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RealGM Interview: Goran Dragic Of The Suns

After twisting his left ankle six times last season and making the Phoenix Suns nervous, Goran Dragic is still not going to have a break this summer and disappoint his people in Slovenia as he prepares for the upcoming FIBA World Cup, the third in his career.

Dragic, a national hero of Slovenia, will be the face and the leader of a younger national team, which will compete in group D with Angola, Australia, Lithuania, Mexico and South Korea. The 28-year-old point guard is coming to the World Cup after having a career season as he averaged 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.

RealGM caught up with Dragic in Europe to talk about the Suns’ offseason, Slovenian basketball, what is it like to play with his brother and much more.

RealGM: First of all, have you been following Suns’ offseason moves closely? How do you like your new assets?

Dragic: Of course. It is going to be a different team than last year. We lost Channing Frye, who was a big piece of our starting lineup. But they brought in new players, Isiah Thomas at the point guard, Anthony Tolliver who will play at four. I believe we will have the same structure as the last year. It is going to be an exciting season. Jeff [Hornacek] is a great coach and it is going to be his second year as a head coach. I think we will grow, we will be better and hopefully we will make the playoffs.

RealGM: What is your regular routine when you find out about new players coming to the Suns?

Dragic: All the players in the NBA, we know each other. If they play a lot, every time you have a game against them you have to prepare yourself, how you are going to defend. Basically, you know them well. But I do check rookies who come from college. I do not watch college games, therefore I have to check them out, go to YouTube and see some highlights. But of course, sometimes highlights might be tricky. At the same time, we have a great group of new guys and every new addition is welcome and hopefully we will be a better team.

RealGM: Do you stay in touch with Eric Bledsoe? Do you receive information about his situation and do you pay attention to it?

Dragic: I follow him on Twitter. I talked with Jeff couple of weeks ago and they still didn’t know if they are going to offer him a contract. We are waiting for his decision. But I think he is a big part of this team. He was great last year and we played together well. I hope he will sign for the next year.

RealGM: After you saw the Suns' moves this offseason, do you feel your team has potential to win more than 48 games next season?

Dragic: Yeah, why not? I’m always very optimistic. It is going to be hard, of course. But playing in the West is so tough. Last season we won 48 games and if we were in the East, we had been the third seed. That’s basketball. I would take fewer minutes if we make it to the playoffs. Minutes don’t matter for me as long as team is playing well. The main goal is to make it to the playoffs because two seasons ago we were losing a lot, last year we won 48 games and now we are in the different situation.

RealGM: I heard about the restrictions from the Suns for you to play five international friendly games under 25 minutes in each. What is your opinion about some of NBA GMs intentions to prohibit their players to play for their national teams?

Dragic: I understand them. They pay me a lot of money and they are scared. Last year I had many troubles with my ankles. I twisted my left ankle six times. They are a little bit nervous but at the end, it is always nice to play for the national team. Every organization has a different opinion. Me and the Suns, we made an agreement and that was great.

RealGM: Is it difficult to negotiate with an NBA team on the terms of playing for the national team?

Dragic: It is difficult because on one side you have an organization that is paying you and on the other side, you have your people. I always like to play for my people, the national team and it is tough. But I think if you sit down and you talk with them, you can make an agreement. That’s why I’m really happy and grateful for the Phoenix Suns. They allowed me to play and I think I can gain more experience here. Also I can get in better shape for the next year. 

RealGM: What is it like to play with your brother on the same team? Do you spend much time together?

Dragic: He plays in Malaga [Unicaja] and I play in the NBA, therefore I do not see him a lot. It is very nice when you play together for the same country. When we were kids, we were always close, always together. It is a special moment when we are together on the court. I wish that he could be even in the NBA if that’s possible. He is improving, he had a great year in Malaga and I’m waiting for him in the NBA.

RealGM: Last season you won the NBA Most Improved Player Award. In your opinion, what was more influential for your game, your improvement physically or mentally?

Dragic: I think I just got more chances. I was always like that. It was hard for me in Phoenix because I was behind Steve [Nash]. He’s the best point guard in the league, all the expectations and everything… Usually I got 15 minutes in the game and it is very difficult to do something in that time. I think trading me to Houston was a very good thing for me because I got more playing time. It is difficult to explain, but in those 15 minutes you usually rush to do something good because you want to prove that you can do good. But when you get more minutes, you are relaxed, you are not rushing and you’re waiting for game to come to you. I think that was the main difference.

