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Europe Interview: Petteri Koponen Of Finland

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.

The Euroleague MVP Race

- All records and stats through Game 6 of Top-16.

1. Bobby Brown - Montepaschi Siena (5-1)

20.4 points and 5.4 assists in 32 minutes.

Montepaschi Siena has been the biggest success story of this season as the Italian champions remained one of two undefeated teams in first five games in Euroleague Top 16. Obviously, this wouldn't have happened without a dominating offensive power, Bobby Brown, who became an excellent replacement for Bo McCalebb.

The stats speak for themself as Brown leads the league in scoring (20.4 ppg.) and is third in assists (5.4) and fouls drawn (5.7). Moreover, Brown, who has already been drawing attention from NBA teams, finished in double figures in his last eight Euroleague games and even managed to break the Top 16 single-game scoring record with 41 points scored against Fenerbahce Ulker.

2. Viktor Khryapa - CSKA Moscow (4-2)

10.6 points (45% 3FG), 7.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.7 steals in 28 minutes.

Viktor Khryapa became a player for CSKA, stepping up to make sure the Russian team remained among Euroleague title contenders after the departure of Andrei Kirilenko. When CSKA needed it the most, Khryapa has improved all of his main statistical numbers this season. Compared to last season, his points average went from 8.2 to 10.6, rebounds from 4.0 to 7.1 and assists from 3.3 to 3.8.

This season Khryapa is no longer just a defensive contributor, as his versatility allows him to make a difference at both ends of the floor. Moreover, his game continues to grow as the 6-foot-8 big man averages 12.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists in the Top 16 stage. At this point, Khryapa, together with Vassilis Spanoulis, appears to be the one of very few players capable of outlasting Bobby Brown for the top spot.

3. Vassilis Spanoulis - Olympiacos (3-3)

16.1 points, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 29 minutes.

Olympiacos, led by Vassilis Spanoulis, has been proving that their impressive run last season wasn't a fluke. The reigning champions finished the regular season with seven wins in a row and coming in second in group C. However, the sluggish start of Olympiacos in the Top 16 hurts Spanoulis' chances to win MVP award as the reds are just 3-3 after six games.

Similar to the last two seasons, Spanoulis has been very consistent and finished in single figures only once this year. Spanoulis is fourth in scoring in the Euroleague, averaging 16.1 points per game and also ranks fourth in assists with 5.3 per game as well. Spanoulis is also an undisputed leader in turnovers and soon should become an All-Time leader in this category.

4. Rudy Fernandez - Real Madrid (6-0)

13.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 26 minutes.

After failing to make it out of the Top 16 stage in 2011-12, Real needed a game changer, a player, who could bring Madrid team back to the top. As current results show, Rudy Fernandez fit that role perfectly.

Due to his athleticism, Fernandez is able to carry Real on his back when Madrid needs that and having a leader such Fernandez has helped his team remain undefeated in the Top 16 stage of the strongest European competition. Moreover, the well-balanced Real team is currently standing on the top of both Euroleague group A and Spanish championship league tables. Not without the help of Fernandez. 

5. Nenad Krstic - CSKA Moscow (4-2)

14.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 24 minutes.

Nenad Krstic is arguably the most productive center on offense in the Euroleague as he ranks seventh in points per possession (1.3), eighth in scoring (14.6) and sixth in effective field goal percentage (0.665). Krstic is a big threat on offence for any Euroleague team and that is what helps him to be this high on Euroleague MVP ranking.

However, rebounding has been a well-known problem of Krstic for a long time. The 6-foot-10 center has been averaging only 4.2 rebounds per game this season and hasn't registered a single double-double in the Euroleague yet. In terms of all leagues, Krstic finish a game with a double-double only twice this season in 37 games he played so far. Krstic also hasn't grabbed more than seven rebounds in a single game in the 2012-13 Euroleague season.

6. Jordan Farmar - Anadolu Efes Istanbul (5-1)

13.6 points (45% 3FG), 3.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 29 minutes.

If our Euroleague MVP ranking would be based on the performance of first five games, Jordan Farmar undoubtedly would be on the top spot. Farmar averaged 22.6 Euroleague PIR (performance index ranking) points in over first five games, but in the next five, Anadolu Efes lost three out of five matches, while Farmar averaged only 4.4 PIR points during that stretch.

Eventually, while the other team from Istanbul, Fenerbahce Ulker, once again fails to meet the expectations, Farmar has helped Anadolu Efes to get back on winning track and win five games in a row in the Top 16 stage. The 26-year-old guard is again playing like an MVP, averaging 14.5 points, 3.5 rebound and 4.2 assists in six Top 16 games thus far.

