regular-season EuroLeague format for the 2016-17 campaign, has the first-place team from the regular season won the EuroLeague title.

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