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Euroleague Interview: Alexis Ajinca Of Strasbourg IG

There have been many cases when, after failing to meet expectations in the NBA, young big men return to Europe and are just another guy. However, this is not the case with 25-year-old Alexis Ajinca. 

The French center successfully restarted his career in Europe after spending three seasons on the benches of NBA teams and is now considered one of the best centers in the Euroleague. Ajinca is currently the second top scorer in the Euroleague this season, averaging 19.4 points and 6.6 rebounds in 28 minutes per game.

Ajinca was also a big part of France's national team, which succeeded in EuroBasket 2013 and won the gold in Slovenia.

RealGM caught up with Ajinca to talk about the restart of his career, his plans to get back to the NBA, France's national team and much more.

RealGM: First of all, speaking of your current team Strasbourg IG, what were your individual expectations for this Euroleague season? 

Ajinca: We want to finish in the Top 16 in the Euroleague, to be able to do something pretty good in the Euroleague and win a championship. That’s always the main goal.

RealGM: Back in the 2006-07 season, you had a chance to taste Euroleague for only eight minutes, but now you’ve finally got a real opportunity to see what is Euroleague all about. What is your impression about this competition so far?  

Ajinca: It has improved a lot since then. I’ve been playing more than I used to. I’ve learned a lot with Coach (Vincent) Collet. He’s taught me a lot as a big man.

RealGM: You’ve been playing for Strasbourg IG for the last three years. What are the reasons that made you stay in one place for a long time while you could have signed with a top European team? Or is it just the financial aspect?

Ajinca: It was the fact that I liked working with the coach I have, the national team coach. It was a great thing to be able to come back and play with him. It was a very good opportunity.

RealGM: Taking you back to EuroBasket 2013, could you highlight your top three moments from that time in Slovenia that you will remember for a long time?

Ajinca: I would say my 25 points against Latvia. I played a good game. That was one memory. Another memory is when we won against Spain, because that was the first time it happened in international competition. And another great memory is the celebration, when we won the title at the end.

RealGM: As you discovered that Joakim Noah, Ronny Turiaf and Ian Mahimi wouldn't be available for EuroBasket 2013, and you’re the top big inside the paint, what was your mindset prior the start of the competition?

Ajinca: Well, my mind was set to go to the national team and play as hard as I could to be able to lead the team. When I heard that some players weren’t coming, it was disappointing. I wanted to compare myself to them to see how far I’ve come.

RealGM: Tony Parker praised your game and your improvement since 2009. How does it feel to hear good words from one of the best point guards in the world?

Ajinca: Very thankful. It means that everything I’ve been working on all those years has been paying off, so I’m blessed that someone like him would recognize the work that I’ve put in. It’s great. He took me under his wing and taught me how to do things. It was great. I really enjoyed playing with him.

RealGM: If all the best French players who didn’t play in EuroBasket 2013 would suit up, where France could finish at the upcoming World Championship?

Ajinca: I don’t know. Probably in the top three.

RealGM: Could you talk a bit about Vincent Collet and your relationship with him? You spent the last couple of seasons playing under him with both the French national team and Strasbourg IG.

Ajinca: He’s a very good coach. He takes time to teach people how to react to certain situations. He’s always been great to me. Always taking time to teach me how to do things. I’m grateful I found a coach like that.

RealGM: As you had a successful EuroBasket 2013 and you’re one of the best big men in Euroleague, what path would you prefer to go for the next season - joining an elite Euroleague team or coming back to the NBA? 

Ajinca: My dream is to one day become a very good NBA player, but right now I’m just focused on this season. I want to be the best player I can be in Euroleague.

RealGM: You said in 2011 that you’re not sure if you make an attempt to make a comeback to the NBA. Does your great performance in EuroBasket 2013 and Euroleague gave you more confidence?

Ajinca: Yeah, it gave me a lot more confidence. I can see myself playing against those big names and I’m doing better, so it pretty much told me I’m already better than I was before.

RealGM: You played your last game in the NBA on April 13th, 2011. How do you think your game has changed since that time?

Ajinca: I have been receiving playing time. It’s just being able to play as good as I can and help my team as much as I can.

RealGM: As you’re still only 25 and you have European champion medal under your belt, what else would you like to achieve in your career?