7. Sonny Weems - CSKA Moscow (4-2)

14.8 points (44% 3FG) and 3.2 rebounds in 29 minutes.

Same as Jordan Farmar, at the very beginning of the season it seemed that Sonny Weems will be ranked no lower than Top 3 in our Euroleague MVP Ranking. However, Weems started to struggle in the Top 16 as the former member of the Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets has been averaging only 10.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2 assists per game during that stretch - not MVP worthy numbers.

While Weems was out of the rhythm, CSKA faced two losses and went down to the third place of the group A. No matter how much talent CSKA has, as we seen thus far, the Moscow team needs Weems putting big numbers on an every-night basis.

8. Zoran Planinic - Khimki Moscow region (4-2)

13.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists in 31 minutes.

Zoran Planinic, the 2012 Eurocup Final MVP, was one of the main reasons why Khimki got back to the Euroleague this season and the Croatian playmaker continues to lead Khimki all the way to the Top 8. The 30-year-old Planinic is currently having a career-year, averaging 13.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists.

Even Khimki's financial problems didn't prevent Planinic from putting big numbers in the Euroleague as just a week ago he was close on breaking his individual performance result against Fenerbahce Ulker, posting 25 points, six rebounds and six assists. Simultaneously, Planinic's 16.2% shooting percentage from beyond the arc hurts his chances on climbing up our Euroleague MVP rankings.

9. Ante Tomic - FC Barcelona (5-1)

10.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 22 minutes.

Throughout the regular season, Ante Tomic reminded himself as an inconsistent big man, who has enough potential to steal the spotlight at any game. However, everything changed in the Top 16, where Tomic, for the very first time in his career, constantly plays as an MVP on every game.

While FC Barcelona Regal stands on the top of group F, Tomic has been averaging 14.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists throughout six Top 16 stage games, comparing to 8.6 points, 5.2 boards and 1.5 assist in the regular season. Tomic finished in double scoring figures in all six games as well and if the 25-year-old center maintains this pace, he has all the potential to move up higher in Euroleague MVP ranking in the near future.

10. Maciej Lampe - Caja Laboral Vitoria (4-2)

12.6 points and 6 rebounds in 24 minutes.

From hate to love, there is only one step. After a tough 37 points Euroleague loss against Zalgiris right after the departure of head coach Dusko Ivanovic, it seems that Maciej Lampe was the next person to be blamed for horrible Caja Laboral results in the Euroleague. Then, under new coach Zan Tabak, Caja Laboral managed to win 17 (!) games in a row, including Spanish championship games, and that had not be possible without Lampe.

The 6-foot-11 big man was a top scorer in six of those 17 games and either lead the team in scoring, rebounding or assists in 10 of them. Lampe is also a key contributor to Caja Laboral's success in the Top 16 stage as he averages 14.8 points and Top-16-second-best 7.5 rebounds in six games.

Honorable Mentions: Shawn James, Maccabi; Kyle Hines, Olympiakos; Dimitris Diamantidis, Stephane Lasme, Panathinaikos; Milos Teodosic, CSKA.

Euroleague Player Rankings: Point Guards

With the 12-13 Euroloeague season ready to go, RealGM presents the ultimate positional rankings of the league's best players. In this first edition, RealGM ranked the elite points guards from one to ten.

1. Bo McCalebb (Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul, Turkey)

Statistics in 2011-2012 (Euroleague): 16.9 points (53% 3FG) and 2.7 assists.

After spending only three seasons in the Euroleague, Bo McCalebb, at the age of 27, became a true phenomena and the most wanted point guard in the whole league. Lucky for Fenerbahce Ulker this offseason, Simone Pianigiani and the Turkish club managed to sign the Euroleague's top scorer, who joined his former coach and teammates from Montepaschi Siena. McCalebb's offensive skills might finally bring victories to Turkey, who haven't reached the Euroleague Final four since 2001.

2. Dimitris Diamantidis (Panathinaikos Athens, Greece)

Statistics in 2011-2012 (Euroleague): 11.5 points (43% 3FG), 3.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

Dimitris Diamantidis, 32, who went from defensive standout to offensive weapon over the past few seasons, is a player you would like to build a Euroleague team around. A very consistent and true leader, Diamantidis has everything it takes to be a top guard in the league and his versatility makes him among the very best at any position.

3. Milos Teodosic (CSKA Moscow, Russia)

Statistics in 2011-2012 (Euroleague): 10.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5 assists.