RealGM: Talking about the Slovenian national team, how does the preparation go so far?

Dragic: So far it has been awesome. We have a very young team, a lot of young guys. It is different from the last year. Our two important players have retired, Jaka Lakovic and Bostjan Nachbar. But at the same time, I feel we have young legs. We can run, we can defend. Hopefully we will build that chemistry that we need and we will get good result at the world championship.

RealGM: It seems that Slovenia always struggles to have the best possible players on their roster. Have you ever thought what if Slovenia would have avoided all the drama?

Dragic: All the time. All the time. You’re dreaming someday to win a medal, doesn’t matter what kind, bronze, gold or silver. I think we had a great team for that but we always had some other issues. Every time we try do bring all the players, we fail. That was our biggest problem. However, every player is the owner of his body, therefore it’s up to him to decide whether he wants to play or not.

RealGM: Do you see yourself finishing career in Europe? Do you miss European basketball?

Dragic: Yeah, why not? For the second part, I wouldn’t say I miss European basketball. I’m not that kind of player anymore. This will be my seventh year in the NBA and I’m really enjoying every moment. It’s players’ league, you have one practice everyday and a lot of games. I don’t want to say that I will never comeback to Europe but probably if I have a chance, I will retire in the NBA.

Euroleague Interview: Martynas Pocius Of Galatasary

After dealing with injuries and playing in only 27 games during 12-13 season, 28-year-old guard Martynas Pocius revived his career in Kaunas where he was one of the key players for Lithuanian champion Zalgiris.

Pocius played the best game of his career against Galatasaray last season, a team he will join for 14-15 season, scoring 26 points and along with four rebounds. The Lithuanian national team and former Duke University guard also managed to make seven threes in a single game against Strasbourg and repeat Zalgiris Euroleague record in that category. Pocius averaged 10.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 23 minutes in Euroleague and helped Zalgiris to reach Top 16 stage.

RealGM caught up with Pocius in Kaunas during the Lithuanian national team training camp to talk about being raised in sportsmen family, development of young players, 2014 FIBA World, future with Galatasaray and more.

RealGM: First of all, what was it like to grow up in a family of athletes?

Pocius: The main difference between a regular family and mine was that I was always surrounded by sports. At the same time, it is more difficult because my father was a professional basketball player and if a father wants to make a good basketball player of his son, he wakes him up every morning and takes him to the basketball court. I had to train there and it didn’t matter if I wanted that or not. He knew that I needed that, while a regular dad who does not know much about the game maybe would not do the same thing. Apart from this, I don’t think it differs a lot. When you are a kid, everyone supports you and wishes you all the best.

RealGM: Did you feel at the time that your habits came from your family were different than your friends?

Pocius: Of course. Everything was related with basketball. Before going to school, I always went to the basketball court. While everybody sleeps, you make shots. Then you go to school and afterwards you cannot spent too much time playing outside because I had to do my homework before the evening training. I was always busy because those extra trainings took my time.

RealGM: I read that your move to the U.S. in 2003 was very spontaneous. Do you remember how that happened?

Pocius: It all happened after I attended Steponas Kairys' basketball camp in Silute. I went there for only one day and he really liked what he saw. In a week or ten days I was already in the U.S. and I didn’t expect everything to happen so quickly.

RealGM: Usually basketball coaches emphasize the importance of giving playing time for young players. However, you did not get many chances to play while you were at Duke, but you still developed yourself into a Euroleague and national team level player.

Pocius: A basketball game lasts for 40 minutes. But everyday you train at the highest level for two or three hours, this is what brings you most benefit. I didn’t play much and it was difficult for me but everyday I was part of training. I believe that those practices, lessons I learned from Coach K and routine we had there gave me a lot.

RealGM: Do you think that coaches in Lithuania feel too much pressure to play young players?

Pocius: If you have great young players and they deserve to play, then why not. But you cannot play youngsters who are not ready for a certain level just because somebody tells you to do that. If a player deserves that and coach see his performance in practices, he should play. Of course, there are situations when you have to play over 70 games in three or four leagues in one season, and you want to rest your older guys or leaders, then you can give chances for young players as well.