Ajinca: I want to win an NBA ring. I would love to be able to have an Olympic gold medal and the Euroleague Championship.

Americans Winning Titles Abroad, 2013 Edition

As all European basketball leagues have ended their 2012-13 season, RealGM has traditionally checked on how many American players were involved in the celebrations this year.

RealGM has counted for the third consecutive year, 107 players from the U.S. became champions in 45 European national leagues.

Maccabi Haifa, champions of Israel, was ‘the most American’ champion team with six players from the U.S. on their roster.

In contrast, Kamza Basket (Albania), KB Peja (Kosovo), Donbasket Donduseni (Moldova), Partizan Belgrade (Serbia) and Edinburgh Kings (Scotland) won titles without American players on their rosters.

Partizan was the only Euroleague team to win national competition without receiving help from the U.S. 

RealGM presents the European national leagues champions list, where you can find all 107 players names (top-five European national competitions are bolded).

Country

Champion team

American players

Albania

Kamza Basket

No American players

Austria

Vienna

Ian Boylan (CS Northridge)

Shawn Ray (North Carolina Central)

Maurice Pearson (Georgetown College)

Jean Francois (Georgia South)

Belarus

Tsmoki Minsk

Tierre Brown (McNeese State)

Belgium

Oostende

Sean Singletary (Virginia)

Thomas De Thaey (North Carolina State)

Matt Lojeski (Hawaii)

Brent Wright (Florida)

Wesley Wilkinson (Nebraska)

Bosnia

Igokea Aleksandrovac

Clifford Hammonds (Clemson)

Corsley Edwards (C. Connecticut State)

Bulgaria

Lukoil Academik Sofia

Darryl Watkins (Syracuse)

Brandon Heath (San Diego State)

Croatia

Cibona Zagreb

D.J. Strawberry (Maryland)

Jerel Blassingame (UNLV)

Cyprus

AEK Larnaca

Dion Dixon (Cincinnati)

Charron Fisher (Niagara)

Ken Tutt (ORU)

Michael Harrison (Colorado State)

Czech Republic

CEZ Nymburk

Andrew Naymick (Michigan State)

Tweety Carter (Baylor)

Denmark

Bakken Bears

Charles Parker (Millersville)

Estonia

Kalev-Cramo Tallinn

Ty Abbott (Arizona State)

Gary Wilkinson (Utah State)

Keith McLeod (Bowling Green)

Finland

Nilan Bisons

Ryan McDade (Northern Arizona)

Martin Zeno (Texas Tech)

Jeb Ivey (Portland State)

France

JSF Nanterre

David Lighty (Ohio State)

Trenton Meacham (Illinois)

Charles Jackson (Hawaii Pacific)

Chris Warren (Mississippi)

Georgia

MIA Academy Tbilisi

Benjamin Raymond (Xavier)

Deonta Vaughn (Cincinnati)

Kirk Archibeque (Fort Lewis)

Chad Prewitt (Arizona State)

Germany

Brose Baskets Bamberg

Casey Jacobsen (Stanford)

Alex Renfroe (Belmont)

Matt Walsh (Florida)

Sharrod Ford (Clemson)

John Goldsberry (NC-Wilmington)

Greece

Panathinaikos Athens

James Gist (Maryland)

Ramel Curry (CSU Bakersfield)

R.T. Guinn (Baylor)

Holland

ZZ Leiden

Sean Cunningham (UC Riverside)

Michael Schachtner (Green Bay)

Antoine Young (Creighton)

Hungary

Alba Fehervar

Brandon Wood (Michigan State)

Damian Hollis (George Washington)

Ronald Moore (Siena)

Jarrod Jones (Ball State)

Iceland

Grindavik

Ryan Pettinella (Virginia)

Sammy Zeglinski (Virginia)

Aaron Broussard (Seattle)

Ireland

UCC Demons Cork

Kenton Walker (Creighton)

Israel

Maccabi Haifa

Paul Stoll (Texas-Pan American)

Donta Smith (Southeastern Illinois)

Pat Calathes (Saint Joseph’s)

James Thomas (Texas)

Corry Carr (Texas Tech)

Bryan Cohen (Bucknell)

Italy

Montepaschi Siena

Bobby Brown (CS Fullertone)

David Moss (Indiana State)

