The “rookie experience” can be tough for any player who first dives into the uncharted waters of EuroLeague basketball. It might even get brutal for a young baller who has never been even close to facing such levels of demanding competitiveness and now gets called to handle the role and responsibilities of a starter.
For French forward/center Mathias Lessort, it’s a welcoming challenge to further develop his game, enhance his skills and work towards proving that he belongs among Europe’s elite.
“I’m learning a lot,” Lessort told Eurohoops.“Every week I’m playing against the best big men in Europe, so I’m learning something every time I face them. I’m still young and have lots to learn. But ultimately, I want to be the best player possible. I want to seriously compete against those players. So I won’t say that since I’m young it’s “normal” if I play bad or when others play better than me. Being young doesn’t justify playing bad. It’s not an excuse. I’m not here for that. I’m here to be one of the best big men in EuroLeague and try to dominate every big man I’m playing against.”
Lessort’s self-criticism came after rounds 7 & 8 of the EuroLeague regular season, a particularly crude set of results for him and his teammates in Crvena Zvezda with two blowout defeats courtesy of powerhouses CSKA Moscow and Olympiacos, at home and on the road respectively.
Red Star saw its record fall to 2-6 but there’s lots of valuable “homework” to be salvaged from these games, according to the 22-year-old big guy.
“We got to learn from this week. I would prefer it if we won too of course, but it’s definitely is the kind of games that you got to learn from. We faced CSKA Moscow and Olympiacos. These are great teams. They play excellent. So there are many things we can take from these games and use them in the future.”
Lessort himself struggled in these two matches, especially vs Olympiacos where he finished with season-lows (1 point, 3 rebounds, 0 PIR) against Serbian Nikola Milutinov. You can think of it as an anomaly compared to his usual output since before last week’s “double-round” ordeal, he had averaged 10.1 points and 7 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game.
Despite these recent plights against two title contenders and far more experienced individual opponents (like three-time EuroLeague champion Kyle Hines), Lessort has been making a buzz at the highest level of basketball outside the NBA. His supreme athleticism and leaping strengths, the ability to set the pick n’ roll with exceptional vigor and then finish it with rapid speed have made him a considerable force on offense.
When asked to evaluate his performances, Lessort preferred to pinpoint the areas he wants to improve. Especially on the defensive end where he wants to refine his instinctive “modus operandi” with stronger perception and even more energetic attitude.
“I know that I’m not playing bad. I might say I’m doing OK. But I’m not satisfied with this. I want to do more than that on offense and on defense. In rebounding and everything. Get more blocks, get more steals, be more active. I wanna do way better than I already do. Because I know I can be more than that. I got OK numbers. But I think I can be a lot better than that and that’s what I want to.”
Apart from contributing in a substantial manner, the French big man has also been one of the most spectacular players in Europe, a truly “fun to watch” experience since there’s rarely a week without him delivering some massive highlights on both ends.
It’s definitely cool seeing himself dominating the highlights and he enjoys it of course, but he would prefer not being identified strictly as the guy who simply makes the Top 10. Again, the discussion shifts to how he wants to augment his toolset.
“That’s a part of my game. You have to block shots and it obviously looks good when you’re dunking the ball. I got to work on some other things though. My low post game, or my jump shot. It’s good to be on highlights, I won’t deny that. But I want to be more than just a “highlight-reel player”. I want to be an all-around offensive threat, not just attack from the pick n’ roll, or dunks and offensive rebounding. I want to be more aggressive in every aspect of the game. Like I said, It’s nice to be on highlights, but I want to be a lot more than that.”
After finishing the previous season in France with Nanterre, Lessort was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 50th overall pick in the NBA Draft. The Sixers stashed him overseas as they also did with other international draftees such as Australian Jonah Bolden (also in EuroLeague with Maccabi Tel Aviv) and Latvian Anzejs Pasecniks (Gran Canaria).
It goes without saying that the prospect of playing in the NBA and joining his friend and fellow French Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is exciting for Lessort and he knows very well that he’s being constantly monitored by the Sixers. But these thoughts can wait for now since he prefers to keep his mind to the “here” and “now” of bringing victories to Crvena Zvezda, the reigning ABA League champion and a club lustful for titles.
“I’m trying to not think of this much, to be honest. I try to not put it in my head. Because it can be bad and may affect your game negatively if you think too much. Won’t help thinking, ‘Oh they are watching me so I should do this or that’. It’s wrong. I’m just trying to play my game and improve it. If they like the way I’m playing, they’ll call me. I’m trying to focus on Crvena Zvezda. We come from a week with two EuroLeague losses, so it’s definitely not the time to think about Philly or whatever. Just focus on how to help my team win. If I can help my team win and at the same time show Philly that I can play in the NBA, then that’s great.”
The Sixers are among the NBA franchises that put significant trust on foreign players, incorporating them into the organization and then providing them with a pivotal role on the floor. It’s another reason why Lessort is rather pleased with being picked by Philadelphia.
“That’s good for me! They are not scared to put young players on the court. They have a lot of young players and trust foreign players. Like Timothe (Luwawu-Cabarrot), Dario (Saric), Ben Simmons. I got to be able to show that I can also be there among them.”
One of those guys is Joel Embiid whose incredibly diverse performances provide some important study material for Lessort. After all, he thinks of the Sixers center as one of the top players on the planet.
“I hope he stays healthy. That’s first, always. If he remains healthy then he will continue doing the things he does. He’s definitely impressive. I’m watching him every night. I’m watching Philly and him a lot. I’m trying to learn from him and his moves. I’m trying to learn from the best players in the world and he’s one of them. I watch a lot of video and highlights of everything he’s doing, his low post game, his moves from mid-range. His game, in general”
Watching Embiid often do some wondrous stuff on a TV or computer screen is fine but Mathias Lessort would prefer his learning process (pun intended) with him to get real by wearing the Sixers jersey.
“I hope I can be next to him (Embiid) and learn from him next year.”