RealGM: While watching you play last season, it seemed that you were slowly becoming a veteran player. For example, instead of driving to the basket, now you more often take a three-pointer or make a pass. Do you feel that your game and decision-making is changing?

Pocius: I agree. At first, you do not think much because everything is new, you can run as much as you want and you want to score. I remember Marcus Brown was telling that I was a great player but I need to calm down and start to think. It also has much to do with injuries I suffered and pain I feel and sometimes because of that instead of driving and dunking, I try to make smarter decision, take a shot or do something else. Before I broke my hand last season, I didn’t feel good but afterwards my health condition got much better. In every team you play, you try to take as much experience you can. I took a lot while I was with Real Madrid, this season I learned from Sarunas Jasikevicius. I try to use my main strengths while also taking care of my health. I feel like I am slowly becoming a so-called veteran player.

RealGM: I see some similarities between you and Tomas Dimsa. Did you have much time to work out with him and give him any advices?

Pocius: We were roommates last season and he’s a great player. It is difficult to say what kind of player I was at his age because that was very long time ago. He’s 20-years old right now and at that time I was still in the States and I did not play for Zalgiris. Despite his young age, he’s already a member of this team, he got enough playing time and he performed really well in practices. I learned throughout my career that the main thing is when you think that you already archived something, do not stop and keep going forward. When you calm down and you feel you’re a great player, then you start to fall down.

RealGM: Moving on to the Galatasaray, why did you decide you join this team and did you have a chance to have a better look at their summer moves?

Pocius: In basketball, you never know where you might end up playing. Before we signed a contract with Zalgiris, both me and the general manager, Paulius Motiejunas, knew that most likely I will leave the team after one season, therefore Zalgiris could get a buyout. It was a great offer that I could not refuse. Also I talked with the coach and he really wanted to see me playing for Galatasaray. I did not see a reason why I shouldn’t sign with Galatasaray.

When I had my health check in Istanbul, I talked with coaches and agents who told me what the roster would look like. I know pretty much all the names while not all of them have been officially announced. I know some of the guys personally as Nolan Smith was my teammate at Duke for three years. The team will be really good but for me it was also important that coach likes me and he wanted to have me on his squad. I really did check everything and so far everything seems to be ok.

RealGM: Is it easier to concentrate on work with the Lithuanian national after sorting out the contract with Galatasaray?

Pocius: It is always like that. I had a contract by the end of first week with the national team. It also helps with insurance. It is not official yet, but signatures are there. Right now I do not think about Galatasaray as everything seems to be so far away. My concentration is on the national team now.

RealGM: Talking about FIBA decisions, what was players’ reaction to the news that EuroBasket will change to a four-year cycle?

Pocius: I didn’t really think about it. When does it start? I hope I’ll still be playing at that time, otherwise it might not be important for me. However, a free summer is priceless for every basketball player. Especially it is tough if you have such long season as I had with Real Madrid. Because of not getting any time to rest, in the middle of the season you start to break down and get injured. Proper rest is very important but it is not up to players to decide and you cannot say, “I’m not coming”. 

RealGM: What are your personal goals for this upcoming 2014 FIBA World Cup?

Pocius: I don’t want to talk loudly about it. However, for the last couple years the most important thing for me is to stay healthy. If I stay healthy, everything else will come in time. I don’t have any high goals for myself as we play for Lithuania and the most important thing is team’s result.

RealGM: Did you ever have offers to participate in NBA summer league? Do you see yourself trying your luck in the NBA?

Pocius: I had two offers while I was with Zalgiris to take part in NBA training camp, but I had a back surgery and it did not work out. Anyway, I don’t have big intentions to play in the NBA. Everything is great in Europe, both playing and money wise. I’m not that young anymore to try myself everywhere. However, if I get a chance, you never know. But I don’t think about it now.

Euroleague Final Four MVP Interview: Tyrese Rice Of Maccabi

Tyrese Rice is one of those players who had to advance through his basketball career the hard way. But patience and hard work brought the 6-1 Richmond, VA native success as he raised the Euroleague trophy in Milan last weekend after being awarded the Euroleague's Final Four MVP honor. Five years of waiting and playing overseas in Greece, Lithuania, Germany and Israel has helped Rice to get on top of Europe and win the second most prestigious club basketball award in the world. 

