Two years ago Khimki's playmaker Petteri Koponen and Finland national team surprisingly finished ninth among 24 teams at EuroBasket 2011. Koponen, who was only 23 years old at that time, led Finland in scoring, averaging 13.3 points and 3.1 assists in eight games played.
Now Finland is no longer considered an outsider at EuroBasket 2013, where Koponen and his teammates will be fighting in group D.
Right before the tip-off of EuroBasket 2013, Koponen, whose NBA rights are currently held by Dallas Mavericks, talked with RealGM about Finish basketball, his NBA dream, first season with Khimki and much more.
RealGM: In your opinion, how would you evaluate the preparation period for EuroBasket 2013?
Koponen: We have been together for many years and everybody knows each other very well. We played against tough teams such as France, Lithuania. We lost those games but we managed to stay close. I think we're on the right track going to the EuroBasket. So far so good and for us the main important thing is to stay healthy because we don't have so many guys. If somebody is missing, we won't have a replacement. But so far so good.
RealGM: Taking you back to EuroBasket 2011, Finland was a true revelation of that tournament. At that time, did you expect that your team could get three wins there?
Koponen: It was our first EuroBasket in many, many years. Nobody expected that. We believe in our style, we're a dangerous team because everyone can shoot. We showed there that we can compete with every team. Of course, we tried to take it game by game and at the end it was a great success for us. Not many people in Europe believed that we could get to the second round. It was a great result and now that we go to Slovenia we'll try to do it again.
RealGM: Do you feel that opponents' approach towards Finland has changed in recent years?
Koponen: Last time we went there, we surprised everybody. Now they know us and for sure, if they are going to underestimate us, they will find out that we're a dangerous team. Everybody feel ready for us, but at the same time, I think it's a great chance for us too. We have to improve and be ready that opponents might take something out from our game and we have to find some other ways to score or play defense.
RealGM: Last season the 36-year-old Hanno Mottola took a long break and played in the second Finish league for a while. Despite that, he is still productive and seems to be an important part of Finland national team. What does Mottola mean for this team and Finish basketball overall?
Koponen: He did retire one time but he came back, played in Finland for a little bit. But now he's in great shape, he said he's been healthy and he practiced really hard. He's a big help for us, a big man who can shoot. It's great for us and I think he can play for many more years. I can say that we have two basketball legends in Finland, Mottola and Teemu Rannikko. Everybody knows them in Finland. They both had great careers and I hope they both will play for many more years.
RealGM: Moving on to the NBA, as your current draft rights belong to the Dallas Mavericks, do you stay in touch with them?
Koponen: At the moment, I have a contract in Russia with a buy-out option, which can be used every summer. Every time we look at what the situation is. I saw that the Mavericks signed a lot of guards this summer and I have to keep looking what's going on there. Of course, I still think I can play there and (the NBA) has always been my dream. Year-by-year, I try to improve my game in Europe. Last season I played for a great team with very talented players, therefore sometimes I didn't receive too much playing time. But like I said, year-by-year, I try to improve here and if there's a chance and a right situation, I would be very interested [in joining the Mavericks].
RealGM: We often hear from players what is like being traded from one team to another. What about draft rights, what was the feeling when you heard that Portland Trail Blazers traded your rights to the Mavericks?
Koponen: Of course, you cannot affect all those things. It's not about you; it's more about business. You have to understand that, it is what it is. You cannot think about it too much, you try to do what you can. I always believe that if you work hard and try to improve, things eventually will work out.
RealGM: What was your routine once you heard the news? Did you wake up in the morning and start checking the Mavericks' roster?
Koponen: Yes, you check that because it's all about your career and future. When I got drafted, I also knew that Mavericks were interested in me as well and I had very good workouts with them. Of course, you always check the roster and try to see, maybe there's a better situation. Like I said, you cannot think about it too much because you cannot affect it. You have to try to get better and hopefully they'll notice that.
RealGM: At the moment, is playing in the NBA still on your long-term plans?
Koponen: I think so. Like I said, I'm in a great situation in Europe now as I'm playing for a great club in Russia. Every year I'm going to look at the situation and if there's a chance to go there, I would be really interested in doing that. That has always been my dream and I think I could play there. I would like at least try to play with the best in the world.
RealGM: Talking about your debut with Khimki, how do you feel about your first season in Russia?
Koponen: Of course, it was hard. In recent years, I used to be the man, who used to have a ball and the plays were run through me [laughing]. I went there, where were Zoran Planinic, Vitaly Fridzon, and a lot of talented guys. I think we had a final four level team, but it's also about small things and we didn't make it last season. There have always been challenges in practices, fighting for the playing time. I think I improved a lot in that year. Again, it was a new challenge in my career.
RealGM: You still have two years left in your contract with Khimki. Do you still think it is the best place for you to develop your game?
Koponen: Like you said, I've got a contract and in this business you cannot think too much ahead. You have to go year-by-year and I hope that this year I will get a bigger role and more playing time. In Euroleague, every team has a long bench and a lot of talented players. I think that I always have to fight in practices and earn my playing time. Of course, I will be younger than the other guys, so I have to earn it. But I believe in my chances and I believe it will be a great year for me.
RealGM: As you're still 25 years old, what would you like to improve in your game the most?
Koponen: Everything, but most likely my left hand [laughing]. Sometimes when I go to the basket, I would like to improve those kind of shots. If you play in the Euroleague or you plan to go the NBA, there's not going to be those easy layups or floaters. In different situations, I can score the ball, but basketball is a nice game, where you can always improve.