By Antonis Stroggylakis / firstname.lastname@example.org
Three days ago, new Zalgiris Kaunas coach Jure Zdovc told reporters that his star player Emmanuel Mudiay is a “nice guy” and a “very good player” but not someone he can trust yet. It was shortly after the former NBA guard had 0-4 shots in 16:10 while spending the game’s last 15 minutes on the bench during an away loss to Crvena Zvezda.
Mudiay was unaware of Zdovc’s comments, but he and his coach had a conversation prior to the match at Olympiacos Piraeus (15/10) that bore some fruits. 48 hours after going scoreless vs. Red Star, Mudiay finished with a game-high 19 points and four assists in his top EuroLeague performance yet.
“He [Zdovc] talked to me. We talked in the morning. I responded to it,” Mudiay told Eurohoops.
Zalgiris dropped its fourth straight EuroLeague match, falling victim to a robust Olympiacos squad and one vigorous display by the Reds while having to cope without leading scorer Janis Strelnieks and captain Paulius Jankunas who were ruled out with injuries few hours before tipoff. Center Joffrey Lauvergne (shoulder) has also been sidelined for the Lithuanian team.
Despite these absences, Zalgiris led for the entire first half and was the far superior team on the floor during the first 14 minutes and before their opponents rallied for a powerful comeback. During that stretch, Mudiay had nine points and three assists to set the pace on offense.
He was a completely different man than the one in Belgrade. One who could easily be described as rather trustworthy.
“I’m not happy that we lost but we just got to keep moving forward,” Mudiay said. “It’s a part of basketball. You are going to win some and you are going to lose some. But we just have to be competitive. Good days are coming.”
Mudiay began his professional career in a non-NBA environment when he played in China back in 2014 right after high school. But EuroLeague is a whole different wild beast and a territory that can be hostile to those unfamiliar with the complexities of top-level European basketball , as he has personally discovered.
“It’s a little different here,” Mudiay said. “Much more physical. Every possession counts a little more. Less minutes. But it’s good basketball. Smart basketball.”
Zalgiris hired Mudiay in August to complete a blockbuster signing that was widely considered as one of the top offseason transfers by any EuroLeague club. Maybe even a “steal” given Mudiay’s potential upside if he manages to translate his talent into consistently productive performances that will ultimately also yield results for his team.
For Mudiay, the deal with Zalgiris marked his return to action after a one-year hiatus, since he spent the entire 2020-21 season as a free agent.
“I just wanted to take some time off and spend time with my family,” Mudiay said. “I just stayed at home to be with my family.”
The person who heavily recruited Mudiay and convinced him to continue his career in Europe and Zalgiris is actually no longer with the club. Coach Martin Schiller was fired by the club two games into the EuroLeague regular season in a rather unexpected move that draw reactions by high-profile figures like Ettore Messina or Mike James.
Zalgiris general manager Paulius Motiejunas cited a lack of visible progress as a main reason that the club decided to part ways with Schiller.
“It was shocking to everybody but it’s a part of the business,” Mudiay commented on Schiller being axed. “I think coach Martin is a great guy and he’s going to have success somewhere else.”
“He was here and he asked me to come and play. So I came,” Mudiay added when asked about what made him sign with Zalgiris.
Zalgiris is undefeated in the Lithuanian league and the problem so far has been registering a victory in EuroLeague. They will look to change that against also winless Bayern Munich next week at home, in front of thousands of their faithful green-and-white-clad fans.
Some samples from the double-game-week have been quite promising despite the results and Mudiay with the rest of the Zalgiris team will try to build on that to finally get that EuroLeague dub and begin walking on a winning path.
“We got a new coach now. We got to keep moving forward,” Mudiay said.
Photo: EuroLeague Basketball