Matt Janning (Northeastern)

Dionte Christmas (Temple) 

Kosovo

KB Peja

No American players

Latvia

VEF Riga

Earl Rowland (Saint Mary's)

Will Daniels (Rhode Island)

Lithuania

Zalgiris Kaunas

Donnie McGrath (Providence)

Oliver Lafayette (Houston)

Jeff Foote (Cornell)

Luxembourg

T71 Dudelange

Ryan Sharry (Middlebury)

Denell Stephens (Slippery Rock)

Macedonia

MZT Scopje

Cade Davis (Oklahoma)

Malta

Floriana

Matt Glass (Massachusetts)

Moldova

Donbasket Donduseni

No American players

Montenegro

Buducnost Podgorica

Dee Bost (Mississippi State)

Norway

Baerum Basket

Ryan Ferranti (Rollins)

Lionel Green (SUNO)

Torgrim Sommerfeldt (Manhattan)

Poland

Stelmet Zielona Gora

Quinton Hosley (Fresno State)

Portugal

Benfica Lisboa

Ricky Franklin (Wisconsim - Milwaukee)

Frederick Gentry (McNeese State)

LaceDarius Dunn (Baylor)

Heshimu Evans (Kentucky)

Romania

CSU Asesoft Ploiesti

Alhaji Mohammed (Louisville)

Robert Nyakundi (SMU)

Russia

CSKA Moscow

Sonny Weems (Arkansas)

Aaron Jackson (Duquense)

Scotland

Edinburgh Kings

No American players

Serbia

Partizan Belgrade

No American players

Slovakia

Inter Bratislava

Alando Tucket (Wisconsin)

Justin Graham (San Jose State)

Marlon Garnett (Santa Clara)

Slovenia

Krka Novo Mesto

Jerime Anderson (UCLA)

Spain

Real Madrid

Marcus Slaughter (San Diego State)

Tremmell Darden (Niagara)

Jaycee Carroll (Utah State)

Dontaye Draper (Charleston) 

Sweden

Sodertalje BBK

Kenneth Simms (Cumberland)

John Roberson (Texas Tech)

Switzerland

Geneve Lions

Kelvin Parker (NW Missouri State)

Juwann James (JMU)

Tony Brown (Arkansas State)

Turkey

Galatasaray Istanbul

Jamont Gordon (Mississippi State)

Ersin Dagli (Alabama)

Ukraine

Budivelnyk Kyiv

Malcom Delaney (Virginia Tech)

Leo Lyons (Missouri)

United Kingdom

Leicester Riders

Zaire Taylor (Missouri)

Jay Couisnard (UMKC)

Preseason Euroleague Power Rankings

The 2012-13 Euroleague regular season will begin on October 19th and here are RealGM's preseason power rankings.

1. CSKA Moscow (Russia)

The absence of Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved will definitely be felt, but the return of head coach Ettore Messina and the acquisition of one of the best Euroleague rookies of 2011-12 season, Sonny Weems, maintains CSKA as the most talented team in Euroleague. Also, it's going to be the second season in Russia for Serbians Milos Teodosic and Nenad Krstic, who together with Weems should lead CSKA to the Final Four.

2. FC Barcelona Regal (Spain)

FC Barcelona Regal clearly suffered some serious losses this offseason as one of the most versatile Euroleague players, Chuck Eidson, left for Unics and two big men moved south to Unicaja Malaga. Barcelona didn’t shock the market by making huge signings, but that’s what their front office usually does. The Catalonians managed to re-sign RealGM’s last season’s All-Euroleague 1st Team member Erazem Lorbek, who together with elite point guard Marcelinho Huertas, healthy Juan Carlos Navarro and Olympic surprise Joe Ingles might help FC Barcelona Regal make another Final Four appearance.

3. Real Madrid (Spain)

Real’s time has finally come. It has been 18 years since Real won its last Euroleague title and this year Pablo Laso’s team has the best chance they have had in years. This season’s Real is very versatile, having the pieces to go all the way to the top. They are both young and experienced, explosive and dangerous, which by adding Rudy Fernandez this offseason might become unstoppable in every league they’ll compete in the 12-13 season.

4. Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul (Turkey)

It seems that Montepaschi Siena was relocated to Turkey and that’s good news for Fenerbahce Ulker fans. Fenerbahce Ulker managers opened their pockets to bring former Montepaschi players David Andersen, Romain Sato, Bo McCalebb and coach Simone Pianigiani. These pieces have experience together, therefore Fenerbahce Ulker should find a winning path straight away. Everybody in Europe knows that McCalebb, who signed a three-year deal with the Turkish team, is a game changer and a Euroleague Final Four is probably not so far away for Fenerbahce Ulker.

5. Olympiacos Piraeus (Greece)

After a stunning performance in last season’s Final Four, current Euroleague champion Olympiacos is no longer an underdog. Every team will treat Olympiacos as a champion and the expectations for the Greeks will be sky high. Despite the departure of head coach Dusan Ivkovic, Olympiacos managed to maintain the core of the team and especially the key Greek players from the last season  - Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis, Kostas Papanikolaou, and American Kyle Hines.

6. Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel)

Maccabi is clearly not the same dominant team as it was in 2004 or 2005, but they are one of only few who remained elite for years and are always among top candidates to claim the title. Before the start of the season, Maccabi doesn’t seem to be at the same line with Europe’s best (CSKA and FC Barcelona Regal), but David Blatt and his players are capable of beating the odds and making a long run in this year’s Euroleague.

7. Unicaja Malaga (Spain)

Unicaja has been struggling for years in the Euroleague tournament but there are signs that the dark days for Malaga basketball might be over. Unicaja, which won only five out of 24 games in the Top 16 in last four years, had to say goodbye to its team face Joel Freeland and 11 other players and build a new team from the ground up. Luka Zoric, Fran Vazquez and Kosta Perovic will form one of the best frontcourts in the league, which will be the key strength of Unicaja.

8. Montepaschi Siena (Italy)

Life after Bo McCalebb won’t be easy and Montepaschi is about to experience that. Montepaschi completely changed its team by almost completely turning over its roster and starting a new page. Montepaschi managers had to say goodbye to Siena’s biggest stars and its leader McCalebb, who had been Montepaschi’s key player since 2010. As other teams’ experience shows, it takes years to build a winning Euroleague team, therefore patience might be an essential thing for this year’s Montepaschi.

9. EA7 Emporio Armani Milano (Italy)

After years of disappointments, EA7 Emporio Armani was finally very close to making the Top 8 last season and this year’s team looks even more impressive. It seems the managers of Olimpia Milano did their best on bringing an elite player, such as Keith Langford, and missing pieces like Gianluca Basile and Richard Hendrix. EA7 Emporio Armani hasn’t looked this strong for many years and this might be the best chance for Sergio Scariolo and his guys to break their team's curse of Euroleague.

10. Panathinaikos Athens (Greece)

The post-Obradovic era begins. Nine new players and more to come as Panathinaikos was completely rebuilt this offseason. The wind of changes came when eight-time Euroleague champion Zeljko Obradovic, who coached Panathinaikos since 1999, stepped down and 11 players left the team as well. One of two players who stayed in Athens, Dimitris Diamantidis and new coach Argyris Pedoulakis is in a very difficult position as it might take more than a season to build a strong relationship between players and bring Panathinaikos back on the winning path.

11. Caja Laboral Vitoria (Spain)

The biggest upset of the last season, Caja Laboral do not have any reasons to be very optimistic about this year as well. Two key players, Euroleague leading points per game scorer Mirza Teletovic and team assist leadser Pablo Prigioni left the Spanish organization for the NBA and Caja Laboral struggles to find a proper replacement. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see group C’s Caja Laboral missing Top 16 for the second straight season.

12. Zalgiris Kaunas (Lithuania)

Similar to last season, Zalgiris formed a solid roster for the Euroleague tournament and seems to be a Top 8 team on paper. But Zalgiris fans know the best that it's way too early to celebrate and there's nothing to be excited about before the Top 16 starts. Statistics don't lie: over the last nine years, Zalgiris won only seven and lost 35 games in the Top 16 stage. Despite how good Zalgiris' roster seemed to be, Kaunas won just four matches in Top 16 since 2004 and holds an awful 4-32 record.

13. Khimki Moscow region

Eurocup winner Khimki formed its team the earliest among all Euroleague clubs and signed all players even before the beginning of the summer. Khimki didn’t spend as much money as they did in the past, but Rimas Kurtinaitis’ team should repeat their success in 2009-10 and make it out of the group with the talent they have.