When Rice was attending L.C. Bird High School in 2005, people didn’t believe he was good enough to play DI college ball until he scored 30 points against Kevin Durant’s Oak Hill Academy. But later Rice became the leader of the Boston College Eagles, and successfully played there all four years, averaging 17.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists a game. Then Rice played for five different teams in Europe - Panionios, Artland Dragons, Lietuvos Rytas, Bayern and Maccabi.

I caught up with Rice in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, in 2011 while he was playing for a Eurocup team Lietuvos Rytas. We met on a sunny day for a photo shoot for SLAM to talk about his high school and college days, being an underdog, NBA dreams, life in Europe and a lot more. Despite conducting this interview nearly three years ago, it is a great opportunity to know more about the Euroleague Final Four MVP.

RealGM: After finishing high school, you were passed over by recruiters. In your opinion, why did this happen?

Rice: I really don’t know. I went to all the big-time camps like Nike camp, adidas camp. After I pretty much did my business there, everybody still passed on me. One thing I heard a lot was big schools didn’t think I was good enough, and smaller schools thought I was too good to go there.

RealGM: Do you remember that game against Oak Hill Academy, where you scored 30 points against Kevin Durant? Is it right to say that game brought a scholarship offer from Boston College?

Rice: Yeah, I remember it. It still gets brought up every once in a while in the city. I hear somebody talking about it. I definitely remember it and they remember it too. I think it brought on the biggest schools. They weren’t sure how I would be able to play against better competition. Playing against [Oak Hill], excelling… It really helped a lot. Boston College was always around, but there were other things, which stopped them from offering me earlier. 

RealGM: What goes through your mind when you think about those days you spent at Boston College? 

Rice: It was all great. I learned so much from coach Al Skinner. I think it was the best four years of my life. We were up—top 5, top 10 in the country. And then we were as low as a losing record. It was a great experience on both sides. We learned to be level-headed and to be in the moment. 

RealGM: Do you still think time-to-time about the game against North Carolina when you scored 46 points?

Rice: I thought it was a good moment in my career, but to me, it didn’t really mean anything because we lost. Having 40 points in a loss really doesn’t mean anything to me because you lose the game. I haven’t watched that game since that happened.

RealGM: What stopped the Eagles run at the Sweet 16?

Rice: We had all the pieces that year and we were just one play away from maybe having a national championship… They got a tip-in at the buzzer that won the game so I can’t really say that they did nothing. Anybody can lose, we seen that happening so many times. 

RealGM: Did you expect to be picked in 2009 NBA Draft? Did you receive positive feedback from NBA teams back then?

Rice: Coming out of college, I felt like I’d done enough to be drafted, but I never set expectations for myself. I go out everyday and take care of my business. Whatever happens after, if the team wants you, they might pick you. That’s what it was. Life still goes on. I thought I had done enough, but maybe I didn’t. There were teams that had a lot of interest in me.

RealGM: What were the main reasons you werent picked in the Draft? 

Rice: I don’t know, I always had to prove myself as a basketball player. In high school, I had to prove I can play in college and in college I thought I proved I can play in the NBA. It could be a lot of things. It’s not always on the basketball court.

RealGM: You played in the NBA Summer League last summer. Do you still feel your NBA dream is alive?

Rice: [Summer League] is good in a lot of ways. NBA teams, scouts and players can see you. And it’s also good because there are also a lot of European scouts as well. It’s almost a win-win situation. You go out there and play; one person likes you and then you have a job for next year. It’s a good opportunity for me to play and be seen. 

RealGM: Youre only 24 years old. What things would you like to prove in your game as a top-caliber player in Europe?

Rice: There are a lot of things that I could improve. Consistency in three-point shooting, rebounding the ball better defensively. I can do a lot of things but I think the main thing I have to do is just focus and get it done. At the end of the day, there’s nobody that is going to stop yourself from being better but yourself. 

RealGM: Have you ever imagined, especially in your senior year in college, that you might start your career overseas, not in the NBA?