Milos Teodosic's debut in Moscow wasn't as sweet as it could had been, as CSKA dropped a last second loss against his former team of four seasons, Olympiakos, in the Euroleague final. Teodosic would be a Euroleague champion by now if he stayed in Olympiakos, but it won't the one and only opportunity for the 25-year-old playmaker. Clearly, Teodosic will have better chances than any other point guard on this list to grab the title this season with his current team CSKA.

4. Jordan Farmar (Anadolu Efes, Istanbul)

Statistics in 2011-2012 (NBA): 10.4 points and 3.3 assists.

After playing only seven games with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Farmar was back to the NBA, where he averaged career-best 10.4 points per game. Under coach David Blatt, the 25-year-old Farmar was playing like a star and MVP candidate and there are no reasons why he couldn't do that with his new team, Anadolu Efes.

5. Marcelinho Huertas (FC Regal Barcelona, Spain)

Statistics in 2011-2012 (Euroleague): 8.5 points and 4.4 assists.

The 29-year-old Marcelinho Huertas is definitely at his prime right now and his stock raised even further after a successful performance in London Olympic games. Huertas draw basketball fans' attention with his playmaking skills and court vision as he finished the Olympics second in assists category (averaged six assists per game). As the Brazilian's contract with FC Regal Barcelona ends in 2015, it wouldn't be a big surprise to see Huertas going to the States and joining an NBA team.

6. Sergio Rodriguez (Real Madrid, Spain)

Statistics in 2011-2012 (Euroleague): 7.4 points (47 3FG%) and 5.4 assists.

Having a player like Sergio Rodriguez makes things a lot easier for the entire Real Madrid team. Rodriguez has never been the most athletically gifted player on court, but his quickness and passing skills - he was the second in assists category last season, 5.4 per game - makes him one of the best point guards in Europe. Moreover, the 26-year-old Rodriguez has been playing for the Spanish national team since he was 19 and that grew him as a player and made him an important weapon in clutch situations.

7. Dontaye Draper (Real Madrid, Spain)

Statistics in 2011-2012 (Eurocup): 13.8 points and 2.6 assists.

Rodriguez's teammate and Real Madrid newcomer Donatya Draper might be the best-kept secret that will make his debut in Euroleague this season. Draper, a 28-year old well-built, athletic playmaker, last season proved again with Cedevita that he can be the main offensive weapon, averaging 13.8 points per game in Eurocup. His performance in EuroBasket 2011 (Draper plays for the Croatian national team despite being from the United States) also proved his versatility, as he was a pass-first type point guard and averaged seven assists per game.

8. Omar Cook (EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, Italy)

Statistics in 2011-12 (Euroleague): 7.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists.

Omar Cook, another American point guard on this list, is entering his fifth straight Euroleague season and most likely with the highest ambitions he ever had. The 30-year-old Cook led the league in assists last season, with 5.7 per game, and it seems he will remain among leaders in that category as Olimpia Milano added such offensive weapons like Keith Langford and Gianluca Basile to their squad.

9. Roko Ukic (Panathinaikos Athens, Greece)

Statistics in 2011-12 (Euroleague): 11.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists.

After Roko Ukic came back from the NBA in 2010 and joined Fenerbahce Ulker, it was believed that the Croatian could become a dominant point guard in the Euroleague and help the Turkish club to reach more than just Top 16. While Ukic has proved he's among the best, he hasn't demonstrated he has what it takes to be a game changer. A new team, new circumstances and another chance is waiting for Ukic with Panathinaikos, who will desperately need the best of him this season.

10. Zoran Planinic (Khimki Moscow region, Russia)

Statistics in 2011-12 (Eurocup): 11.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

Last season's Eurocup Finals MVP, Zoran Planinic was one of the main reasons why Khimki made a comeback to the Euroleague. As Khimki didn't bring any dominant players, Planinic's role is going to be even bigger this season as he is expected to lead Khimki in this year's competition and make his teammates better than they ever been.

Honorable Mention: Aaron Jackson, CSKA.

Preseason Euroleague Power Rankings

The 2012-13 Euroleague regular season will begin on October 19th and here are RealGM's preseason power rankings with CSKA, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Fenerbahce Ulker and Olympiacos comprising the top-five.

2012 Russian PBL Season In Review

CSKA won the Russian PBL for the 10th consecutive time and 19th in 21 seasons.

Eurocup Recaps, Round 6 (Finishing The Regular Season)

The Eurocup Regular Season came to a close this week as the seeds for the Last 16 become set.

Season Preview: Russian PBL

With nine championships in a row and counting, CSKA Moscow can compete with the likes of Panathinaikos and Montepaschi in regards to domination of its own domestic league.
 

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