14. Anadolu Efes Istanbul

‘Born to lose’ are the first three words, which came to my mind when I hear the name Anadolu Efes Istanbul. It didn’t matter how many top European players Istanbul had on its roster, they have always failed to meet expectations. The main reason is that chemistry is something money can’t buy. However, Anadolu Efes will have another shot to make a long run this season, as they’ll have future MVP candidate Jordan Farmar on their side and many other individually great players. As always.

15. Besiktas Istanbul (Turkey)

No doubt, last season was amazing for Besiktas and their fans as Istanbul club won three titles - Turkish league, Turkish Cup and EuroChallenge (the third best European competition). It was simply the gold age for the Turkish team, but this year’s Besiktas will be different as day and night. The whole starting five left the club and that doesn’t mean anything good for Besiktas.

16. Cedevita Zagreb (Croatia)

It’s not a secret that the last two seasons weren’t the best for Croatian basketball, but it seems Cedevita is here to change the things. Definitely, Cedevita wasn’t the luckiest club on the Euroleague draw day as they would probably like to be anywhere but in group C. However, the Croatian team’s managers did nice work this offseason by building a versatile team with few well-known names, who are good enough to shake things up make a mess in group C.

17. Brose Baskets Bamberg (Germany)

Brose Baskets proved that German basketball can compete with the Europe’s best clubs and last season was just one step away from making to the Top 16. During the offseason, Brose Baskets lost some very important pieces and is going to be quite a challenge for Chris Fleming to build a winning team with the guys he has now.

18. Partizan Belgrade (Serbia)

As usual, Partizan will be a team to watch this season. The Serbian club will have many well-known talents on its roster. Davis Bertans, Dejan Musli, Leo Westermann, Bogdan Bogdanovic have proved themselves in youth tournaments and now it’s time to demonstrate their capabilities on the big scene. Moreover, coach Dusko Vujosevic, who led Partizan to the Final four in 09-10, is back in Belgrade. The 24-year-old Marko Cakarevic is currently the oldest player on the team, but it is surely going to be fun to watch how talented and hungry Partizan will try to find its way out of the group D.

19. Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius (Lithuania)

One of the two best Lithuanian teams, Lietuvos Rytas is known for signing less-known players and making the most out of them. This season is going to be a no exception as Lietuvos Rytas lost its biggest star, Jonas Valanciunas, and didn't add any elite players to its squad. Even with the roster as it is now, Lietuvos Rytas, is capable of making it out of the group but might lack talent to shake things up in the Top 16.

20. Alba Berlin (Germany)

It’s been a while since Alba won its last title and it seems the hype from making to the Euroleague Top 16 in 08-09 disappeared. Even after being  awful last season, Alba got a chance to play in the Euroleague, where their chances are really limited. Nevertheless, everything is possible in group B for Alba, especially with the support they’ll have at home games.

21. Elan Chalon (France)

French teams has always been like tourists in the Euroleague and Elan Chalon will probably be no exception. On the other hand, Elan Chalon made one of the most interesting signings this offseason in six-year NBA veteran Shelden Williams. Of course, it would be a no-braner to believe Williams could carry Elan Chalon on his back to the Top 16 stage, but he could make some serious problems for group D underdogs, Asseco Prokom and Alba.

22. Asseco Prokom Gdynia (Poland)

The previous two seasons were horrible for Asseco Prokom and it seems that the Polish team is heading for a third one. New head coach Kestutis Kemzuras will have a very difficult task to build a winning team from very average players. Also, Asseco Prokom will be missing its biggest star, Donatas Motiejunas, who moved to Houston Rockets, and for now, there’s no such player, who could replace Motiejunas and become a leader of the team.

23. Union Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia)

Last season’s worst team, Union Olimpija, didn’t do much this offseason to avoid the same situation this year. Ljubljana’s team lost all its best players and the new additions look more like a lottery than a promising future. It seems that Union Olimpija don’t have financial problems anymore and that might be club’s biggest victory of the offseason.

Americans Winning Titles In Europe

There were 107 American-born players who were on teams that won their league in Europe during the 11-12 season, most notably Montepasch Siena.
 

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