Rice: I really never though about it. Like I said, I always take things in a moment. If it was meant for me to go the NBA, I would be going to the NBA. If it’s going overseas, that’s fine. I never looked at it as a failure or I’m not successful in life. I feel like at the the end of the day, I do what I love to do and that’s play basketball. 

RealGM: Last season you played in a small 12,000-person town in Germany, Quakenbruck. Was it tough to live in a such small town, considering you previously lived in Athens and Boston?

Rice: Not really. I’d been all over as a kid. In the summer time, going to different places and being there for weeks. I didn’t think it was that tough. Actually, I think it was really good because I was there, there was nothing to do and I knew I have to focus on basketball and become a better player. I though it was actually great because I stayed right across the street from the gym. There wasn’t much to do, so I went to the gym all the time. I think it was a great thing for me. 

RealGM: In those two seasons in Europe, who surprised you the most?

Rice: It’s just a really different game. Players here in Europe, I think they think the game better than American players, in my opinion. They really read the game a lot better. As you see, players come over from NBA, D-League, they play in Europe and they don’t last over a month, because it’s a totally different game. Off the court, it’s a different culture. If you’ve been to different places in the States then you can go to different places in Europe. The biggest thing to me is food. Just getting used to the food. Everything else is pretty much the same.

RealGM: Are there any funny or interesting stories you could share?

Rice: I got lost in Athens one time. I was about an hour and 30 minutes away from my house. I was thinking I was going on the right way [laughs]. I remember I asked an officer how to get back to where I live he started laughing like, ‘Are you serious? Do you know how far from your house you are right now?’ I had no idea where I was. I thought I was in Athens but really far away from my house. It took me about an hour and 30 minutes to get back home. It was like 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. It was really late and that was crazy.

RealGM: A lot of NBA guys are moving overseas for the first time. What is the best advice you could give them?

Rice: I think they just have to embrace the culture. If you come over here thinking that this is going to be anything like home, then you’re wrong. It’s better when you’re in bigger cities. Vilnius is good, there’s a lot of malls, lots of things to do. But you might get to the smaller city like I was in last year and I didn’t know what to do.

RealGM: Have you ever thought about playing in the D-League?

Rice: I thought about it but not much. I just want to go out and have fun playing basketball and be able to provide the right things for my family. To play in D-League is OK, but playing in the Euroleague to me is the second-best thing to playing in the NBA. If you can’t play in the NBA and you play in the Euroleague, you are almost just as good.

RealGM: Talking about your new team, why did you decide to sign with Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius this summer?

Rice: I thought it was great situation for myself. I knew they had a new coach coming in and I heard a lot of good things about him. I knew some players coming here and I knew we were going to have a great team. And being able to qualify for the Euroleague was another great thing. I thought it would be good for any player’s resume.

RealGM: Once you got here, you said you were ready to lead this team. After those friendly games, do you still see yourself as a leader of Lietuvos Rytas?

Rice: I’m still just learning my teammates. I think I can be one of the leaders of this team. I’m not coming over here and trying to take over but being a point guard, I have to be able to turn the team in the right direction.

RealGM: Did you have a chance to practice with Jonas Valanciuas or see him playing?

Rice: He didn’t practice with us yet but I have seen him play. I know he’s going to help me and I really think I can help him also. He’s going to be a really good player.

RealGM: Did you watch EuroBasket 2011?

Rice: Actually, I watch it every year. I watched the European Championships and World Championships. There are a lot of guys who you may not have ever heard of. But they are great in Europe—you just didn’t hear about them at home. Watching EuroBasket is like watching a bunch of great players playing at one time. It’s good to watch different people and learn from them. 

RealGM: You probably saw Bo McCalebbs superb performance at EuroBasket 2011. Would you consider an offer to play for a European country if you get one? 

Rice: If that opportunity came on my away, I would probably take it. I don’t see how it could hurt me and my career. It can only make me better. More experience and more people would see me. It would be a great opportunity. 

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Europe Interview: Petteri Koponen Of Finland

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EuroBasket 2013 Power Rankings

Compared with previous tournaments, EuroBasket 2013 will be a weaker competition in terms of talent, as a lot of stars for various reasons won't suit up for the championship. But the tournament will still have many top players from the NBA and Euroleague.

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